Discord Shatters Concordia
SHOCK waves still jar Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. For several months the largest Lutheran theological school in the U.S. has been reeling under the effects of massive revolt. To some persons this may come as a surprise, even in a day when virtually all mainline religious organizations are suffering. Why?
Because 135-year-old Concordia (meaning “harmony“) seemed so secure. It is backed by the three-million-member Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, known for its strong “conservative” stance on religious questions.
The Shattering Discord
In January of this year John H. Tietjen, head of the seminary, was suspended by the school’s Board of Control. The Board cited as reasons: Official misconduct in performing the duties of office, including insubordination to Synod president J. A. O. Preus and advocacy of false doctrine. In reaction to the firing, most of the faculty instituted a class boycott. Within days forty-three faculty members, or all but five, were fired for refusal to return to their classes.
A month after Tietjen’s suspension, over 450 students of an approximate total of 600 voted to follow the ousted faculty members into a ‘seminary in exile,’ which has come to be called Seminex. The student action was voluntary. They felt that staying at Concordia would imply agreement with the firing of the professors, actions that they deplored as “un-Christian” and “immoral.”
The new seminary has operated out of the nearby Jesuit-controlled Divinity School of St. Louis University as well as Eden Theological Seminary, which is run by the very liberal United Church of Christ. Its program has been financially backed by ELIM, Evangelical Lutherans in Mission, and is dependent on contributions. By mid-March, about one month after classes resumed in the new facilities, ELIM reported in its publication Missouri in Perspective that it had received donations and pledges approaching $800,000.
Only a few students stayed behind at Concordia. The spring quarter found only about ninety students and nineteen regular and guest professors at the school. Even many of these would apparently have really preferred joining the splinter group, but parental pressure or financial fears and uncertainty about their careers prompted them to remain. A number of students quit their ministerial studies altogether.
This discord has come as quite a change. During the 1960’s, when it was considered fashionable for college students to be in rebellion against the establishment, Concordia was motionless. In fact, a campus joke says that during that period the school was “a hotbed of contentment.”
However, those content days are gone forever. Why? What has stirred up the fire that has resulted in such discord?
Major Cause of the Discord
Well, at the root of the problem are doctrinal differences. Each side—conservative and moderate—has extensive arguments to back its views. In brief, what do they say?
The conservatives insist that “every word of Scripture” must be considered as directly inspired by God. They believe that when the Bible says that a large fish swallowed Jonah, that is what really occurred. They claim to accept literally the account about creation, the Garden of Eden and the fall into sin, narrated in Genesis chapters one through three.
Moderates, meanwhile, say they “accept without reservation the Bible as the inspired, written word of God.” But they use what they call the ‘historical-critical method’ to try to interpret the Bible. According to this system, the gospel or good news that Jesus preached, as the moderates understand it, is said to be the standard by which any part of Scripture is to be evaluated. It is sometimes called “Gospel reductionism” by conservatives.
Interestingly, the moderates try to make the difference between their position and that of the conservatives appear as small as possible. Why? Because many persons in the Missouri Synod traditionally prefer the conservative view. If the moderates were blatantly to appear, in any way, as doubters of the Bible, they might alienate themselves from a sizable section of the church.
The moderates are therefore often guarded and cautious in their explanations of the Scriptures. This might be illustrated. If a conservative asked a moderate, “Do you believe that Jonah really lived and that a large fish really swallowed him?” how would the moderate answer? Well, moderate Professor Richard R. Caemmerer says: “I don’t suppose that I ever thought of Jonah as not a historical personage, nor was I tempted to mythicize the story as too miraculous. The chief miracle about it I found, already in my pastor years, to be his ability to remember the lovely words which he prayed to God ‘out of the fish’s belly’ (2:1ff.).”
The conservative, hearing or reading such an answer, wonders: “What does the professor believe? Does he feel that there really was a Jonah and that a large fish really swallowed him or not?” The answer is just not sufficiently clear for the conservative.
“And what about the Genesis account of creation?” the conservative asks. “Is it to be taken literally?”
The moderate professor responds: “With Martin Luther I was modest about what the ultimate interpretation of Gen[esis] 1 might be; and I still have to find anybody who has thought that Gen[esis] 3 was anything but a drama of man’s first conflict with Satan—and it does not mention Satan.”
This again strikes the conservatives as very vague and as leaning subtly away from belief in the Bible. Despite what the moderates claim, there really is a wide difference in the way the two groups look at the Bible.
“Church Politics” Also Causes Discord
The discord is not limited to doctrinal differences. There is also the matter of church authority, “church politics.” Conflict exists between those who have power in the church and those who would like to have it.
Synod president Preus apparently has strong views as to how he thinks the Missouri Synod should operate. Dr. Sam Roth, one of his critics, says Preus “has engaged in a campaign of fostering suspicion and mistrust.” Dr. John Damm, project director of the joint project for theological education, asserts that the synod head “has just used every ounce of power at his fingertips to crush anyone who dares not agree with [his] point of view.”
In more than four years of control over the synod, they claim, Preus only twice came to them asking about grievances. And, on one of these occasions, he is said to have demanded that any questions be written out in advance, thus hindering dialogue. However, the conservatives say that numerous overtures have been made toward Tietjen and his followers but with no response. The moderates, they contend, simply do not want to submit to duly constituted church authority.
Future Harmony at Concordia?
Neither of the groups is sure what the future will bring. Some fear that the moderates may break off and form a separate church in due time. Preus is said to have stated that it will take a decade to resolve the matter.
Undoubtedly the moderates’ stand leaves them with some puzzling Scriptural dilemmas. These problems are summarized in question form by an eighteen-year-old student at Milwaukee’s Concordia College: “When people say the story of Jonah and the whale and other Biblical stories are myths, where do they stop? Do they go on to say the Resurrection (of Christ) is a myth, too?” And, it might be added, once the floodgates are down on matters of doctrine, what will prevent moderate theologians from later saying that Biblical moral standards are also subject to their ‘historical criticism’?
On the other side of the picture, some conservatives, who take the position that they are “guardians” of the Scriptures and Lutheran teaching, have equally embarrassing questions with which to cope. For instance, where did the moderates whom they so strongly condemn come from? Are they from outside the church? No. They have been spawned and nurtured right within the church. Further, is it merely a minority of the seminary that is involved in this moderate movement, what might be called a maverick fringe element with which almost all organizations must contend? No, again. Remember, some 80 percent of the faculty and student body forsook Concordia—that is hardly just the fringe!
Further, those who left to form Seminex were not all young men, fresh out of seminary. Conservatives like to imply that the effects of the undermining ‘historical-critical’ methods are relatively new. Missouri Synod pastor P. G. Kiehl of Bellfontaine, Missouri, says that over the last fifteen or twenty years “there were [Concordia] men who went out to study at different seminaries, theological schools . . . and [were] then impressed with the methods used by other schools . . . and evidently came back and infiltrated their teachings . . . into the curriculum of the seminary.” This practice no doubt has contributed to the discord at Concordia. But not all the ideas that the conservatives consider wrong were imported, nor are they new. Consider Professor Caemmerer, whose moderate views were quoted earlier; he has been a member of the Church for forty-six years and with the school for thirty-four years.
All these factors combine to show that it is the whole church, not just a faction, that is largely affected by the ideas of those the conservatives think of as moderates. The severity of the problem is indicated by the fact that the conservatives admit that they are unable to provide replacement for the professors who left the school. One even admits that “it is going to take a generation” to find other men of such scholarly attainment. Does this not indicate that the whole synod is in reality saturated with the same liberal view, not with strong Bible-based conservatives?
Actually, this should not surprise those conservatives who are familiar with Lutheran theology. Why do we say this? Because Martin Luther himself actually employed a form of “historical criticism” in his study of the Bible. Christian Century reminds the conservatives:
“Luther not only originated this approach but applied it: witness his criticism of the theology of the Epistle of James, his suspicions about the Epistle to the Hebrews, and his warnings about the use of Revelation. Where there was [what Luther considered] a conflict between some biblical passage and the message of the gospel, Luther declared that passage invalid. He was anything but a literalist in this regard.”
If the man whose very name the Missouri Synod carries, Martin Luther, employed a form of “Gospel reductionism,” is it not to be expected that branches of that root idea would insinuate themselves somehow into the whole church? Obviously. This agrees with what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: “A good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit.” (Matt. 7:18) Understandably, moderate thinking has affected much more of the Lutheran Church than conservatives may want to admit readily.
This fact frightens some conservatives. Suppose moderates assumed control of the church?
Will Moderates Take Over?
If they did, what would the conservatives do? Many Lutherans of the Missouri Synod, of course, like to feel that such a thing just could not happen. It may not. But alert Lutherans know that it is indeed a possibility.
They know that comparatively only a handful of circuit representatives vote at the synod conventions on matters of church bylaws and authority. The outcome of their balloting affects thousands of ordinary Lutherans, Yet their voting can be influenced by factors other than the Bible or doctrine. What factors, for instance?
Well, the pastors, it must be remembered, because of their position in the church, exert a great deal of influence over the selection of voting circuit representatives. What affects how these people view important church matters? Pastor Tom Baker says: “In the St. Louis area of 125 pastors, we have 70 to 80 or 90 of them that are Seminex-leaning people, not maybe particularly theologically, but just because half of these seminary professors are [their] relatives.”
So it is not entirely out of the question that moderates could eventually take control of the synod. Says Baker: “It just takes a few circuits to be controlled or outvoted.” If that happened, what would the conservatives do? Would these not then have two options before them?
One choice, Baker mentions: “To keep your conscience within a particular church like this you would, of course, have to agree with the synodical resolution.” But, have not the conservatives been calling the moderates “Bible doubters“? How could any of them in “conscience” go along with the moderates? And the other choice?
They could do the very thing that they are currently accusing the moderates of doing! Yes, they could rebel against ‘church authority,’ possibly quit and form a new church, made up of a minority of the membership.
Sincere Bible-reading Lutherans in the synod are not blind to all the doctrinal confusion. Further, they take note of the church politics and the strong personality clashes. But, frankly, Missouri Synod Lutherans must also get the sense of what is happening, look below the surface, so to speak. They should see that the Concordia situation shows that their entire church is laced with severe problems.
Earnest Missouri Synod Lutherans know that God has provided an organization somewhere that really believes the truth of the Bible. The Scriptures positively assure them of that. (Eph. 4:11-16) But with the situation in their own synod becoming more acute each day, many of them are asking: “Should I look elsewhere for that God-approved organization?”