Following a church merger, a congregation and pastor are forced to go to court to try to maintain claims to a parsonage that has long been property of their parish.
Surprisingly, the merger in question here is not the famous ELCA merger of 1988, but its ancestor, the pan-Norwegian Lutheran merger of 1917.
In the decades leading up to the merger, debate raged among members of the Norwegian Synod regarding the doctrines of election and conversion. One side confessed with the Formula of Concord that if we are saved it is by God’s grace alone and that God chose us from eternity solely by His grace in Christ. As Pastor Bjug Harstad says in the play, “I know that when I am saved it is all the acts of God. And on the other hand we know why one is not received or is not converted. The reason of that is his own unbelief and stubborn resistance against the pleadings of the Holy Spirit. That is the only reason. You cannot explain why one is converted any more than another.”The other side found something in man, his non-resistance or cooperation with the Spirit’s working, as a partial cause of conversion and that God chose people for salvation “in view of the faith” He foresaw that they would have. Eventually, a vast majority of Norwegian Lutherans would merge on the basis of the compromise document known as the “øpjor,” while merely 10 congregations and 13 pastors of the Norwegian Synod refused to join the merger body. Today their descendants are known as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
Does this story sound like it would make compelling drama? To kick off the ELS convention, the ELS Historical Society presented the play “The Oak Trees Still Stand,” written by Bethany seminarian Michael Lilienthal. Using the transcript of the court case in which the Northwood, Iowa congregation and pastor were trying to maintain their property rights as those whose had remained faithful to the doctrines subscribed by the congregation founders (they lost the case), “The Oak Trees Still Stand” gives an excellent overview of the election and conversion controversies in the old Norwegian Synod. Figuring prominently in the debate early on was Missouri Synod President C.F.W. Walther, who wrote in an essay on election, “God has from eternity chosen a certain number of persons to salvation; He has determined that these shall and must be saved; and as surely as God is God, so surely these shall be saved, and none except them.” A Bethany professor, Dr. Ryan MacPherson, played the role of Walther, growing out his hair and sideburns.
Very likely the ELS will be the only Lutheran church body presenting their history in drama to kick off their convention this year. Not only did “The Oak Trees Still Stand” make our church history and past doctrinal debates come alive, it also taught important lessons about remaining steadfast in our doctrine and practice, even when you’re in the minority.
(Photos courtesy Evangelical Lutheran Synod-top, middle, below; and MacPherson, right)