“The Oak Trees Still Stand”: Steadfast on Stage

June 23rd, 2013 Post by

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.

21Surprisingly, 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.

23Does 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. CFW

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)
Oak Trees


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  1. Wyldeirishman
    June 23rd, 2013 at 12:33 | #1

    This sounds like something that cries out to be professionally recorded and sent out via the internets, for those of us unable to see it in person. The link of doctrine and practice looms ever-important, but it’s one thing to read about it in bygone days of martyrdom in a textbook; quite another when shown for the living, breathing controversy that the Church must always contend with on this side of eternity.

  2. Perry Lund
    June 23rd, 2013 at 13:04 | #2

    Thanks Shawn! My son and 30+ other honor choir camp students at Bethany last week really enjoyed the play last Sunday evening to kick off a week of music and fun.

  3. June 23rd, 2013 at 13:23 | #3

    What a marvelous idea! Too bad it is too late to do something similar for the anniversary of Walther’s birth at this summer’s LCMS convention, though they did produce a very nice video.

    Maybe a Luther drama for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation for the next convention!

  4. Shawn Stafford
    June 23rd, 2013 at 16:59 | #4

    @Wyldeirishman #1
    The play was video recorded. Any decisions regarding producing it on DVD or uploading it on the internet will be up to the ELS Historical Society, which commissioned the play. As these decisions are made, I’ll be sure to keep BJS readers posted.

  5. Joel A. Dusek
    June 24th, 2013 at 11:56 | #5

    “Very likely the ELS will be the only Lutheran church body presenting their history in drama to kick off their convention this year.”

    -Sad but true. I’m not too familiar with the general LCMS attitude toward its history, but there seem to be strains of historical appreciation. The WELS will certainly never give such a nod to its founding or anything historical. It can barely bring itself to acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions!

    I look forward to the digital version of the play.

  6. June 24th, 2013 at 23:13 | #6

    My son was also in the honor choir and benefited from seeing this play. Unfortunately, I had to drive all Sunday to get to Bethany for the convention and thus missed it. Joel’s comment was, of course, judgmental, but also false “certainly never.” About 15 years ago, WELS produced a video history of its founding, acted out in period costumes, etc.

  7. Joel A. Dusek
    June 25th, 2013 at 13:17 | #7

    I stand corrected, sir. My comment was intentional hyperbole, based on my experiences with WELS’s general reluctance to acknowledge historical Lutheranism in favor of WELS cultism.
    Thanks!

  8. June 26th, 2013 at 16:38 | #8

    The play was well done! I wrote about a 50-page paper on the historic events, and it was really wonderful to see it come to life on stage. I asked my 17-year-old niece, who was present for Honor Choir and attended as part of the choir, if it was boring to her. She answered unequivocally “no.” BLC Prof. Mark Harstad stole the show as the aging U.V. Koren, who warned that without doctrinal antitheses the so-called agreement would be worthless.

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