A “Lutheran Pope” from Years Gone By, by Pr. Walt Otten

(Editor’s Note: Walt Otten writes our “Steadfast Lessons from the Past” Column which is archived on the Regular Columns page. For those who may not know, the “Lutheran Pope” referred to below is former LCMS President J. A. O. Preus.)


For more then 30 years 10 congregations of the Missouri Synod participated in THE WEST TOWN’S DAILY CHAPEL, a 15 minute radio program over station WTAQ in LaGrange, Illinois. St. Paul’s of Brookfield, Illinois was one of the originators of the program. The words that follow were shared with the radio audience by the pastor of that congregation in July of 1973.


The 8th commandment, given by God to Moses, is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Someone has said that this means that, “we should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander or defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.” Those of you who are Lutherans will know that that someone was Martin Luther himself.


And those of you who are Lutherans, especially members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and I suppose that many of you are for it is such congregations that sponsor this radio broadcast, also know that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, just one week ago today, concluded what will long be regarded as a most historic convention in the city of New Orleans. Perhaps never before in its 125 year history has this church body, founded by German immigrants who landed in New Orleans 133 years ago, only a few blocks from where its 50th convention took place last week, received so much national and world wide attention. News writers were writing about it long before it began. They were filing daily stories about it the 8 days it was in session, and now they are seeking to tell the world what happened there.


Yesterday, in the course of pastoral visiting, two members questioned me about the convention on the basis of an article that appeared in one of our national news magazines. The article had the rather striking title, “The Lutheran Pope.” It was in this way that a national magazine wrote of the man who was reelected President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at that convention. It said of him that he received virtual authority to determine the belief of Missouri Synod Lutherans. It rather pointedly accused him of forcing his own brand of Lutheranism upon the Synod. It went on to say that the Synod, because of the doctrinal position it proclaimed and confessed at New Orleans had now become a sect. The classic definition of a sect is, “a church body that circumscribes itself by more than the Scriptures permit.”   Or to put it in other words, it is to be a member of a body that requires one to believe more than the Scriptures teach. The lengthy article went on to say that the re-elected President will remove from teaching positions within the church all those who disagree with his own personal brand of Lutheranism. The article, written by an ex-Jesuit, may well have said what it did because of some rather strong terminology used on the convention floor. There were those delegates that said the church was being “killed off,” or “that a guillotine was being prepared.” At one point a rather large number of delegates tied black arm bands around their arms and temporarily left the convention hall in protest to convention action.


I am sure that many Christians throughout the world, not only Lutherans, are wondering, “What’s it all about.” “What happened at New Orleans that would cause a national news magazine to speak of the president of a Lutheran Church body as a “Lutheran Pope.”


Most Lutherans know that Lutherans identify themselves as those who hold to these three solas, “sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura,” That is “grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone.” What this says is that Lutherans confess that scripture is the only authority in the church. That is to say that the final authority is not man or his interpretation of the scriptures. When it comes to matters of interpreting the scriptures, Lutherans,   bound to the sola scriptura principle, affirm that since the scriptures alone are the final authority in the church only the holy scriptures are really able to interpret the scriptures. That is, if one encounters a difficult passage in the scriptures other clearer passages are used to come to an understanding of the dark passages.   This means that not events, nations, cultures or literature outside of the scriptures are its final interpreter, but that the scriptures alone are the final authority. This does not mean that one can not used extra biblical material in coming to an understanding of the scriptures, but these extra Biblical materials are never the final authority, that final authority is left to scripture alone. In practice this means that Lutherans affirm that when scripture speaks about a miracle or an historic event, Lutherans teach that this miracle and the event indeed did occur and take place, whether it is a miracle or event in the life of Jesus or a miracle or event in the life or a prophet named Jonah or the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve. Lutherans, governed by the sola scripture principle, in the courage of their convictions hold that those who deny that these miracles or events took place teach and hold positions contrary to the scriptures and that sucy should not be teachers in the church.


This false teaching, that events and miracles mentioned in the Bible may not have taken place,  prevails in much of Lutheranism today, it is also present in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. If the President of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a church body that still takes the holy scriptures with utmost seriousness and still professes the sola scriptura principle, calls upon the proper authorities in the church to deal with teachers and to admonish teachers who teach that the miracles and events mentioned in the scripture did not take place, and to discipline them if they continue in that teaching, he has not thereby become a Lutheran pope.   If the news media so speaks of him it is surely not putting the best construction on everything, it is not speaking well of him, it is not printing all the news that is fit to print, it is rather creating news that is not fit to print.        


For more information on the battle for the Bible in the LCMS you can listen to a two hour show on Issues, Etc.


About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


A “Lutheran Pope” from Years Gone By, by Pr. Walt Otten — 5 Comments

  1. Very timely history, Pastor. Clearly we had a crisis of supervision in the 60’s and 70’s and, with the Lord’s help, our synod re-asserted the authority of Scripture on the Church.

    I see Pastor Harrison’s “It’s Time” argument as a path to a similar restoration of Scriptural authority to get us out of our current crisis of supervision.

    Indeed, if he is elected Synod President, his approach should prove more long-lasting than the restoration of authority in the 70’s. Why? Because the former restoration came through the power of the synod’s governing structure, and so changed few hearts and minds. It was more of a raw policial victory. And now the LCMS suffers because of the election of inattentive and indifferent leaders. Harrison’s approach of significant and ongoing intentional doctrinal discussion by key representatives of all factions in the synod holds out much greater potential of actually changing hearts and minds.

  2. I recall a Wall Street Journal columnist, when the controversy over Yankee Stadium gained national attention, deriding a certain bloc of LC-MS for using the term ‘heretic’. He seemed to think that was harsh and somewhat Middle Ages, and not in the [fleeting] spirit of national unity.
    Another reason for ‘Get Religion’, because no media can be counted on to otherwise have a prayer of getting it, and so many Christians need the truth of that spelled out for them, lest they acquiesce or begin to doubt that their doctrines still matter.

  3. Clarifying: Christians need to understand that our faith and its doctrines are for us to comprehend and to cherish; not media.
    Our gift; our responsibility.
    We need to understand how terribly, and dangerously, wrong the media often get it, more even than media needs to get it.
    Our gift; our responsibility.

  4. It says in Scripture that the world will be against us. The Truth is foolishness to the unbeliever, so when we stick to our guns on things that Scripture teaches, but the world accepts as fact, we will be called unloving, out of touch, and not for national unity. We will stand pretty much all alone.

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