Steadfast WELS — It begins on paper

I’ve been graciously asked to bring a little bit of WELS history and an occasional WELS perspective to the Steadfast readers. I’m quite sure most of my brothers in the WELS would agree that I’m not exactly your stereotypical (or even typical) WELS pastor. There. Now you know. This should be interesting.

Let’s begin with the most important thing in the Holy Christian Church on earth – numbers.

Here’s how the WELS looks on paper:

  • Congregational membership: 389,545
  • Churches: 1279
  • Elementary Schools:334
  • Pastors: 1305
  • Teachers: 1846
  • Staff ministers: 106
  • The synod operates one seminary, one pastor/teacher training college and two prep schools.
  • Congregations also support 23 Lutheran high schools and 1 Lutheran college.

A few other pieces of trivia:

  • Practically all our churches used TLH from roughly 1941-1993. A few still do. Most of the rest use Christian Worship. Others “improvise.”
  • Twice-a-month Communion is by far the most common practice.
  • For ministry, most pastors wear a business suit. Some wear a polo shirt. A very few renegades use a collar.
  • For worship, most pastors vest in alb and stole or Geneva and stole. Some wear shirt and tie. A very few don a chasuble. A growing number wear a Hawaiian shirt and jeans.

One more thing. Like Missouri, the WELS maintains, on paper, a quia (“because it’s true”) subscription to the Book of Concord.

On paper, the Wisconsin Synod, since its very beginning in 1850, has subscribed to the entire Book of Concord, although it’s no secret that the paper hasn’t always matched the reality.

The WELS as it exists today is the result of a 1917 merger of the Synods of Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The beginnings of the original Wisconsin Synod are quite different from the beginnings of the Missouri Synod. Whereas it was confessional resistance against the Prussian Union that brought the founders of the Missouri Synod from Germany to the United States, the Wisconsin Synod came into existence through the efforts of German mission societies that were content to live with the Lutheran-Reformed compromise for the sake of “evangelism.”

So Missouri represented the “Old Lutherans” who wanted strict adherence to the Lutheran Confessions, while Wisconsin was content to be identified with the “New Lutherans” who didn’t want to be so constrained by 16th Century dogmatic formulations that were written to wage 16th Century doctrinal battles.

And yet, when it came time to organize the synod on paper, it began pretty well.

The 1850 founding constitution of the Wisconsin Synod includes confessional provisions like the following: All congregational arrangements must be “in harmony with the pure Word of the Bible and the Confessions of our Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

What began well on paper didn’t really describe the reality for many years to come. It was a confessional ideal held by some, but not by others, including the synod’s first president, Rev. John Muehlhaeuser, who (unofficially) scribbled out all references in the constitution to confessional writings and replaced them with such wordings as “pure Bible Christianity” and “pure Bible Word.”

But the paper beginning still mattered. Rev. John Bading, the second president of the Wisconsin Synod, admonished his brothers in 1862, “It is one thing to have the truly pure doctrine on paper and another thing to possess it in one’s own clear understanding and one’s own childlike faith.” Eventually the conviction of “Old Lutheranism” grew from minority status to majority status, and by 1872, the synod would come around to embrace what was written on paper at the beginning, encouraged also by faithful men in the Missouri Synod to understand that “Old Lutheran” = the catholic faith = the Gospel of Jesus Christ purely taught.

Now, a synod cannot appeal solely to paper to prove its orthodoxy. Novel synodical statements or practices may well overshadow or even contradict what’s written in the foundational documents. A synod can only claim to be as orthodox as the least orthodox teacher or teaching it chooses to tolerate.

But it begins on paper. As long as the foundational documents are recognized as binding, there is hope for profitable discussion. A common confession about the role of inspired Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions can be the starting point for much fruitful dialogue among Lutherans, both the intra- and the inter-synodical kind.

Ultimately, it is my hope and prayer that all Lutherans, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, can find their way back, in humble and steadfast faith, not just to the beginning of the Synodical Conference or of synods at all, but to the beginning of the Lutheran Church itself – all the way back to Concord. That’s some sturdy paper to begin with.



Associate Editor’s Note:  With this posting Pastor Rydecki joins the writing crew here at BJS in a segment called “Steadfast WELS”.  Pr. Rydecki recently was given the honor of the “Sabre of Boldness” from Gottesdienst.

Rev. Paul Rydecki is originally from Stevensville, Michigan. Although baptized in the LC-MS, he joined a WELS congregation with his parents at an early age. He graduated from Northwestern College in 1995 and from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2000, when he was ordained and commissioned as a world missionary to Puerto Rico. After four years in Puerto Rico and three in Mexico, Rev. Rydecki accepted a call in 2007 to Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he now lives with his wife, Amy, and his four sons, Nathan, Jacob, Samuel and Lucas.

We are glad that in an age where LCMS folks are free conferencing with WELS folks to also have some of that same discussion here at BJS.  As you can see from his clerical shirt and collar, he is a “renegade” according to his description of clergy in the WELS.  Should fit in well with some of the sorts here.

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