LCMS Constitution’s Renunciation of Syncretism

The Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has clearly and vigorously rejected syncretism, in principle and in practice, since it was adopted by its members in Chicago in 1847. The reason for this rejection is that “the teaching of God’s Word must never be compromised.” An essay recently published by the LC-MS’s Commission on Constitutional Matters, and authored by the Saint Louis seminary’s professor, Dr. Gerhard Bode, makes all this very clear and indisputable.

For a copy of the essay, click on this link, scroll down to the section labeled “Resources,” click on the tab “Other Helpful Documents,” and then download the article titled “Historical Background and Interpretation of Article VI.2 of the Constitution of The Lutheran—Church Missouri Synod – a Research Study Document provided for and on behalf of the CCM by Gerhard Bode January, 2012.”

This essay will, undoubtedly, be part of the discussion and debate required by 2010 Resolution 8-30B “To Study Article VI of Synod’s Constitution.” Anyone in the LCMS concerned about preserving its historic doctrinal standards and avoiding compromise in biblical teaching should download and study this essay.

Dr. Bode has done his homework and lets us see it! He has dug into all the relevant sources, provided translations of important texts from the German and Latin, and offered short and relevant historical background. The result is that anyone who wants to talk intelligently about Article VI.2 and syncretism will have to start here first, with this useful essay by Bode.

I have three comments. First, it is interesting to see that in 1847 the Missouri Synod defined altar fellowship for laymen, such “that when they receive the Lord’s Supper from the hand of a servant of the Lutheran church, that thereby they publicly enter into fellowship with the Lutheran Church” (ibid., p. 17). This has obvious application for the practice of “closed communion.”

Second, in a 1868 article in Lehre und Wehre, Walther permitted LCMS pastors to preach in the pulpit of heterodox churches, if and only if they were invited, and that in such cases of exceptions to the rule against syncretism, it was the preacher’s “duty at least through the positive setting forth of the sound Gospel regarding some article of the faith to bring such people to the conviction that their attitude toward the Scripture is a false one” (ibid., p. 40). In other words, in such cases, the LCMS pastor should not preach if he will not teach the correct doctrine in points where the heterodox congregation errs.

Third, on page 42 of his essay, Bode quotes an anecdote in Toward Lutheran Union (by Theodore Graebner and Paul Kretzmann [St Louis: CPH, 1943], 180). Julius A. Friedrich supposedly related a story in which Walther allegedly contradicted his 1868 Lehre und Wehre article, mentioned above. Graebner gave no citation for the source of this story. J.A. Friedrich retired in 1915, so the story probably came to the authors second-hand, possibly from his son E.J. Friedrich, in which case details of the story cannot be trusted.

We also have a right to be suspicious of anything on this topic in Toward Lutheran Union, since its author Theodore Graebner was the most prominent signer of “A Statement” of September 7, 1945. E.J. Friedrich was also a signer. The real purpose of this document, known as the “Statement of the 44,” was to overturn the LCMS doctrine and practice in matters of “syncretism.” Bode resolves the apparent contradiction in Walther by concluding that if an LCMS pastor does preach to a heterodox congregation, “over time the reproval of error must follow and with it must come the true teaching of God’s Word.” I resolve the apparent contradiction by concluding that Graebner’s anecdotal evidence is in error.

I commend Professor Gerhard Bode for a brilliant and very useful essay. I also give high praise to the Commission on Constitutional Matters for publishing the essay in its present form!


LCMS Constitution’s Renunciation of Syncretism — 9 Comments

  1. I cannot help but wonder if “the real purpose of…the ‘Statement of the 44’ was to overturn LCMS doctrine and practice in matters of syncretism.” In retrospect we can certainly see how A Statement was something of a watershed in the disintegration of our Synod’s understanding of communicatio in sacris, altar and pulpit fellowship, and how the seeds sown in “A Statement” bore bitter fruit in the so-called “Mission Affirmations” adopted at the 1965 synodical convention. But it seems to me that both Hermann Sasse’s splendid 1951 Letter No. 20 on “Confession and Theology in the Missouri Synod,” and Kurt Marquart’s “Anatomy of an Explosion” provide perspective on A Statement in its historical context which Marquart described as “Sclerosis: Prelude to Haemorrhage,” “an atmosphere [that] had become unbearably oppressive” (Marquart, Anatomy of an Explosion, p. 49). Marquart cited notorious cases such as that of Dr. Adolf Brux, an LCMS missionary in India, who was removed from office merely because he had prayed in his own home with Presbyterian missionaries; also the refusal of synodical officials to permit Dr. Michael Reu, a friend of the Lindemann family, to speak (not preach!) at the funeral of Pastor Paul Lindemann. I can remember that in my own youth (1940s) joining together with other Lutherans even in works of mercy was unequivocally denounced as “sinful unionism.” Among the signatories of A Statement were such men as the elder Dr. Paul Bretscher and Dr. William Arndt who were second to none in their reverence for Holy Scripture as God’s Word written and in their loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions. Sasse is surely right when he says that the mistake of the signatories was their attempt to address the state of affairs from an ethical rather than a dogmatic standpoint; he also pointed out that it was significant and deeply troubling that nowhere in A Statement is the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions on church fellowship cited, a problem Sasse describes as the “receding of the Lutheran Confessions” in the life of 20th century American Lutheranism including the Missouri Synod. It seems to me that A Statement was an – admittedly flawed – attempt to address a situation very different from the present chaotic conditions in our Synod’s practice of communicatio in sacris, “altar and pulpit fellowship.” I suppose the tragedy of that whole episode in our Church’s life is that the whole thing was in a sense “swept under the carpet” rather than effectively addressed, and “the rest is history.” I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Bretscher at Saint Louis in the 1960s. He was a man of vast erudition and great humility. Never would he have wished to in any way compromise the truth of God’s Word as confessed in the Lutheran Symbols. Modest to a fault, he would be the last to claim infallibility for himself.

  2. @Pastor Charles McClean #1

    Dear Pastor McClean,

    Thanks for your excellent commentary on “A Statement.”

    Perhaps I should have noted, for those who have not had the experience of signing a doctrinal statement that rebukes an entire church-body, that those who sign and those who promote the documents often have different motives. Persons who “sign on” often have regrets later about how their name was used–or should I say, how THEY WERE USED! But to admit that is to admit error and weakness.

    I am not saying that there is never a time and a place for such documents or doctrinal statements, when they stick to the point at issue. People who are considering signing them should carefully consider, before signing, how their name may be used and how THEY MAY BE USED.

    In the case of “A Statement” in 1945, I don’t think too many historians would disagree that Theodore Graebner was the most prominent of the signers. He was not only a professor at the Saint Louis seminary, like Wilhelm Arndt and Paul Bretscher, Sr., he was also a voluminous author and editor. The Lutheran Cyclopedia (p. 347; 2nd ed., 1975) lists 29 books or monographs in which he was the sole author; 2 books in which he was co-author (includes “Toward Lutheran Union”); 2 books in which he was an editor; and 9 periodicals for which he was an editor, including chief editor of “Der Lutheraner” and “The Lutheran Witness.” He had amazing abilities and an enormous impact on his generation!

    You are correct to observe that “A Statement” did not challenge the LCMS doctrine of Scripture. Its second article explicitly upheld “the great Lutheran principle of the inerrancy, certainty, and all-sufficiency of Holy Writ.” I have never seen any evidence that Graebner, Arndt, or Bretscher Sr. ever changed or altered their position on Scripture. Those who quote “A Statement” as being an open door for “higher criticism” are simply wrong. It was not that at all.

    But “A Statement” did attack the LCMS position and practice on syncretism. Here is the detailed proof:

    Article Four of the Statement asserted that the “law of love” should be applied in matters of church fellowship, which proposition was really an amendment to Augsburg Confession VII and VIII;

    Article Five of the Statement denied that Romans 16:17-18 and I Thessalonians 5:22 applied to matters of church fellowship; it also gave a “green light” for the LCMS (Germans) to have church-fellowship with the “Lutheran Church in America,” which at that time would have included the ULCA (mixed Northern European), the old ALC (Germans), the Augustana Synod (Swedes), the 5 Norwegian synods, the 3 Finnish synods, the 2 Danish synods, the Slovak synod, and the Wisconsin Synod (Germans);

    Article Six of the Statement said that the matter of church-fellowship should be decided at the level of the local congregation, contrary to LCMS Constitution III.1.;

    Article Eight of the Statement refused to allow the Lutheran Confessions or the Synodical Constitution to speak on matters of “prayer fellowship”;

    Article Nine of the Statement asserted that the term “unionism” should be applied only to “acts,” instead of relationships, which is how it was traditionally understood (see Bode’s essay); and finally,

    Article Eleven of the Statement limited the necessary agreement for church-fellowship, so that it excluded “details of doctrine and practice which have never been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.” That means that issues that arose in the 18th, 19th, or 20th century in the Lutheran church, but were not debated within the Lutheran church previously, could not be considered divisive of church fellowship. And, of course, these have been the divisive issues in the 20th and 21st centuries. E.g., according to the “Statement,” the LCMS would then have to approve of ELCA’s position on “gay marriage” and “gay clergy,” since those issues were not considered divisive in the 16th century Lutheran church.

    All of these Articles put together constituted a significant shift in the Missouri Synod’s position on church fellowship, syncretism, unionism, etc. As you note, Kurt Marquart wrote the most insightful history on this shift and its outcome in his “Anatomy of an Explosion” (Fort Wayne: CTS Press, 1977) in the chapters dealing with the doctrine of church fellowship. I direct our readers here to that book for further insights into this matter.

    This doesn’t mean that there weren’t significant problems with the LCMS at that time, as there still is today. I can see how the leaders of the synod at that time were frustrated by the infighting, the ethnic parochialism, and the seeming inability of professionals (i.e., the pastors) to conduct themselves in a professional way. But the “Statement” just made things worse, by adding a new issue to the fire, i.e., an attack on the LCMS constitution’s position on syncretism.

    Maybe the history lesson to learn from “A Statement” is that when you express your frustration in a document that rebukes an entire church-body, the results can be expected to be counter-productive. All of us have frustrations. A document of this sort is not the place for them.

    At the same time, a document like this can be very helpful to a church-body if it focuses exclusively on real, concrete problems, in doctrine or practice–and even better, if concrete and practical solutions are suggested. Who could argue with that, except those who love error or hate God’s Word?

    With regard to the issue of “prayer fellowship,” which affected both the Brux and Lindemann cases as you mentioned, the LCMS’s constitutional position was clear, as Dr. Bode’s essay demonstrates. LCMS Constitution VI.2 (previously II.3) prohibited among other things “Theilnahme an dem Gottesdienst und den Sacramentshandlungen falschglaubiger und gemischter Gemeinden,” i.e., “participation in the Divine Service and sacramental activities of heterodox and mixed congregations.” The LCMS constitution had no prohibition of private prayers with individuals; and it never has. The “Brief Statement” did not have such a prohibition either.

    The problem arose in the Missouri Synod as it made the change from German to English. Some persons understood the prohibition of “participation in the Divine Service” to include prayers and devotions, others did not. The best single narrative on these problems is found today in: Mark E. Braun, “A Tale of Two Synods: Events that Led to the Split between Wisconsin and Missouri.” Those people today who wonder why LCMS and WELS are not in fellowship, or who wish they were, need to read and ponder this book, available here:

    I, for one, do not think that the differences between the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod are insurmountable, i.e., that they would prohibit church fellowship between the two churches. But those differences have to be faced, explored, and treated carefully, along with a great deal of respect for the positions of both churches. It all takes time; but the LCMS has to come to clarity on its own position first. That is why Dr. Gerhard Bode’s essay is so useful and timely.

    Thanks, again, Pastor McClean, for your insightful comments!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  3. Pastor Noland, Thank you so much for your kind remarks about my comments. I thoroughly agree with your comments about “a document that rebukes an entire church body.” Yet I wonder whether A Statement was meant to be confrontational rather than fraternal, the voice of members of Synod who felt that there was – so it seemed to them – no other way to bring their concerns before the Church. It was – alas – certainly experienced as confrontational. I also wonder if the document in part grew out of the experience of pastors and congregations in the upheaval of the Second World War. The authors of A Statement were certainly wrong in advocating the practice of “selective fellowship” at the congregational level, but I cannot help but wonder if their thinking perhaps grew out of the war-time experience of servicemen and women of other Synods requesting Holy Communion before going to the front. Strictly speaking, they should not be admitted to Communion. But a pastor might be convinced that, in the light of the Church’s ancient conviction that Christians of other churches facing death might be given Holy Communion – so Dr. Sasse reminds us – provided they agree with the Church’s confession concerning the Holy Sacrament, they might be given the Sacrament. I think of that kind of dilemma, where pastoral decisions may differ and where such decisions should according to Dr. Sasse be respected. Could it be that it is in this context that they spoke of “the law of love” being applied to questions of church fellowship? This is surely a very different thing from the current abuse whereby members of other Lutheran churches and even other confessions are in so many congregation of Synod regularly admitted to the altar. Dr. Bode’s essay is wonderful. One hopes it will be widely read – and acted on! There is a great deal to pray about! Yours in Christ, Charles McClean

  4. @Martin R. Noland #2
    Article Five of the Statement denied that Romans 16:17-18 and I Thessalonians 5:22 applied to matters of church fellowship; it also gave a “green light” for the LCMS (Germans) to have church-fellowship with the “Lutheran Church in America,” which at that time would have included the ULCA (mixed Northern European), the old ALC (Germans), the Augustana Synod (Swedes), the 5 Norwegian synods, the 3 Finnish synods, the 2 Danish synods, the Slovak synod, and the Wisconsin Synod (Germans);

    I am more than a little confused by the above paragraph.
    The “Statement of the 44” was written in 1945.
    If you are referring to the LCA as a corporate entity, it didn’t exist until the early 60’s, I think, or ever include half the above groups.

    If you meant that the statement favored pan-Lutheran open communion, you may be right. In that case, half the above groups didn’t buy it.

  5. @helen #4

    Dear Helen,

    Sorry for the confusion. The history of all the American Lutheran synods across almost three centuries IS confusing.

    The ULCA was titled “United Lutheran Church in America.” It was organized in 1918 by merger of the former General Synod, United Synod South, and the General Council. By 1945, it had also absorbed the “Slovak Zion Synod” and the “Icelandic Ev. Lutheran Synod in North America.” This ULCA was then the main body that merged in 1962 with the Augustana Synod, the Danish Ev. Luth. Church in America, and the Suomi Synod to create the “Lutheran Church in America,” more commonly known in the 1960s as the “LCA.”

    “Church-fellowship” includes accepting the lay members of synods in fellowship with yours at the communion altar, also known as “altar fellowship.” So yes, you could say that “The Statement” favored “pan-Lutheran open communion,” but that is really a confusion of terms. “Open communion” means accepting at your altar laymen whose church-bodies are not in fellowship with yours. “Closed communion,” in the strict sense, means accepting at your altar only laymen whose church-bodies are in fellowship with yours.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit.

    @Pastor Charles McClean #3

    Dear Pastor McClean,

    We can wonder what prompted the authors of “The Statement” to write what they did. Among historians, we call that “speculation” and it is usually not helpful. The cases that you mention may have, indeed, been the causes of their concerns, but you can’t tell by reading their document. If that was their concern, they should have been specific.

    As to being confrontational, if I said that I “deplored” the practices or speech of other people, as the “Statement” did ten times for ten different reasons, the people being targeted would take offense, and rightly so. If they didn’t take offense, then they would not have understood the words directed at them.

    As I said in my last comment (#2), the persons being targeted in the “Statement” may well have deserved being censured in this way. But you can’t say that the tone was “fraternal,” at least according to modern American standards of what constitutes “fraternal” conversation. That would be papering over a serious disagreement in a church.

    Church historians have to report “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” whether the people like it or not (see LSB 586, verse 1). This was impressed upon me in my doctoral training at Union Theological Seminary, New York by my advisor, Dr. David Lotz, as well as the other historians there. It is also part of what Luther praised about historians in his Preface to Galeatius Capella’s History, in “Luther’s Works” (aka AE), volume 34, pages 275-278. A historian never tries to offend, but he does try to get at the truth and tell it as best he can.

    Thanks very much for your comments, Pastor. I do appreciate them! Even a few comments on a post indicates that some people are interested in these topics and are thinking through what I have written. They don’t have to agree with me. 🙂 If I didn’t get any comments, after awhile I would take that as a sign that I should engage my time elsewhere.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  6. Rev. Noland,
    This is interesting history. What were the consequences and what was the fallout of “A Statement” in the LCMS back in 1945 and the years that followed?

    Professor Bode’s makes a very important observation on pg. 6:

    “True adherence to the confessional basis means the renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description. In turn, the renunciation of unionism and syncretism helps to safeguard the confessional basis, even as it flows out of it. The condition—as far as it pertains—ensures that the confessional basis is not violated. Unionistic or syncretistic activities and teachings would contravene the confessional basis and the subscription to it. The Synod could not engage in false unity because it is contrary to the Word of God, harms the consciences of the weak, and threatens the true Gospel in the church. In addition, such activity violates the unity of the pure confession of the Synod, as well as its trust. The conditions also ensure that the ordination vow of pastors is upheld. The concern here is perhaps less about unionism per se, and more about what unionism does, namely, it effects the intrusion of false teaching and practice into the church even while claiming to establish unity in the church.”

    In my view this is the biggest challenge to the LCMS. In many ways we have become unionistic while we have lost our high view of the Confessions and confessional subscription and as a result the ability to trust one another’s confession. We say that we are confessional, but our words and practices often tell another story. We hear many members of synod say they are Confessional Lutherans only to see them pray and speak and act like American Evangelicals. Saying you hold to the Confessions often seems like a cover to do whatever you want. Some of our congregations, circuits and districts have become heterodox or mixed in their teachings and practices and there seems to be little that can be done about this. There are seldom negative consequences for acting or speaking contrary to God’s Word or the Confessions in many parts of the LCMS.

  7. @helen #4

    Dear Helen,

    Re-reading my comment #5 and yours, I may not have answered your question. When the Statement of the 44 referred to the “Lutheran Church in America” it did not have quotes around that name. You are correct, the church-body titled “Lutheran Church in America” did not exist in 1945 – therefore the proper referent of that term in the “Statement” was to all of the Lutheran churches in America, no matter what their name or affiliation. I hope this helps more than my comment #5.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  8. @Martin R. Noland #7
    I hope this helps more than my comment #5.

    Yes, thank you. I had all those acronyms learned once!

    I was in the Midwest when ALC merged with ELC (+ my grandmother’s Danish Synod).
    I was in the East when ULC joined Augustana (and the other Danes) to be LCA.
    [I moved again and was in LCMS in time for Seminex and after, the elca.] 🙁

    I’ve so far survived the “Kieschnick/Willowcreek era”. (I doubt it’s over and I don’t know if LCMess will be Lutheran in the end.) Apparently we’re going to flirt with bodies which ordain women; maybe I’ll be spared that one, DV.

    The Chinese would say I’ve lived in “interesting times”. 😉
    I expect they have always been “interesting times”, one way or another.

  9. For me there’s no question about closed communion excluding heretics, whether or not they call themselves Lutheran. The present leadership of ELCA has embraced heresy in numerous ways: 1. a full communion agreement with the United Church of Christ, which rejected a resolution at one of its conventions to require that its pastors affirm the Trinity and the divinity of Christ; 2. a full communion agreement with The Episcopal Church (formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA), which retained as bishops in good standing a. John Spong, who denied the Trinity and the Resurrection; b. William Swing, who organized something called the United Religions Initiative, and, at one of that organization’s meetings, prayed publicly to Hecate and Hermes; c. Charles Bennison, who denied the sinlessness of Christ. Bennison was subsequently deposed, but not for his heresy, which TEC tolerated. There were also full communion agreements with Reformed bodies that do not teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly eaten and drunk in the Communion for the remission of sins. In the meantime, it has permitted openly heretical congregations to continue under its auspices (see for an example). Now, in the last few years, it has given its blessing to homosexual relationships and to the ordination and the continuing in the office of ministry of active homosexuals.

    But there are innumerable orthodox Lutherans who are excluded from Communion under the rules of LCMS. The WELS and ELS were in fellowship with LCMS until LCMS started flirting with historical-critical exegesis. That was fixed in 1974, but fellowship was never restored, for reasons that had existed before the break and had never caused a break in the decades since those issues arose; the Pieper brothers had no problem, as far as we know, in taking communion together. There are Preuses in at least three different church bodies; officially they cannot all take Communion together. At a recent convention, the presidents of LCMS, WELS and ELS were present and participating; another speaker was an ELCA professor of undoubted orthodoxy who has in fact protested publicly against the recent evils of ELCA. Yet those four could not all take Communion together, even though all are orthodox Lutherans. Does no one see a problem with that? Would those four men communing together really be unionism? Is the ELCA theologian to be held liable for policies against which he protested? Wouldn’t that be rather like condemning Luther for the sale of indulgences about 1519, because he had not yet left (or been booted out of) the Roman church?

    Let’s look back at what the Galesburg agreement and other documents that established the closed communion policy. At the time, the issue was not trying to narrow fellowship to those who agreed on absolutely every theological issue. The issue was “Lutheran pastors in Lutheran pulpits and Lutheran altars for Lutheran people.” The unionism to be rejected was exactly the sort in which ELCA has engaged in the last two decades as I described above. Even before the explosion over the doctrine of election and synergism in the 1870’s there were differences among the synods on these matters, yet the documents establishing closed communion did not demand full agreement. Would LCMS today exclude Johann Gerhard from preaching or celebrating or even receiving communion because he taught election intuitu fidei? If not Gerhard, how about Philip Melanchthon? Was this what Walther and the others who established the closed communion policy were trying to establish? I think that’s questionable.

    This post does not propose fellowship with heretics; I trust no one will accuse me of that. But can there really not be communion of all confessional Lutherans, whether the pastoral ministry is a separate office or is a function of a larger office of ministry–the latter position rejected by LCMS theologically but adopted by it for tax purposes, and whether or not the synod should be considered a church?

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