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Is there a conservative Lutheran coalition on the horizon?

Leaders within three U.S. Lutheran church bodies are contemplating a resurrection. They were once part of a century-old partnership called The Synodical Conference (SC). It once included a number of Lutheran synods now merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but all of them ended their SC connections decades ago.

When the SC started winding down in the early 1960s, there were three members — the relatively small Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), headquartered in Mankato, Minnesota; the middle-sized Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), centered in Milwaukee; and the large (by U.S. Lutheran standards) Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), based in St. Louis.

After nearly a decade of voicing their misgivings about LCMS’ commitment to Lutheran confessionalism, the two smaller members of SC decided their larger partner was no longer fit to be a member of the group. That left LCMS on the outside, with ELS and WELS remaining.

The Rev. Mark Schroeder, president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, was featured presenter at the Emmaus Conference, a gathering of confessional Lutherans held in Tacoma, Washington.

“True confessionalists” insist on adherence to the unaltered version of the Augsburg Confession.

The issue that created the standoff, and the glue that previously held the SC together, was a commitment to a faithful adherance to the Lutheran confessions. The idea was (and still is) that the charter document of the Lutheran Reformation, the Augsburg Confession, is foundational for faithful Lutheranism. The Augsburg Confession, first presented in Augsburg, Germany, in 1530, was later revised by its chief author, Philip Melanchthon, so “true confessionalists” insist on adherance to the unaltered (original) version.

Underlying this confessional Lutheran posture is something even more fundamental. Confessional Lutherans are convinced that the Christian Scriptures, in all their details, are universally accurate and reliable. Expressions like “literally true,” “infallible,” and “inerrant” are sometimes used to describe the Bible’s content.

Differences define the moment

By 1960 the leaders of ELS and WELS increasingly believed that the LCMS was no longer committed to this understanding of the Bible and its content. They were vindicated in this belief, they thought, when the LCMS declared pulpit and altar fellowship with The American Lutheran Church (The ALC) a decade later. (The ALC, like the LCA, which merged to form the ELCA, had by then moved away from language of “biblical literalism” and “infallibility.”)

What led the LCMS toward an apparent less rigorous biblical understanding? To be accurate, some within the LCMS never moved away from their very conservative stance. (They would have been candidates for continued membership in the SC, if individuals had been eligible to belong). Many observers of the U.S. Lutheran Church scene in the 1960s and 1970s believed that some of the LCMS theologians began traveling to Europe for advanced theological studies and bringing their discoveries and insights back to the U.S. In time, some of these ideas “infiltrated” (to use a term favored by the conservatives) the teaching program at Concordia Seminary, the flagship LCMS seminary in St. Louis.

Led by a firebrand LCMS pastor in rural Missouri, accusations were lodged and the seminary president was branded a false teacher. When he resigned, most of the faculty went with him. Most of these scholars migrated to teaching positions in schools operated by the ALC or the LCA (finding themselves, eventually, in the ELCA).

A time to re-examine common beliefs

Now, 40 years after this showdown, with the “cleansing” that drove out what is now commonly referred to as “the moderates” (conservatives called them “liberals” or “radicals”), LCMS leaders may be ready to seriously consider a resurrected Synodical Conference with the ELS and the WELS.

Evidence of this readiness is a “free conference” of conservative Lutheran theologians held in Tacoma, Washington, in May. The fourth annual “Emmaus Conference” was sponsored and hosted by ELS pastors in the Puget Sound area. The lineup of presenters was remarkable. A major paper (almost 50 pages!) on Lutheran fellowship was delivered by the Rev. Mark Schroeder, president of WELS. Two responses were offered, one each by the Rev. John Molstad, president of ELS and the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of LCMS. The general tone of the meeting was one of collegiality. The three speakers were clearly in essential agreement with one another.

In advance of the Tacoma meeting, the Rev. Anthony Bertram, an LCMS pastor, wrote on his Internet blog, “I think it is great that the presidents from the three main confessional Lutheran churches in America are going to be together in one place. When was the last time this happened in public?”

It may be the first time it has happened in a long time, but it won’t be the last. Next year’s Emmaus Conference will feature the same three speakers. Molstad will be the presenter, with the other two presidents responding.

Is the Synodical Conference making a comeback? Stay tuned.

A brief timeline of the Synodical Conference

1872

The Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America (SC) was organized, including the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the Norwegian Synod, to work together on evangelism.

1877

The SC gathered in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and developed a program of evangelical outreach to African Americans and American Indians.

1908

The Slovak Synod joined the SC.

1917

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) joined the SC after it broke away from the Norwegian Synod.

1919

The SC established the Lutheran Deaconess Association.

1955

The ELS withdrew from the SC after severing its relationship with the LCMS over doctrinal issues.

1960

About 70 pastors and congregations withdrew from the WELS and formed the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) because the WELS continued in relationship with the LCMS.

1961

The WELS officially acknowledged doctrinal differences with the LCMS, breaking fellowship with that group.

1967

The SC was dissolved.

Correction:

An earlier version of this story stated that the Emmaus Conference was established by WELS pastors in the Puget Sound. The updated version rightly identifies ELS pastors as the hosts of the conference.

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