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Polity and piety

The Association of Free Lutheran Congregations 1962-2012

Thief River Falls may seem like an unlikely location for a national church convention, but it was there that the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC) was organized 50 years ago. The approximately 300 people who gathered there in October 1962 were almost all members of Lutheran Free Church (LFC) congregations, a church fellowship that finally approved (after three churchwide referendums — 1955, 1957, and 1961) a merger with The American Lutheran Church (TALC), initially organized in 1960.

The LFC decision in 1961 to join TALC (which happened in February 1963) had been approved by more than a two-thirds majority, in an unusual system that gave congregations 1-10 votes according to membership. Yet almost 40 percent of the congregations had voted against the merger, and a concerned minority was committed to continuing the free Lutheran movement.

Robert L. Lee

This form of polity was strictly congregational, and was seen as unique among American Lutherans.

The Lutheran Free Church, a Norwegian-American church body, had been organized in 1897 during a decade of revolt and revival. Centered at Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis, and led by Professors Georg Sverdrup and Sven Oftedal, the revolt sought to maintain a distinctive system of pastoral training and to resist a new synodical structure that was perceived as authoritarian. In the midst of the painful and divisive conflict, many of the congregations were stirred during a powerful season of spiritual awakening, reminiscent of the Haugean movement in Norway.

Originally more of a movement than a structured denomination, the LFC operated for more than 60 years under the Guiding Principles and Rules for Work, the first of which stated: “According to the Word of God, the congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.” This form of polity was strictly congregational, not synodical, and was seen as unique among American Lutherans. A delegate system for the annual conferences was not adopted until 1959-60! Yet the founders also spoke of free and living congregations, emphasizing that polity was not an end in itself, but rather a means (the best means, they believed) to the upbuilding of spiritual life.

“Despite its disavowal of the synodical type of polity, the LFC more and more functioned like other Lutheran church bodies,” wrote Eugene Fevold in his authorized history. A new generation emerged that saw the LFC simply as one of several smaller Lutheran denominations, whose destiny could best be fulfilled in a union with other Lutherans.

But those who organized as the AFLC 50 years ago wished to continue the distinctive polity and piety of the LFC. They feared the loss of congregational freedom in the new church body, and seemed to discern a growing “high-church” spirit. Some expressed the concern that LFC congregations, primarily less formal in worship style, might be pressured toward uniformity in liturgical practice. Some resisted a requirement in the new church for district presidents to sign pastoral letters of call.

A venture of living faith

Piety, the second area of concern, may be broadly defined as an emphasis on personal spiritual life. A post-Reformation movement in Lutheran Germany known as Pietism spread to the Scandinavian countries and, with the immigrants, to America, promoting a “living” Christianity with a rich devotional life, a personal witness of faith with a stress on evangelism that would give birth to Lutheran world missions, a strong social concern, and a consecrated Christian walk. The founders of the AFLC believed that there was a growing tolerance of “worldliness” within American Lutheranism, and that there was a place for a “wholesome” pietism to be emphasized.

Another aspect of the concern for piety was theological. Opponents of the merger were alarmed that TALC was a member of the World Council of Churches, which represented a liberal ecumenism to them. There was also a growing awareness that a newer approach to Holy Scriptures, called “neo-Lutheranism” by historian E. Clifford Nelson, was gaining a foothold in the Lutheran colleges and seminaries, challenging the “old Lutheran” confidence in the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God.

The AFLC has grown from the original 40-50 congregations to a worldwide fellowship of 280 congregations in the U.S. and Canada, with mission partnerships in Mexico, Brazil, India, Ecuador, and Uganda, plus missionaries on loan to other organizations. A theological seminary and a Bible institute share a spacious campus in suburban Plymouth with the national headquarters, where the various AFLC ministries maintain offices. The parish education department publishes a complete Sunday school curriculum and Bible study materials, and a monthly magazine, The Lutheran Ambassador, which is an important link between the congregations.

One of our LFC forefathers described his church as “a venture of faith, … an attempt to build an effective and orderly Christian fellowship with a minimum of human organization, … an experiment in extreme ecclesiastical democracy.” The AFLC continues to be committed to this vision, convinced that there is still a place within 21st century Lutheranism for an emphasis on free and living congregations.

Robert L. Lee is a professor of historical theology at Association Free Lutheran Theological Seminary and the editor of The Lutheran Ambassador. He is on the board of directors of Metro Lutheran.

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