Faithful and Reforming: The necessity of right fellowship
If mapped out on paper, the history of the Lutheran church in America resembles a tree with myriad branches. Some branches bend toward each other for a time, and then head a separate way. Sometimes twigs split off forming new branches.
The Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC), a Lutheran body with about 80 congregations or teaching points throughout the United States, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2010. But it traces its history back to the origins of the Lutheran movement. The CLC became its own branch “out of necessity.”
Origins in the Synodical Conference
In 1872 American Lutheran church bodies often had geographic or ethnic identities; some were allied with a “home” state church, others were opposed. In that year, the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, or popularly the Synodical Conference, was organized by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS), the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Ohio Synod, and the Norwegian Synod. This new body was to be an expression of the unity of these four church groups.
(The Slovak Synod joined the Synodical Conference in 1908, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or ELS, joined in 1917, when that group of congregations broke away from the Norwegian Synod, which had merged with other Norwegian Lutheran church groups.)
According to John Lau, former president of the CLC’s institution in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Immanuel Lutheran College and Seminary, these groups were in full communion, shared educational facilities, did joint mission and benevolence work, and had open pulpit fellowship.
Early on, the Synodical Conference, which held a high regard for fellowship and accountability, struggled with internal disagreements over the doctrine of predestination. But, it was in the 1950s that some congregations were challenged to confront what members took as an affront to biblical commitment.
The context of a new Lutheran body
In the 1950s, concerns arose among several of the synodical partners about stances taken by LCMS, particularly in terms of biblical interpretation. Some saw indications that LCMS was no longer committed to sola scriptura, scripture alone. The concerns were so deep, a call for disassociation from the Synodical Conference began to be heard from some pastors and church leaders, especially within WELS.
As David Lau, brother to John and archivist for the CLC, explained in his recently published history of the CLC, Out of Necessity: A History of the Church of the Lutheran Confession: “In 1955 one of the other synods of the Synodical Conference, the Wisconsin Synod, passed a resolution declaring that the Missouri Synod was causing ‘divisions and offenses’ [from Romans 16:17] contrary to the Word of God. One of their committees said that, because of this, it was necessary to avoid the Missouri Synod because of its toleration of false teaching. In fact, the committee said that if they postponed the decision to avoid the Missouri Synod in 1955, they would be violating the Word of God. But when the matter came to a vote, the Wisconsin Synod voted not to break fellowship with the Missouri Synod.”
Over the next few years, a debate arose within WELS concerning the appropriate time and method for ending fellowship with the Missouri Synod. In each instance, action was postponed. Eventually, some then-WELS leaders felt compelled to withdraw participation from a group they saw as in error.
Pastor Maynard Witt of Spokane, Washington, first took a stand, saying in 1957, “Out of love to the Wisconsin Synod and out of love and fear of the Word of God, I am compelled to announce my severance of fellowship from the official Wisconsin Synod.”
Later that year, another WELS leader, seminary professor Edmund Reim, concurred: “I hope and pray that the Synod may yet return to its former ways and to full obedience to the Word of God. I trust that you will realize that I take this step, not in anger, but in deepest sorrow, and because I am constrained by the Word of God.”
These statements set in motion developments that led to the formation of a college and seminary in 1959 (Immanuel Lutheran College and Seminary), and a convention to establish a new Lutheran church body in 1960.
The formation of the CLC
In August 1960, about 75 delegates (42 pastors included) met in Watertown, South Dakota, to function as an Interim Conference to determine if there was sufficient common belief to form a joint body.
For several years committees had been drawing up documents to approve in order to move forward in common mission. These documents were then put forward for adoption.
David Lau states: “For a while it looked as though we would not be able to adopt a confession on church fellowship at this convention. There were even charges of false teaching directed toward some of the particpants in these debates. But, after more discussion it was realized that the problem was based on misunderstanding.” The confession “Concerning Church Fellowship” was approved unanimously.
When voting on the name of the fellowship, “Immanuel Lutheran Conference” won the first ballot, matching the name of the already existing college. But on the third ballot, Church of the Lutheran Confession received 39 votes to 29 for Immanuel.
Fifty years later, June 21-25, the Church of the Lutheran Confession met in Eau Claire, still united “out of necessity.”
Bob Hulteen is editor of Metro Lutheran. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)