A Change in Direction

Over at First Things, Matthew Block has an excellent article on the reelection of President Harrison, and the state of ecumenical relations in the LCMS. A few notes on the history of the LCMS and ecumenism are in order.

Back in the forties, fifties and sixties, there were two thrusts to ecumenism. The first was a pan-Lutheran thrust, embodied, for example, by John Teitjen’s book, “Which way to Lutheran Unity?” The goal was to have one Lutheran Church in America. This has been a goal since Lutherans first landed on these shores.

The second was pan-Christian. This was seen best in ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and Rome, culminating in a four volume series of papers and statements from representatives of both churches. Piepkorn was one of the primary voices in these discussions. In the early 1970’s this movement basically stopped in the LCMS. Piepkorn died just as Seminex started, and after Seminex, ecumenism was defined solely in terms of “Is the AELC (And later the ELCA) willing to give up her heresies and find a home again in the theology of the LCMS?” It was perhaps a foolish thing to even try, but try we did. Throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, this was the only real ecumenical contact we had. I recall hearing about no correspondence between the Vatican City in Rome and the Holy City in Saint Louis during that time.

Even after large portions of the LCMS gave up on the ideal of Lutheran Unity, as the ELCA drifted farther and farther to the left, we were assured that talks between the two bodies were continuing for some reason. Talks with other Lutherans (Except for some very small groups here and there) were really not done, and there was no thought of talking to people outside of Lutheranism. (OK, there were thoughts, but these were all quickly silenced, lest one be accused of being a papist, or a closest Anglican).

When he took office three years ago, President Harrison unilaterally declared that talks with the ELCA were all but finished. We had made our position clear, they had made theirs clear, and unless one of us changed our opinion, then there was really nothing more to say.

Since then, we have seen an explosion of ecumenical contacts. Rome, Ethiopia, Westminster and break-off groups from the ELCA, to name but a few, have all interacted with us. Our President gave congressional testimony sitting next to a Rabbi, commending him for his comments.

Our ecumenical horizons have opened up, just as the Seminex generation is finally on the way out the door. (The last of the pre-walkout seminary graduates will turn 65 in 2014.) The two things are related, of course. With the scars from our own split, and the spectre of being the number two Lutheran Church because of that split hanging over us, how could we really engage world Christianity? We were the unreasonable fundamentalists. The LWF/ELCA even signed agreements with Rome, while we took out full page ads in national newspapers rejecting that agreement. (Silly thing to do, really)

And yet, in the years since, it has become obvious that the ELCA will sign any paper with any church that will have them. The ELCA may have sold out on doctrine, but Rome was duped into thinking that they were talking with people who took their faith seriously.

Since that day, Rome has had an almost “Lutheran” pope, and now, like us, has a head-of-church who cut his teeth on works of mercy. With opposition to any sort of public (or even many private) expressions of faith becoming essentially a government sponsored enterprise (HHS mandates, Recent Supreme Court Ruling on the “animus” that obviously drives anti-homosexual marriage proponents, etc.) we have more in common with Rome than ever. That is, we have more in common as we speak to the public sphere. We still have significant doctrinal differences, but the lines of communication are open.

As they are also with WELS, NALC, ELS, and many Lutherans (and non-Lutherans) from around the world.  They are discovering that our defense of scripture forty years ago was not a fundamentalist and closed minded act of isolation, but the only way to avoid the insanity that now infests the ELCA. Suddenly the LCMS finds itself as the center of confessional Lutheranism in the world, and the Lutherans to talk to about speaking out on “social issues.”

The LCMS thought for years that it would attain a prominent place in American Religious life, if only we could find a path to unity with the other Lutherans in America. We assumed that such an action would wake the “sleeping giant.” It turns out that the prominence would come precisely by rejecting that path, and walking away from any hope of unity with the ELCA.

It’s a new world out there. We are the Missouri Synod, and we have a voice. And now, more than ever, the church is listening.

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5 Responses to A Change in Direction

  1. Rich says:

    Great perspectives, Pastor Winter!

  2. Ben Perkins says:

    Very insightful. Thank you, Pastor Winter.

  3. Well written and interesting, however, you give no explanation to your comment that it was silly to say and highlight that real Lutherans and Rome and/or ELCA disagree fundamentally on the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.

    • Country Preacher says:

      I was not saying that it’s silly to highlight that difference. I was saying it was silly to do so in with full page ads in the New York Times and USA Today. It did nothing to differentiate us from the ELCA in people’s minds, and cost as much or more as the annual salary for a pastor or missionary. But then, it was the age of expensive silly ideas. (LCMS Balloon, anyone?)

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    Good historical summary. But it leaves out one comment: out of all the groups who is the one acting like a Lultheran? Who is the one –hopefully it can be the LCMS–who is basing everything on the central idea: judtification by grace through faith? Oh, they say, that is gospel reductionism. And , it is. Lutherans are gospel reductionists and if they are not gospel reductionists one has to wonder it they are Lutheran. Bob Meyer

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