I just finished reading Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod, by James C. Burkee. I’ve read some of my colleagues’ reviews of the book, and since I have a history within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) I thought I’d pick it up. They story it tells is fascinating. Burkee centers on several individuals who he places at the center of the LCMS controversies on the 1960s and 70s. If you are unfamiliar with the story I’ll do my best to summarize.
In the postwar 1940s and 50s, many denominational churches boomed. The LCMS was no exception. Other Lutheran bodies grew as well, but in addition to new numbers also came church mergers. By the 1960s three Lutheran denominations of relatively equal size existed. The American Lutheran Church (ALC) based in Minneapolis, Lutheran Church in America (LCA) based in New York and the LCMS based in St. Louis. By the 1960s the ALC, LCA and LCMS each had around 3 million members. There of course were other groups – the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) being the most notable. With larger influxes of people came more dollars, more infrastructure and more ideas, programs, and ministries at both local and national levels. With that expansion came growing pains in each denomination (as well as many non-Lutheran ones). This book tells the story of key leaders in the LCMS resistance to such changes that altered the trajectory and configuration of how Lutheran Christians relate to one another and the world.
The 1960s produced many cultural changes across America that are well known. The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War sparked conflict within the broader culture, and the ecumenical movement brought about by the Second Vatican Council within the church world brought new challenges, opportunities and paradigms for witnessing Christian faith as church institutions. Many Christians supported activity within the broader culture – supporting civil rights in the public sphere, opposing what was deemed an unjust conflict in Vietnam, and embracing ecumenical cooperation. For the most part early on, Lutherans of all three stripes were active in these arenas.
Then came the rebuttal. The LCMS had as early as the 1930s been struggling with its definition of Biblical Inerrancy (an understanding of the literal inspiration of God’s Word in Scripture). Since the LCMS had not undergone mergers like both the LCA and ALC had undergone, there was a deeper grounding and the taking of sides on this particular issue, that all came to the for in the 60s. Through an amazing act of organization, propaganda, and politicking; a relatively small group of deeply theologically conservative pastors mobilized enough willpower, finances and influence among convention voters to completely change the LCMS. After this group came to power, those deemed by them to be dangerous liberal and moderate voices in the LCMS were discredited and pushed to the fringe. The climax of the conflict came when the president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis was forced out of office after public humiliation at the national convention and many of the faculty and students marched out with him in support on February 19, 1973.
Everything changed. The faculty at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis were replaced by teachers loyal to the politics and theology of the bureaucracy. Those who marched off formed a new school dubbed “Seminary in Exile” or “Seminex” for short. Soon a schism resulted in the founding of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). By the mid 1980s this group brought together the ALC and LCA in conversation of a three way merger that produced the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1988. (You can read more about this part of the story at http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History.aspx).
There is much to think about in this book, and many question are raised. What happens when power is shared only by a few who do everything they can to gain and keep it? What happens when something starts as perhaps an innocent ideal and then spins out of control; bringing about not only division but hurtful, hateful behavior that seeks only to ward off enemies as its primary concern? What happens when the challenges of growth, engagement, and renewal are toppled into an inward self destruction? These are all questions Burkee raises, and his accounting of the people and events in this book are his answer. But there are unanswered questions too. Were those who feared what they called “liberal advances” right about what would happen if they continued? The ELCA is a worldwide leader in ecumenism, and has as many non-Lutheran as Lutheran partnerships all around the globe. The ELCA supports not one theology but many theologies (though many are unofficial) and seems to float about without any one sense of purpose or mission with dissenters on every side of any particular issue. The ELCA has even declared itself a “public church” eager to get into the political arena on far more concerns than I can even name.
However you understand your own politics and what that might mean for churchliness the biggest question that remains is the outcome. After all the infighting the LCMS is much smaller than it once was. The leadership is not trusted by its people and has been pushed into the corner of the Christian world by its own narrow understandings. But the ELCA is the opposite side of that coin. The ELCA is in the middle of its own debates about what kind of church it will be and for whom, and many do not trust its leaders either. There are people leaving the liberal leaning ELCA just as fast as the conservative leaning LCMS and both are much smaller than the sum of their parts fifty years ago. LCMS hovers around 2.5 million people. The ELCA has 4.5 million. In their former configurations three denominations had close to 9 million while these two have only 7 million. Compare those numbers to the steady growth of U.S. population since 1960 and you can see my concern.
Burkee’s reporting is thorough and complete. Yet one thing I found missing from his study. It is not on oversight on his part – he did his job very well and made me think on a number of levels. Having been a part of both churches and having known some of the players involved but have mentors and colleagues who went through Seminex and/or the AELC there is a certain personal tug on my heartstrings to the tragedy this story recounts. But what is missing, in my view, is any mention, any acknowledgment, any draw to God at work in the challenges of the day. People being people they tried to figure it out for themselves and to add my commentary, not very well. Not that encountering a living savior would have made everyone get along and hold hands. But somehow in this investigation it became clear to me that one of the biggest mistakes we make in the church is that we believe Christ’s church is our church. We make decisions that way. We plan that way. We divide ourselves that way. We go the wrong way down the path that clings so close to our convictions rather than follow the one who leads us. Sadly this book is not just about a controversy years ago or about my church connections as a kid. When the church is divided, it continues to be our story. Yet in the midst of those struggles, Christ remains “our cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Thanks be to God!
What if we treated the church like it belonged to Christ? What might that mean for churchliness? What might that mean to our political divide? What might that mean for the future – if it wasn’t our future…but God’s good future in which we get to take part? Then what? It is to that story I invite you. You and I are part of the sequel.
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:12-14)