On 8 December 2015, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod simultaneously released a report on the informal discussions that have been occurring between the three Synods between 2012-2015. (ELS Release, LCMS Release, and WELS Release same as the document listed above). The LCMS also released a Reporter Story found here. The Report about the Informal Discussions is the most significant update on the relationship between the three Synods since the ELS and WELS suspended fellowship 50 or so years ago. The expenses related to gathering 18 people from three Synods have been largely covered by a donor who is interested in seeing the three Synods discuss their similarities and differences.

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The participants of the 2015 informal discussion from ELS, LCMS, WELS
Held at the Mary Wood Retreat Center

First, why are the discussions called “informal” discussions. In the ecumenical world, the use of the term “informal” discussion is used to differentiate them from more formal discussions. For instance, the International Lutheran Council (ILC) is engaged in “informal” discussions with the Roman Catholic Church, whereas the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has been engaged in formal discussions for more than 50 years. In the context of the ILC’s discussions with Rome, it differentiates the discussions from other more long standing discussions. As the discussions progress, they can be “updated” to formal discussions. In the context of the “informal” discussions between the three former members of the Synodical Conference, the term “informal” indicates that the immediate goal was not the re-establishment of altar and pulpit fellowship. Both the ELS and WELS reserve the term “formal” discussion for discussions between them and another church body where it is expected that altar and pulpit fellowship will be established in the near future. Since the three Synods had not had serious discussion in 50 plus years, it was thought that the best way to proceed was on the level of “informal” discussions, almost a “let’s get reacquainted” after 50 years sort of discussion with minimal expectations.

Although most people within the Missouri Synod today recognize that the LCMS is not in fellowship with the ELS and WELS today, many do not realize the causes or reasons for this. The history has largely been forgotten. Sometimes the history is lost in caricatures of what happened. The ending of the Synodical conferences and the ending of fellowship between the three Synods was painful for many of the people involved. Families were divided between membership in the ELS, LCMS, and WELS. (In fact, some of my family is LCMS while others are WELS.)

One of the first caricatures or points of misunderstandings is that the ELS and WELS broke fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The fact is that the ELS and WELS “suspended” fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The ELS did this in 1955, while the WELS did this in 1961. The fact that WELS waited until 1961, caused a division in WELS among those who thought WELS should have suspended fellowship more quickly with the Missouri Synod. In 1960, the Church of the Lutheran Confessions (CLC) formed when it broke away from WELS.

In the WELS 1961 resolution (found here) that “suspended” fellowship with the Missouri Synod, the word “suspend” is defined: “*The word “suspend” as used in the resolution has all the finality of termination during the duration of the suspension, but contains the hope that conditions might some day warrant a reestablishment of fellowship.”  “Suspended” is more nuanced than “broke” or “ended” fellowship; it carries the hope of restoration and the end of divisions.

Another “caricature” about the suspension of fellowship was that it was about the “Boy Scouts” and “prayer fellowship.” If you read the WELS 1961 resolution, it does not mention the Boy Scouts or Prayer Fellowship as the cause. (There is no denial that WELS saw participation in the Boy Scouts as symptomatic of other issues within the Missouri Synod.) In light of the recent policy changes within the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the LCMS also came the to the conclusion that the Missouri Synod and the BSA should not have a formal relationship (see the Reporter announcement).

The issues were much deeper than the Boy Scouts, and involved the Missouri Synod seeking fellowship with the American Lutheran Church (ALC), which in 1988 became a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and later Missouri’s participation in Lutheran Council in the United States of America (LCUSA), which existed from 1967-1988 and was a cooperative effort of the LCMS, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church of America, and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The Missouri Synod entered fellowship with the American Lutheran Church in 1967, the same year the Missouri Synod officially “dissolved” the Synodical Conference. The Missouri Synod in 1979 entered a state of protest against the American Lutheran Church over the issues of Biblical inerrancy, Women’s ordination, and ecumenical participation and unionism. In 1981, the Missouri Synod broke fellowship with the American Lutheran Church. Yet already, in 1961 when WELS suspended fellowship with the Missouri Synod, the Missouri Synod was talking about entering fellowship with the American Lutheran Church.

The other significant item that led to the ELS and WELS suspending fellowship were the events that led up to Seminex in 1974 at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, related to the rejection of biblical inerrancy. In conversations with Missouri Synod professors and students from ELS and WELS who attended Missouri Synod schools, the church officials were aware of aberrations in teaching about the Scripture long before the general membership of the Missouri Synod became aware.

These two underlying facts, the Missouri Synod seeking fellowship with the American Lutheran Church and the events leading up to Seminex, are acknowledged in the Report on the informal discussions. The Report says, “ELS and WELS participants were heartened to hear LCMS leaders acknowledge with sadness that the ELS and WELS were compelled to break fellowship with the LCMS to avoid the tragedy of the doctrinal controversy that befell the LCMS in the 1970s, and that LCMS leaders are continuing to work for faithfulness in Scriptural doctrine and practice in their synod.”

Another significant item mentioned in the Report is The Brief Statement of 1932. The Brief Statement of 1932 is an official doctrinal statement of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Every pastor of the MIssouri Synod reads the Brief Statement at least once in his seminary career, but it is not something that many have reviewed with their congregations, or perhaps read again after seminary. The Brief Statement can be found here (as a PDF here). The Statement on the informal discussions from 2015 list a number doctrines where ELS, LCMS, WELS teach the same. They were The Trinity; The person and work of Christ; Justification by grace through faith; Genesis 1–11 is actual history, for example with a six day creation, Adam and Eve, and the fall; The real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper; Baptism; Law and Gospel; Means of Grace; Eternal Election of Grace; Conversion; Two Kingdoms; End Times; Resurrection of the body; Antichrist; Third use of the law; Rejection of Women’s Ordination; Rejection of Infant Communion; Worship; Need for ecclesiastical visitation and supervision. The Report then mentions how the Brief Statement of 1932 was an area of significant agreement between the Synods.It says, “We also called to mind how all three synods expressed agreement with A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod when it first appeared in the early 1930s. This doctrinal statement still reflects areas of agreement today.”

Considering that these are “informal” discussions more work needs to be done. Areas of doctrine need to be discussed in greater depth including the doctrine of the ministry, the role of women in the church, and prayer fellowship. None of those involved desire to gloss over differences in doctrine or practice that exist, at the same time, the participants wanted to acknowledge where agreement existed.

It is rather significant that the three Synods after more than 50 years of suspended fellowship are informally talking. It also is joyful to be able to discuss the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions with others who hold such similar views to those held by the Missouri Synod.

A future post will talk more about the Synodical Conference.

— Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations