The presidents of three American Lutheran synods offered papers at the Fifth Annual Emmaus Conference Feb. 9-10 at Parkland Lutheran Church and School in Tacoma, Wash. Parkland Lutheran Church is a member congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

 LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, Evangelical Lutheran Synod President Rev. John A. Molstad Jr. and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod President Rev. Mark Schroeder all offered presentations on the topic, “The History and Prospects of Lutheran Free Conferences.”

Harrison served as the lecturer for the Tacoma gathering; Molstad and Schroeder as “reactors” to Harrison’s presentation.

The conference marked the second time the three church executives met together to, in the words of conference organizers, “share information on a selected topic of interest to confessional Lutheranism in a setting outside the realm of church fellowship.”

Organizers added that “the conference is not to be viewed as having any official status of formal doctrinal discussions between church bodies.”

The organizers also expressed their desire that the gathering might lead to “the establishment of such official free conferences among confessional Lutheran church bodies in America.”

Harrison, Molstad and Schroeder also attended last year’s Emmaus Conference.

The idea of a “free conference” is not new, observed the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS director of Church Relations — assistant to the president.

In 1856, the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther, president of the Missouri Synod, first proposed the idea of free conferences to “bring together American Lutherans who unreservedly confessed the Augsburg Confession.”

The proposal was Walther’s “first major ecumenical effort,” Harrison noted in his presentation.

“The now-famous free conferences were proposed by Walther in Lehre und Wehre in 1856 and actually held during October 1856 at Columbus [Ohio], October 1857 at Pittsburgh [Pa.], August 1858 at Cleveland [Ohio]; and July 1859 at Fort Wayne [Ind.].”

Unfortunately, Walther was unable to attend the fourth free conference, Harrison said.

A large portion of Harrison’s presentation addressed the “historical trifecta” that threatened 19th-century Lutheranism: Reformed theology, Pietism and Rationalism. This “threefold battering ram,” was the impetus for the free conferences based upon the Augsburg Confession, Harrison explained.

Harrison concluded his paper with a statement by the Rev. F.C.D. Wyneken, who attended all four of the original conferences. “I offer it here as my deepest prayer and personal confession, as my deepest longing over against you who are my separated brethren,” Harrison said.

In part, Harrison noted, Wyneken said this:

Then why, beloved brothers, do we stand by one another? Why can’t we leave one another? It is because we cannot let go of the one truth that we, in fellowship with all the saints, have acknowledged, believe, and confess as it is in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. These confessions bear witness to the truth clearly, plainly, and powerfully on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, against all the desires of Satan, to the whole world. …

Therefore, neither can we let go of the most insignificant portion of the Confession because the entire series of the individual teachings of the faith are for us one chain. This chain not only binds our understanding in the truth, it binds our consciences and lives. The loss of an individual part of the same would break this chain, and we would be torn loose from Christ, tumbling again into the abyss of anxiety, doubt and eternal death. Therefore we hold fast to our Confession, as to our very life’s life. [The full quotation may be found at the LCMS “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” blog,]

“While the early set of free conferences did not bring about the desired unity of doctrine sought by Walther, they did serve as a catalyst for a highly treasured blessing. A second set of Waltherian conferences [in the 1860s] led to the formation of the solidly confessional and endearing Synodical Conference of 1872,” Evangelical Lutheran Synod President Molstad said in response to Harrison’s presentation.

In his presentation, Wisconsin Synod President Schroeder thanked Harrison for his remarks and offered thanks to the members of the Missouri Synod for the many blessings that benefit “other Lutherans, even in those synods such as mine, which are not now in fellowship with the LCMS.”

Those who would claim the label “confessional” today have an “ongoing responsibility and opportunity to define carefully what that term means and what it means for the person and synod wanting to wear the label,” Schroeder said. “If free conferences and other discussions can help to clarify and solidify what it means to be truly confessional, then such discussions should take place with the prayer that God would use the power of His Word and the working of the Spirit to encourage faithfulness to the doctrines of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. It is only such faithfulness, confessed and practiced, that holds the promise of true unity and full fellowship. That is a noble and God-pleasing goal which all confessional Lutherans can strive to reach.”

“The conference attendees were greatly encouraged by President Harrison’s paper and the responses of Presidents Molstad and Schroeder,” Collver observed on the LCMS’ “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” blog.

“The emerging friendships developed and the clear confession of the Lutheran Confession at the Emmaus Conference is helping to overcome tensions that developed between the three Synods after the breakup of the Synodical Conference in the mid-20th century.”

Ultimately, Collver added, “every reformation of the Lord’s church, every reconciliation and restoration of relationships involves repentance and absolution. May the Lord grant repentance and His forgiveness to us.”

The provisional dates for the 2013 Emmaus Conference are April 11-12.

Posted Feb. 15, 2012 on LCMS Reporter