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Fortieth Anniversary Historical Vignettes

vignette (vin-yet’), n. 1. short literary essay; sketch

vignettist (vin-yet’ist), n. a maker of vignettes, painter, photographer, or writer

‘All Things For Good’

(While more than a “vignette,” this article by Professor David Lau was prompted by the series of historical pieces we have been running in the Spokesman this fortieth anniversary year of the synod. We thank Prof. Lau for these insightful reminiscences. — Ed.)

1960 — A very exciting year for the first members of Messiah Lutheran congregation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (now Hales Corners), persons with names like Schaller and Mueller and Gerbitz and Radtke. First services in members’ homes. Drawing up a constitution. Losing our first pastor when Paul Koch accepted a call to teach at Immanuel College in Mankato. Sending a delegate to the Interim Conference convention in Watertown, South Dakota. Calling that delegate, a very green young man, to be our pastor after he had been a member for only a few weeks and had just been colloquialized (yes, that’s the word that was used) by Pastors C. M. Gullerud and George Barthels for about ten or fifteen minutes in the basement of Watertown’s Trinity Lutheran Church. Renting a Seventh Day Adventist church on the north side of Milwaukee for regular Sunday services. Receiving new members almost every week, persons who felt conscience-bound to separate themselves from the Wisconsin Synod, including the sister and widow of a former seminary professor, Arthur Voss, and the daughter and grand-daughters of Professor August Pieper, also a one-time seminary professor. Indeed the Schaller who was one of our first members was Ruth Schaller, the daughter of seminary Professor John Schaller. These courageous women did not vote in our congregational meetings, but they openly confessed their faith by leaving a synod with which they had so many ties and joining a tiny new congregation without any church property or church building and with a very green young pastor, namely, myself.

Then came the summer of 1961 and a convention of the Wisconsin Synod in the Milwaukee area. For what should we pray? Should we pray that the Wisconsin Synod would continue to maintain its church fellowship with the Missouri Synod in spite of the many protests and withdrawals? We were confident that if the Wisconsin Synod took that course, our Messiah Church would gain many new members, and so it was tempting to pray that that might happen. But yet if the Wisconsin Synod took that course, more of its members would be led away from the Word, and the Missouri Synod also would be strengthened in its downward course away from God’s Word. Not knowing specifically what to pray for, we prayed: “Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Wisconsin Synod did break off its fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1961. It was not a perfectly clean break, and it did not bring back the Wisconsin Synod to an orthodox position on the doctrine of church fellowship. We have felt conscience-bound to continue our separation from the Wisconsin Synod since that time.

But now, as I look back to 1960 and consider what has happened since that time, I begin to see that God used the firm stand of our CLC fathers not only for the benefit of our small church body but also for the benefit of the Wisconsin Synod and the Missouri Synod as well. In the late fifties and early sixties there were some teachers in Wisconsin Synod schools who were trying to steer the Wisconsin Synod in the direction of unionism and ecumenism and a critical approach to Bible study. Two that I know later found their way into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), that apostate Lutheran body that does not deserve to be called Lutheran at all. If our forefathers in the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) had not taken their strong stand, these dangerous teachers would have been more easily able to persuade the Wisconsin Synod to follow them. But in 1961 when these teachers presented their arguments for a unionistic course, others got up to say: “If we don’t take a stand against the Missouri Synod now, we will lose more of our members to the CLC.” Having been an observer at the Wisconsin Synod convention in 1961, I know that this is one of the arguments that was used. The mere existence of our church body was used by our God to help bring about the Wisconsin Synod’s separation from the Missouri Synod.

Going a step further, I think we can also say that God used the Wisconsin Synod’s separation from the Missouri Synod for the benefit of the Missouri Synod. For just as the existence of the CLC put some pressure on the Wisconsin Synod to be more confessional and less unionistic, so also the existence of the Wisconsin Synod put some pressure on the Missouri Synod to be more confessional and less unionistic. The Missouri Synod was once headed directly into the same ecumenical and anti-confessional mess in which the ELCA is now swimming. Its teachers were becoming more and more openly unscriptural in their teachings. But there was a reversal in the late sixties and early seventies and an exodus of some of the more prominent false teachers, so that the Missouri Synod today is somewhat closer to the truth, yet still not orthodox enough even for the Wisconsin Synod to declare fellowship with them once again.

From all of this I draw the conclusion that what God wants from us is simply to listen to God’s Word and do what He says. We need not concern ourselves with questions like whether by our obedience we are going to lose our influence or impact in the world. God certainly knows how to use our obedience in His plan to work all things for good to all those who love God, even those who are not in our immediate fellowship. God is not parochial in His thinking and planning as we so often are. If we do what is right in our little corner of the world, God can and does use what we do for the benefit of many others. God is concerned not just with the hallowing of His name and the coming of His kingdom and the doing of His will among us in our little group, but with the hallowing of His name and the coming of His kingdom and the doing of His will all over the world. “God works all things (including our decisions to obey His Word) together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).