THE ORIGIN OF THE CLC
One aspect of the discussion surrounding the “Joint Statement,” which will again be before us at our 2020 convention, is how much importance to give to the events that took place around the period 1955-1961 that led to the formation of the CLC. In this seven-part series, Professor Emeritus David Lau provides a digest of these events, excerpted from his book, “Out of Necessity.” We urge all CLC members—and particularly convention delegates—to re-familiarize themselves with this important period in our fellowship’s history.
In the months that followed the 1957 convention of the Wisconsin Synod, other pastors and congregations withdrew from the church body. The Northwestern Lutheran of March 30, 1958, reported that Robert Dommer, Ivan Zarling, Leonard Bernthal, and Waldemar Karnitz, together
with their congregations in the Spokane area, had withdrawn from the Wisconsin Synod and thus were in agreement with Trinity Lutheran Church and its pastor, M. J. Witt. They were later joined by Gilbert Sydow of Ellensburg, Washington, in February of 1959 to form a group of six. . . .In Red Wing, Minnesota, Pastor George Barthels and Teachers Walmar Voigt and Alvin Sieg withdrew from the Wisconsin Synod together with a portion of the membership of St. John’s congregation. . . .Professor Winfred Schaller, Sr. of Winnebago Lutheran Academy in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, terminated his membership in the Wisconsin Synod “because of our continued fellowship with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod” (reported in The Northwestern Lutheran of September 28, 1958). A few months later Winfred Schaller, Sr. died (May 25, 1959). … In the months leading up to the 1959 Wisconsin Synod convention in Saginaw, Michigan, more withdrawals were reported in The Northwestern Lutheran.
It is possible, even likely, that if the Wisconsin Synod in its 1959 convention had separated from the Missouri Synod, the pastors and congregations that had withdrawn might have seen fit to return. But Professor Carl Lawrenz, who had replaced Edmund Reim as president of the Thiensville seminary, introduced a new understanding of Wisconsin Synod actions in the years from 1955 to 1959 and also a new criterion for suspending fellowship with erring church bodies in a letter he addressed to the Protest Committee of the Wisconsin Synod on June 16, 1958.
The 1955 convention of the Wisconsin Synod had unanimously passed a statement that declared the Missouri Synod to be guilty of causing divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine of Scripture. But then the convention had postponed the action called for by Romans 16:17-18, the action of avoiding those guilty of causing divisions and offenses. Carl Lawrenz now gave the novel interpretation that by not taking the action of avoiding, the convention had also negated the conclusion that the Missouri Synod was guilty of causing divisions and offenses.
His interpretation, however, did not agree with the official report of the convention. . . . In fact, the Protest Committee had to admit “that it, as well as many others, ‘did not understand it that way at the time’ (page 3)” (quoted in Edmund Reim: “An Open Letter to the Protest Committee,” Section I).
Yet there was something even more dangerous in Lawrenz’s letter. Up to that time the Wisconsin Synod had operated with the conviction that the criterion for separation from another church body was the continuation of divisions and offenses contrary to Scriptural doctrine, as commanded in Romans 16: 17-18. Carl Lawrenz, however, introduced a new procedure that justified the postponement of action on the part of the Wisconsin Synod in 1955, 1956, and 1957. Lawrenz wrote: “Is there not an area of human judgment involved before a Christian comes to the conviction concerning a brother who has fallen into error that he can no longer treat him as a weak brother, to whom he owes further patient admonition, but that he must now be treated as a persistent errorist, from whom the Lord bids him to withdraw all further fellowship? . . . The fact that an individual or a church body has fallen into an error of doctrine or practice, or even the fact that the individual or the church body still defends that error of doctrine or practice, is not yet in itself a reason for terminating church fellowship. . . . Termination of church fellowship is called for when you have reached the conviction that admonition is of no further avail and that the erring brother or church body demands recognition for their error” (Carl Lawrenz: “A Report to the Protest Committee,” pp. 3-4).
The explanation of Lawrenz was accepted by the Protest Committee of the Wisconsin Synod, by its Church Union Committee, and eventually by the Wisconsin Synod itself at its 1959 convention. It also convinced many of the protesters. . . . But a number of the protesters recognized the new criterion for separation proposed by Lawrenz as false teaching and vigorously opposed it.
At the thirty-fifth convention of the Wisconsin Synod in 1959, held again in Saginaw, Michigan, the Church Union Committee reported that unionistic offenses on the part of the Missouri Synod were continuing. . . . Nevertheless, the floor committee did not call for separation from the Missouri Synod at this time. . . . Only one committee member, Oscar Siegler, expressed dissent: “Our Synod would seem to have no choice but to mark The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod as persisting in divisions and offenses, and any further discussions with the view of admonishing The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod ought not be continued on a fellowship basis” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Convention, p. 177).
Again there were many memorials calling for separation from the Missouri Synod. One such memorial came from the Nebraska District Pastoral Conference. Another memorial calling for separation and indicating disagreement with Lawrenz’s letter was signed by thirty men. . . . Otto J. Eckert of Saginaw joined two other men in calling for separation from the Missouri Synod on the basis of Romans 16:17-18 and stating their opposition to all the arguments that had been used for postponing action.
Nine pastors in the Dakota-Montana District had drawn up a memorial for presentation to the convention. . . . Two pastors and congregations in the Austin, Minnesota, area presented memorials calling for separation.
One other memorial calling for separation is of note. Given with the name “A Call for Decision,” it was signed by thirty men. . . . This memorial addressed the new interpretation of previous synodical action proposed by Carl Lawrenz and stated: “In its historical presentation, the Report distorts plain, documented facts relative to the action of the Saginaw Convention of 1955.” The memorial goes on to say: “We consider this distortion of historical facts to be a lesser offense, however, than the abuse of Scripture upon which it is based.” By “abuse of Scripture” they meant the new criterion for separation proposed by Lawrenz: “Termination of church fellowship is called for when you have reached the conviction that admonition is of no further avail and that the erring brother or church body demands recognition for their error.” Pertaining to this statement the memorial said: “We hold that it is false and unscriptural, and that the argument based upon it is rationalistic and untenable. We ask the Synod to
disavow it” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Convention, pp. 209-211).
David Lau is a retired pastor and professor. He and his wife live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.