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1960 and Beyond

One aspect of the discussion surrounding the “Joint Statement,” which will again be before us at our next 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.

The Wisconsin Synod held its convention in 1961 at Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee. By this time the CLC was an organized church body with its own school, its own boards, and its own administration. The big question was what the Wisconsin Synod was now going to do about its relationship with the Missouri Synod. Although the Wisconsin Synod had declared already in 1955 that the Missouri Synod was causing divisions and offenses contrary to Biblical doctrine, it had never carried out the step that God’s Word demanded when such is the case. What would it do in 1961?
About 4:30 P.M. on August 17 the convention delegates passed the following resolution by a vote of 124 to 49: “That we now suspend fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod on the basis of Romans 16:17-18” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Sixth Convention of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, p. 198). It would seem that the Wisconsin Synod was finally ready to take the action which its president had called for in 1955, declaring in his presidential report at that time, “For those of us who have been closest to these problems, it appears quite definite that we must now obey the Lord’s Word in Romans 16:17” (Reports and Memorials Twenty-Third Convention August 10-17, 1955, p. 13).
We need to remember, however, that after the 1959 convention the following erroneous principle became the catalyst for continuing fellowship with the Missouri Synod: “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.” The supporting “Whereases” as well as the discussion on the floor of the convention indicate that in the minds of many the real reason for the suspension of fellowship was that “an impasse” had been reached in the doctrinal discussions with representatives of the Missouri Synod. In other words, the conviction had been reached that admonition was of no further avail.
A few days later, August 23-25, the CLC held its second convention in Spokane, Washington. In its report to the convention the CLC Board of Doctrine stated, “The recent convention of the Wisconsin Synod passed a resolution of suspension which gives rise to the hope that the membership of that Synod may be seeking to rectify a situation that has caused much grief and concern. Over this possibility we sincerely rejoice.” The report continued, “This suspension of fellowship does not in itself remove the real issues that are involved in our relations with the Wisconsin Synod” (Minutes of the Second Annual Convention of the Church of the Lutheran Confession, Appendix V).
The convention adopted the report of the Board of Doctrine and added this statement: “We mention the issues that lie between Wisconsin and ourselves, namely: deviations from the Scriptural doctrine of Church fellowship and the doctrine of the Clarity and Authority of the Scriptures, as well as instances of violation of the sanctity of the call” (Minutes of the Second Annual Convention of the Church of the Lutheran Confession, p. 9). In the Lutheran Spokesman of January 1962, CLC President Paul G. Albrecht clearly explained the nature of these issues.
On the issue of church fellowship Albrecht explained, “The Lord says, Romans 16:17: Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them, that is, take careful note of them, which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them, have no fellowship with them, not tomorrow or next year or when you reach the conviction that admonition is of no further avail, or when a majority of convention delegates reaches this conviction, but when you see what they are doing. . . . There is nothing in Wisconsin’s recent suspension resolution that would show that Wisconsin has receded from the unscriptural position to which she has clung and which she has stoutly defended.”
It was Wisconsin’s interpretation of Romans 16:17-18 that caused the CLC to charge the Wisconsin Synod with undermining the clarity and authority of Scripture. The question had been raised in the Wisconsin Synod as to whether Romans 16:17-18 should be followed, or whether the Synod owed a debt of love to the Missouri Synod and should therefore postpone suspension. One set of Scripture passages was pitted against another set, thus confusing the matter.
CLC President Albrecht and WELS President Oscar Naumann began in February of 1962 to arrange discussions of the issues that separated the two synods. The basic problem in arranging meetings between the two synods was that the Wisconsin Synod representatives seemingly wanted to avoid any discussions that would bring to light discrepancies between the Bible’s teaching on church fellowship and their official synodical actions in the years from 1955 to 1961. In response the CLC Board of Doctrine stated, “We cannot undertake to discuss expressions of principle with Wisconsin at this point without reference to past practice and the expressions of principle which supported such practice. The Wisconsin “Theses on Church Fellowship,” whatever their merits otherwise, do not focus upon the immediate point of our controversy. In the specific area of our differences they are subject to varying interpretation. If they are declared to mean what the CCF (Concerning Church Fellowship, the CLC document) says in regard to that issue, their adequacy would have to be tested against the other official pronouncements of Wisconsin as well as its actions between 1955 and 1961. Failing this, our discussions would expose us to the great danger of reaching agreement in words without agreement in substance. This risk we cannot in good conscience accept” (Church of the Lutheran Confession – Seventh Annual Convention Proceedings, pp. 22-23).
In an effort to pinpoint the specific doctrinal deviation on the part of the Wisconsin Synod, the Board of Doctrine in April of 1968 sent a lengthy letter to the WELS Commission on Doctrinal Matters. The history of the controversy was summarized, and the statement was made: “The question dividing CLC from the WELS is whether the directives of Scripture admit of a continuing fellowship relation, protesting or otherwise, with a church body known and acknowledged to be engaged in the teaching of error and in unscriptural practice, while a protracted course of admonition is being pursued. The WELS has defended such a course of action; the CLC . . . rejects such a policy” (Church of the Lutheran Confession Eighth Convention Proceedings, p. 23).
The 1992 CLC convention declared, “1. We affirm that ever since the formation of the CLC in 1960 there has been a doctrinal difference between the CLC and the WELS/ELS on the matter of termination of fellowship with church bodies that have become causers of divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which we have learned, cf. Romans 16:17-18. 2. We are convinced by Scripture (Gal. 5:9; 1 Thess. 5: 21-22) that in order to resolve doctrinal differences it is necessary that previous official false statements and actions be clearly rejected. This conviction is reinforced by a study of church history. 3. Since in the correspondence of the past biennium the representatives of the WELS/ELS have refused up to this point to acknowledge that this difference which separates us is a matter of doctrine, we urge the Board of Doctrine to terminate the present discussions with the representatives of the WELS/ELS, unless such discussions address this specific doctrinal difference from the outset” (Church of the Lutheran Confession Twentieth Convention Proceedings, pp. 29-30).
By this time, fifty years and more after the original controversy, there are no doubt other issues besides termination of fellowship that would have to be resolved before the CLC could declare fellowship with the WELS or the ELS. One of the issues to be resolved would have to be participation with fraternal insurance companies such as Thrivent. But the old issue is still very real. It is strange that the Lawrenz statement of 1958 on termination of fellowship, which seems clearly unscriptural to the CLC, cannot be also clearly rejected by the WELS and the ELS, since their claim is that we are really in doctrinal agreement. Thomas Nass of the WELS made this comment in 2001: “When asked what the doctrinal difference was, the Lawrenz statement of 1958 is quoted by the CLC as proof of false doctrine. . . . However, we would not be able to condemn it as false doctrine, because we can understand it in a proper way. . . . Progress toward reconciliation will not be made, however, if the CLC continues to insist that the Lawrenz statement of 1958 must be labeled as false doctrine” (Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Winter 2001, p. 61).
David Lau is a retired pastor and professor. He lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.