Review of A Tale of Two Synods by Mark E. Braun

A Tale of Two Synods, Events That Led to the Split between Wisconsin and Missouri, by Mark E. Braun, second edition, 2003, 350 pp.

I had been wanting to read this book for some time, and having finally gotten around to it I can say it did not disappoint (even if the Lutheran attitudes and quarrels at times did!). The great value of this book is in its thoroughness on a subject which few have written on.

I was in the Missouri Synod myself from about 1987 to 2011. While I was baptized in 1982 in an American Lutheran Church, it was the Missouri Synod (or LCMS) that I grew up in and in which I came to faith. I quite loved the denomination in many ways but ultimately studied to be a Presbyterian minister.

While in the Missouri Synod during my youth, I had no awareness of the existence of the Wisconsin Synod. I’m not aware of there being any of their congregations where I was raised in Western Michigan. Only in my twenties when studying Lutheranism seriously did I become aware of the various denominations and investigate the differences. What I learned at that point in regards to Missouri and Wisconsin amounted to differences in their polity as to, for example, whether women should vote in congregational meetings. What Mark Braun explains in A Tale of Two Synods is, naturally, far more thorough. But the focus of the book is not on the differences between the synods today. Braun’s focus is on events that led up to the end, in 1961, of the Missouri – Wisconsin “Synodical Conference” relationship.

The general picture I get from Braun is that the Missouri Synod started off in the 19th century as ultra-conservative but opened up over the years. This was especially due to the impact of ministers coming back from World War II chaplaincy with broader views. The Wisconsin Synod, on the other hand, started off a bit more broad than Missouri but shored up their conservatism in time. Wisconsin opposed sending chaplains to the military and they opposed involvement in the Boy Scouts. At the root of these and many other issues was the topic of “unionism.” The desire of the Wisconsin Synod was to not compromise their Lutheran Christianity in joining secular or religious associations. Some in the Missouri Synod held the same view, but most there in time looked to a more active role for Christians in society.

The topic of “unionism” came full-force in the debates over “prayer fellowship.” I found this discussion rather disturbing. Many of the Lutherans in both of the Synods (but especially Wisconsin) held that joint prayer can only be made when there is full agreement on doctrine down to the smallest detail. Their view of Romans 16:17-18 seems, to me, completely off based. Much of the debate over prayer fellowship was fought out in two Lutheran newspapers. The Confessional Lutheran had an outlook of the conservatives who “sought to demonstrate that their position—prayer fellowship based on full agreement of doctrine—was that which Walther, Pieper, Bente, and other Missouri fathers had championed since their synod was founded. (p. 170) On the other side, the American Lutheran ran articles by union proponents who “questioned whether this prerequisite accurately reflected the spirit of Missouri’s father, and whether the requirement was rooted in the right understanding of Scripture.” (p. 170) Notably “At Missouri’s free conferences in the 1850s and on three occasions in the 1860s, Walther and other Missouri leaders prayed with Lutherans who had not professed agreement with Missouri on certain doctrinal issues.” (p. 172)

As Wisconsin continually reaffirmed its commitment to a strict anti-unionism (against scouting, chaplaincy, and joint prayer) and as Missouri opened up some, the parting of ways between the two Synods became inevitable. Concluding that Missouri was no longer an orthodox church, Wisconsin would need, by virtue of their own doctrine, to break the Synodical Conference. When delays to the split occurred, as the Wisconsin leadership was patiently hoping Missouri would “clean up its act,” “’many Wisconsin individuals, several conferences, and one entire District’ were convinced that synod was guilty of disobedience to the Word of God for not [sooner] applying Romans 16:17,18 to the Missouri Synod [and breaking fellowship with them].” Logically, the strictest application of their principles should have brought these individuals to break from the Wisconsin Synod (as some did—many forming the Church of the Lutheran Confession), and then, when other disagreements inevitably arise, each to break from each other until each is a church of one person. Also on the logic of their position, one wonders whether a Christian of another denomination who visited a Wisconsin church would be asked to step out when prayers are offered, or not allowed in the building in the first place.

The Missouri Synod had a sharp turn in the liberal direction in the 1950s and 1960s. Previously unthinkable positions crept into the teaching at Concordia Seminary. But with the efforts of Jacob A. O. Preus “liberal ascendancy ended suddenly and decisively.” (p. 281) This led to the 1974 Seminex affair. Braun devotes a chapter to “The Doctrine of the Holy Scriptures” discussing to what extent this subject might be an underlying issue in the falling out between Wisconsin and Missouri. This chapter departs from the subtitle of the book as it discussion the aftermath more than the causes of the split. Ultimately written from a Wisconsin perspective, Braun leaves the reader thinking that liberalism is on the ascendancy in the LCMS. But by the time the book was published in 2003, this can hardly said to be the case. An up-to-date history on the denominations today would be enlightening.

2 thoughts on “Review of A Tale of Two Synods by Mark E. Braun”

  1. Sounds like an interesting book Doug! I do not know a lot about current Lutheran theology. Do the conservative synods like Missouri hold to the bondage of the will and particular redemption?

    1. Conservative Lutherans can be called mongerists, but their view of salvation is a paradoxical basically single predestination view. A major problem I came to, which led me to leave Lutheranism, is that their view entails that (1) God loves each and every person, (2) Jesus died for each and every person, and (3) “we don’t know what some aren’t saved.” While this is a logical problem, another soon emerges. The Lutherans do (or at least should) admit that the Holy Spirit does not come savingly to all people. Therefore, they’ve got the persons of God opposed to each other, with the limiting of atonement at the point of the Holy Spirit while the other persons desire unlimited atonement. This is more than a paradox. This is an error.

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