Bill J. Leonard is William Walker Brooks Professor of American Christianity at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 21-28, 1990, pp. 1096-1098, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
At the center of the feud in the ‘70s that resulted in the schism in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was John H. Tietjen. Bill J. Leonard reviews Tietjen’s autobiographical reflections on that era of turmoil.
Memoirs in Exile: Confessional Hope and Institutional Conflict, by John H. Tietjen. Fortress, 384 pp. paperback.
John H. Tietjen became president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis on May 19, 1969. Two months later, to Tietjen’s surprise, Jacob A. O. Preus was elected president of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, the denomination which controlled Concordia Seminary. The rest, as they say, is history, or in this case, memory. Tietjen’s long-awaited memoirs remind us in intricate detail of the tragic controversy that consumed the Missouri Synod in the 1970s. The memoirs begin with Tietjen’s election to the presidency of Concordia and conclude in 1987 with the formation of a new denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The denominational debate which enveloped Concordia Seminary subsequently led to Tietjen’s suspension as president, the termination of a large segment of the faculty, and the founding of Seminex, Concordia Seminary in Exile.
Tietjen, now a Lutheran pastor in Fort Worth, Texas, acknowledges that his is not a "definitive history" of the Missouri Synod debacle. Rather, he writes from the perspective of a participant, "describing events unknown to others, presenting information only I have, and sharing my perspective on what happened. But more than that, I have tried to bear witness to the mighty acts of God in my life." He insists that however tragic his story might be, it contains the good news of God’s grace.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was an explosion waiting to happen, Tietjen’s mentor Jaroslav Pelikan warned long before the controversy broke. Within the denomination a conflict was brewing between the forces of law and gospel, modernity and tradition, liberalism and fundamentalism. As Tietjen tells it, J. A. O. Preus represented a "conservative" faction in the Missouri Synod concerned that certain segments of the denomination were becoming too liberal in their response to new theological and ecumenical agendas. Preus, for example, was vehemently opposed to the denominational effort to extend fellowship to the American Lutheran Church. He also deplored the use of higher criticism in Missouri Synod schools, particularly at Concordia, the church’s flagship seminary. Preus viewed his election to the church’s presidency as a mandate to purge the denomination of liberalism. Those who opposed Preus’s activities came to be known as "moderates" since, as Tietjen observes, there were no real liberals in the Missouri Synod.
Tietjen believes that the struggle over Concordia Seminary was an essential element of Preus’s plan to solidify his control of the church and impose his brand of orthodoxy on the entire denomination. From the beginning of the controversy Concordia Seminary was at the center of the storm. Following his election, Preus lost no time in beginning an investigation of the Concordia faculty. Indeed, Tietjen first learned of the investigation when Concordia professor Frederick Danker reported having accidentally overheard a conversation between Jacob Preus and his brother Robert, also a member of the Concordia faculty. Robert Preus was among a group of five faculty members who accused certain colleagues of entertaining various doctrinal irregularities.
In September 1970 Preus appointed a fact-finding committee to interview faculty members as to their beliefs regarding Scripture. Lutheran confessions and other theological issues. Those interviews began in December and continued, under faculty protest, until March 1971. Preus’s assessment of the results led him to issue a document euphemistically known as the Blue Book in which he charged that certain unnamed members of the Concordia faculty were teaching false doctrine. That report was received by the Board of Control, the seminary’s governing body, which conducted its own interviews of faculty and announced that it could find no professor guilty of heresy. Tietjen reproduces several verbatims from those interviews as well as a chart delineating the vote count -- to commend, correct or abstain -- for each faculty member. Though some votes were close, no professor was judged to be in need of correction.
Dissatisfied with the Board of Control’s verdict, Preus took the matter to the Missouri Synod’s 1973 annual meeting in New Orleans. The convention adopted a resolution which declared that there was indeed heresy at Concordia Seminary and accepted Preus’s "State of Scriptural and Confessional Principles" for establishing doctrinal parameters for the entire church. Efforts were also begun to remove Tietjen from office. The New Orleans convention called upon the seminary’s Board of Control to deal punitively with the president. In late 1973 the board, now dominated by a pro-Preus majority, voted to suspend Tietjen. When he refused to accept their ruling and threatened legal action, the board delayed its suspension of the president. In other sweeping actions, the board set the mandatory retirement age at 65, thereby removing several long-term faculty members, and required all professors to submit their course syllabi for examination by the governing body.
The controversy intensified with Tietjen’s formal suspension in January 1974. A substantial number of faculty and students then declared a moratorium on all classes, and Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex) was soon established. The dissidents vacated the Concordia campus, securing facilities at St. Louis University and Eden Theological Seminary. Tietjen, officially removed from the Concordia presidency in late 1974, was then elected president of Seminex.
At this point in the memoirs, Tietjen describes both the struggle to maintain Seminex, and Preus’s further efforts at consolidating his power throughout the Missouri Synod. These actions produced a dissenting movement which ultimately became the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, formed in 1976 from five synods within the Missouri Synod tradition. Eventually, AELC overtures toward both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America led to the merger of the three bodies in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a result of that union, Seminex was absorbed into several Lutheran seminaries and ceased to exist as a separate institution.
Tietjen maintains a surprising degree of objectivity throughout the book, perhaps because he has gained some distance from the traumatic events of the 1970s. The old wounds remain, but much of the shrillness which accompanies such intense controversy seems to have been moderated. He also provides an effective summary of highly complex events. Nonetheless, non-Lutherans may have particular difficulty keeping up with all the issues and individuals, committees and agencies involved in the controversy. Tietjen includes a helpful list of abbreviations for the various church agencies, as well as a chronology of important events.
Tietjen’s memoirs provide insights into the Missouri Synod controversy which can inform our understanding of the nature of controversy and schism within the broader context of American Protestantism. First, Tietjen insists that at the heart of the debate was the question of what it means to be Lutheran, particularly within the Missouri Synod tradition. Moderates, especially those on the Concordia faculty, were convinced that their use of modern methods of biblical scholarship in no way undermined their commitment to Christian faith and Lutheran orthodoxy. Indeed, the accused faculty members continually denied that they were guilty of the charges brought against them, insisting that they were falsely accused. For them the controversy was political, not theological. As Ernestine Tietjen commented after an LCMS convention: "All the words about God are a cover-up for the use of power."
Preus and his supporters, however, argued that the struggle was primarily theological. Those who utilized higher criticism and rejected biblical inerrancy could not be tolerated in Missouri Synod institutions. Doctrinal parameters, as conservatives defined them, were essential for Lutheran orthodoxy. Tietjen quotes longtime Concordia professor Arthur Repp’s observation that "the Preus people . . . think we have to have a system of doctrine that spells out everything in detail to nail down what the Bible teaches. They think they know exactly what the Bible teaches and that they have a right to tell us what we have to believe and teach." Each group in the battle spoke and acted on different levels in assessing the nature of the controversy. That inability to communicate made reconciliation increasingly unlikely.
Second, moderates consistently underestimated the ideological intensity of the Preus party. At various times throughout the conflict Tietjen and others believed that they had secured compromises which would avoid faculty terminations and denominational schism, only to have their hopes dashed when the negotiations went public or when conservatives offered their interpretation of the supposed compromise. Tietjen’s own efforts to defend the faculty and gain a tenable compromise ultimately became grounds for his dismissal on the charge of "allowing and fostering false doctrine." At best, conservatives feared that any hint of compromise was really a form of equivocation on their nonnegotiable doctrinal principles. At worst, they were unwilling to sham power with anyone who refused to conform to their demands. By the time many moderates realized that compromise was impossible, they had already lost the denomination.
Third, as schism became inevitable, only a minority of pastors and congregations were willing to leave the mother denomination. Tietjen observes that "pastors who wanted to join [the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches] could not bring their congregations along because they had neither properly informed them about the events in the Missouri Synod nor adequately prepared them for the formation of a new church." Some wanted to "stay and fight," while others "did not want to risk conflict within the congregation." Many people assured Tietjen that they were "behind him," an affirmation which led Ernestine Tietjen to ask, "But how far behind?" When it finally came down to a choice, most congregations remained within the tradition and found their own ways of coping.
While Tietjen provides some fascinating details of the controversy and its intricacies, some serious questions remain unanswered. Why, for example, did he refuse to take any of these matters to court? Did he feel that he had no real case, or was he simply hesitant to incur the expense and the ordeal involved in a civil case? How did, all this happen in the first place?
In the first chapter, "Context for Conflict," Tietjen acknowledges that "acculturation and Americanization had a profound impact on the Missouri Synod." He notes that the passing of an older generation of leaders created a leadership vacuum in the synod which Preus, schooled in the use of political tactics, was ready to fill. He gives only limited attention, however, to the seminary’s role in the denomination. How extensive was the gap between the people in the pew and the professors in the seminary, and how significant a factor was that in Preus’s success? Tietjen cites Preus’s assertion that the Missouri Synod is made up of Germans and that Germans like to be told what to do. Did the moderates underestimate the depth of ethnicity and tradition in shaping the pro-Preus majority?
Perhaps Tietjen’s best response to these questions is found in his sense of the paradox implicit in all institutional life. He finds it in the Missouri Synod struggle as well as in the difficulties he encountered at Seminex and in the new Lutheran denominations formed out of the controversy. "We cannot do without institution, because it is essential for ministry. We cannot enjoy what is good about institution without experiencing and participating in its subversion." If Tietjen is critical of his opponents, he is also honest about his own inadequacies as president of two seminaries and as a bishop in the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a position from which he resigned). Such honesty lends further credibility to this significant study of one individual’s search for courage and grace in a time of almost unbearable turmoil.
Tietjen’s memoirs serve as an important reminder that no American denomination is immune to the forces of conflict, paranoia and abuse which prevailed in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Those who must endure such ordeals would do well to recall the words of William Stringfellow which Martin Marty cited as a new Lutheran body began to take shape: "In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel . . . . speak the truth." Sound advice for Christians in any communion perched on the edge of schism.