Truth & Unity

Nearly fifty years ago, the student body of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis believed, as I did when I attended, that the faculty who taught them were not simply beloved mentors, but orthodox teachers. The students were not pawns, as some have suggested, but they were filled with passion for and devotion to those whom they held in high esteem. The suspension of President Tietjen by the Board of Control, urged by the 1973 LCMS convention in New Orleans that summer but not implemented until December of 1973,  had led the students, in January of 1974, to declare a moratorium on classes until the supposed false teachers on the faculty could be rooted out. A majority of the faculty chose to recognize President Tietjen’s suspension as their own and honor that student led moratorium. For refusing to teach the faculty majority was dismissed for breach of contract on February 18, 1974. The next day, on February 19, 1974, the student body voted to continue their education under that dismissed faculty majority.  Following that vote, they joined in song and marched somberly through the campus, leaving crosses with their names in the quad, “turning the seminary into a cemetery.” They boarded up the main arch and painted the word “exiled” across it. Down the hill and across the street the walkout process, led by the seminary’s processional cross, continued until they were welcomed by faculty of other institutions who had invited the faculty and student body of Concordia to use space at those other institutions to continue their education. Afterwards, they walked back up the hill and had lunch.   

These events were just a few in a line of many that have served, among other things, to fracture the church. Today’s anniversary of the walkout is not a day to celebrate either the triumph or defeat of moderates/liberals—it is a day to lament the loss. It is a day to look at who we are as a church body and to ask whether or not the political decision that solved a theological debate was worth the rending of the bonds of faith and fellowship in Christ’s church. By virtue of my attending Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and in serving as a pastor in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod I’ve not only cast my lot in with one side, I’ve inherited the landscape this rending of fellowship has created. I may not have been there, but that does not mean my assessment of these events is less valid than those who were. Critical historical inquiry is necessary concerning this moment in the life of the church, not in order to be dismissive and simply judge the past by the standards of today, but in order to understand how we have been shaped in the present by the decisions and perspectives of others. More than that, though, historical inquiry allows us an opportunity to love our neighbors in previous generations and so, hopefully, learn how to love those in the present generation too. 

Although he was not involved in the events of that day, Martin Franzmann has something to say to a church that is concerned with orthodoxy and love, especially one embroiled in controversy.  The quote below comes from an article published in 1952. 

The Church’s path is always on a narrow ridge between abysses. The one is to confuse the glory of God with our glory and to make of doctrinal discipline a heavy-handed and loveless insistence on our way of doing things or expressing things. The other temptation is to a “charity” that settles  for less than the absolute obedience to the Lord of the Church to which God lays claim for Him: “Hear ye Him!”—to avoid the duty of correcting the erring brother; to throw truth and error together in the pious hope or the comforting conviction that truth will always ultimately win out. This type of ecclesiastical fatalism is hardly doxological. Another form of this fatalism is, to put it crudely, this: Since we cannot ever have complete doctrinal unity anyway, why should we try for it to begin with? Let’s be satisfied with something less than the impossible ideal….

But if we really are doxological as a church we can avoid both extremes and walk the doxological road of Christ. The excision of ourselves and the growing-great of God in our whole treatment of error will give us a certainty and a serenity, a willingness to examine ourselves and to be examined, a large and unselfish kindliness that will be used by God to win men for the truth and will keep us both from a loveless rigorism and from that easy and resigned ecclesiasticism whose ideal is smooth operation all around. [1]

The church should avoid extremes of loveless doctrinal discipline and charity that settles for less than the truth. That middle road is not an easy one, but it is one we are called to not just in our interactions as church in the present but also in our historical assessment of people and ideas. Love of doctrine and a desire to be charitable temper one another so that the truth may be sought and found, but never at the expense of the brother or sister in Christ. Why? Because as Franzmann said over decade later, Christ’s word binds us to him and one another. 

Jesus’ Word binds men in their need and desperation to God the Royal Giver, Feeder, and Comforter (Mt. 5:3-6). At the same time His beatitudes on the merciful and the peacemakers (Mt. 5:7, 9) bind men to one another. This double note runs through all His teaching. He wills unity for those who call Him Lord; He will not acknowledge as His own any on who calls Him “Lord” and yet will not do the will of His Father, who loves and forgives men who do not deserve love or merit forgiveness. (Mt. 7:22-23; cf. 5:44-47). He teaches His disciples to pray together, a prayer of fellowship to One Father; and that, too, a fellowship, not in an invisible community but in the hard reality of the visible church where men’s sinful wills collide and brother must forgive brother (Mt. 6:12, 14-15; cf. Mt. 18:21-35, The Forgiven Debtor). “Die Kirche is für die Schwachen da”— Mt. 18 depicts the church expending its love for the little ones, the weak, the strayed, the guilty, after the manner and in the power of God before whom the angels of the little ones stand constantly, the Seeking Shepherd, the Forgiver of the unpayable debts. This is the visible, tangible, audible church—and Jesus wants it one; He utters a terrible threat against those who destroy that unity by unwillingness to forgive. (Mt. 18:34-35). [2]

Just over a year ago I was privileged enough to deliver a paper on Martin H. Franzmann at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. Both of the quotes above appeared in that paper because I believed then, as I do now, in Franzmann’s perspective and the value it has for today. As I did over a year ago, I close with these words as a kind of prayer signaling my own hope for a church body that I’ve not only thrown my lot in with, but also one that I love dearly.

May it never be said of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that we were unwilling to forgive. May it never be said that when we sought to locate confessional boundaries we did so with a willingness to destroy unity. May it never be said that something other than the Word of God controlled us and our devotion to one another. [3]

[1] Martin H. Franzmann, “Three Aspects of the Way of Christ and His Church: An Approach to the Fellowship Problem” Concordia Theological Monthly 23 no. 10 (October 1952): 712–713. 

[2] Martin H. Franzmann, “Jesus Wills Unity,” unpublished manuscript at Concordia Historical Institute, September 8, 1968, 4. The church is there for the weak. 

[3] Matthew E. Borrasso, “Martin Franzmann: Theologian In Between” (Presentation delivered at the 43rd Annual Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions, Ecclesiology: Locating Confessional Boundaries, January 22–24, 2020, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN). Available to view: https://video.ctsfw.edu/media/Martin+FranzmannA+Theologian+in+Between/1_v7terfok/168205111 

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