I was recently looking at my pastoral bookshelf as I transitioned between a counseling session and a staff meeting. I love books. Most pastors do. I noticed a thin orange book wedged between two larger books. Curiosity won. I pulled at the spine and slid out The Zeal of His House: Five Generations of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod History (1847-1972) by Eldon Weisheit.
Rev. Weisheit was a parish pastor in love with the history of the LCMS. I could relate. He wrote the book celebrating 125 years of LCMS history in 1973. He wanted his young readers to know where their church body came from. He gives an overview of the early Saxon immigration days. He documents the struggle and exile of Pastor Martin Stephan, the leadership of young C.F.W. Walther, and the declaration that they were the true church, gathered around Word and Sacrament.
Weisheit shares our early mission work, both to the Native American community in Frankenmuth, Michigan, and internationally. He tells the story of pursuing altar pulpit fellowship with other Lutheran church bodies in America. He documents the beginnings of Concordia Publishing House, Lutheran Church Extension Fund, The Lutheran Hour, and the founding and occasional migration of many of our institutions of higher education (colleges and seminaries).
The Zeal of His House also describes our ongoing tension between those who place ample church authority in the hands of called and ordained ministers and those who believe the authority of the church lies in the hands of the priesthood of all believers. Just so you’re aware, this tension goes back to the founding days of the LCMS. We still live in this tension today.
Here are three points (I’m a good pastor) from the book that I would like to emphasize.
1. Great Growth
In the opening chapter (p. 9), Weisheit highlights the growth of the LCMS, doubling in size to over three million members from 1947 to the day of the book’s publication in 1973. That is exponential growth brought on, yes, by increasing birth rates…and by the Synod’s commitment to reaching beyond their German Lutheran borders through ministries like The Lutheran Hour, and a commitment to church planting. Application? Imagine if LCMS leaders today cast a vision of rebuilding our 1.7 million-member church body to at least three million members within the next 25 years. For those attending the LCMS convention, please observe how much conversation is focused on kingdom expansion, rather than kingdom preservation. If you’re there, please focus on the former.
2. Two LCMS Leadership “Camps”
Weisheit tells the story of a group of forty-four LCMS pastors and church leaders who, in 1945, produced A Statement of the 44. A Statement spread through the LCMS like “Missouri’s own atomic bomb.” A Statement affirmed “historic Lutheran positions on Scripture, the use of the Gospel, the Holy Christian church as a body of all believers of Christ, place of the local congregation, and the like.” A Statement “deplored the legalistic use of church doctrines, misuse of certain Bible verses regarding unionism, the attitude that the Missouri Synod was the only true church on earth, and certain methods of deciding church fellowship” (p. 95).
Wow. It was as if A Statement could have been written by pastors yearning for more humble
evangelical fervor today! The forty-four signers were inevitably led to retract the statement–not what they said, but how they said it–through mass distribution. Those who were offended were troubled it would lead to church division.
Weisheit then makes an interesting observation. A Statement revealed two “camps.” Yet, he found it difficult to pinpoint the problem. He assesses that the problem
could have been the inability of the two “camps” to pinpoint the problem. “Each side wants to define not only their position but also the others. One side sees itself as theologically correct according to the Lutheran Confessions and sees the others as liberals who deny or ignore Biblical truths. The other side sees itself as evangelical and pastoral but views the opposition as rigid and legalistic” (p. 96).
Once again, this quote could be written in 2023. Will the real LCMS please stand up?
The amazing thing is both “camps” of Missouri have been standing up now for close to 175 years! Praise the Lord! I pray the next 175 years, if the Lord wills, we become more united and respectful, and welcoming, of all “sides” of Missouri to stand up under the banner of the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions. If LCMS leadership leaned into this tension-filled part of our story, we could once again become a dynamic and growing conservative church body in America.
3. The 1930 Pastoral Surplus
You read that right. The LCMS produced more pastors than they had local churches. I know. It is hard to imagine. The ULC and I believe LCMS leadership, would love to imagine it again. This trend continued throughout the 1930s, right in the heart of the American Great Depression. What did they do with the pastoral surplus? Some pastors entered other vocations. Many of them started their own church plants. Weisheit estimated (p. 100) that 300 congregations were started by the pastoral surplus!
I would love it if the Pastoral Formation Committee of the LCMS (Tom Egger, Larry Rast, Kevin Robson, and James Baneck) were clear with the numbers of pastors needed to keep congregations open in the next ten years, and even dreamed about the number of pastors needed to start new congregations. This would obviously require deep partnership with LCMS Districts to get these numbers. Once the numbers are received, I would love to see a comprehensive plan to meet the local churches’ pastoral needs.
The ULC is running a leadership development test in partnership with Kairos University and the Luther House of Study that should be explored in meeting this need, especially in raising up second-career bi-vocational pastors. Just sayin’.
Our disagreements are nothing new. Satan loves to steal, kill and destroy. Yet, as I look back at our story, I am amazed that the Lord used the LCMS to bring the Gospel to many people, despite our squabbles. I firmly believe the Lord wants to see the LCMS grow through these trying secular days…if we remain humble and united around our common confession.
Jesus is Lord.
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