From The Clergy Bulletin
September 1953, Vol. 13

Underlying Causes of the Deterioration and Breakdown

of the Old Norwegian Synod

Christian Anderson

(Delivered at the General Pastoral Conference of the Norwegian Synod held July 27th to July 31st [1953] at Bethany College, Mankato, Minnesota.)

In speaking of these causes, we no doubt should mention first of all that which always tends to deteriorate all church bodies which are more or less concerned about preserving the saving truth. That is the spirit of the times, which is shrewdly directed by the Prince of this world, who will not leave one stone unturned, to rob us of our salvation. It is no doubt true in general, when Luther says that the saving truth is scarcely kept pure by any church more than one or two generations.

The chief characteristics of the spirit of the times are manifested no doubt in the spirit of indifference, liberalism and unionism. That altogether too many members of the Old Synod should have been influenced thereby, in spite of the synod's official stand in doctrine and practice, is not surprising. This was brought out very clearly when the time for the fateful decision was reached. However, though the Synod had been exposed to these influences from the very beginning, it still for a long time remained firm. There must therefore have been special factors which gradually caused them to become more and more influenced by the spirit of the times.

It is not so easy to trace correctly those underlying causes which are peculiar to the Norwegian Synod. And those who have some knowledge of the history of the Synod may not all agree when an attempt is made to point them out. However, as a basis for discussion, I shall try to point out a few things which in my opinion helped materially to bring about a recession from the original firm conservative Lutheran stand of our church.

1) In the first place there was from the very beginning a constantly expressed desire for uniting all Norwegian immigrants into one church body. In itself there surely was nothing wrong in the desire for such outward fellowship, provided that there was an inner spiritual unity. But here I think the mistake was made from the start, that too much stress was laid on the desirability of outward union without considering sufficiently what obstacles there might be to a true union.

It was constantly held forth that they had all been united in one church in the home country. They used the same textbooks for instruction in the schools, the same hymnbooks, and they used to a great extent the same devotional literature. But the great majority failed to realize that the church in the homeland was divided into definitely dissenting factions, which were held together by the strong hand of the law in the state church. And these factions were definitely of a different spirit. Since the days of Hans Nilsson Hauge the lay-preaching element had developed a strong hatred against the regular pastors of the state church and the orderly church work led by them. And although some of the pastors had learned to appreciate the religious earnestness of many of those who let themselves be served chiefly by itinerant lay-preachers, the clergy as a class was strongly opposed to this activity and to the sad disorder in the church which it led to. Many of the pastors of the state church no doubt deserved the criticism which was heaped upon them. And so, while on the one hand the unregulated lay-preaching activity gradually led a part of the population away from true confessional Lutheranism and toward various forms of fanaticism, too many of the pastors, who were well supported officials of the state, fell for the temptation to take life easy, and by their negligence they often gave encouragement to nominal Christianity.

When these people settled in this country they were no longer held together by the hand of the law, but were perfectly free to arrange their church work as they pleased. Although they to a certain extent possessed a common heritage, they were still by no means united in spirit, so that, even if they had been induced to join together outwardly, it would not have been a true God-pleasing union. Many attempts were made through discussions to come to an agreement on doctrine and practice, but those discussions only served to reveal more clearly the difference in spirit. Nevertheless it was stressed early and late that they ought to join together. And here I am afraid that the Norwegian Synod was the loser. The opponents were usually the aggressive accusers, who regarded it as a virtue to attack us, while those on our side patiently defended themselves and meanwhile listened attentively to the siren which sang about the wonderful blessings which would come from an outward union of a united Norwegian Lutheran Church.

It surely would be wrong to lay any hindrance in the way of promoting the "unity of the spirit in the bond of peace." But it would be just as great a sin to promote an outward union where there is no "unity of spirit." Therefore it becomes a real virtue to hinder an outward union of those whom God in His Word commands to be separate. For this is the only way to preserve the saving truth unadulterated. But through a constant stress upon the desirability of an outward union without sufficiently guarding against overlooking real differences the Old Synod let itself be led toward its downfall.

2) I said that the opponents were generally the aggressive accusers while our synod patiently defended itself against false accusations without pointing out sufficiently the false doctrine of the opposition. This so easily led many to believe that there was no real difference between us, so that if the opponents would stop accusing us, all would be well. It is true that in the controversy of the eighties Dr. Koren exposed clearly the errors of the Anti-Missourians, and at that time the differences were taken seriously by most of the people on our side. But after the complete break in 1887 the majority of our people had tired of the controversy, so that they let it suffice to blame the opposition for the controversy, which they regarded as unnecessary, and neglected to continue to study the issues involved. Thus they became more and more ignorant of those issues, while the opposition by continuing their propaganda against our Synod kept the issues for which they had contended fresh in mind. When the opposition began to appear more friendly, many of our pastors who had stood firm seemed to feel that the matter was now just about solved.

I feel that there was something lacking in the instruction on the issues of the controversies at our seminary. This was the case at least while I was a student there. Too much was taken for granted as to our knowledge of these things when they occasionally were mentioned. That the Norwegian Synod withdrew from the Synodical Conference in 1883 may have been necessary for practical reasons; but although the relations with the Conference continued to be friendly, I feel that it would have been a matter of confession to rejoin the Synodical Conference after the heat of the controversy was over, in spite of the language difficulties. I am not sure that the majority could have been persuaded to vote for such a reunion; but a discussion of the matter would have helped to silence some of the talk of "two forms of the same doctrine of Election," which played such an important role in the formation of the theses of 1912 and the consummation of the merger.

At our District convention in 1910 after the negotiations of the union committees had stranded, Dr. Stub's theses on Election were accepted and the "Redegjørelse" endorsed. Nevertheless it was recommended that our committee should continue to work so long as there seemed to be hope of an eventual agreement. Then the fateful clause was added: "The two forms of the doctrine of Election, presented by the Lutheran confessions and by Johann Gerhardt respectively, ought not be divisive of church fellowship, and that it would be very regrettable if such should be the case" (see Grace for Grace, p. 97). As to the effect of such a resolution there can be no difference of opinion among us today. As an example of the ignorance of the situation even among the union committee members may be mentioned that they were greatly surprised when the members of the United Church committee said that they accepted the 11th article of the Formula of Concord. (As if they had ever admitted that they did not accept it). Another example of the ignorance of the importance of the real issues: When Dr. Koren in 1902 read his essay on "What Hinders Union of the Various Norwegian Church Bodies," I heard much murmuring beneath the surface against the way he treated the subject and against bringing it up at this time.

This ignorance together with the fact that our Synod, contrary to Titus 3:10 and other passages, continued to negotiate with the opponents long after they had plainly shown that they would not listen to our testimony to the truth, was no doubt the main causes of the deterioration and breakdown of the Old Synod. The last matter is treated fully under Theses V of the essay, "Unity, Union and Unionism." This essay which later was published as a pamphlet, is found in our Synodical Report for 1936 (See especially pp. 41-47).

3) In the period following the withdrawal of the Anti-Missourians there arose a number of very able leaders within our Synod. For a long time they were thoroughly sound doctrinally, and they worked diligently for the true welfare of the church. While this no doubt was a blessing, it however tended to encourage a greater part, at least of the clergy, to be satisfied to follow the leaders without seeking diligently to inform themselves on the issues, so that they would be prepared to hold back in case those leaders should go wrong. A spirit of indifference developed both among the clergy and the laity. New elements gradually entered the ranks of ministers, which did not fully appreciate the historical position of the Synod. Those needed only the right kind of opportunity to cause mischief. And as a large part of the laity had been seriously affected by the constant cry for a union of all Norwegian Lutherans, it is no wonder that any demagogue who might arise would find a fertile field of operation. And when some of the leaders who long had been looked up to were ready to make compromises, it is not strange that they would gain a following. We need only remember how the multitudes were ready to follow Dr. F. A. Schmidt for the same reason. I remember from the time of my youth and on, that I repeatedly heard such expressions as this: "When the old war horses are gone, we shall have no difficulty to effect a union." And this was heard even from some of whom you would not have expected it. When the last of the leaders of the old staunch defenders of the truth lay down to rest, it was not long before a new spirit gained the ascendancy. We see before our eyes this very day how quickly such a sweeping change can take place.

4) The custom of continuing the same men in office for a long time helped to centralize power and influence in a few. It is no doubt an advantage to let those who have proven their ability continue at the head of the organization, rather than have frequent changes. Experience surely counts for much in carrying out the duties of the office. But on the other hand there is the grave danger that the prestige connected with holding office a long time may be abused when a crisis arises. After all, even the best among us are only human. Because of the experience we had in the formation of the late merger, there was a gentlemen's agreement among us, when we re-organized the Synod, that the term of office of the President was to be only two years, and that no one was to be re-elected more than once. We have hereby no doubt lost some of the valuable service of experienced men, but this loss has been offset by the safeguard against anyone wrongfully usurping power which this arrangement has given us.

An institution in the Old Synod often mentioned was the so-called Church Council (Kirkeraad). It is sometimes spoken of as the root of all evil in the Synod. We have virtually the same thing in many of our congregations today. At first the members of this Council were elected directly to this office by the convention. It was composed of three pastors and three laymen; but after the Synod was divided into districts it was composed of the general and district presidents, a layman elected from each district and one lay member at large. The duty of this council was chiefly to look after the interests of the Synod between the conventions. Many matters which required investigation and special study were usually referred to it. This Council no doubt became an important factor in promoting the best interests of the Synod. Especially in the controversy in the eighties did it perform yeoman work in defending the truth against the propagandist of error.

For a long time, reports of the meetings of the Church Council were published in the official organ of the church. This kept the membership informed on its work, gave them an opportunity to offer criticism, and in general helped to stimulate their interest in the work of the Synod. It is unfortunate that this practice gradually died out after the presidents became the leading element in the Council, so that their deliberations were carried on more or less in secret. While there was frequent rotation among the lay members, the office of the president practically became one held by the incumbent for the rest of his life. Dr. Koren was a member of the Church Council from 1861 to his death in 1910. Through his long tenure in office he gained a great deal of influence, which was freely made use of also in practical matters. This caused growing resentment in many quarters. And this dissatisfaction gave strength to the more liberal element which was developing. At the time of Koren's death most of the older conservative presidents were gone too. Koren's successor in office, who had always been a champion of the cause of union, found little difficulty in lining up the majority of the Council for this cause. One district president who opposed a union on the basis of "Opgjør" as easily defeated in the next election. And the reputation of another was so vulnerable that his opposition to the program of the head man was easily silenced.

Since the Church Council had gradually become such a strong influence in the Synod, when its power was taken into service of the liberal element, it was something which was not easy to resist. Woe to the poor pastor who dared to oppose this Council and come into its disfavor! And because this institution had so long been highly respected by the majority of the members of the Synod, the culprit could not count on much support.

We see this same danger asserting itself in other synods, even if the vehicles of power may be called by different names.

These are some of the things which in my opinion have contributed to the downfall of the Old Synod. Perhaps some will not agree with me, and may suggest other causes which have been of greater importance.

Our purpose in considering these things is not chiefly to satisfy our curiosity and to evaluate the weaknesses of our fathers and former brethren. But it should serve as a lesson for us, who are still exposed to the same dangers as they were. And it will help us also to understand the problems of other synods; for, as The Preacher says "There is nothing new under the sun." History is sure to repeat itself in so many ways. The arch-enemy of the saving truth will use pretty much the same tactics at all times, to rob us of this truth, though they may appear in somewhat different form as the occasion demands. The Lord protect us against his machinations.