As a synod we do not formulate doctrinal declarations on a regular basis. We believe that the Bible is the final authority in all matters of doctrine, that it is fully inspired by God and without error. The three ecumenical creeds, the primary creedal statements of historic Christianity, summarize well our faith. In addition, we wholeheartedly subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions (contained in the Book of Concord of 1580) because they are correct expositions of biblical truth. In essence, the Bible, the creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions all speak the same truth: we are declared to be right with God by his grace alone through faith in Jesus.
Since our Christian and Evangelical Lutheran forefathers have left us such accurate and comprehensive doctrinal affirmations, we seldom feel the need to draft additional ones. But from time to time, issues arise that need to be clarified because they aren’t specifically addressed in other doctrinal statements. Sometimes those issues stem from differences between us and other church bodies, and sometimes they stem from differences between us and prevailing attitudes within our society as a whole.
The following statements are doctrinal declarations that have been formally endorsed by our synod in the 20th century. Part of our Christian responsibility is to clarify the truth when confronted by questions, and to affirm the truth as an encouragement to those who struggle against falsehood. These doctrinal statements testify that our synod saw the need to set forth the truth in the face of controversy at various times in its history. We pray that members and non-members alike find them useful in better understanding what God’s Word says about critical issues of our time.
Theses on church fellowship
Introduction to the Theses
Already during the early 1940s differences began to disturb the unity within the Synodical Conference on the doctrine and practice of church fellowship. Since 1872, when this confessionally sound federation of Lutheran synods was founded, the member synods were fully agreed on the fellowship principles that had brought them together. All held that complete confessional unity is the necessary scriptural basis for all practice of church fellowship, that is, for pulpit, altar, and prayer fellowship.
In the 1930s the Missouri Synod held meetings with the American Lutheran Church, a merger of Lutheran synods not in doctrinal agreement and not in fellowship with the Synodical Conference. Following the practice of the ALC, these meetings included joint prayer among all participants. Objections to this fellowship practice were answered by a Missouri Synod resolution in 1944, asserting that not all joint prayers are a practice of prayer fellowship. In regard to prayer, Missouri was allowing for a different practice and establishing different principles than those jointly held throughout its history by the synods of the Synodical Conference.
As this and other problems threatened the unity of the Synodical Conference, this body in its 1956 convention called upon its president to call a joint meeting of the union committees of the four member synods. One of the purposes was to draw up doctrinal statements faithful to Scripture in order to reestablish the fact that the synods of the conference were indeed in doctrinal agreement.
To the Wisconsin Synod’s 1959 convention the Standing Committee on Matters of Church Union (see footnote 1) could report that six meetings of the Joint Union Committees for a total of 18 days had been held since 1957. A doctrinal statement on Scripture and another on the Antichrist had been successfully completed. (See earlier sections in this booklet.) The subject of church fellowship had also been discussed on the basis of the presentation of theses by the Wisconsin Synod. These had been prepared by the subcommittee of eight in full consultation with the entire Standing Committee. In the meetings of the Joint Union Committees most of the points had met with approval. The Missouri representatives, however, were not ready to acknowledge “the scriptural correctness of the basic point of our Wisconsin Synod presentation . . . that all joint expressions and demonstrations of a common Christian faith—call them church fellowship or by any other term—are essentially one, that they involve a unit concept, and that they are therefore all [also prayer] governed by one set of principles”(Proceedings, 1959, p. 165). In view of the seriousness of this subject for the future relations of the two synods, the convention requested the Joint Union Committees to give primary consideration to the area of fellowship.
In 1960, the Missouri men submitted their “Theology of Fellowship” to the Joint Union Committees. On the crucial point noted above, this document spoke of a “growing edge of fellowship” and contended that “in reaching out to those not yet in confessional fellowship with us there is the possibility of the beginning of the practice of fellowship.” This was the start of what has become Missouri’s position on “levels of fellowship.” In the meetings in May 1960, after three days of discussions, the Wisconsin delegation recognized that the consideration of this subject had reached an impasse.
The doctrine of church fellowship became the primary divisive issue that resulted in the 1961 Wisconsin Synod resolution suspending fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The resolution recognized the “Theses on Church Fellowship” as “an expression of the scriptural principles on which the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has stood and which have guided it in its practice for many years.” Since their appearance the theses have been and are still recognized as such.
Church and Ministry
Theses on church and ministry
Introduction to the Theses
The Theses on the Church and Ministry in their present form were adopted by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1969. They were the distillation of nearly a century of study, discussion, and debate.
In the late 1870s the Christian day school teachers of the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods in Wisconsin began to discuss the nature of their call. Where did their work in the church fit in the New Testament delineation of the public ministry? Was it a branch of the work of a pastor, who was to shepherd all the flock of which the Holy Spirit had made him an overseer (Ac 20:28)? Or was it an extension of parents’ responsibility to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)?
Both pastors and teachers of the two sister synods in the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, area discussed the question in the mid-1880s. It was agreed that the teachers’ work was divinely instituted since it involved the teaching of God’s Word. But could it be identified with any of the offices in Ephesians 4:11 where pastors and teachers are mentioned? More study was needed.
At a pastors’ conference in 1892, Wisconsin Synod Seminary Director Adolf Hoenecke, noting that the work of a Christian day school teacher is not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, derived the teacher’s call from the pastor’s. In the discussion it was suggested that, since the teacher is called by the congregation, the teacher’s work falls directly under the shepherding spoken of in Acts 20:28 and need not be considered an offshoot of the pastor’s call to establish its divine nature.
In the following years the seminary faculty intensively studied the pertinent Scripture passages to answer the question: Is the office of pastor, apart from the apostolate, the only divinely instituted office in the church? Closely related was the question: Is the local congregation the only divinely instituted form of the church? Practical situations made the answer to these questions imperative.
Introduction to the Resolution
On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion a constitutional right for all women. The WELS noted this sad development. In the February 25, 1973, issue of theNorthwestern Lutheran an article read, “To approve of abortion as an expression of the right of a woman to have control over her body is not biblical. Neither man nor woman are masters of their own bodies. Both are responsible to God Himself for how they use them. . . . It is fervently hoped that no Christian woman will permit herself to be misled. Just because abortion may be legal, does not make it right.”
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which had adopted its first pro-life resolution back in 1971, adopted another such statement in 1977. In 1978 the Evangelical Lutheran Synod adopted a resolution calling abortion a “grievous sin except in the rare instance of it being used to save a mother’s life.” That resolution resolved to “encourage its congregational members to confess publicly that the unborn child is a living person whose right to live must be protected.”
Such public and formal proclamations may appear to be a startling departure from traditional conservative Lutheranism. In the past the Wisconsin Synod hesitated to take any such action in fear it may be a first step into a diluted theology marked by social activism. While that concern is legitimate, significant external factors compelled WELS to be silent no longer.
First, the number of abortions had risen to a startling level. When abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, proponents suggested the abortion rate would not vary much from the expected 300,000 per year. Within a few years that number jumped to around 1.5 million annually and has remained at that level.
Secondly, the religious community appeared divided on the issue in the public forum. In 1974, one year after abortion was legalized, the U.S. Congress held public hearings on the prospect of a Human Life Amendment. Among those testifying were the following religious leaders: Bishop A. James Armstrong, president of the Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church; Mr. William Thompson, Executive Officer of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America; and Rev. Sidney Lovett, Jr., Conference Minister for the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ. Each spoke in favor of the right to abortion.
Statement on Scripture
Introduction to the Statement
Differences in doctrine and practice among the members of the Synodical Conference were beginning to surface already in the 1930s and 1940s. These differences threatened the fellowship our Wisconsin Synod had enjoyed with the other church bodies of the Synodical Conference since 1872. Meeting in Saginaw, Michigan, the 1955 WELS convention, by unanimous vote, adopted the Preamble to the Report of Floor Committee No. 2. This Preamble identified the specific doctrinal issues in controversy.
Now the following needed to be determined: Was the Missouri Synod a weak brother in need of our admonition? Would the synod respond to our patient, brotherly admonition? If this were the case, we had a responsibility to bring loud and clear admonition to our weak brother. Or was Missouri set in its unscriptural doctrines and practices? Were we compelled reluctantly to regard Missouri as those “who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” (Ro 16:17)? In such a case the God-pleasing course was clear: “keep away from them”; we must terminate fellowship with Missouri.
The 1955 convention was not sure which of the above two possibilities was the case. It voted, therefore, to recess the convention for one year. The recessed session in 1956 still did not feel it was able to make a judgment. It voted to “hold in abeyance the judgment of our Saginaw resolutions until the next convention.” The Standing Committee on Matters of Church Union was instructed to “continue to evaluate any further developments in these matters.”
The Synodical Conference convention at Chicago, Illinois, on December 4–7, 1956, adopted resolutions calling for the Union Committees of the member synods to meet for future discussions in the hope of reaching agreement in the controversial issues. The 1957 Wisconsin Synod convention concurred that such doctrinal discussions should continue “in an effort to restore full unity on the basis of the Word of God.”
The Wisconsin Synod’s Standing Committee on Church Union at this time included the synod’s president and vice presidents, all district presidents as well as all members of the seminary faculty. A subcommittee of eight was chosen to attend the meetings of the Joint Union Committees on behalf of the Wisconsin Synod. President Oscar Naumann led the delegation. In all, six meetings were held in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Each meeting was scheduled for three days.
Statement on the Antichrist
Introduction to the Statement
As Martin Luther grew in his appreciation of the gospel, he also grew in his recognition that the Papacy is the Antichrist. A 1954 WELS pamphlet entitled Antichrist put it this way: “It was because Luther cherished the Gospel so dearly that his faith instinctively recoiled and protested in unmistakable terms when the Pope put himself in the place of Christ and declared His work insufficient and in vain. That is the use to which Luther’s faith put the prophecy of Scripture. For him the tenet that the Pope is the Antichrist was an article of faith.”
Luther left no doubt where he stood concerning the Papacy when he wrote, “This teaching [of the supremacy of the pope] shows forcefully that the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ, because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God. This is, properly speaking, to exalt himself above all that is called God. . . . The Pope, however, prohibits this faith, saying that to be saved a person must obey him” (Smalcald Articles, II, IV, 10-12).
In the centuries after Luther’s death, Lutherans accepted this confessional statement without reservation or qualification. In the 1860s, however, doubts about this confessional statement were raised within Lutheranism. They arose from the Iowa Synod, which refused to grant doctrinal status to the teaching that the Papacy is the Antichrist. They listed this teaching under the category of “open questions.” The Missouri Synod took the lead, at that time, in defending the view of the Lutheran Confessions that the prophecies of Antichrist have been fulfilled in the Papacy.
Statement on the Lord’s Supper
Introduction to the Statement
The 1970 edition of Doctrinal Statements of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod did not contain a statement on the Lord’s Supper since there had been no controversy among us on this doctrine.
In September of 1977, however, a communication from President Wilhelm Petersen of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod expressed a desire of the ELS Doctrine Committee to meet with the WELS Commission on Inter-Church Relations in order to discuss a doctrinal question regarding Holy Communion which had arisen in the Lutheran Confessional Church in Sweden. This meeting was held on June 9–10, 1978, in West Allis, Wisconsin.
In the West Allis discussion on Holy Communion attention was given to questions dealing with the moment of the real presence, the function of the pastor’s words of consecration, and the relationship between the pastor’s recitation of the words of institution and Christ’s original institution of the sacrament. Following this discussion the CICR felt that further elaboration and clarification was needed on some of the points under discussion. The CICR then drew up a lengthier statement on the subject titled “Lord’s Supper: Consecration and Moment.” Copies of this statement were forwarded to the ELS Doctrine Committee in January 1979, and a second joint meeting was held in Minneapolis on November 8–9, 1979.
In a third meeting between the two groups in Milwaukee on April 24, 1980, it was resolved to appoint a subcommittee from the ELS Doctrine Committee and the WELS CICR to draw up a statement of agreement on the subject under discussion.
Although each group formulated a separate statement, agreement was reached by the subcommittee on the basis of Thesis Nine of the ELS Doctrine Committee statement: “We hold that we cannot fix from Scripture the point within the sacramental usus when the real presence of Christ’s body and blood begins, yet we know from Scripture and acknowledge in the Confessions that what is distributed and received is the body and blood of Christ.” In this statement the sacramental union of Christ’s body and blood and the bread and wine during the usus (consecration, distribution, reception), a matter which was not under discussion, is presupposed.
Statement on homosexuality
WELS does not have an official statement on these issues, but our public teaching and practice is based on what the Bible teaches concerning homosexuality.
There are currently a number of hotly debated issues that may lead people to ask, “What is WELS’s stance on homosexuality? Is homosexuality an inborn disposition or a free choice? Should states outlaw or endorse same sex marriages? Should gays be ordained to the Holy Ministry? Should churches bless same sex marriages?”
The best place to begin a discussion of the issue is with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, because this passage emphasizes both the law and the gospel elements of addressing this issue:
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders , nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
On the basis of this and other passages of Scripture we must draw the following conclusions about homosexuality.
Scripture declares that homosexuality is a sin, which is contrary to God’s intention in creating man and woman. Sinful resistance to the revealed will of God is a factor in this sin. People may become slaves to this sin (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Many factors contribute to individual acts of sin: the sinful nature we are born with, the weaknesses of our bodies, evil influences in our environment, temptations and encouragement from other sinners, and our own sinful choice join together to lead us into sin. All of these factors contribute to homosexual sin. The proportionate role of these various factors may vary from case to case.
We must warn the impenitent that homosexuality, like all sins, excludes people from eternal life (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). The church, therefore, must not, bless same-sex marriages or unions, since these are contrary to the will of God. The church must not place into nor retain in the public ministry of the Word people who defend, condone, or persist in words or actions that are contrary to God’s law.
We are happy to assure the repentant who are struggling against this sin that they have complete forgiveness through the blood of Christ. When Christ died for all of the sins of the whole world, he gained forgiveness for homosexual deeds, for homosexual desires, and for the inborn sinful nature that produces these sins (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Luther and others authored the six Lutheran confessions—to which we as WELS Lutherans still subscribe today because we believe they are a correct explanation of biblical truth.
For those unfamiliar with our basic beliefs, WELS has prepared a document titled “This We Believe” that will be useful in understanding concepts such as sin and grace, the Triune God, and the deity of Christ.