The following is taken from my comments following Rev. Rydecki's recent post, Praise the Lord for preserving our place of worship. The editors of Intrepid Lutherans requested that I make those comments a full post, given that it takes the conversation in an important direction. Since Rev. Spencer's post on the Church Year is important, and we don't want to distract from it, we have pulled it back and will re-post it next Monday, so that it can get the full and undivided attention of our readers.
Many years ago, upon the recommendation of an ELS pastor, I purchased and read through Nelson & Fevold's The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian Americans (Augsburg Publishing House, 1960). A two-volume work, it covers a massive amount of historical material, though ultimately must be characterized as a work of propaganda for the Norwegian Lutheran church body to which the authors – both professors at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN – belonged (the Evangelical Lutheran Church), and which in the year of this work's publication joined with several other Lutheran church bodies to form the American Lutheran Church (ALC). Reading through this work, I was (and remain) astonished at the protracted and bitter nature of the struggles these Norwegian Lutherans endured.
As Norwegian immigrants settled in the upper mid-west, they brought their Lutheran religion with them, forming local congregations, which, once established, reached out to other Norwegian Lutheran congregations in neighboring settlements in hopes of establishing fellowship and enjoying the benefits thereof. A great many Lutheran "synods," "conferences," and "associations" were developed among them. And these organizations were manifestly imperfect. In the first case, perhaps due to ignorance or poor legal advice, or due to language barriers, the incorporation of congregations and church bodies was not always sound. In the second, as these Lutherans discovered over time, in their understandably natural eagerness to enjoy unity with other Lutherans sharing the same language and culture, they either overlooked or failed to recognize doctrinal differences, which, festering over the years, eventually came to a head and erupted in controversy. No, "Election" was not the only one – there were many doctrinal controversies among American Lutherans in the 19th Century. As difficult as these controversies were for those involved, once personal convictions had been arrived at and sides taken, one would have hoped that Christians of such high ideals would have amiably separated – at least out of respect for the stand upon Christian conscience taken by their adversaries, even if they vehemently disagreed. "Amiable separation" was not the term for what happened. The fact is, the most bitter, protracted and ugly public displays of petty materialistic vindictiveness occurred after the lines of doctrinal disagreement had been established and separation revealed as inevitable. The worst and most sickening fights were not over the doctrine. They were fought over the stuff – the publishing houses, the schools and seminaries, and the church buildings – and such fights were made all the more difficult given the legal imperfections of the incorporating documents, which in many cases very poorly considered the dispersion or liquidation of assets in the event of separation or dissolution.
In one famous case – the “Augsburg Controversy” – a group of Lutherans lead by Rev.'s Sven Oftedahl and Georg Sverdrup from Augsburg College/Seminary in Minneapolis, withdrew from their participation in the mergers of 1890, which formed the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (UNLC), mostly over ideologies of Christian education which pitted Augsburg against St. Olaf college seminaries and threatened the existence of Augsburg (though the doctrine of the "Church" and the issue of church polity was involved as well). This resulted in a crisis over control of Augsburg Publishing House and Augsburg College. The Church organization to which the Augsburg professors belonged – the Conference for the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – had emerged from a preceding church body, along with another church body which claimed control over the assets of both church bodies on the basis of the incorporating documents of their predecessor body, and on the basis of deficient incorporating documents of the Conference. Already wary of its legal foundation in 1877, the Minnesota Legislature had gotten involved at the request of the Conference, passing a special Curative Act in their favor to ensure independent control of the Seminary property. Lengthy court battles ensued. In 1890, the newly formed UNLC initiated legal proceedings against Augsburg. In 1894, the control of the Publishing House was handed over to the UNLC by the courts. In 1897, the Curative Act passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1877, was found unconstitutional by a Minnesota District Court, which then ruled in favor of the UNLC and handed to it control of the Seminary. Augsburg appealed, and in 1898, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the lower court's finding that the Curative Act was unconstitutional, but nevertheless overturned the decision of the lower court which ordered Augsburg to hand over control to the UNLC. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the independence of the School from the UNLC on other grounds. Sverdrup and Oftedahl went on to form the Lutheran Free Church (LFC), an association of free and independent Lutheran congregations, which was part of the ALC mergers in 1960. A minority of the LFC objected to union with the ALC, and, refusing to join, formed the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC) instead, and sued once again for control of Augsburg College/Seminary. They lost that battle, and today Augsburg is entrenched in liberal protestantism. Prior to the breakup of the ELCA, the AFLC was the fourth largest Lutheran "church body" in North America (just behind the WELS). It remains a conservative association of Lutheran congregations, and runs the nation's only Lutheran Bible School. Interestingly, it is my understanding that the American Association of Lutheran Congregations (AALC), a small association of Lutheran congregations which enjoys fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS)as of its 2007 Convention, is largely comprised of congregations from the former LFC which had participated in the formation of the ALC in 1960, but which refused to join the ELCA when the ALC, LCA and other liberal Lutheran Church bodies formed it in 1987. This is ironic, given the profoundly anti-Missourian positions of Sverdrup and Oftedahl from which the old LFC emerged. Anyway, I highly recommend this two-volume work, not only as a balance to the one-sided Missouri-centric history we Synodical Conference Lutherans sing in unison to each other, but as preparation for certain reality once realignment among confessional Lutherans in North America begins in earnest. As history informs us, it won't be pretty.
In my opinion, it makes sense that a Synod funding organization like CEF would include provisions for the termination of a loan in the event of a congregation's separation from WELS. They're not in the business of funding non-WELS congregations, after all. One would hope, however, that Christian charity would prevail in such circumstances, and that reasonable terms and time periods would be applied. Whether a month-and-half is reasonable, I'm not in a position to judge. What I find troublesome, however, is not that such provisions exist in a mortgage contract or that they are acted upon, but that it is done so in a way that appears vindictive, as if the objective is to hurriedly deprive a Christian congregation of its rightful property, either in favor of a minority party who is not legally entitled to it, or to simply "get back" at them for leaving the Synod, or as if such action is calculated to interfere with decisions which ought to be made strictly from the standpoint of Christian conscience. Whether there was vindictive intent or not, the appearance of impropriety is certainly evident.
Regardless of whether such impropriety is the fact, this situation opens an entirely different and more significant issue: that of leveraging the threat of "taking stuff away" to ensure the continued allegiance of Christians to an earthly organization. I absolutely do not want a pastor to lead from anything other than the convictions of Christian conscience, nor do I wish in any way, shape or form to be affiliated with a Christian organization which prohibits its members from speaking and acting from such convictions, and which threatens them with loss of home, income and healthcare if they do. There is no realistic way to maintain either doctrinal integrity or unity under such circumstances. Purists will say, and quite correctly so, that material things don't matter, that only God's Word and the integrity of pure doctrine matter, and that pastors who do not stand in the face of error are weaklings and cowards. Though many would like to face the error, such purists may say in all charity, sin has made them timid and weak. I agree. I'm a sinner too, and can identify with its depleting effects. And if these were the only factors involved, then shame on all us individual sinners for not doing the right thing, and that would be the end of the matter. But they aren't the only factors involved.
What about the organization which exploits human weakness for its own benefit by lumping the honest convictions of Christian conscience in with moral infractions like embezzlement, child pornography and marital infidelity (yes, I know, remorseful embezzlers, child pornographers and adulterers receive unconditional absolution, while those perceived as "errorists" are unrepentant sinners from whom absolution is unconditionally withheld)? Only someone worse than an embezzler, child pornographer or adulterer would dare express his genuine convictions – the threat of such a stigma is an effective deterrent. What about the organization that threatens the expression of one's genuine Christian convictions with immediate termination of pay and healthcare and the loss of housing? What does that mean to the young pastor trying to repay eight to twelve years of Synod education which he is required to have, that, outside of the Church, won't get him a job pushing a broom? What does that mean to the pastor who's been encouraged by Synod to have a large family – as the new method of "growing the church" – who is now responsible for four to six or more dependents? What does it mean for the mid-to-late career pastor whose body is beginning to deteriorate, who has begun to think that he would like to avoid a retirement in forgotten obscurity as a resident of a government-run convalescent home like the ones he routinely visits? Threatening such men with immediate loss of home, loss of income, loss of healthcare, and loss of pension does not in any way, shape or form encourage them to do what the church needs them to do: to be watchful for error and to oppose it. It doesn't even make them ambivalent towards it. Instead, exploiting human weaknesses in this way has the effect of forcefully driving them away from this activity which is vitally important to the health and integrity of the visible church. Such men may even see error or unwise activity, but will deliberately remain silent.
In my honest opinion, since we want pastors to live out their Christian conscience, then in cases where separation demonstrably occurs as a result of their honest convictions, as opposed to cases of moral turpitude, the terms of separation need to reflect the fact that we have genuinely valued Christian conscience all along. The pension accounts of pastors separating under such circumstances ought to be rolled over into personal IRAs or some other retirement vehicle, and provision for severance packages which include the continuation of pay and health care for a reasonable period of time also ought to be made. While this does not at all alleviate the uncertainty involved with separation, it tends to remove the vindictive nature of termination threats, and encourages a healthy idealism and a willingness to be objective and have dialogue. Will it ever happen? I personally doubt it...