A History of Fellowship in the WELS

by Benjamin Foxen

In the approximate 150 year lifespan of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, there have been numerous examples, both good and bad, of church fellowship. It is the goal of this paper to present the facts of the relations our synod has had with other church bodies throughout the years, and to see God’s grace as He led us to a more proper understanding of the practice of this doctrine.

In the year 1817, Frederick William III forced Germany’s Lutheran church bodies to join with the Reformed churches in respect to their politics and their schools and universities. This was bad news for the confessional Lutheran church bodies. This was obviously something that they could not comply with in good conscience. However, most groups went along with this “Prussian Union.” In fact, those who did not were likely to be imprisoned unless they fled the country. Because of this, most people went along with the union, while still claiming faithfulness to the Lutheran Confessions. These “unionizing Lutherans”, as they came to be called, were looked down upon by the “old Lutherans,” who were the groups who refused to join with the Reformed. Nevertheless, these “unionizing Lutherans” continued about their work. It was these groups that formed the mission societies that sent pastors overseas. The society of special interest to us is the Langenberg Mission Society. This society sent to America the three pastors who founded our synod. These men were Pastors Muehlhaeuser, Wrede, and Weinmann. In the year 1849, these men met in Milwaukee to found the First German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin.

The synod’s first interaction with other church bodies was not far off. There were already two other synods in the area, the Missouri Synod and the Buffalo Synod. These synods had been founded by “old Lutherans” who had fled Germany after the 1817 merger. Our church fathers wanted nothing to do with these synods because of their opinions concerning “unionizing Lutherans.” These synods deplored the practices of our newly formed synod, and rightly so. Although the Wisconsin Synod’s constitution stated that “everything should be in keeping with the true word of the Bible and the confessions of our Evangelical-Lutheran church”1, and although all pastors pledged themselves to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (UAC), practices did not always follow beliefs. The practices which were flawed were those concerning fellowship. Pastors often served congregations comprised of both Lutherans and Reformed Christians. This most likely stemmed from a “loyalty to the Langenberg tradition of peaceful coexistence among conflicting creeds which could not easily be shaken.”2 Ever since the Prussian Union, these Lutherans were used to worshipping side by side with those who did not have the same beliefs as they.

Fortunately, God did not allow this practice to continue in the Wisconsin Synod. By His guiding hand, our early church fathers began to turn from these unscriptural ways. God used a number of means to accomplish this turnaround. First of all, the synod’s constitution was still founded on the beliefs of a confessional Lutheran church. However, these beliefs obviously clashed with the current practices of fellowship. This caused disorderliness in the congregations, and because of this, pastors began to take a more consistent confessional stance on the applications of the doctrine of church fellowship.

Another factor in the synod’s change of stance came from the other Lutheran synods, Missouri and Buffalo. The pastors leveled accusations and warnings against Wisconsin’s practices, as did their church papers, the Lutheraner and the Informatorium, respectively. The pressure from these sources eventually began to affect pastors in the Wisconsin Synod. Obviously, constant contempt from those who both believed and practiced confessional Lutheranism would eventually start to wear at these pastors’ own consciences concerning why they did not practice what they claimed to believe.

The early 1850’s brought another cause of the synod’s turn to strict confessional practice. That cause was Pastor John Bading, who eventually became president of the synod. Pastor Bading was trained in strict confessional Lutheranism in Berlin. When he was ordained, he demanded that he be forced to pledge himself to the UAC and other Lutheran confessions both in beliefs and practice. This man would become a leader and example to the rest of the synod.

Wisconsin also began to experience some tension between itself and its overseas sponsor, the Langenberg Mission Society. President Bading went to the society to ask for support in building a school for the training of pastors (Northwestern), but was denied this help, because the society was “concerned that Wesconsin’s growing confessionalism might bring it to clash with the Prussian state church.”3 Also, some of our own pastors were beginning to realize the harmful consequences of the synod’s ties with the mission societies. Philipp Koehler, in a letter to a fellow pastor, wrote, “A further reason for my dejection is the so often and not unjustly censured association of our synod with unionistic societies in Germany and with the General Synod.”4 Wisconsin was never a member of the General Synod, but it must have practiced some kind of fellowship with its members for it to be “not unjustly censured,” as Pastor Koehler felt it was. (The General Synod was formed in 1820 by synods in Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and was known for its liberal practices and beliefs.)

A final reason for Wisconsin’s turnaround is seen in its involvement with other Lutheran associations. In 1866 the General Synod began breaking up over disagreements concerning confession and fellowship issues. This led to the formation of a new organization of synods, the General Council, which Wisconsin was interested in joining so that it could be involved with more conservative churches.

God used all these factors to lead the Wisconsin Synod to take the last step in becoming confessional in practice as well as belief. That step came during the 1867 synod convention, where the practices of their sponsors in Germany were condemned by the pastors. This was, of course, viewed as something very serious to the mission societies, and a retraction of the statement was demanded. At the synod convention of 1868, the decision was made to stand by the statement and all ties with the unified church in Germany were severed.

“The positive aspects of confessional fellowship practice were not only recognized and enjoyed by the Wisconsin Synod in its weaning years, but also aggressively pursued.”5 This statement sums up this period of time well. Evidence of this can be seen in the synod’s dealings with other church bodies. In 1868, Wisconsin decided to withdraw from the General Council because of four points which were not resolved satisfactorily according to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Three of these concerned fellowship issues: altar fellowship, which concerns the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (our belief and practice is close communion); pulpit fellowship, which concerns the practice of worshiping in church (we may attend services and worship at any WELS church, or at any church with which we have fellowship with, but although we may attend services at other churches, we would not participate in worship); lodge membership and secret societies (i.e. Boy Scouts and Freemasons); and the fourth concerned chiliasm, also called millennialism, the belief that the church will rule for 1000 years at the end of time, either ending or beginning with the return of Christ. When conclusions were reached which were contrary to what Scripture taught concerning these issues, Wisconsin realized it was time to pull out of the General Council.

Later that same year, the Wisconsin held a colloquium with the Missouri Synod to discuss doctrinal beliefs. Delegates from the two synods were overjoyed to find that they shared doctrinal unity! They then proceeded to draw up points regarding the future fellowship the two synods would share. It seems worthwhile to list these points, some in summary, because they are still the points used today in our dealings with other church bodies.


p class="quote">1) Both synods recognize each other as Orthodox Lutheran church bodies.
2) Both synods will practice pulpit and altar fellowship.
3) The brotherly relation will be fostered by mutual representation at synod meetings and participation in pastoral conferences.
4) If pastors or parishioners of one synod join the other, admission is to be contingent on certification of honorable release.
5) Disciplinary cases within a body are respected by the other synod…
6) Where congregations of the two synods are opposing each other, both sides should bend all efforts to stop the opposition in Christian order and establish a brotherly relationship.
7) Both synods retain the right to found new congregations anywhere as the need arises…
8) If in either synod false teaching rears its head, each synod is bound to put down such an error with all means at its command, and as long as this is done, the orthodoxy of one or the other synod shall not be questioned.6

With a solid foundation for fellowship with Missouri, Wisconsin now had the added blessing of an example and guide. It now became these two synods’ goal to reach out to other synods in order to form a lasting synod fellowship, such as the General Synod and General Council, but on confessional beliefs and practices.

The realization of that goal happened in 1872, when Wisconsin and Missouri joined with the Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, and Norwegian Synods to form the Synodical Conference. The fellowship between these synods was based solely on doctrinal agreement, and not for reasons of a political nature. This was shown to be true when Wisconsin, despite its former agreement with Missouri to send students training for the ministry to the seminary in St. Louis, opened its own seminary. However, when it came to doctrine, Wisconsin stood side by side with the others. The Election Controversy is a good example of that. This issue bears some explanation, as the Ohio and Norwegian Synods withdrew from the Synodical Conference over it.

The controversy was sparked by an article that Dr. Carl Walther of the Missouri Synod wrote, in which he stated that there were two reasons why God elected some for salvation. One reason was His love, and the other was Christ’s work. He completely ruled out a commonly held belief among other churches that God elected some in view of their faith, intuitu fidei, which meant that God foresaw that some would believe and others wouldn’t, and elected them because of that foreknowledge. This belief made faith the cause for salvation, but it is only the means or channel through which people receive salvation. It is the hand that receives the gift. This is what Walther taught, and he was scorned for it. Wisconsin stood by Missouri, though, and supported Walther’s teaching. They didn’t do this just to help out their friend in need. Wisconsin’s stance “was not simply a matter of blind follow-the-leader policy, but a position resulting from careful investigation and personal conviction.”7 Wisconsin’s own pastors looked to the Scriptures to find the answer to this question, and then helped Missouri to convince the remaining members of the Synodical Conference of its truth.

These years were characterized by a growing leadership by the Wisconsin Synod. Pastor Wayne Mueller, who calls these the synod’s “adolescent years,” says, “These were our adolescent years only in the sense that during this time we gradually gained our own independence and footing in expressing our fellowship principles.”8

A large reason for this growth in independence and leadership was the fact that the Missouri Synod, for all its past faithfulness, was beginning to slowly slip away from its confessional practices. During the first half of the 20th century, Missouri began to err on issues of fellowship. For example, the synod allowed individual congregations to decide whether or not it was permissible for their members to associate themselves with scouting and lodges. The synod began to pursue unification with the American Lutheran Church, which was not a confessional Lutheran church body. It also started practicing prayer fellowship with other church bodies which were not in fellowship with the synod. With all these problems, one might ask, “Why did we not break fellowship with Missouri right when their beliefs changed direction?” The answer, according to a document on fellowship published by our synod, is, “Weakness of faith is in itself not a reason for terminating church fellowship, but rather an inducement for practicing it vigorously to help one another in overcoming our individual weaknesses.”9 It was our Christian duty to admonish our brothers in the faith in the hope that they would realize their errors and return to the truth.

It is another question, however, of how much time our synod should have devoted to this endeavor. The Wisconsin Synod decided it was time to openly address Missouri’s problems in the 1930’s, and brought the matters before the Synodical Conference. The final break with Missouri did not come until 1961. That’s about thirty years spent on admonishing and correcting. Was it too much? It is not for me to answer such a question, being so far removed from the situation, but some thought so. When, after so many years, Missouri still had not returned to its past confessional stance, people began to withdraw from the Wisconsin Synod. They were convinced that the break between the two synods should have come sooner. These withdrawing members resolved to form their own synod in 1960, which they called the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC).

Another controversy occurred within our synod during this period. That was the Protes΄tant (sic) Controversy. This problem arose from a conference paper written by Pastor William Beitz in response to some disciplinary action taken by the faculty at Northwestern College. The details concerning this matter are somewhat obscure, but the points of Beitz’s paper are not. In it he described the spiritual life in the Wisconsin Synod as “a miserable failure in congregational life, in preaching, in seminary training, in catechetical endeavors, in just about every aspect of ‘living by faith.’”10 Officials of the Western Wisconsin District then asked Professors Koehler, Pieper, Henkel, and Meyer of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary for a theological evaluation of Beitz’s paper. They found that it was doctrinally incorrect in that it improperly judged human hearts.

Shortly after this, however, Prof. Koehler decided to withdraw his signature from the evaluation, since he found that he was agreeing with the Protes΄tants, as they were coming to be called. After being granted a year-long leave of absence, he was then dismissed from the seminary faculty. The Protes΄tants were then declared to be out of fellowship with the Wisconsin Synod because of their defense of Beitz’s paper. Efforts were made to reconcile the differences with the Protes΄tants, but unfortunately did not have any success.

In these more recent years our synod found itself the largest confessional church body in the United States, and therefore the leader of confessional Lutheranism in America. During these years, our synod (renamed the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1959) made attempts to reestablish ties with synods that it had lost fellowship with in the past and also expanded its efforts overseas.

Two years after the split with Missouri, the WELS and ELS (Evangelical Lutheran Synod) made the decision to withdraw from the Synodical Conference. This left only Missouri and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the conference. This did not last long though, because in 1966 Missouri asked the remaining synod to merge with itself and dissolve the Synodical Conference, which it did.

Our synod has not given up on Missouri completely. We still pray that God will guide them back to their state of confessional Lutheranism as it was during Walther’s day. To that end, we continue to send representatives to their conventions, and they to ours, although we have been unable to do so in recent years because of “little opportunity for meaningful contacts.”11 The conventions which have been attended show that the same problems and more are being found in their beliefs. They continue in their faulty fellowship practices, lack consistent church discipline, have become lax in their interpretation of the roles of man and woman as portrayed in Scripture, and have even begun to question the inspiration and clarity of the Scriptures.

Efforts have also been made to regain unity with the CLC. At meetings which were held in 1962 and 1964 between representatives of the two synods, WELS delegates found no disagreement in doctrine. However, the CLC representatives felt that there were differences based on the actions of the WELS during the controversy with Missouri. The next discussion between the two synods was not held until 1972, when the CLC refused to acknowledge that the WELS was showing love to Missouri by giving them so much time. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s attempts were again made at reestablishing fellowship. A statement on “The Termination of Fellowship Between Church Bodies” was written as a good first step toward reunification, but the CLC Board of Doctrine rejected the document on counts that they still thought the WELS and ELS were unscriptural in their beliefs concerning fellowship.

After the breakup of the Synodical Conference in the 1960’s, people have wanted a new federation of confessional Lutheran church bodies. These hopes were realized in 1993, when the first convention of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference was held in Oberwessel, Germany. There were 13 church bodies as charter members and approximately 80 delegates and other participants in attendance.12 Meetings are now being held triennially, with regional meetings occurring during the interim.

As one can see from these events, God has surely been gracious to our synod. He led us from being a small church body with problems in practice to being the foremost leader of confessional Lutheranism in the world today. There have been many bumps along the way, and we grieve the losses we have had to endure. However, we still hope and pray that God would open the eyes of those who have erred or are unwilling to forgive, and that He would enable us to spread His glorious news of salvation to all people, so that we may become branches of the same vine, Jesus Christ, as God intended it.

Endnotes and Recommended Reading
N.B. This article was much more a collection of facts already collected by others than written from my own hand. Of particularly good use to me was Wayne Mueller’s “History of Fellowship Practice in the Wisconsin Synod” and J.P. Koehler’s The History of the Wisconsin Synod. For a (much!) more detailed explanation and history, please consult these references.

1 John Philipp Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, (Sauk Rapids, Minnesota: Sentinel Printing Company), 41.
2 Wayne Mueller, “History of Fellowship Practice in the Wisconsin Synod,” 5.
3 E.C. Fredrich, The Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1992), 34.
4 Koehler, 93.
5 Mueller, 8.
6 These points as quoted by Koehler, 129.
7 E.C. Fredrich, “Wisconsin’s Theological-Confessional History Viewed Especially in the Light of Its Fellowship Principles and Practices,” The Lutheran Historical Conference Essays and Reports 1974, Lutheran Historical Conference, 1977, 93.
8 Mueller, 14.
9 “Four Statements on Fellowship,” Church in Fellowship, 70, 71.
10 As quoted by E.C. Fredrich in “The Protes΄tant Controversy,” WELS Historical Institute Journal, 2:2, Fall 1984.
11 WELS Committee on Inter-Church Relations, “Activities Since 1988,” http://www.wels.net/sab/cicr/history-04.html, last updated October 2000, accessed April 29, 2003.
12 See Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, 90:3 (1993): 218-223.