“The ‘Why’ Behind 100 Years”
Dear Members and Friends of our ELS:
One hundred years ago in June, an organizational meeting of what would become today’s Evangelical Lutheran Synod gathered at Lime Creek Lutheran Church, northeast of Lake Mills, Iowa. Relatively speaking, the group was small. To an outside observer, the undertaking would not have seemed promising. “Why would people come out of a large church with hundreds of thousands of members and go through all the necessary hoops to make a new start?” Friends and relatives staying with the big synod considered it foolish. Wasn’t there too much to forfeit?
The fathers who structured the ELS endured ridicule and derision. Even some present at Lime Creek might have wondered, “Where’s all this going?” Friends from the past no longer would be so friendly. Church families would be split. Didn’t the spirit of the times trend toward compromise for the sake of unity? In the general thrust for Americanization of religious culture, could the settling of past doctrinal controversies really be considered so crucial?… We can all agree that the weight of societal pressures can be unrelenting!
Rightfully, the inception of the synod is known also as the “reorganization” of the old Norwegian Synod (1953). Those who still remained in the large synod and entered the merger (NLCA of 1917) hurled their objections at the thirteen pastors, particularly over the name originally chosen: Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church. They insisted that only the large body with its synod-owned properties was entitled to use the “Norwegian Synod” label.
Writing almost a decade later, the Rev. Christian Anderson fittingly addressed this unfounded objection. In his 1927 presidential address to the reorganized synod, he observed: “But the essential things in a Christian church body are really not its outward organization, its educational or charitable institutions, or its buildings of wood and stone. Much rather must it be its confession of faith, the principles which are followed in doctrine and practice, and the spirit in which it works and builds. In these respects we claim to be the logical heirs of the old Norwegian Synod” (translation by J. H. Larson).
Here we have the answer to the Why question. It was a matter of doctrine. It was a matter of staying with the true confession of faith, which, by God’s grace, was the very foundation of the old Norwegian Synod under leaders such as Revs. H. A. Preus, J. A. Ottensen, and U.V. Koren. The reason for organizing, the reason for sacrificing friendships, the reason for stomaching the ridicule, the reason for investing their own precious time and limited financial resources went much deeper than a love for synodical heritage. It involved the heritage of God’s Word. It meant seeing the overriding need to stress God’s grace alone in every aspect of a sinner’s salvation. It meant abiding strictly with what Scripture teaches, as expounded also in the Lutheran Confessions, without reliance on human reason or questionable comments by certain earlier church fathers.
For a minority of pastors and the men and women of their parishes who gathered at Lime Creek, a biblical issue resurfaced that imperiled sound teaching and the consolation of souls. In the late 1800s, a doctrinal controversy had shaken the Norwegian Synod. It centered on the doctrine of election or predestination, but also impacted other teachings, such as conversion and justification.
The Bible teaches clearly that only God’s grace in Christ and nothing within any of us sinners contributes toward influencing God to choose us for salvation (Ephesians 1:4-6; John 15:16). Yet some theologians held to the position that God elected certain ones for salvation “in view of faith” (intuitu fidei); that is, they taught that God from eternity foresaw a persevering quality of faith in people as the reason he chose them to have eternal salvation. A false understanding of a phrase in Romans 8:29 (“…those whom he foreknew”) was used to imply that more than God’s grace alone was behind his eternal election decree.
But the precise reason God has given us the teaching of election is that we might be fully certain of our salvation since nothing – either from eternity or in time – depends on the disposition of our own sinful hearts, but only on God’s freely choosing us purely by his mercy. As we say in our ELS Catechism, “God has chosen me to be saved, not because of anything in me, but only because of His grace and mercy in Christ” (2001 edition, #230). By faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, God wants us to know without a doubt that we are of the elect and will enjoy life eternal with Him.
It is terribly unfortunate that the error, which had crept into the old Norwegian Synod and was presumed dealt with by the exodus of a third of the church body in 1887, popped up again in 1910 and the years following. A 1912 document known as Opgjor (“Settlement”) had been prepared in an attempt to bring together all sides on the old election debate. The purpose of this was the formation of one large church among all Norwegian Lutherans. This came to fruition in 1917 under the name of “Norwegian Lutheran Church of America.”
The pastors who formed today’s ELS correctly saw how the election error from the 1880s had not been put to rest. Instead, the compromising document placed both views of predestination on the same plane without any reservation: on the one hand, election by grace alone; on the other, election “in view of faith.” The ambiguous document also spoke of a “feeling of responsibility” by natural man (i.e., man who is sinful from birth and therefore opposed to God) to accept grace for salvation. Here we note how also the teaching of conversion was being perverted. We sinners cannot by our own reason or strength or “feeling of responsibility” bring ourselves to faith in Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do this as he works in our hearts through His Means of Grace (cf. the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed).
Anybody not willing to examine carefully the issue(s) involved would have questioned the sanity of the ELS originators at Lime Creek. At the time of the merger in 1917, the large Norwegian Synod had 986 congregations with 150,550 souls served by 351 pastors. The reorganized minority, while gaining a number of pastors and congregations in the years following, counted in the year of 1920 a total of 30 pastors and 20 congregations. But it is not the numbers that tell the story. Profound love for the truth of God’s holy Word does. And sincere concern for the souls under that Word does.
The Why question was forcefully answered at that minority meeting near the Iowa-Minnesota border. The first issue of Luthersk Tidende, dated a year earlier (July 16, 1917), contained this simple announcement, shared here with emphasis: “Pastors and member congregations who desire to continue in the old doctrine and practice of the Norwegian Synod will, God willing, hold their annual meeting in the Lime Creek Congregation, Pastor Henry Ingebritson’s charge, June 14  and following days.”
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.
Rev. John A. Moldstad, ELS President
“The ‘Why’ Behind 100 Years”