Dear Fellow Shepherds of the One Good Shepherd, Sheep of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Flocks, and Sheep of other Folds friendly to the ELS,
“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8a)
At its March quarterly meeting, our ELS Board for Home Outreach began with its typical opening agenda item by asking each present to share the best personal news from the previous 90 days. I prefaced my good news by observing it was sadly connected to my worst news: it concerned our dear friend and president, John Moldstad. His soul was lovingly taken by our Lord to enjoy the bliss of heaven on Friday, January 29. That truly is good news for John as he has now joined all the saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus before him and now some who followed, like our friend and colleague, Pastor Jerrold Dalke.
However, President Moldstad, of blessed memory, will be sorely missed among us for many reasons, not least of which would be his humble self-effacing demeanor and lovingly faithful leadership these past eighteen years. The latter is especially exemplified by his rising above the rancor displayed during the ministry controversy earlier this century. Three pastors, all graduates of our seminary, and the congregations they served who had left our fellowship for a time were eagerly pursued and received back by John. He did this despite others who had leveled some personal distasteful false accusations against him. To show that kind of noble benevolence our president revealed a heart that could only be formed by the grace of God in Christ. We also learned over the years that his foremost desire was to be faithful to God’s word and will, both doctrinally and in practice. He wanted the Gospel to resound near and far in all the work the synod committed herself to do.
President Moldstad’s love for the Gospel and God’s people will, by God’s grace, continue to be put into action as we go forward doing the work Jesus places in the hands of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod while it is day before the night comes when no one can work. As an ELS lifer, John’s character reflected well the unique nature of our synod in American Lutheranism today. We desire to remain faithful to that heritage passed on to us from the old Norwegian Lutheran Synod into our reorganized synod. Here is how the sainted Reverend Herb Larson and Professor Juul Madson described it in our seventy-fifth anniversary book:
Stated as simply as possible, the flavor of the Norwegian Synod was evangelical in contrast to legalistic; the Gospel of God rather than the Law of God was the dominant theme in its work. There was a conscious effort always to make a proper distinction between the Law and Gospel so that sinners would seek their salvation in Christ and not in the deeds of the Law.
To those persons and church bodies whom the Lord had made to be of one mind and spirit with the synod, it was a synod flowing with milk and honey and a synod producing delicious fruit. It drank from the Scripture’s unpolluted Water of Life which Jesus promises springs up unto everlasting life. Its people desired the sincere milk of the Word so that they might grow thereby. They grazed in the green pastures of the Word and were nurtured by the Bread of Life. They ate the Scripture’s strong meat. The synod’s pastors and members grew in the grace of God which brings salvation and which blesses earthly lives, and they grew in the knowledge of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They tasted that the Lord is good.1
When asked about the possible wisdom of the ELS dissolving and becoming a nongeographical district of our sister synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, President George Orvick would consistently answer that the ELS possesses a unique flavor in American Lutheranism. This flavor has filled a niche appreciated not only by many of the members of the ELS but well beyond. To this day we believe this to be the case and are committed to occupy that corner and fulfill that role as long as the Lord desires. Is this how we fulfill being our Lord’s salt of the earth? If so, then we need to heed Jesus’ warning about becoming tasteless (cf. Mt. 5:13) and becoming no longer good for anything. Also, using another image, as iron sharpens iron, so one synod does another (cf. Prov. 27:17). Consequently, our WELS brothers and sisters continue to sharpen us in doctrine and practice and, we pray, vice versa.
Even though not being an ELS lifer myself, but an ELS convert, whenever I heard of the unique “ELS Flavor” I understood it. Yet, a succinct definition still eludes me. Therefore, as you will see in my report, I have gathered a committee of five “lifer” ELS pastors to develop a clarifying statement. It is desired that by creating this we will more readily identify it and rally around it giving direction to all that we do together in Jesus’ name. This in no way should lead us to boast in ourselves, but rather unite us in a common humble purpose to give glory to God and help advance His kingdom on earth in the name of Jesus our Savior.
Also referenced in my report is the fact that we need to recognize and come to terms with our beloved Bethany Lutheran College currently being challenged financially in greater proportions than ever before. As your vice president I was exposed to these growing concerns, which our Board of Trustees received via recent reports from our college. We collectively have become increasingly aware and, might I say, alarmed that an ever-expanding enrollment will not solve these issues. It is time for us all together to roll up our sleeves and address it as our Lord wills and gives us the ability. To be clear, these issues are not the result of poor management of the college’s administration or Board of Regents. They reflect the many challenges facing small liberal arts colleges throughout the country.
It also appears that these challenges are going to be exacerbated even further by the cultural changes we are seeing occur all around us, which are attacking our traditional Christian values. If the government passes laws which support those cultural changes, we will not only see extra burdens placed upon our college, but even our synod and congregations alike.2 Do not despair. Remember we serve a Lord who is greater than all such forces combined and according to His will and guidance we will not duck and cover. Rather in His boldness we will continue to confess His truth, which alone sets sinners like us free everlastingly.
Christ’s Church on earth has always been and always will be countercultural. The sinful mind, which rules the unbelieving world, will remain hostile to Jesus and His Church. By God’s grace the ELS and our college will continue to uphold all that our Lord has revealed to us in His Word. While we will not enter the realm of politics, we will not compromise the truth. So, we will not adopt the popular mantras of the day which contradict our proper biblical world view. We will continue to be clear that all lives matter to our Lord and subsequently gives direction to the ongoing mission of His Church. We will continue to speak God’s holy Law which condemns each of us in our real daily sin: hatred, greed, lust, pride, apathy toward injustices meted out against others, etc. However, we will not promote fake guilt based on the ever-changing “virtue signaling” to suit the whims of our current culture.
The world around us is becoming increasingly hostile, pitting one against the other, so that if there are differences of opinion it is common to demonize one’s opponents. Instead of excusing, speaking well, and putting the best construction on our neighbor’s opinions and actions, the world encourages us to lie about, betray, and slander them. God preserve us from being swept up into this wicked behavior especially in the household of faith. So, while we are committed to be faithful in upholding and teaching God’s truth, we must avoid all party-spirit among us.
Prof. Glenn Reichwald3, also of blessed memory, as a citizen of the kingdom of the world chose in his Christian freedom to be a member of a political party not shared with many in the Bethany community. But he did not compromise the values of the kingdom of heaven. Even though the majority in his party was pro-abortion, he worked diligently every election season to have his party adopt a pro-life platform. He would be successful locally but by the time it reached the national level it would disappear. If he were still among us today, regardless of party affiliation, he would not countenance teaching revisionist history, psychological theories as valid that deny original sin and the healing power of absolution in Jesus’ name, classic literature stripped of our ugly human flaws, social studies presenting anarchy as a viable option, etc.
Our witness to the world around us both as the ELS and BLC must not be to promote one political party or candidate over another. Leave that all too often vicious activity to the wicked and dying world. Rather let us be clear in what we are to declare as the life-giving Church—Christ and Him crucified for all people and Jesus, our everlasting Righteousness.
It is assumed as we clearly define the “ELS Flavor” and see how it is rightly reflected in BLC’s motto of “One Thing Needful” we will remain properly focused in our God-given mission. In addition, as we make it abundantly clear that we stand on God’s Word and promote traditional biblical values, there will be those in the world, always a minority, who will respect and appreciate our functioning as salt and light. However, we are not in the business of condemning our neighbors, but showing them compassion and forgiving real sin in the name of our Lord Jesus.
Of all the work we in the ELS are committed to do in the area of missions4, Lutheran schools5, Christian service, preparing shepherds in our seminary, etc., I think we can all agree the crown jewel of our work together significantly impacting all the rest, especially our seminary, has been and will continue to be what we do through our college. While recognizing the most recent challenges for her, we will do all we are enabled to do by the grace of God to set things aright so she thrives in all her blessed purposes. For our encouragement listen to these words written by Dr. Erling Teigen in the centennial edition of the Lutheran Sentinel under the heading: “‘An Absolute Necessity’: The Role of Bethany Lutheran College in the 100-Year History of the ELS”:
The college and the synod have lived through several crises together. The depression of the 1930s came close to making the synod’s venture a short and disastrous one. World War II challenged the enrollment of the college, but after the war, returning servicemen swelled the enrollment. Over the years, the clientele of the college has been much larger than the little synod; it included those in the Synodical Conference who desired a Christian, liberal arts education, but came close to failing when the Conference was breaking up in the 1950s. Other financial and enrollment challenges in the last fifty years have threatened the college. But survive it has, and that survival can be attributed to God’s merciful care alone.
Whether or not the synod would have survived to celebrate its centennial without Bethany, we cannot say. But it has played a central role in the life of the ELS. The college has helped provide the synod with a well-educated laity as well as pastors and teachers. “One Thing Needful” remains central. … [T]he college seeks to promote the confessional and biblical culture of the synod—the culture of a commitment to the Lutheran understanding of God’s word.6
In May, I represented you at a meeting with the Trustees of the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation and the leaders of the foundation’s beneficiaries. At one point each of the seven beneficiary representatives was asked to speak to the greatest challenges and opportunities each entity is currently facing. Failing to read that request ahead of time, here is my “spur-of-the-moment” response: “You’re looking at the greatest challenge for the ELS right now!”
In January when I received the news of Pres. Moldstad’s sudden death, in the midst of my great sorrow over his loss to us all, I was overwhelmed by receiving the presidential mantle, which John learned to wear so lightly. Many of you probably know my foibles better than I, but I know my sinful heart better than you. I am so unworthy to step into this office and know I always will. Alas, I stand before you in all of my many failures and weaknesses, known and unknown.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, many of you have approached me these past months with your kind and caring words of encouragement for which I am deeply grateful. I ask for your continued prayers that in this our transitional period I may receive at least a portion of that evangelical spirit and fervor so evident in President Moldstad’s leadership. Especially pray for our synod. We together are by God’s grace His repentant children who trust in the blood of His Son which has cleansed us from all our sin. We are dressed in His Son’s garment of perfect righteousness. On account of this alone our Savior God makes His dwelling with us and will never leave us as orphans.
Returning to the Schwan Foundation meeting: since I was asked to speak of multiple challenges, the second I mentioned was what I have already put before you today—the financial and cultural concerns for our Bethany Lutheran College. May God give us the strength and wisdom together to address these and all our challenges making them into ever new opportunities to give Him glory and benefit His Church on earth. My goal is to seek guidance from our Boards of Trustees and Regents, the Planning and Coordinating Committee, Circuit Visitors Conference and members of the ELS so that we might formulate proposed plans for our college to place before the convention in 2022.
In our struggles in this world, Satan always gives the impression he holds the invincible high ground as he seemed to many that he had during Jesus’ humiliation. The devil seeks to convince us we are at a disadvantage and thereby tempts us to despair. His many mouthpieces today tell us “We are on the wrong side of history!” Satan desires that we be distracted and wrestle against flesh and blood, that is, with our neighbors and one another, instead of his demonic powers of darkness—found even in our own sinful flesh. However, Jesus always calls us to follow Him to the low ground of patient humble service in His name, through which He promises to exalt His Church and guarantees He will hold the field forever. As Jesus assures us: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) We pray:
O Lord God, draw us together around your Christ-centered banner of peace and life united in the work You give us to do while it is day. Protect us from any and all enemies of Your Holy Church and use us to bless those brothers and sisters in the flesh who hate You, so that their hearts may also be turned and brought to know and trust in Your love for them for Jesus’ sake.
“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8a)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning is now and shall be forevermore! Amen.
Glenn R. Obenberger, president
1 Built on the Rock: In Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod 1918-1993, by J. Herbert Larson and Juul B. Madson, Evangelical Lutheran Synod Book Company, Mankato, MN, 1992, p. 33.
2 The Lutheran Witness, Vol. 140, #4, “A Word on the Equality Act” by Pres. Matthew Harrison, pp. 1 & 24. Cf. also Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, by Luke Goodrich, Multnomah, 2019.
3 Prof. Reichwald served as acting president of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary 1979–1980.
4 BWO – overseeing work in such fields as Peru, Chile, India, South Korea, Czech Republic, Latvia; BHO – working with congregations in CA, IL, MN, TX.
5 BLS – working with schools in FL, IA, MN, WA, WI.
6 “… Daily chapel services promote worship faithful to the Lutheran confession and the preaching of the cross in word and sacrament. Ten percent of the minimum credits required for graduation are religion courses, where the study of the Bible and Lutheran teaching are the focus.” The Centennial Edition of the Lutheran Sentinel. May-June 2018 p. 9.