Monday, Feb. 04, 1974

Religion: Discord at Concordia

Outwardly, the tailored lawns and brown Gothic buildings of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis give every evidence of serenity. The very name of the school?the 135-year-old academic font of the 2.8 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?is Latin for "harmony." Last week, however, Concordia, the largest Lutheran seminary in the world (690 students), was closed down by a student and faculty boycott. The reason: Concordia's president, the Rev. John H. Tietjen, 45, had been ousted on charges amounting to heresy.

The clash has been building ever since 1969, when the Rev. Jacob A.O. ("Jack") Preus was elected to a four-year term as president of the Synod. Preus, now 54, came in as a champion of conservative Synod members who believe staunchly in the "inerrancy" of the Bible, including its factual accuracy. Thus Preus and his followers hold that Adam and Eve were historical individuals ? a position, they contend, that is vital to such doctrines as original sin.

The conservatives have long been disturbed by liberal trends at Concordia, which has allowed its professors to inter pret Scripture by the historical-critical method. Using that system, scholars consider the Scriptures in their historical and literary settings, which may suggest that some accounts are myth, others metaphor. Tietjen has forthrightly de fended his faculty against attacks, arguing that God's word was never meant to be judged so factually. Last summer Preus was re-elected overwhelmingly at the Synod convention in New Orleans.

He was also given an explicit mandate to clean Concordia's house of doctrinal error, and a new seminary board with a conservative majority was elected. Last week the board "suspended" Tietjen?in effect fired him, pending a long series of hearings. The 20-page list of charges accused the president of, among other things, "holding, defending, allowing and fostering false doctrine," and "rebelling against the Synod."

The Concordia board also replaced all four department heads at the seminary, three of them with doctrinaire conservatives loyal to Preus. As acting president and new head of the exegetical (i.e., Bible) department, the board appointed the Rev. Martin H. Scharlemann, 63, an unflappable former military chaplain who is a retired brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve. Scharlemann has solid academic credentials (two earned doctorates). But his appointment outraged the faculty, who consider him a turncoat: many of the professors had defended him when he was under attack as being too liberal during the 1950s.

Scharlemann, who long ago apologized for his own controversial scriptural essays, has helped lead the conservative opposition since Tietjen was elected seminary head in 1969?at least partly, say faculty critics, because Scharlemann himself had wanted the job.

Concordia's angry students began their boycott of classes the day after Tietjen's Sunday night ouster. The 412 seminarians thus far supporting the strike have vowed to continue it until the board reinstates Tietjen or takes disciplinary action against all of his faculty supporters. As for the faculty, only the new department heads and two other conservatives (both now on leave) support Scharlemann. The 38 other faculty members on campus contend that if Tietjen is guilty of doctrinal error, they are also guilty, and they have demanded the same individual heresy hearings from the seminary board that Tietjen now faces. Their refusal to teach, however, gives the board the grounds to fire them.

No more than 120 of the students are expected to return to classes?if and when the school reopens. But who is to teach them? Presumably Scharlemann will not be able to induce rebellious faculty members to return, and he may find it difficult to hire enough new professors who have both quality academic credentials and doctrinal purity. One possibility: merging Concordia with its less renowned namesake, Concordia Seminary of Illinois.

The anti-Scharlemann professors are being backed by a growing network of moderate dissidents who call themselves "Evangelical Lutherans in Mission." Obviously disturbed by the thought of schism, Preus has named a bipartisan "Committee on Conciliation" to try to cool tempers. Meanwhile, the moderates are urging a tactic that angry conservatives in more liberal denominations have adopted with some success: a pocketbook rebellion to withhold contributions from church headquarters.