On the morning of Feb. 19, 1974, a theological struggle over ecumenism and the inerrancy of the Bible drew students of Concordia, a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) seminary in St. Louis, to a campus fieldhouse. Some 400 seminarians voted that day to continue their theological education “in exile,” triggering events that would create Concordia Seminary-in-Exile (“Seminex”) and ultimately Christ Seminary-Seminex.

Kurt Hendel, professor emeritus of Reformation history at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), served on the Concordia faculty in 1974. “The creation of Seminex and its ecumenical commitments,” he said, “can be credited with providing the initial spark for the establishment of the ELCA.”

“Professors and staff at Seminex infused in us the need and desire to look at the church as Christ’s for all of God’s people,” reads an email from Donna and Tim Herzfeldt-Kamprath, a clergy couple who have served congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the former Lutheran Church in America and the ELCA. “Seminex permeated these systems with Christ-centered theology and preaching.”

The legacy of Christ Seminary-Seminex was celebrated online and in person April 16-18 on the new campus of LSTC. The 50th anniversary celebration reunited alums, faculty and friends of Seminex. Panels and distinguished speakers also explored theological diversity, academic freedom and the impact of Seminex on American Lutheranism.

How it started

Fifty years ago Concordia had become the center of a struggle over church politics and biblical scholarship. J.A.O. “Jack” Preus II, then president of the LCMS, described the theological issue in a 1972 report: “The question is whether the Scriptures are the norm of our faith and life or whether the Gospel alone is that norm.” Preus emphasized the former whereas the seminary’s faculty seemed to stress the latter.

The 1973 LCMS convention resolved that false teaching at Concordia was “not to be tolerated in the church of God.” The convention went on to elect a seminary board of control, which focused on Concordia’s president, John H. Tietjen, for allegedly allowing false doctrine to be taught. However, the convention failed to provide any evidence of false doctrine or to name anyone teaching it.

“I learned to trust the Spirit’s leading, as I had when I joined the moratorium from classes.”

Then on Jan. 20, 1974, the board suspended Tietjen. Students unaware of any false doctrine being taught at the seminary wanted to know whom they could trust. The next day, the seminarians called for a moratorium on classes. When the faculty honored the moratorium, the board demanded on Feb. 17, 1974, that classes resume or it would consider it a breach of faculty contracts.

That board action led to the fieldhouse vote, with students staging a walkout that involved planting white wooden crosses on the seminary quad, boarding up an entryway and symbolically marching off campus with most of the faculty.

The students’ bold action took place in a season of looming uncertainty. Families and careers were uprooted to start the new seminary. Seminarians who had walked out on Concordia could no longer rely on a system of theological education that normally assured them a pulpit.

“I waited 11 months to receive my first call after graduation, due to the dearth of parishes willing to accept Seminex graduates,” said John Hitzeroth, who retired in 2018 after almost 40 years as pastor of three former LCMS congregations. “I learned to trust the Spirit’s leading, as I had when I joined the moratorium from classes.”

Shaping future generations

LSTC awarded Seminex degrees through a joint project for theological education established in 1974 by the Jesuit School of Divinity at Saint Louis University and Eden Theological Seminary of the United Church of Christ. Clergy and congregations that supported Seminex became the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, an ELCA predecessor body, in 1976.

In 1983, Seminex dispersed its faculty among LSTC; Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa; and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif. The school operated from the LSTC campus until it closed in 1987 with the formation of the ELCA.

“What Seminex taught me was that Christ’s call isn’t like call waiting or call forwarding. It’s present and immediate.”

Hendel noted that Seminex graduates continue to serve as pastors, deacons, bishops, church administrators and academic theologians.

“Our contribution to the ELCA is our clear understanding of what the gospel is and is not,” said Seminex graduate Bruce Modahl. “The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for us. God uses Christ’s benefits to form our faith and calls us to use these same benefits in our lives, for the body of Christ, the church, and for the communities and world we inhabit.” Modahl now edits Crossings Connection, the newsletter of the Crossings Community, which was founded by Seminex professors Robert Bertram and Edward Schroeder.

Mary Konopka, a Seminex graduate who later served on its faculty, remembers Tietjen speaking at her ordination in 1982. “His central point was to resist the human impulse for the ‘repeat performance’ and to keep moving into the present on its own terms,” she said.

“What Seminex taught me was that Christ’s call isn’t like call waiting or call forwarding. It’s present and immediate. Our mission is to believe that Jesus is still going on ahead of us. It’s to make a commitment to open the ears of our spirit and listen to where the Lord is calling us, along with others, to follow wherever that may be and act, in the present circumstance, as we are able.”

Frank F. Imhoff
Frank F. Imhoff is a 1977 graduate of Christ Seminary-Seminex. He retired after serving 20 years in the ELCA News Service and 10 years in the Office of the Secretary.

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