The Word of God and the Church

A Report on my Expulsion from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod

By Pastor Rolf David Preus

January 22, 2007

 (Note: It would be helpful, but not necessary, for the reader to read through my written appeal and its appendix for background information on the topic of this paper.  Much documentation of my case is available at

Part I: John Moldstad Junior’s False Doctrine of Church Fellowship
Church fellowship is not established by mutual submission to the binding authority of doctrinal statements produced by whatever synodical process is in place for the production of such doctrinal statements.  True fellowship is established by the Holy Spirit.  He brings to us the forgiveness of sins that Christ purchased for us by His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  With forgiveness comes fellowship with God.  When we share fellowship with God we share fellowship with one another. 

The Holy Spirit joins us together in the unity of the faith.  This is why we may never express fellowship with false teaching.  The Holy Spirit establishes fellowship by means of the saving truth.  True church fellowship is expressed when we agree on the pure teaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments of Christ.  The means of grace are the marks of the church.  The pure marks of the church are the basis for establishing church fellowship.  The truth for which we contend is always centered in the gospel of justification by faith alone.  We insist on full agreement in all Christian doctrine as the basis for church fellowship.  We do not do so because we must agree with each other or with a synod in order to enjoy true Christian fellowship.  We do so because everything God teaches pertains to the gospel by which we are forgiven of our sins and joined in holy fellowship with God and with one another.  Fellowship does not come from agreeing with each other, but from agreeing with God.  The Holy Spirit produces faith in our hearts to receive the forgiveness of sins promised in the gospel.  This faith lives on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. 

A synodically adopted doctrinal statement to which nearly 40% of the synod was opposed immediately became the basis for excluding from the fellowship of the synod those who dissented from it.  This was a rejection of the scriptural and evangelical doctrine of church fellowship to which the ELS has historically been devoted. 

The ELS today practices a false doctrine of fellowship.  I do not say that she teaches a false doctrine of fellowship.  The best representation of the official teaching of the ELS on church fellowship is an excellent essay authored by the late Rev. Theodore Aaberg, delivered at the 1977 General Pastoral Conference of the ELS.  This essay is a sound and evangelical explanation of the Lutheran doctrine of church fellowship.  For this reason I feel obliged, under the circumstances, to reaffirm my agreement with Prof. Aaberg’s fine study as well as the historic teaching of the ELS, the Norwegian Synod, and the old Missouri Synod on the doctrine of church fellowship. 

However, the doctrine of church fellowship is not merely taught in essays, Bible classes, and sermons.  It is practiced.  In its practice the doctrine is made clear.  The doctrine of fellowship of the ELS as practiced by the administration of John Moldstad, Jr. is a false doctrine, not to be tolerated in the church of God, much less excused and defended.  It is a false doctrine for five reasons: 

  1. It subordinates the authority of God’s verbally inspired, inerrant written word to the authority of a man-made institution.
  2. It rejects the normative authority of the Holy Scriptures. 
  3. It requires unconditional acceptance of a document that asserts as biblical what cannot be biblically substantiated. 
  4. It requires a congregation, as a condition for membership in the synod, to defy God’s word and rescind the call of a pastor without biblical cause. 
  5. It requires brothers to mark and avoid brothers without even attempting to demonstrate that the brothers to be avoided have taught anything contrary to God’s word. 

On January 27, 2006, President Moldstad informed me and the chairman of the congregation I was serving that the congregation had until February 1, 2006 to suspend me from office or to be excluded from the ELS and her fellowship.  He told them that they could put me on a two week paid leave of absence (that is, suspension with pay) while they considered whether or not to remove me permanently as their pastor or be removed from and be out of fellowship with the ELS.  If I were to continue to serve as their pastor beyond the date of February 1 they would be removed from the ELS. 

The congregation voted by a one vote margin to put me on a two week paid leave of absence.  Later they voted to rescind my call.  They wanted to remain in the ELS. 

At no time before, during, or after this process did John Moldstad, Jr. show me or my congregation that I taught any error.  Why did he take such an unprecedented action?  Why did he force my congregation to choose between their pastor and their synod and give them less than a week to do so?  Why did he require them to fire their faithful pastor as a condition for continued membership in the ELS?  His doctrine of fellowship demanded it.  His doctrine of fellowship did not require him to show me guilty of false doctrine.  It did not require him to go to the Holy Scriptures and to compare my teaching to the teaching of God’s word and to show that my teaching was at variance with the teaching of God’s word.  It did not require him to tell my congregation of their duty to follow God’s word in the removal of their pastor.  It required my immediate removal from the ELS and the immediate suspension of fellowship with me by every congregation and pastor in the ELS.  

Why?  Why was it necessary for the ELS and every congregation and pastor in the ELS to break fellowship with me?  Did I teach anything contrary to God’s word?  No, I did not and he did not accuse me of teaching anything contrary to God’s word.  Was I guilty of immoral living?  No, and he did not accuse me of immoral living.  Had I neglected to carry out my duties?  No, and he did not accuse me of neglecting my duties.  Neither President Moldstad nor any member of my congregation accused me of teaching falsely, living an ungodly life, or failing to carry out my pastoral duties.  Why then was it necessary for the ELS and every member of the ELS to mark and avoid me?  What did I do to “sow the seeds of discord among brethren” as his formal charge stated it?  

I said that the synod had erred.  I pointed out the error.  I claimed that a doctrinal statement adopted by the ELS in convention was in certain respects unbiblical.  I made this claim because it is true.  I demonstrated the truth of this claim in my paper.  I also claimed that the adopted statement departed from the pattern of sound words as set forth in the Lutheran Confessions.  That is true, too.  I made it clear that I would not regard the adopted statement as having any authority over my teaching. 

Here is the logic of President Moldstad’s doctrine of church fellowship:

  1. I have criticized a synodically adopted doctrinal statement. 
  2. My criticism is tantamount to charging the synod that adopted it with false doctrine. 
  3. If I am accusing the synod of false doctrine I cannot be in fellowship with the synod. 
  4. Therefore I must be excluded from the fellowship of the synod.

The synod becomes its own standard of truth.  The word of God is wholly subordinated to the authority of the synod itself.  John Moldstad Jr. did not need to appeal to the Bible to answer the biblical criticism of the adopted document that I raised in the paper that he demanded I retract.  Nor did he need to consult God’s written word to see what it tells us about how to resolve controversies among us.  Indeed, what the word of God says is irrelevant.  We don’t need to know what it says.  We only need to know that we may not belong to a synod that teaches false doctrine.  This is fundamental.  Therefore, if Pastor Preus is claiming that the ELS teaches false doctrine then he may not belong to the ELS and the ELS must break fellowship with him. 

  1. Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship is a false doctrine because it subordinates the authority of God’s word to the authority of a man-made institution.

Moldstad claims that when the synod, by a 62% majority, adopts a doctrinal statement that doctrinal statement must be accepted unconditionally by the 38% that voted against it.  No longer does a confession of faith derive its authority from being drawn from the written word of God.  It now draws its authority from the “orthodox” synod that adopted it.  The synod is placed over the word of God in service to Moldstad’s false doctrine of church fellowship.  

  1. Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship is a false doctrine because it rejects the normative authority of the Holy Scriptures. 

His refusal to show that I wrote anything contrary to the Holy Scriptures in the paper that he demanded I retract constitutes a denial of the normative authority of the Scriptures.  This is not just a theoretical authority.  It is not an authority that can be transferred to an entity such as a synod.  The normative authority of the Scriptures requires that the Scriptures are actually to be used in judging the doctrine of the church’s teachers.  This Moldstad repeatedly refused to do.  For Moldstad to exclude me from the fellowship of the synod without showing from the Scriptures that I taught contrary to God’s word is to reject the Scriptures as the norm and to replace the Scriptures with the synod. 

  1. Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship is a false doctrine because it requires unconditional acceptance of a document that asserts as biblical what cannot be biblically substantiated.

Two features of the confessional subscription of the original signatories of the Lutheran Confessions are instructive on this point.  First, subscription was voluntary.  Second, it was unanimous.  The very idea that one can agree to accept “unconditionally” a document that one has voted against is a direct assault on the confessional principle.  We subscribe only because the document agrees with the Bible.  We do not acknowledge any other authority over our doctrine than the written word of God.  This is why I was conscience bound to say clearly and publicly that I could not acknowledge the authority of the adopted document over me.  To accept as normative a document that one is not convinced agrees with the written word of God on every point is to reject the normative authority of the Holy Scriptures.  This is a denial of the very foundation of the confessional principle.  This denial is precisely what John Moldstad Jr. required of me as a condition of remaining a member of the ELS.  I was required to choose between the Bible and the synod.  But Moldstad’s false doctrine of fellowship required him to require this of me.  If the synod erred even on a single point she would no longer be an orthodox synod.  If that were the case, Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship would fall of its own weight.  Synodically adopted doctrinal statements must, in obedience to this false doctrine of church fellowship, be accepted unconditionally even when asserting as divine doctrine what the written word of God does not teach. 

  1. Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship is a false doctrine because it requires a congregation, as a condition for membership in the synod, to defy God’s word and rescind the call of a pastor without biblical cause.

John Moldstad Jr. required River Heights Lutheran Church to choose between her pastor and her synod.  He gave them less than a week to decide whether to suspend their pastor from office or be excluded from the fellowship of their synod.  It was impossible for RHLC to follow the requirements of God’s word within the timeframe available to them.  Moldstad was perfectly aware of this.  Knowing that they could not possibly provide due process for their pastor but would be required to remove him for the sole reason that he was no longer a member of the synod he nevertheless required this of them.  He required that they sin.  He did so with his eyes wide open.  I appealed to him to back away from his ultimatum when he visited the congregation.  He refused.  I specifically told him in the presence of the congregation that they could not do what he was requiring them to do without going against God’s word.  He nevertheless insisted that they do just that or be excluded from the fellowship of their own synod.  In this way Moldstad’s false doctrine of fellowship led Christian men into sin. 

  1. Moldstad’s doctrine of fellowship is a false doctrine because it requires brothers to mark and avoid brothers without even attempting to demonstrate that the brothers to be avoided have taught anything contrary to God’s word.

This again places the synod over the word of God, replacing the Holy Scriptures as the only rule and norm according to which all teachers and teachings in the church are to be judged with the authority of the synod itself. 

President Moldstad’s false doctrine of church fellowship is sectarian.  The sect becomes the standard for her own truth.  Casual error becomes entrenched false doctrine.  This will of necessity happen for the simple reason that, if the synod adopts a doctrinal statement, the statement cannot be corrected on the basis of God’s word because the one doing the correcting will in so doing have violated the conditions of membership in the synod.  Thus, doing what is incumbent for a minister of the gospel to do becomes the grounds for exclusion from the synod. 

Simply put, John Moldstad Jr. threw me out of the ELS because I wrote the truth and refused to retract it.  He did so in obedience to a false and sectarian doctrine of fellowship that subordinates the Bible to the synod.  This false doctrine of fellowship requires its adherents to reject the normative authority of the Bible, the confessional principle of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and it leads God’s children into grievous sin as they obey a synodical authority that requires them to sin against God as a condition of synodical membership. 

The true doctrine of church fellowship subordinates the church to the word of God.  Moldstad’s false doctrine of church fellowship subordinates the word of God to the church.  In service to this false doctrine John Moldstad, Jr. has run away from the Holy Scriptures throughout this debate and controversy.  During the single meeting that he and I had prior to his expulsion of me from the ELS I repeatedly asked him to show me where the Bible teaches anything about a “limited public use of the keys,” a concept that the adopted statement claims is taught in God’s word.  He evaded my question seven times in a row.  On my eighth effort to convince him to go to the Scriptures as his authority he finally acquiesced to my request and attempted to show a limited public use of the keys from the Bible.  He failed to do so.  He cannot do so because it cannot be done.  This is why he runs away from an open and honest debate of the issue with the authority of the Holy Scriptures as the only judge.  He relies on the authority of the synod in doctrinal matters and rejects the authority of God’s word.  Confessional Lutherans insist that our doctrine be judged by the Scriptures.  President Moldstad has refused to apply this confessional Lutheran standard to my teaching.  His false doctrine of fellowship does not require that he do so.  He need only make a plausible argument that in criticizing a doctrinal statement that the ELS has adopted I have accused the synod of false doctrine.  According to his false doctrine of fellowship, such an accusation on my part requires that I be excluded from the fellowship. 

The purge of confessional Lutheran pastors and congregations in the ELS continues as I write these words.  This purge is driven by Moldstad’s false doctrine of church fellowship.

Part II: The Commission on Appeals
On July 24 I sent an appendix to my appeal to the Commission on Appeals in which I set before them how the process of my appeal had been corrupted.  Among other things, I explained how the Rev. Kincaid Smith had shown public bias against me in the past and how he refused my request that he recuse himself from judging my case. 

On August 22 I met with the Commission on Appeals.  The Commission consisted of five men: Revs. Charles Keeler, Kincaid Smith, William Kessel, and Bob Smith and Ron Younge.  Keeler explained the agenda for the meeting.  He would do all of the talking on behalf of the Commission.  I would be given 20 minutes to make a presentation.  This would be followed by questions to me from the Commission.  After the questions and answers we would take a recess, I would be excused, and they would come up with more questions.  Then I would make a closing statement.  That’s how the meeting went. 

I spoke for about 15 minutes, making my presentation.   I gave the written copy (that I read verbatim) to Chairman Keeler after I read it. 

They asked me about a dozen questions.  They did not ask me any questions about any of my charges against President John Moldstad, Jr.  They did not ask me any questions about my removal as pastor of River Heights Lutheran Church.  They did not ask me any questions about any of the facts surrounding my suspension from the synod.  Indeed, none of the questions I was asked was in any way responsive to my written appeal.  They asked no questions at all about the biblical and confessional arguments I raised in my written appeal.  From the questions they asked me I saw no evidence that the men on the Commission had even read my appeal. 

They asked me if when I said the PCM document said things that were “unscriptural” was I saying that this was false doctrine.  I said no and gave the example of the pious opinion concerning the bodily assumption of Mary.  This is an unscriptural opinion but it is not false doctrine.  Yet one may not permit this to be imposed as dogma.


They asked several questions about why I did not or could not retract my paper.  I reiterated what I said in my one page explanation, “Should I Retract my ‘Clarifying the Issues’ Paper?”   I did this several times.  Then they asked why I didn’t retract when Glenn Obenberger asked me to.  I said that Glenn meant well, but I reiterated my reasons.  It is based on my belief that FC SD Rule and Norm paragraph three will not permit me to permit my doctrine to be judged by any other standard than Scripture alone.  I told them to read “Should I Retract my ‘Clarifying the Issues’ Paper?” 

They asked me if I supported the constitution that requires unconditional acceptance of the Confessions and teachings of the Synod.  I said yes, and I also explained that the teachings of synod are not to be identified solely with the adopted doctrinal statements.  I told them that I agreed with what H. A. Preus, Bjug Harstad, and the 1862 Theses on lay preachers said about the public ministry of the word.  I told them that I agreed with the “We Believe, Teach, and Confess” document of the ELS.  I said that I did not believe I should be judged to be attacking the Synod because I dissent from a single doctrinal statement to which a significant minority of the Synod has objected.  

When asked if I saw any possible resolution to the problem I suggested that they ask President John Moldstad, Jr. and me to meet with each other in an effort to come up with a joint statement.  I also said that I would be happy to issue a clarifying statement expressing my respect for the synod, that I am not leveling charges against the synod, etc. 

On September 10 the Commission on Appeals announced that they had ruled to support my expulsion from the ELS.  President John Moldstad, Jr. sent this information out via email to the ministerium of the ELS on September 11.  He informed me by U. S. Mail (that I received on September 14).  

On or about November 25 the Commission on Appeals issued its opinion.  It has no date. 

There is little to say in response to the opinion of the COA.  The facts speak for themselves.  The claim that Moldstad acted biblically is false on the face of it as I have already shown.  They asked me not one question about how Moldstad dealt with me and yet concluded that he handled the situation according to the Scriptures.  It is obvious that they had decided the case before meeting with me.  The fact that Kincaid Smith did not recuse himself and was appointed secretary by the COA confirms what I wrote in the appendix to my appeal.  A minister of the word tells me “I rue the day you joined our synod.”  He writes a letter to the entire ministerium of the synod and puts words in my mouth that I never said.  When I correct him, he publicly stands behind his false assertions.  Then, a few years later when I remind him of what he said to me and ask him to recuse himself from judging whether or not I should be expelled from the synod he walks away from me while I am talking to him.  He refuses to recuse himself.  The men of the COA support him in this refusal.  When the normative authority of God’s written word is set aside in favor of the normative authority of a synod such corruption is not recognized as corruption.  Not once did John Moldstad Jr. or any of his representatives ever confront me with an alleged falsehood I had spoken.  If the members of the COA read my written appeal they were fully aware of this.  Yet these men presumed to cite God’s word against me, finding me guilty as charged of, as they put it in their report: 

“Sowing seeds of discord among the brethren. (Proverbs 6:19) vs. 16:  There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him…19) a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissention among brothers.” NIV 

They accuse me of this while neglecting to point out where I have said anything that is untrue or unbrotherly. 

There is one particular error that should be addressed.  The COA asserted: 

Although the Appellant claims that he did not intend to accuse the Statement of the E.L.S. on doctrine of the Public Ministry of containing false doctrine, his words, “flawed, falsely claims, unscriptural” lead to the conclusion that he is accusing the document of false doctrine. 

This is not true.  I did not claim that I “did not intend to accuse the Statement of the E.L.S. on doctrine of the Public Ministry of containing false doctrine.”  I said that I was not accusing the Synod of false doctrine.  When the COA asked me directly if I believed that the adopted statement contained false doctrine I replied, “It certainly appears to.”  I then proceeded to explain that while it appeared to me that the PCM document contained false doctrine I would not accuse one who subscribes to it of false doctrine.  I knew that the document had been interpreted to teach mutually exclusive things and that there was great confusion on what it actually taught.  I was unwilling to accuse those who subscribed to it of false doctrine, but I made it clear that it did appear to me that the document contained false doctrine.  Indeed, I went to great lengths to explain to the COA that my criticism of a document adopted by the synod should not be construed as an accusation of false doctrine against the synod that adopted it.  Despite my repeated assertions to this effect it appears from the above garbled account of what I said that they did not understand what I was talking about. 

Throughout this process I have argued that I may point out a brother’s error without thereby accusing him of false doctrine.  I remain of the same opinion today.  However, there does come a time when the casual intrusion of error becomes entrenched false doctrine.  I do not know that I am competent to judge just when that occurs.

During the 2006 ELS convention the Rev. Steven Sparley proposed that while the synod should regard the adopted “The Public Ministry of the Word” as the official teaching of the ELS, it should not be used as the basis for discipline.  (This would have permitted the president of the synod to vacate his suspension of me while still upholding the officially adopted synodical statement.)  Pastor Sparley suggested that until there was a common understanding of what the document teaches it should not be used to discipline those who dissent from it.  The Rev. John Moldstad, Sr. (President John Moldstad Junior’s father) thought that this was a good proposal.  It might bring some peace to the synod.  He came to me and asked if I would be willing to visit with his son to discuss this.  I said I would.  We approached President Moldstad at a break in the proceedings and asked if we could talk.  The father encouraged his son to support the Sparley proposal.  I added that this would permit him to remove my suspension without violating his duty as president to uphold the synod’s doctrinal resolutions.  After listening to us talk for about a minute President Moldstad said that he needed to take a break. 

The next day President Moldstad left the chair for the purpose of making a speech against the Sparley proposal.  It was defeated.  The opportunity to back away from a continuing purge on the basis of synodical rather than biblical authority was lost. 

The church submits to God’s word.  God’s word does not submit to the church.  This is one of the fundamental principles of the Lutheran Reformation.  Orthodoxy cannot be inherited from the fathers.  The spirit of confessional Lutheranism flows from a deep reverence for the sacred text of the Bible.  When we approach God’s word we take off our shoes for we are standing on holy ground. 

I left the Missouri Synod for the ELS in 1997 because I believed that the Missouri Synod as an institution was not serious about upholding the doctrine it confessed.  When asked why I left I pointed to the doctrine of church fellowship.  The Missouri Synod did not practice what it preached.  She did not take her doctrine seriously.  

Ironically, it was by the authority of a false doctrine of church fellowship that I was expelled from the ELS.  During the past several years I have witnessed a profound disrespect for the written word of God on the part of men who stand in judgment of the Missouri Synod for her doctrinal unfaithfulness.  I grew up in the Missouri Synod.  I grew up on the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  I witnessed the “Battle for the Bible” when I was a young man.  I do not believe that I witnessed then a greater disregard for the authority of God’s written word than I have witnessed in recent years as a member of the ELS.  I pray that my brothers who remain members of the ELS will find a way to confront this and, under God’s grace, return to the foundation of our fathers with the Holy Scriptures as the only source of our doctrine and the only standard by which all teaching and teachers in the church must be judged.

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