It was an inauspicious beginning.
The Saxon immigrants exiled their bishop, Martin Stephan, across the Mississippi River, due to sexual misconduct and misappropriation of funds. The colony of immigrants was in chaos. Without a bishop, were they still a church? Added to the ecclesiastical disorder was economic privation and utter disorganization, so that the American experiment of these immigrants was under existential threat.
Enter young pastor C. F. W. Walther who debated Adolph Marbach at Altenburg (in Missouri, not Texas), contending that the church exists wherever God’s people gather around Word and Sacrament. His reasons for making the argument were both Scriptural and pragmatic:
It was abundantly clear to the young pastor that by adopting hierarchical ideas of the nature of the Church, insisting upon theories of the episcopal succession, overemphasizing the office of the ministry, or indulging a spiritual hypochondria to the point where it induced a verbal flagellantism in the group, it was possible to produce a spasm of ecclesiastical nihilism during which the Saxon colonies would, in fact, die a convulsive death (Walter Forster, Zion on the Mississippi, chap. XIX).
Walther’s victory at Altenburg proved to be a turning point for the early immigrants who, Forster observes, “…again constituted a united, compact, energetic group, once more looking forward to rendering spiritual service to their fellow immigrants, rather than looking backward at the tragic interlude of the episcopacy.” While maintaining a deep respect for the office of the ministry, Walther became a tremendous advocate for the work of the laity, especially in spreading the Gospel, emphasizing that the “Christian church is a great mission-house. Each Christian in it is a missionary sent out by God into his own circle to convert others to Christ” (Walther, Bringing Souls to Christ: Every Christian’s Desire and Duty).
So Altenburg, Texas is a not a place, but an idea.
We are very much, once again, an immigrant church. By virtue of the fact that we are Christians living in a society that is not predominately Christian, we are strangers in a foreign land. Not to mention the fact that we are being joined by brothers and sisters in Christ who are literally from foreign lands and who wish to reach their fellow immigrants (and many others!) who are far from God.
What if the spirit of Altenburg, Missouri in 1841 grabbed ahold of us in Texas in 2016? What if those who hold the office of the ministry (for which we maintained a high regard) enabled, empowered, and released the lay people, as the priesthood of all believers, truly to be missionaries to the (probably) 3/4 of the people around us who are outside of a relationship with Jesus? Could we, in the LCMS in Texas become such a “united, compact, energetic group”? Dear God, let it be so!
It would be an auspicious beginning.
By: Rev. Jon Braunersreuther
Mission & Ministry Facilitator, Area D