A Liberal Lutheran Minister Breaks with His Church, and Sets Up a Seminary in Exile

The Rev. Dr. John H. Tietjen has never been one to hide his light—or his profoundly held convictions—under any bushels.

Attacked for his liberal views by the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church early in 1973, Tietjen, then the president of the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, told a church convention, “I forgive you because you really do not know what you are doing.”

Tietjen (pronounced Tee-jen) had come under fire and brimstone criticism almost from the day in 1969 he took office at Concordia, then the world’s largest Lutheran seminary. The Missouri Synod, formed largely by German immigrants in the Midwest during the mid-19th century, is the most conservative of America’s three largest Lutheran groups. (Synod conventions were conducted in German as recently as the 1930s.) And Tietjen’s theology—based on less-than-literal Bible interpretation, the use of secular history in Bible study and a strong ecumenical drive—struck the synod hierarchy, and especially its president, the Rev. Dr. Jacob A.O. Preus, as too radical.

So, after four years of squabbling, the synod in January 1974 suspended and ultimately dismissed Tietjen, charging him with “holding, defending, allowing and fostering false doctrine.” The result was that Tietjen led most of Concordia’s faculty and students off into a Seminary in Exile, which they dubbed Seminex. Tietjen, 46, compares his crusade against the leadership of the three-million-member synod to the one Martin Luther waged against Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Empire 450 years ago.

“It is a matter of unyielding church authority versus individual conscience,” Tietjen says. His differences with the Missouri Synod hinge on “whether you’re going to insist that everything is nailed-down-tight or allow loose ends for the problems that you’re dealing with.” According to Tietjen, “We don’t look on the Bible as something that has dropped out of heaven. The writing is a product of history and we analyze the Bible from that standpoint.”

Now Seminex, supported financially mostly by individuals within the Missouri Synod, rents space from the Jesuits’ St. Louis University and a United Church of Christ seminary and sends some students on to the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Seminex’s student body numbers 445, compared with 190 now at Concordia. It had almost 700 before the schism.

Tietjen grew up in Brooklyn, the son of German immigrant parents. He entered the Concordia Collegiate Institute in Bronxville, N.Y., at 17, then went on to graduate from Concordia in St. Louis in 1953. After serving as pastor of a New Jersey church, he moved to New York to work in the Lutheran Council public relations office, until he was chosen as Concordia’s president from a list of 70 candidates.

While Tietjen has been blasting the current synod leadership as “hopelessly corrupt” and “morally bankrupt,” a synod spokesman calls him the “seventh public relations wonder of the world.” Both sides are girding for this summer’s synod convention.

Meanwhile, Tietjen, his wife and their four children have less time for listening to Bach, camping and rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals. Still, Tietjen is buoyed by the success of his break from Concordia and, as in all religious wars, has no doubt whose side the Almighty is on. “All human reason would say that Seminex shouldn’t exist,” he says. “I see this as evidence of the work of God.”