So, What Is The Church Anyway?

So, What Is The Church Anyway?

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As a son of the late Rev. Walter Grossmann, who was the Stated Clerk of the Eureka Classis from 1935 to 1956, the undersigned has fallen heir to a great many of his papers and other effects. For those twenty-one years (1935 -1956) the Eureka Classis successfully continued as the Reformed Church in the United States after refusing to join the 1934 merger of the vast majority of the RCUS with the Evangelical Synod of North America, a Lutheran body.

These twenty-one years were not easy years for the continuing Eureka Classis of the RCUS. Not only were there attacks against the continuing Church body, but the Second World War dried up any source of new pastors. Many of the older pastors who were friends of the Eureka Classis nevertheless joined the merger in order to receive the pensions they had coming from their years of service in the RCUS. Those that didn’t leave were literally dying off. In 1943 there were only three pastors in attendance at the Spring Classis meeting, while the Classis consisted of some 30 churches. Most of these churches were served only occasionally. After serving his congregation in the morning, a pastor had to spend Sunday afternoon driving anywhere from 40 to 300 miles to lead an afternoon or evening service. Not surprisingly a number of pastors and their congregations who were outside the states of South and North Dakota were skeptical about the chances the Eureka Classis to survive. But once again, God taught us not to despise the day of small things.

This article is occasioned by a letter from Rev. Walter Grossmann (hereinafter “W. Grossmann,” as he generally signed his correspondence) written to Elder Jacob Stegmeier. He was one of a rare breed of RCUS elders who were keeping their churches going strong by doing the pastoral work and reading printed sermons for Sunday services. Most also taught Sunday school and Catechism classes. Elder Stegmeier served the Heil, ND, congregation located about 75 miles southwest of Bismark, ND. Walter’s father had been pastor of that congregation during the 1920’s and Walter had many fond friendships with its members, including the Stegmeier family. Jacob’s son, Albert, was about Walter’s age, and I personally remember many visits in the homes of Albert and Jacob after Dad had driven the 180 miles from Hosmer, SD, to Heil in order to lead an evening service there. Thus, this letter was not just an official explanation of an important point; it was a letter to an old and dear friend.

The central purpose of the letter, written in early December 1944, when W. Grossmann was 37 years old, was to counter the accusation that “It is illegitimate for the Eureka Classis to function as the church.” Who had ever heard of such a thing, anyway? W. Grossmann writes (in the German language), “So now the Classis is church. I have no good insight into what the big problem with that is. I have written and discussed this matter with Pastor (Ulrich) Zogg (of Sutton, NE, a member of the South Dakota Classis of the uniting Evangelical and Reformed Church) and he has finally agreed that before God a Classis can be a church even while it is still called a ‘Classis.’ (It should be noted that by this time the Eureka Classis had incorporated itself in North Dakota as “The Reformed Church in the United States.”) So, if there are congregations that claim that they are hindered from working with us unless we re-label what we are, we can, I suppose, change our name. Nevertheless we will remain what we have been, a group of people, sinners, who seek and find their only hope in the eternal Son of God, and consider everything else useless.”

Several things are noteworthy here. 1) There is no apology but rather a defense of the fact that the Eureka Classis can and does claim to be a legitimate Church. 2) What really matters is not what men think, but what God thinks. 3) The real Church is a group of human beings unified in seeking and finding their only hope in Jesus Christ. 4) This is what the Eureka Classis has been and plans to be in the future.

It is my conviction that nothing about this answer needs to be changed, either then in 1944, or now, some seventy years later. While W. Grossmann has now been dead 58 years (I was 19 when he died), I must note as his youngest son that it is simply impressive that he can blow off this skeptical question so directly and biblically, and in a rather brief paragraph. Compare, for example, what he says about the definition of the church with the first paragraph of Article 27 of the Belgic Confession, which says virtually the same thing. W. Grossmann had a great mentor, the Rev. William J. Krieger, a Princeton Seminary Graduate who had retired from serving the Eureka Reformed Congregation and as President of Classis from 1935 to 1943. Rev. Krieger’s knowledge and experience in church government is what guided W. Grossmann and the whole Eureka Classis in surviving the hard years following the Evangelical and Reformed merger of 1934.

Our letter has another important paragraph that addresses a widespread fear that the Evangelical and Reformed Church leadership would try to attack the little Eureka Classis. It reads: “What the united ‘lords’ will do now, we will simply have to wait and see. They undoubtedly will lay as many problems in our way as possible and will bluff with all their might. But if they had any hope of doing anything against us through the government authorities they would already have tried it. We have, after all, pretty much invited them to try it.” This refers to a letter written by Classis in 1938 to the office of the General Synod of the old RCUS proclaiming Classis’ intention of continuing as the RCUS and claiming all properties belonging to their churches. There never was a response from the Evangelical and Reformed authorities. The E&R simply continued to report the Eureka Classis statistics for the next ten years or so, as if it had joined the merger, even though it never received any updates on those statistics.

As I look back, it is my privilege to conclude that Rev. Walter Grossmann was a great man without being “a great man.” He never attained much of anything in the way of earthly recognition, simply finishing his life as pastor of a RCUS congregation (Shafter, CA), while still serving as Stated Clerk of the Eureka Classis. He was first of all a very committed preacher and pastor; four young men from his pastorate at Hosmer, SD, entered the Christian ministry. He was extremely well-loved and respected by the members of the four congregations he served during his twenty-two years in the ministry, as well as by those he served on an occasional basis. His loyalty to his friends, especially those in the RCUS ministry, and theirs to him, was a sight to behold. It was also my privilege to enjoy this loyalty when I came into the RCUS ministry in 1963 and many transferred to me and my brother Peter, their love for our father, no matter how little we deserved it. It was the measure of the man that he brought forth such love from those he served, and with whom he served.

Nevertheless, it is not the person of the man, no matter how precious he was to his contemporaries, that is most important. Rather it is his level-headed application of biblical truth that holds value for the church today.

Rev. Robert Grossmann
Menno, SD

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