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–Prof. John T. Pless

In a very instructive essay of 1965, “The Ecumenical Challenge of the Second Vatican Council,” Hermann Sasse wisely observes: “We have been too much influenced by a certain type of sectarian Christianity which for a long time flourished in America. The sect cannot wait; it must have everything at once, for it has no future. The church can wait, for it does have a future. We Lutherans should think of that.”

I have pondered these lines from Sasse often these last few days, watching and hearing charges and countercharges within the LCMS. The president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod attempted to deal with a difficult and problematic incidence of syncretism. He attempted to address the pastor involved “in the spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Admitting that he had mishandled the case, failing in his efforts, and causing additional pain for a community that had already endured much suffering, President Harrison repented and asked for forgiveness (see video here or text version here). Stirred with self-righteous indignation, some launched violent verbal attacks even calling for his “impeachment.” The ex-president of the Synod fanned the flames even more by suggesting in a widely distributed letter that he would be available to stand for election if nominated by February 20.

Zealous defenders of syncretism do so in the name of compassion. Speaking to a situation in his own church body, the ELCA, Steven Paulson’s observation also fits Missouri’s liberal Pharisees: “[T]he ELCA has become enthusiasts, fanatics, who swallow the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. They are not immoralists; instead they are on a quest for a greater holiness than yours—and you ought to be ready, since they are ready to fight you on this particular matter.” Paulson continues “At the root of this fanaticism lies a confusion of law and gospel, and so a demonic lie—that justification is by love—unconditional love.” Fanatics cannot be convinced from the Scriptures. Their righteousness is already established and, make no mistake about it, they are on a crusade, and they cannot wait. They must have the church of pure and unconditional love now and nothing, not even the First Commandment, dare stand in the way.

But the problem does not reside with Missouri’s liberals only. Those of us who rightly recognize how lethal syncretism is to authentic Christian witness can also be lured into fanaticism. There are voices from the right, criticizing President Harrison for not acting decisively or even for having the audacity to repent and apologize. They want a church free of the leaven of syncretism and they want it now. No waiting on the Word to do its work, no imploring the Lord of the church to look down in mercy on this poor, wretched, and miserable band of sinners known as the Missouri Synod. Instead there should be an apocalyptic show down. The church cannot wait. This is a fanaticism to be repented of.

The New Testament bids us be “sober-minded” (1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 4:5; 1 Pet 1:13; 1 Pet 4:7). Rather than becoming intoxicated with a fanaticism to the left or the right, we pray the Lord would give us minds of discernment rooted and grounded in the Holy Scriptures that do not overlook or brush aside the real threat of which the Newtown prayer vigil was a symptom of, namely, the pluralism of American civil religion that requires an even more stringent “no” to unionism and syncretism of every stripe. Indeed, it is for the sake of witness in the public square that we will decline to worship there. Fanaticism is never the answer; faithfulness is.


Prof. John T. Pless teaches at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

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14 Responses to Fanaticism is Not the Answer

  1. Rev. Paul T. McCain says:

    Thank you, Professor Pless. I could not agree more.

  2. Pastor Thomas Rank says:

    Thank you, John. So often it is difficult for one to confess sin within the church, sadly — the very place where such confession should be best understood and addressed. I am glad for the LCMS’ Pres. Harrison’s actions, both in addressing syncretism and in his own public repentance. The angels rejoice while mortals hone their knives. That is the church militant. Kyrie eleison.

  3. If not for Lent, I’d be singing Alleluia! Thank you, Professor Pless.

  4. Rev. Clint K. Poppe says:

    Professor Pless, thank you for your article, but I do have a question… could you please elaborate? Who are the right wing fanatics calling for “an apocalyptic show down?” I have heard of no such thing. Thanks!

    In Christ, Clint

  5. Nathan Rinne says:

    Pastor Pless,

    I appreciate very much this very thoughtful piece. How ironic that we sinful men would prefer our “unconditional love” than the real love that says no to evil.

    I am guessing that Pastor Harrison will be taking many opportunities in the future to educate the Synod about this important issue – when the time is right…

    And that quote from Herman Sasse is something else… a very good thing to meditate on.


  6. John T. Pless says:

    @Pastor Poppe,

    I’ve gotten a few private e-mails over the last week or so that have sounded pretty apocalyptic….”time for the Synod to split….the Missouri Synod is finished…..Harrison needs to man up and kick these jerks out.” Scan the blogs and I think you’ll spots the attitude that I am identifying as fanatical. JTP+

    • Rev. Clint K. Poppe says:

      Thanks Professor for your response. There is always the temptation for any of us to have an “Elijiah moment” and think we alone are the only faithful voice or a “Jeremiah moment” of mourning and lament and melancholy over sin and its consequences. Chief of sinners though I be. Foolishly, these moments might manifest themselves in a private e-mail or a blog posting. However, I know of no corporate or organized voices crying for any kind of showdown, apocalypic or otherwise.

      From the Ecumenical Movement that permeated the church of my youth to the CTCR “Study Document on Fellowship” to Yankee Stadium to Daystar and to this very day there are indeed, as you have pointed out, “Zealous defenders of syncretism” among us.

      While both are sin, it hardly seems fair to compare the two.

      In Christ, Clint

  7. Don Crow says:

    Thank you Prof. Pless for a good article. I have seen some of the same missives hurled like a gauntlet into the interwebs. I am a convert to Lutheranism, and one of the biggest things I got in my catechism was law and gospel. I had never heard that before, and it seems the fanatics you speak of have forgotten that it is a balance of both. I keep hearing that Lutheranism isn’t about “either or,” but usually “both and.”

  8. David Rufner says:

    Can anyone point me to the primary source for the Paulson quote?

  9. Dennis Bestul says:

    I would hope that the sincere request for clarity isn’t being labeled “fanaticism.” Lack of clarity makes for confusion and division, even when we’re unclear about repentance. Public repentance for how a situation was handled is good when what’s being repented of was wrong. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of confusion out here in the field regarding what Pres. Harrison believes to be wrong and that confusion is creating division among those who otherwise stand shoulder to shoulder on the critical issue of syncretism/unionism. Clearer heads make for cooler heads. To avoid ‘fanaticism’ we need to be as clear with one another as we can be.

  10. Nathan Rinne says:

    In case anyone is interested, Albert Mohler talked about the controversy on his 15 minute news program yesterday – and did a very nice job, I must say. It is worth listening to:

    Its near the end of the podcast


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