Fanaticism is Not the Answer

–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.