Friday, November 17, 2006

Getting Personal

[When I began this blog I set out several goals. First, it would not be simply personal and subjective. Second, I would attempt to address concerns beyond the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheranism in general while maintaining a Lutheran voice. Third, I would update the blog weekly, giving readers a reason to return. There were other goals, but it seems pointless to mention them because this article begins on a personal note, will probably be of little interest to anyone outside the LCMS (if even there), and is late. I will reform. The goals remain. For now, dear readers, you have the following.]

The Reverend John Fenton has been a good friend of mine for almost two decades. When I hit some deeply dark times Pastor Fenton helped my family and me. Despite our differences in age (he is the younger) and many differences in outlook (he actually admires Richard Nixon), he was generous with his help and effective. The differences between us cannot be over-emphasized. With many others, I learned a great deal from Fr. Fenton about the liturgy. However, even on this we had our differences. Nevertheless, the differences did not matter when I was down for the count. He was there for me and for my family. I will breathe my last breath in his debt.

So it was with great sadness that I received the news that the Reverend John Fenton has renounced the Confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, resigned from the roster of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and would be joining the communion of the Eastern Orthodox. We will no longer share the same faith.

John’s progress to the East has been evident for some time. He has been honest with us. He has published and circulated his sermons via the Internet. He has written extensively concerning the liturgy and its importance for the confession of the Faith. He has engaged his friends and those who are a whole lot less than friends in his struggle with what it means to be a faithful Christian.

I know several of his friends who have warned him and rebuked him when he went beyond what the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions teach. I have also been concerned and have communicated with him on this matter. I must confess I did not do this as frequently as I should have or as thoroughly. To my shame, I must admit that I did not come to my friend’s aid as he had done for me. I have my excuses, which may prevail before men. God will not be impressed. May the Lord forgive me.

John has made his decision. He is in error. I do not doubt that he made his decision after great spiritual turmoil. He has participated in the Missouri Synod to the fullest, never shy on sharing his views with his district supervisors and even serving on a committee for the new hymnal. There were several instances of great trial for him in the Synod. Only the Lord can distinguish when he suffered as the consequence of his own sin from when he suffered because of the sin of others.

In the end, however, based on his own statements, it must be concluded that John’s renunciation of the faith confessed in the Confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church comes from his own weakness of faith. He seeks a visible Church that does not exist. Neither Scripture nor the Confessions support his ecclesiology. Many, including myself, can sympathize with much of his criticism of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Unlike St. Paul, however, his great learning has led him to a solution that is indeed mad.

I have every reason to hold that the Lord will be merciful to my friend John, even as He forgives as great a sinner as me. Still, I am saddened, personally, that he has made this choice, and grieved for what this portends for the liturgical and pastoral practice for which he was a strong advocate.


John Fenton was not a politician in the politically driven Missouri Synod. That was both his great strength and great weakness. It was a strength because in the Synod of bureaucrats and politicians there is a pronounced need for theologians. It was a weakness because in this political environment of the Synod he could brook little compromise. As the publication of the new hymnal demonstrates, compromise is the order of the day in the Synod.

So it comes as no surprise that we have a vitriolic and uncharitable denunciation of John’s resignation from a Synod bureaucrat.

The Reverend Paul T. McCain has published his “An Act of Treason, Dishonesty, and Sin” in the blogosphere. It is an all too typical Missouri Synod screed. McCain demonstrates that he does not have the slightest understanding of Fr. Fenton’s complaint against the Missouri Synod.

“Fenton’s renunciation of his ordination vows, and confirmation vows, is nothing less than an act of treason against our Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel, purely taught and preached,” McCain writes.

Please note, John has not become a Buddhist. As for the Gospel purely taught and preached, that is what John fails to find in the Missouri Synod and (wrongly) seeks among the Orthodox. What we have here is an example of a Pharisee who fails to understand he has a plank in his own eye even as he seeks to scrape the splinter out of the eye of his opponent.

“Smells and bells, chalices and chausables, chanting and prancing, rubrics and genuflections all have their proper place,” McCain continues. Note “smells and bells” is derogatory and “prancing” never has a proper place in the reverent conduct of the Liturgy. By his dismissive word choice McCain demonstrates that he has little understanding of the importance of sound liturgics for the benefit of God’s people. It is what can be expected from someone who has spent the vast majority of his Synod career behind a bureaucrat’s desk rather than before a parish altar.

“Beautiful liturgy is no replacement for beautiful doctrine.” To which we respond, “show us beautiful doctrine and we will show you beautiful liturgy.” Liturgy and doctrine are not the same, but what McCain is oblivious of is that liturgy and doctrine cannot be divorced.

Many years ago, Fr. Fenton and I visited an historic Missouri Synod church together. The long sermon was centered on the importance of the divine inspiration of Scripture. When it came time for the Sacrament, the pastor seemingly had decided that the service was going too long. He rushed through the Verba, contrary to the expressed teaching of the Confessions. (In 1998 Fr. Fenton published an article pointing out that the Formula of Concord, Article VII, line 79, is a rubric. The Formula there states that the Words of Institution “should be spoken or sung distinctly and clearly.”)

It was hard not to conclude from this pastor’s conduct that Missouri Synod Lutherans were not saved by grace through faith in our risen Lord and Savior, but because they were smarter than others about the right doctrine of Scripture. His lack of reverence at the altar did not reflect well upon the doctrine of the real presence. Examples like this can be multiplied and are a source of offence to anyone who, like John Fenton, think that doctrine should be reflected in practice.

McCain does not have to bother himself about “beautiful doctrine.” He accuses Fr. Fenton of dishonesty and fiscal malfeasance. And, again, typical in the Missouri Synod, he has an anonymous source as the basis of a personal attack.

This is too much. Paul McCain’s dishonesty is a matter of public record, no anonymous source needed. He is the editor of the most dishonest edition of the Book of Concord ever published in the English language. He was forced to stop publication of the first edition because of his duplicitous editorial tampering and issue a fifteen-page booklet of corrections. The unfortunate thing is that the booklet only proves that the handsome volume is completely unreliable for any serious study. I would also argue that the provided corrections are incomplete. And, of course, there is fiscal impropriety in accepting money for a deficient product.


John Fenton has decided that Lutheran doctrine is deficient. He is wrong in this. However, he is on moral high ground to follow his conscience rather than continue in the LCMS. He certainly deserves more respect than those who remain in the Synod and explicitly teach that Lutheranism is deficient and needs to be supplemented by American Protestantism’s Church Growth theology. Paul McCain is no advocate of Church Growth, but he happily promotes the new LCMS hymnal that owes much to this theology.

John Fenton bears full responsibility for his decision. He has failed to understand that the Church is hidden. Nevertheless, there are those in the Synod who use the “hiddenness” of the Church to hide from their responsibility to confess the Faith and suffer under the cross.

Temptations must come, but it is a matter for repentance when temptations are surrendered to, causing one of the Lord’s little ones to fall.

Lord have mercy on us all.


Jason Gerson said...

Just so you know, it is considered poor form to mention a blog site article and not link to it.

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Jason,
Whether it is poor form or not, I do not know. Regardless, it is hardly necessary. Mr. McCain has not only published his article on his popular WEB page, but on several others. And now you have it on mine. Which is fine by me. It is sad to have to say, but readers who enjoy McCain's uncharitable rant probably would not be interested in anything I have to say. Though I would encourage them to give it a try.