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Chesterton’s Fence

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In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

~ G.K. Chesterton, 1929, The Thing


In doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new [neue, nova] and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.

~ Every Lutheran (by virtue of his confession of the Conclusion to the Augsburg Confession, paragraph 5).


We live in an age of rapid change. Things are changing so quickly that hardly anyone remembers the Dark Ages when the state only recognized traditional biological marriage. Even now-ardent supporters of same sex “marriage” were recently on-board with traditional marriage to the exclusion of allowing same sex couples to “marry.”

But culturally speaking, that was eons ago, even gone down the Memory Hole. Things now change by the minute. “Life is change,” says Canadian author Louise Penny, “If you aren’t growing and evolving, you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead.” Businessman Alan Deutschman puts it bluntly: “Change or die.” The famous Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong (who denies the supernatural, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the atonement) took this dictum to heart in his famous 1998 book: Why Christianity Must Change or Die, the subtitle of which includes the words: “A New Reformation of the Church’s Faith and Practice.”

As Christianity dwindles both in cultural influence and sheer numbers, many Lutherans are looking to see which elements of Christianity are “successful” and are looking at the issue like one of salesmanship and marketing, employing surveys and focus groups. In other words, since success can be replicated by imitation, by implementation of a successful program or strategy, why not change the way we do things (practice) in order to save our doctrine?

This divorce between style and substance has been around for quite some time. In 1988, Concordia Publishing House published David Luecke’s influential work: Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance: Facing America’s Mission Challenge.

And so there has been an unhappy bifurcation and unnatural separation between confessional faithfulness and missionary zeal. Those who believe that we should strive to keep the Lutheran substance while adopting the fill-in-the-blank-whatever-is-popular-now style often use business argot or vocabulary taken from non-Lutheran denominations in their attempt to create a new way of thinking about church and evangelism. It is like unto The Party’s use of Newspeak in 1984. And this radical new way of thinking and speaking is necessary, as Lutherans naturally tend toward conservatism. Charles Porterfield Krauth’s seminal 1871 work to restore a more authentic Lutheran doctrine and practice was entitled The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. His work was over and against the wildly popular “New Measures” of Charles G. Finney, which offered non-liturgical worship and emotional popular-sounding music as opposed to hymns and liturgy - and was specifically denounced by the LCMS’s first constitution.

“Conservative” here doesn’t mean red-state conservatism, the Republican Party, or even a sense of cultural mores. Conservative in this context refers to its derivation from the Latin “conservare” meaning “to preserve”). The opposite of conservatism isn’t necessarily “liberalism” but is more accurately “progressivism,” which teaches that change is always good, for it moves society along in an evolutionary process of improvement. Of course, progressivism is based on Darwinism and a denial of original sin. As a side note, identifying conservatism with a political party has its dangers, as the Republican Party was actually the left-wing progressive, even Marxist-influenced party for its first few decades, versus the Democrat Party’s conservatism which persisted until the days of William Jennings Bryan and the Progressive movement, when the parties began to shift poles (see Red Republicans and Lincoln’s Marxists).

The Book of Concord always sees innovation as a bad thing. The Conclusion of the Augsburg Confession (5) denounces innovations in doctrine and in ceremonies, calling them “new and ungodly.” Article 24 of the Augustana (30) denounces the Roman Catholic doctrine that Christ’s death only makes satisfaction for original sin and not all other sin as “an unheard of innovation” (eine unerhörte Neuigkeit). Article 27 refers to the belief of monastic life as a “state of perfection” as an innovation (“a new saying” – eine neue Rede, novam vocem). Article 2 of the Apology (2) likewise denies that we teach something new regarding original sin, making the case that “this will free us from the suspicion of novelty (novitatis, Neues oder ungehörtes).” Again on the subject of innovations regarding original sin, Apology Article 2 denounces innovations: “our preachers… have delivered nothing that is new (nihil novi, nichts Neues), but have set forth Holy Scripture and the judgments of the Holy Fathers.”

The word “new” appears in the English translation of the Book of Concord 237 times, and it is stunning how many times it is not merely a negative thing, but a horrific and abominable thing.

While the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century spun a narrative that Lutherans were teaching a “new” religion with “new” doctrines and a “new” liturgy, the contention of the reformers was (and is) that they, the Roman Catholics, are the innovators. A quick glance at articles 22-28 of the Augustana (which address specific reforms in practice made by the reformers) reveals that the Lutherans were not innovating, not introducing changes, but were rather reverting back to older, more catholic, more traditional, practices. These articles involved not innovations, but rather “abuses which have been corrected.” This is elaborated by the statements: “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new [qui novi sunt]” (1) and “Nothing would serve better to maintain the dignity of ceremonies, and to nourish reverence and pious devotion among the people than if the ceremonies were observed rightly in the churches” (6).

And how do “our churches” assure that “ceremonies” are “observed rightly”? Article 24 explains this in great detail, as the opening paragraph in Apology 24 says: “We do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things” (1). Note that this means traditional liturgical worship forms and vestments, every-Sunday communion, closed communion, as well as Holy Absolution and preaching according to a lectionary.

And so there is a healthy impulse among Lutherans not to tear down “Chesterton’s Fence” without very careful consideration. Back to articles 22-28, look at how these reforms were not innovations at all, but rather re-institutions of older, more traditional catholic practices that were themselves casualties of the impulse of Rome to introduce novelty:

  • Article 22 – restoring both kinds in the Sacrament (withholding the chalice from the laity was a 15th century innovation that the Lutherans rolled back)

  • Article 23 – restoring the marriage of priests (even the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church was married, with priestly celibacy being an innovation of the Roman Church)

  • Article 24 – restoring the earlier understanding of the ceremonies of the Mass (including saying Mass in the vernacular language as was previously the case, abolishing innovations such as treating the Mass as a propitious sacrifice)

  • Article 25 – restoring the earlier understanding of Confession and Absolution (without a conditional satisfaction of penance attached)

  • Article 26 – restoring the earlier more evangelical view of fasting

  • Article 27 – restoring the ancient view of monasticism

  • Article 28 – restoring the ancient view of bishops and polity.

There are two areas where we 21st century Lutherans are suffering the effects of innovation: worship and polity.

According to the narrative of Lutherans as innovators, we now see pastors, congregations, synod and district executives, and presidents at the district and sometimes synod level arguing that we must change our practices for the sake of attracting unbelievers. Some of the casualties of this philosophy (clearly at odds with our Book of Concord) include: closed communion, every Sunday communion, vestments, lectionary preaching, hymns, hymnals, consistent wordings for creeds and the confession of sins, the use of gestures such as kneeling, the sign of the cross, and the pastor’s elevation of the consecrated elements. In fact, there is a tendency to imitate the ceremonies, practice, and vocabulary of the non-denominational megachurch in an attempt to become megachurches ourselves.

Hence the phenomena of rock music, dancing girls, skits, raised hands, dancing, jumping, the use of streamers, pastors wearing pop-culture or sports costumes, immersion baptisms (often without catechesis), the reconfiguration of the chancel so as to diminish the altar and replace it with a stage, to replace biblical preaching with TED-talk style presentations or self-help sessions.

All of these things are innovations.

And this explains why some LCMS churches are abolishing the name “Lutheran” and in some cases even the word “Church” from their names. The label “Lutheran” bears the connotation of conservatism, and this is the kiss of death to the youth-driven megachurch goal of numerical success. And so across denominational lines, we see trendy, focus-group driven church-names that are as generic as they are contrived, with unusual capitalization and exclamation points. The name “Church” itself is, well, too churchy.

Names of apostles, of saints, and even names of Christ and God are being chucked in favor of names of neighborhoods or cities or “community”, not to mention focus-group approved abstractions.

Even the terminology of church buildings are sometimes renamed “worship centers” with the words “campus” and “plant” taking the place of such terms as “nave” or “sanctuary.” Even discipleship has been converted into a kind of Idiocracy-style Newspeak, as “disciples” are now “Jesus-followers,” and God the Father has become the ever popular “Father-God” whom “we-just-wanna praise and thank” – when all the while, we have two thousand years of spiritual treasure in terms of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, all gathering dust in the attic. We prefer the convenience of the throw-away paper plate to the treasures of our great-grandmother’s china. We have swapped out the theological depth of Johann Sebastian Bach for the inanity of Taylor Swift. After all, why sing praises to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring when “haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate”?

The other area that we have suffered for the sake of innovation involves polity. The reformers (and we by embracing their confession) recognize that the church’s ancient polity of bishop-priest-deacon – though man-made and a matter of adiaphora – was the preferred arrangement for church governance: “It is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops (der Bischöfe Regiment)], even though they have been made by human authority [provided the bishops allow our doctrine and receive our priests] (24).

This became impossible in Germany, as none of the canonically consecrated bishops joined the reformation. This led to a presbyterial succession of ordination, as pastors ordained other pastors (the laity did not ordain pastors). The preferred episcopal polity was maintained in Scandinavia, and by extension, into Africa, the Baltics, and Russia.

In the United States, we have become increasingly committed to Democracy (even though the founding fathers were opponents of democracy, favoring instead the Republican model of government). One will find many American courthouses inscribed “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (“The voice of the people [is] the voice of God”). In fact, the first use of that expression was written by the great Christian philosopher Alcuin in stating something that is untrue!

American Lutheran polity is somewhat republican in form, but nevertheless heavily laden with the democratic practices of votes and majorities. The most lurid danger of this kind of polity is seen in the Lutheran Church of Australia, in which the majority of delegates to their synod favor women’s ordination. They only lack the super-majority necessary to change the church’s doctrine. But how can doctrine be changed by majority vote? Can we vote unicorns into existence? Can we remove gravity by an act of convention?

Our election of presidents (synod and district) have become increasingly bitter and political, growing to match the gaping American political divide between Red and Blue states. Political canvassing and campaigning, once at least done behind the scenes, has become as ubiquitous as the billboards of attorneys seeking clients for crashes with 18-wheelers (can you say, “Deep pockets?”).

Gottesblogger the Rev. John Bussman wrote a piece critical of this increasing politicking (“Let The Games Begin”). An anonymous commenter, “PT”, wrote:

”Political games” go both ways. Just had a circuit forum where pastors who hardly, one who never comes, came just to be nominated and vote. This is wrong in my opinion.”

While I can’t speak to his situation, a very similar thing happened in my circuit. I don’t attend circuit meetings (I have two regular paying jobs, other side hustles, three chaplaincies, civic duties, as well as editing for Gottesdienst and the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society) in addition to a full-time parish ministry and being a husband and father. Moreover, in the past, our circuit and district had been so one-sided that voting would literally have been a waste of time.

As our circuits are drawn today, there is a more “liberal” (for lack of better term) local circuit and a more “conservative” circuit. My circuit is overwhelmingly comprised of congregations that are liturgical, practice every Sunday closed communion, and emphasize the teaching of the Lutheran confessions. They use the hymnal, not screens. They do not use “praise songs” from outside of our confessional Lutheran tradition. I have been at my congregation for 13 years. The other confessional pastors in our circuit have served 23, 20, and 16 years in the same congregation respectively. We all teach the same things, and are on the same page in doctrine and practice.

Now, I would much rather spend my time reading the Bible and Confessions than the Bylaws and Robert’s Rules. But having said that, we opted for an innovative polity in our synod. In fact, our synod is a representative, deliberative body comprised of delegations who vote. I spent a couple years as an active member of the National Association of Parliamentarians. I spent a year as our local chapter’s secretary. Parliamentary procedure is a helpful tool for making sure that all voices are heard, that discussion ensues, and everyone is represented. Without parliamentary procedure, such deliberative bodies degenerate into an oligarchy of the richest, biggest, and loudest – which in our current American situation means non-liturgical megachurches. In fact, some pastors of megachurches have been beating the drum to get proportional representation. This is a flawed interpretation of our polity, as congregations and church workers – not individual laymen – are the members of synod,. And so our system of representation involves half pastor and half lay delegates to discourage domination by one or the other. Our congregations (members of synod) are represented at the circuit forum. And at the triennial synod, our circuits are the lowest unit represented.

In our situation, none of the other pastors were willing or able to represent our circuit. Not that I’m keen on it, but had I not been willing to be nominated, our circuit could have been represented by a delegation at odds with our view – which defies the very reason deliberative representative bodies exist.

I wish that we didn’t have synod and district conventions. I wish we didn’t have presidential elections. I wish we were more in line with our confessions – the way our brethren in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church govern themselves. But as the saying goes, “if wishes and buts were candy and nuts, Christmas would be every day.”

So unless I put myself forward, our congregations could well have been disenfranchised. And that would have been “wrong.”

Maybe PT’s situation is different. I don’t know. But I do know this: our circuit has the right to be represented by a liturgical, closed communion, and confessional delegation. Otherwise, the entire polity becomes not only a joke, but a means for the wealthy churches to tyrannize the poorer ones.

Chesterton’s Fence is an apt metaphor for our Lutheran confession. No, we may not change doctrine. And yes, we have made changes in the ways we do things (such as organs, electric lighting, air conditioning, etc.). But change has not been simply for change’s sake, not dictated by a desire to appeal to unbelievers, and its pace has been not only torturously slow, but also introspective and laden with healthy skepticism.

Another famous dictum of Mr. Chesterton is his notion of the “democracy of the dead.” It is also an apt and fitting description of how decisions are made among us in the Conservative Reformation:

“Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Orthodoxy, 1908).

Before we call the question as to whether or not to destroy the fence, we should check the credentials of the delegates and not disenfranchise our wise and sainted forbears – especially those men whose writings are, by vows and promises – normative to our doctrine and practice.

Perhaps we should be mending and strengthening our fences instead of destroying them.

Larry Beane1 Comment