Straddling the Fence: The Admission of Defeat
“He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that
gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad.” —Matthew 12:30
On October 31st we celebrate the four-hundred ninety-ninth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation; and we offer praise and thanks to God for the stalwart, vocal, active and unflinching stand of Martin Luther and his faithful brethren for the truth of God’s Word, for the name of their Savior, and for the principles whereby we are made wise unto salvation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fidei. Had Luther been a “fence-sitter,” even a “talker” and “protester,” but only a “poser;” if he had not been a fighter, ready to take on the juggernaut of the Papacy single-handedly if necessary, armed only with “the Sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17) and prepared to suffer the consequences, even death, rather than to take one step backward in compromise, in accommodation, in “tactical retreat” from the enemy, there would have been no “reformation” of the church; and we would still be steeped in soul-destroying error, captive to “the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), spiritually enslaved to the very Antichrist (II Thessalonians 2:1-12) and, following his teachings, on the road to hell!
In his first epistle chapter three, Peter exhorts his readers, including us Christians today, who have sanctified the Lord God in their hearts by faith, to stand up for Jesus, to give testimony from conviction and confidence, with readiness and preparedness, with meekness and Godly fear, in mounting a courageous defense of their faith. He says: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (v. 15). By way of example, we follow the Lord’s apostles in the Book of Acts and observe how they conducted themselves as Christian soldiers on the battlefield of this world. To characterize their work as anything less would be to diminish “the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12) which they so courageously fought and also reduce to a mere exaggeration the Savior’s prophecy: “Ye shall be hated of all men for My Name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9), and His prediction: “The time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2). We read in Acts 5 that the apostles were constantly harassed, arrested, and hauled off to court for preaching and teaching, for healing the sick and those vexed by the devil, yea, for doing nothing at all unlawful but only that which was beneficial to their neighbor, both temporally and spiritually. But by God’s grace, they continued to preach, to heal, to testify, to lay it on the line, no matter what their enemies did or threatened to do to silence them! The prospect of confrontation did not frighten them, the voices of intimidation did not weaken them, the injunction of the court did not stop them. They stood their ground and stated the principle that will endure to all times, the First Commandment principle that overrides the authority of governments, popes, princes, and today’s synodical officials: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
But there is another tactic which has been used by those who find themselves in spiritually confrontational situations —a tactic which many have deemed to be much “wiser” and more desirable than meeting the enemy head-on, taking risks, suffering abuse, and even “breaking a sweat” in the battle for principle, in defense of the truth, for conscience sake, and for the honor of God. It is the tactic employed by Gamaliel (Acts 5:34ff.), the tactic of sitting on the fence to wait out the battle. To many here in this world, —yea, to many who claim to be Christians, to many who claim to be Christian theologians, indeed, to many who claim to be Lutheran theologians— the “art of compromise” is the wise and peaceful way to go, especially when religious controversy is involved; and the “wait-and-see” attitude is preferred over jumping into the fray. Nobody gets hurt; everybody gets something. In fact, the proponents of this tactic claim that much is gained from their inaction; and they imagine their silent “stand,” their quiet “conservatism,” their determination merely to “survive” without getting bloody, to be a “fight.” On the contrary, we see from the title-text of our article that, far from fighting “the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12), far from standing up with a bold confession of Christ before men (Matthew 10:32), and far from achieving a victory for the cause of God’s truth, spiritual fence-sitting is the admission of defeat.
The advice of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 has often been referred to as “wise” counsel to the Sanhedrin, even “Scriptural” counsel; and the Pharisee has been praised for his wisdom. What did he advise? “Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” (v. 38-39a). Sorry, Gamaliel, but your profound advice is what we call today a “no-brainer”! It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that fighting against God is a useless and fruitless effort! Rather, let us view this advice from where Gamaliel was sitting. Gamaliel was “on the fence” — trying to do a balancing act between what would be a “quick fix” to the vexing problem of these so-called “apostles” [getting them out of the way once and for all] and the “long term,” more politically expedient, tack of “wait-and-see” what they’re up to. After all, by this time the Christian Church had become a kind of power to be reckoned with: 3,000 souls on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), another 5,000 after the healing of the lame man by Peter and John (Acts 4:4). And there were, of course, the Romans to consider. After all, the Sanhedrin’s hair-brained scheme to pressure Pilate to crucify Jesus of Nazareth backfired miserably! Just look at His movement NOW, only three months after His death and resurrection!
The Sanhedrin was “on the fence” too. They thought they had gotten rid of Jesus, but they were wrong. They had flexed their muscle at the apostles and had forbidden them to preach in Jesus’ Name, but that wasn’t working either. So they hauled the apostles back into court to have them show cause why they shouldn’t have been held in contempt, and they got a sermon from Peter! They were “fed up”! They “took counsel to slay [the apostles]” (v. 33). What else could they do?? —They looked to Gamaliel for advice. After all, he had the experience; he was a shrewd Pharisee; he had the degree [“a doctor of the Law”]; he had the “reputation among all the people” (v. 34). “Let’s see what HE has to say.”
Instead of doing the RIGHT thing by going to the sacred scrolls and comparing what the apostles had to say with what “Moses and the prophets” had written; instead of relying upon the infallible wisdom of Scripture doctrine, they relied upon the reputation of a mere man. And this right after the apostles had told them: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Spiritual fence-sitters have always done this, allowed themselves to be influenced and their decisions to be formed by what others told them to do— Eve by the serpent, Adam by Eve, Lot by the men of Sodom, Aaron by the elders of Israel, King Darius by the presidents of Babylon, Pilate by the chief priests, King Agrippa by the governor Festus, and so on. Thus the early Christian Church brought upon itself the Papacy by relying upon reputation and clout and influence over doctrine. Thus in our own time the once orthodox Missouri Synod forsook its solid position on the sound doctrine of God’s Word and chose to be ruled by a hierarchy of theologians, so that when laymen wondered what stand they should take in this or that matter, they relied upon their pastors to decide for them (whether those pastors were faithful or not, cf. I Corinthians 4:2). And pastors, who should have been well-equipped and unashamed workmen (II Timothy 2:15), well able to judge on the basis of sola Scriptura, looked to the seminary faculty for answers. All of them, laymen, pastors, and professors alike, with only rare exceptions, were quite content (as evidenced by their silence and lack of decisive action) to follow what the synodical officials and committees thought, decided, arranged and dictated. Indeed, when many of the chief and powerful “luminaries” of the Synod departed and continued to depart from Scripture, refusing to be corrected, and kept on causing divisions and offenses contrary to sound doctrine (Romans 16:17), the rank-and-file followed them “rank-and-file;” and the Synod, at least from the early fifties, began to decide matters of doctrine and practice in committees, conferences and conventions by majority vote instead of by Scriptural unanimity; and this practice continues down to the present day! Gone was the “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) and the unanimity of one mind and one voice (I Corinthians 1:10) with which the Missouri Synod had spoken in the days of its orthodoxy. And still today, so-called, self-styled “conservatives” look to men of reputation for their advice, “conservatives-in-high-places” who surely will lead them in the right direction and “save the Synod” on their terms, instead of relying upon the doctrine of God’s pure Word to guide and lead them! No wonder they have what they have today in those large church bodies!
Never let it be said of YOU, beloved reader, that, just because your pastor takes such and such a stand on such and such an issue, you’ll do the same! “Try the spirits” (I John 4:1) as to whether they are following Scripture and Scripture alone before you cue up behind them! Don’t be a spiritual fence-sitter, relying upon reputation over doctrine; for that will be your admission of defeat in the spiritual battle for God’s precious truth that you must wage and win here in this world! Rather, “take heed…unto the doctrine,” Paul says, when you make your stand, when you open your mouth to testify, “for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (I Timothy 4:16). And as to those who depart from that pure doctrine, the Apostle writes in Romans 16:17, “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them!” Don’t accommodate them; don’t “split the difference” with them; don’t just debate with them; and don’t “stay in and fight” windmills with much “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare). The Apostle Paul’s words are as clear as crystal; and there is NO so-called “time-element” either stated or implied in his directive, “avoid them,” that grants you or anyone else a fifty or sixty year window of option to obey or to ignore it!
Now, as we go back to Gamaliel’s advice, we find that nowhere did he, “a doctor of the Law,” an expert on the Old Testament Scriptures, refer his learned colleagues to the Scriptures. Remember that this was a spiritual matter before the Sanhedrin, one which should have been decided on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, which are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:16-17). Yet, Gamaliel referred the members of the council to two historical cases, that of Theudas and his following of some four hundred men, and Judas of Galilee at the time of the second census under Cyrenius and his revolt against the government. Both of these movements failed, Gamaliel told the Jews; and this Jesus-of-Nazareth cult could do exactly the same. “Let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught” (v. 34).
Nowhere did Gamaliel refer his fellow councilmen to the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah, concerning His Gospel message, concerning His gracious kingdom, concerning His vicarious atonement, concerning His full and free salvation! For if he had, he would have led them to a completely different conclusion, namely, “Let them alone; don’t persecute them; for they are the servants of the most high God! Let us repent of our sins against God’s promised Messiah, throw ourselves upon His mercy, confide in His promised forgiveness, and do all in our power to extend His gracious kingdom among us!”
But, no, Gamaliel wasn’t about to go that far, even though some commentators think that he had come to that conclusion personally. There’s simply no evidence for that proposition in Acts 5. He simply sat on the fence and treated the “Jesus movement” historically, suggesting that it might well be a passing fad!
Now when we study Church history, we don’t do it to evaluate our doctrinal position and the orthodoxy and viability of our fellowship! THAT we do on the basis of Scripture alone, which doesn’t permit us to “sit on the fence” regarding doctrine and practice, but rather requires us to get OFF any “fence” and judge our position according to the only source and standard of doctrine, faith, and life: The Holy Word of our God! For “if [we] continue in [Christ’s] Word, THEN are [we His] disciples indeed,” He tells us (John 8:31). That’s the standard. —History only shows us in retrospect how departure from sound doctrine has been the cause of countless “divisions and offenses” (Romans 16:17) in the Church over the centuries, that these all have that one feature in common, and that, even though many sects have been successful in terms of numbers (contrary to Gamaliel’s standard), they are still heterodox, false, pernicious, and dangerous, their outward success notwithstanding!
Judging by Gamaliel’s historical standards, our little fellowship of congregations is not “of God” because we, numerically-speaking, have “come to naught” by the world’s reckoning. And if spiritual fence-sitters look at us in the Concordia Lutheran Conference to see whether we are “of God” or “of men,” looking to history instead of to Scripture in order to make their judgment, they will come to the wrong conclusion! —What’s your conclusion, dear reader? Do you sit on the fence, waiting with bated breath to see if our church and Conference and fellowship will fall with the passage of time, waiting for historical eventuality to judge between truth and error, between right and wrong?? May God graciously forbid that you ever fall into that trap of Satan, for the judgment of Scripture is that we will get smaller and smaller (Luke 12:32; 18:8) and less influential with every passing day (John 16:2) until the Lord comes; but “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13), vindicated not by history, but by the judgment of Christ Himself according to His Word!
Fence-sitters like Gamaliel, and like the members of the Sanhedrin who blindly followed his leading, fear to fight. That’s why they sit on the fence in the first place. They’re not sure of anything! Using plain “common sense,” they don’t want to “fight against God,” as Gamaliel told the Jews (though they do so in their rejection of Scripture and of the Savior it reveals to them). But their compromising attitude, like that of Pilate, who asked Jesus: “What is truth?” makes them also unwilling to take a stand. Gamaliel’s advice, in essence, was just to “wait it out.” Fence-sitters are notorious for that cowardly tack, including all those former brethren of sixty-five years ago who simply stayed in the heterodox Missouri Synod, claiming that their motive was to “fight” from within, but who in the course of time became leavened with complacency and indifference to the truth, mounted no fight at all, and lost their sense of sight from sitting in the dark, so that now they’re blind and can’t find the exit from their burning building! They’re not “wise” when they operate like Gamaliel!! A person is not “wise” when he refuses to bail out of a crashing plane, to ditch a sinking ship, or to flee a raging inferno, but waits for someone of reputation to advise him, waits for the lessons of history to teach him what to do, and fears to make a decision on the basis of sound principles. That’s not “wise,” that’s plain foolish! It’s a recipe for sure disaster. Spiritual fence-sitting is an admission of defeat, pure and simple. There’s no fight in a compromiser! He identifies no enemy to confront! He recognizes no objective for his assault! He sees no purpose for the conflict! There’s no hill to defend! There’s no crown to win!
Jesus says in our title-text: “He that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad” (Matthew 12:30). We can’t have it both ways as Christians, as Christian soldiers. We have to get OFF the fence and ON our feet spiritually like the dear apostles who, though they had been severely beaten and commanded that they should NOT speak in the name of Jesus, their precious Savior, “rejoic[ed] that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name. And daily in the Temple and in every house, they CEASED NOT to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” God grant US that same courage — the courage of the apostles, the courage of Luther and his co-workers, the courage of our orthodox “fathers” who by God’s grace and with His neverfailing help marked and avoided the heterodox Missouri Synod in 1951, sixty-five years ago this month, two of them on Reformation night— uncompromisingly and untiringly to fight the cause of our dear Savior and His precious Word of Truth for His Name’s sake —and for OUR OWN sake!
Saints and heroes long before us
firmly on this ground have stood!
See their banner waving o’er us,
conquerors through the Savior’s blood.
Ground we hold whereon of old
fought the faithful and the bold.
Fighting we shall be victorious
by the blood of Christ our Lord!
On our foreheads, bright and glorious,
shines the witness of His Word!
Spear and shield on battlefield,
His great Name we dare not yield!
(TLH 472, 2 and 3)
— D. T. M.