On Fences and Fears

Mary Todd

Daystar Free Conference II

One Body/One Spirit

Mundelein, Illinois
30 October 2000

[© 2000 Mary Todd. All rights reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author.]

I will readily admit to you that I am a reluctant keynoter today. I had agreed to be conference chair long before David cornered me about speaking. How awkward, I said. That’s highly unusual, said my mentor. But David prevailed, as David often does, by pushing my accountability button. The book was out, people were starting to take note of it, and I had identified an issue that I thought helped explain some of what was going on in the church today – authority. We’re in the thick of the political season. If James Carville were here, he would reduce all the talk to a sign that said, “It’s authority, stupid.” But he’s not here, I am. And I’m not going to insult you like that.

But I am going to talk this morning about f-words. I get a lot of distance out of f-words, it seems. In gender and women’s studies classes we struggle to define feminism, in history classes fundamentalism, and sometimes we even talk about the curious intersection of the two. But those aren’t the f-words I am thinking of today, though they could be, because both those words—though not often heard in synodical discourse—have great relevance to the issues that bring us together at this conference. So I would certainly suggest that both merit discussion when assessing the current state of the church. Today, however, I want to talk about two other words I’ve been thinking about lately. They also relate to the current state of the church. Today’s f-words are fences and fears.



My hairdresser was telling me one day how angry she was that her neighbor had asked her to put up a higher fence between their yards because the neighbor was afraid of JoAnn’s dogs, two male bull mastiffs that weigh in at about 165 pounds each. (Never mind that one of these dogs takes Prozac for his panic disorder and is afraid to go outside except in his own yard.) The higher fence would mean a considerable expense and would be a nuisance to have built. But, grumbling, JoAnn went ahead and had it done. And then she discovered something — she actually liked her new fence! Because it made her yard more private, she moved from having been highly annoyed to concluding that what she had done was well worth the expense. She liked it so much, in fact, that she decided to have the rest of her fence raised as well.

There’s a lesson in that story somewhere. Why do we build fences? To keep something out or to keep something in?

For three years I have been participating in a national initiative, under a Lilly endowment, called the Rhodes Consultation on the Future of the Church-Related College. At our first regional meeting at Goshen College in Indiana, our host took us to an Amish home for an authentic Amish dinner. On the way we stopped at the Amish and Mennonite Museum and History Center, where we began our tour by watching a video. Keith, my Mennonite colleague and our host, sat down next to me as the video began with a panoramic view of a farmhouse and barn and vast acreage, all surrounded by an endless white fence. Then he turned to me and said, “Notice the use and symbolism of fences in this video. They mean it to be that way.” And of course anyone who has studied religious history knows that the nature of sectarians is separation from those who are different. Fences mark boundaries, whether made of white picket or barbed wire.

Ten days ago we held the biennial meeting of the Lutheran Historical Conference in Milwaukee at Wisconsin Lutheran College, since the Wisconsin Synod is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. As program chair I heard a number of comments about how much others at this pan-Lutheran gathering appreciated learning about the Wisconsin Synod, since they’d known next-to-nothing prior. And while our hosts were most gracious, what was missing from our fellowship was any hint of prayer or worship. That had been part of the stipulation as I met with the planning committee, since Wisconsin fellowships with no one. Here was evidence of a different kind of fence, clear but invisible.

We have some of those, too, in Missouri, but most of our fences are more visible. We have a gender fence that’s pretty apparent—no girls allowed in our tree house. And we have a very visible fence in the communion rail (whether you have a real rail in your chancel or not). We have fences around fellowship and fences around academic freedom, and fences around publications and you can probably think of other examples. I don’t mean to suggest that fences in principle are all or always bad. But what concerns me is that we seem more and more to be building them higher. And like my hairdresser, liking it that way.

Fences and walls are symbols that provide ready images. They can also serve as metaphors. For example, a familiar image in American culture is that of neighbors talking over the fence between their yards. But when the fence is too high, not only is it hard to talk to the neighbor, it’s hard to see her.

One of the most visible symbols of 20th century history is the Berlin Wall that served for 28 years as a tangible dividing line between not only East and West Germany but between the free world and the Communist bloc.

Some of you I know have traveled to China, where the Great Wall extends across an entire early border. There are those today who would have us build a similar wall along our national border to the south.

In American history we speak often but not always accurately about the wall of separation between church and state. And my generation of 60s youth remains haunted by the deep scar of a monument in Washington that is known simply as The Wall.

Perhaps you are familiar with the world’s longest running musical, The Fantasticks?  The cast of characters includes “A boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall.” The fathers invent a pseudo-feud to ensure their children will fall in love but the story doesn’t unfold so easily. When in the end, the young lovers are finally together, the fathers want to tear down the wall, at which point the narrator recites perhaps the most famous line of the play: “Leave the wall. Remember you must always leave the wall!”



I believe that the newest fence or wall in our church body today is also the most contested notion in its history—authority. Rarely considered in and of itself, it usually comes bundled with a whole host of connectors—of scripture, of the pastoral office, of the congregation, of the synod, of men. I’ve done a lot of thinking about authority in the church and in general, but I have not found any substantive synodical discourse on the subject. Rather, “authority of” is claimed, and the conversation grinds to a halt. The fence is formidable.

So I’ve done some reading on the subject, the most useful of which discusses authority in the Roman Catholic tradition. Jesuit theologian David Stagaman believes authority is grounded in the authoritative. [1] Contrary to the more familiar Catholic understanding of authority as hierarchy, Stagaman suggests that “authority properly belongs to the community that authorizes persons to act in its name.” Hmmm. Sounds like Walther to me, as he helped organize a church body in which authority resides in the congregation and the synod is advisory only.

Stagaman is a partisan for what he calls a New Testament understanding of authority, expressed in stewardship and service. He considers dissent a necessary counterpoint to authority in the church. And to support his point he presents Paul as the patron saint of dissent of the post-Easter church in dispute over praxis with James, Peter and the Jerusalem church. But Paul was hardly the last to dissent. In the 4th century “dissenting believers kept the faith of Nicea alive in the church.” Eleventh century churchmen took issue with Pope Gregory’s reforms. And then there was Luther.

What an appropriate day to be thinking of Luther, who asked hard questions of his church. (I tend to do the same thing.) You know that’s what the 95 Theses were. Posting questions and asking for a disputation was the normative means of calling for scholarly debate in the medieval academy. Who today would approach a complaint with one’s church in such a methodical, almost plodding manner? What would you think if you came to church one Sunday and found a list like that on the church door? Well, today we might do it just a bit differently. In celebration of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between world Lutherans and Catholics just a year ago, the children of a Lutheran church in Evanston stuck 95 Post-It notes to their church door. Now there’s an idea!

Luther never intended to start a revolution, or even a reformation. Perhaps at best he hoped for a restoration of what he believed the church should be. And I think that’s what we are about as well. We may express our dissent differently than the great Reformers did, but we believe it is neither inappropriate nor disloyal to do so.

So again we find Stagaman helpful in his claim that “dissent is required for the appropriate exercise of authority in the church.” Dissent reminds authority of its temporal nature and requires authority to respond to both external and internal forces of change. Dissent restores authenticity to authority. Without dissent, the church is made up of obedient robots and significant discourse disappears. Conversation with only the like-minded frankly isn’t either very interesting or very challenging, but it does serve to reinforce limitation and maintain those fences that mark our boundaries.

Should not the church be the place where unprejudiced and open discussion of issues is the norm? Only if the people of God can speak freely and are encouraged to do so will the church renew itself. Being convinced that one is right does not grant entitlement to coerce others, belittle differing opinions or preclude conversation.

What would Luther say about authority and dissent? Paul Althaus noted that “for Luther, there is no unconditional authority in the church parallel to and apart from the Word of God.”[2] Authority is relative to and dependent on scripture. A Christian can unconditionally obey only Christ, not the church. Indeed, says Althaus, “the authority and thereby the duty to obey is based on and limited by the gospel.”

Another useful perspective on authority comes from Meneo Afonso, who teaches at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee. [3]  Afonso, arguing for a nonpolitical definition and use of authority in the church, writes that the self-understanding of the church develops in response to its political realities, and that it cannot understand itself apart from its history. You would rightly guess that is obviously a compelling argument to a historian. Further, if history is the locus of the church’s identity, then knowledge of history will surely help demythologize our view of the church, as just as knowledge of reality helps demythologize our view of human nature. In both cases, however, we have to be honest about it.

So what is the essential reality of the church? God’s presence in grace among us. Afonso goes on to wonder what the church would look like if it considered authority from this understanding of the church. Here a Lutheran reading can offer an answer to this Catholic scholar’s question. What was the Reformation but a challenge to the church’s definition of authority? The most serious crisis of authority in its history, the Reformation was a direct assault on the hierarchical structure of the church and its self-understanding. Times of crisis usually create a need for clarity regarding identity, and in the context of criticism one tends to define self over against one’s challenger and the perceived threat. So it follows that the Catholic Counter-Reformation of Trent affirmed the nature of authority in the Roman tradition.

All this history can inform us today, but again, we need to be honest about the past. Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, in an interview with Commonweal last January, makes an important distinction between the historian and the theologians of the church. [4]  Let me share a bit of his thinking: “The hierarchy is always looking, not in any malevolent sense, to the past to justify its own actions. It is very important that if the church goes to the past, then it should be the real past it goes to and not some fantasy or some heritage past that has been manicured and tidied up.” Then Duffy addresses the bigger question: can the church ever admit it got things wrong? Duffy, like Garry Wills in his book, Papal Sin, believes it must, because “people will think less of a theology that does not confront history. . . . If your theology cannot face the truth, then it’s not itself telling the truth.” On this point there is a built-in potential for conflict between the theologians of the church and its historians. Wills suggests the Vatican has perpetuated a “structure of deceit” rather than admit it was wrong regarding a whole list of things, for to do so would challenge its reliance on tradition. But is that honest?

The point for us today is that the Missouri Synod increasingly resembles the Roman Catholic hierarchy both in its foreclosure of debate on issues and its dismissal of any serious attention to its history. You cannot have it both ways, you know. You can’t insist “we’ve never done it that way before” and then recommend a wholesale abandonment of the way we’ve done things. Where’s the authority there? Not in the past, not in the tradition, but in a particular use (or more correctly, abuse?) of history, and a bullying, arbitrary use of authority.

The early church organized itself to respond to heresies. The current church seems to be reorganizing itself in the same manner.

In a climate of crisis and perceived external threats the church attempts to bring about organic coherence by strengthening central authority. This is neither a new nor original development—Christians have seen it before in the 1st Vatican Council of 1871 that declared the infallibility of the pope (much to the consternation of a good number of cardinals who strongly opposed this move). More recently the Southern Baptist Convention has effectively silenced the women of the church through successive pronouncements on their “gracious submission” and unsuitability for the pastoral office. This type of authority serves only to underline its own importance by making itself the authority.

But imagine for a moment how exciting a place the church could be if it instead adopted Stagaman’s New Testament model of stewardship and service, one in which “The best authority figures make us feel like insiders to the decision-making process. They are open, speak their minds out loud, reveal their purposes, and do not hold things back.”  What’s keeping us from that vision? It’s time for the second f-word. . . .



Life is based on trust. Trust is the very first developmental task an infant needs to master in life. If, however, we fail or refuse to trust one another, then we must introduce the notion of control, to assure that a situation comes out as we intend or need it to.

When I observe the state of the church, and remember that the essence of my understanding of church is that it is above all grounded in faith, I remain stumped at the lack of faith evident today. Attempts to control, censor or censure, calls for conformity in matters that are hardly essential to salvation—what’s going on here? Has the church lost faith in the confessional base of scripture alone that it has to create a longer list to which we must subscribe?

Why this ultimate need to control, to draw fences around ourselves and build them taller?

I’m sure every one of you has an example of some synodical attempt at control. We have some big ones before us in print. There are countless stories, like the one I heard recently about the LCMS Youth Gatherings, where even the banter between songs by the performers on stage must be scripted and pass doctrinal review before it can be spoken.

Folks are quick to say that control is bred in fear—fear of losing control, fear of dissent, fear of diversity, fear of innovation, fear of change, indeed, that the synod exists today amid a climate of fear. An interesting discussion on the list earlier this month followed a post that addressed the synodical response to cultural change as one of fear. Where’s the Gospel in all of this, Daystars asked?

What a good question! But then I grew puzzled. For as I think about the state of the church, I am stumped by a fundamental contradiction. Why, for example, aren’t there more people here? The most frequently heard reason is that the Midwest does not enjoy the freedom of expression more often found in the saltwater districts. I’ve heard pastors say, “I’m afraid.” And one circuit counselor looked straight at me one day last spring and said, “But you’re not.”  I told him the honest truth. I don’t know at what point fear lost its grip on me, but it has. I hadn’t been able to succinctly explain it until I heard Don Muchow say, in a recent visit to our campus: “You can either face the future with fear or you can face the future with faith.”

There was the crux of it, I thought. But I continue to wonder why men who are in the faith business are so very afraid. The care required to maintain the image of loyalty must tug very hard at one’s integrity and conscience.

What are you afraid of? Some would say culture itself. Society seems so different today from what it was, so alien. Historians would be the first to tell you that few generations have felt otherwise. Life is difficult. Life is about change. Change is growth.

What are you afraid of? Fear of doing things differently? What do they tell us are the Seven Last Words of the Church? We never did it that way before.

What are you afraid of? Fear of outsiders? We’ve always had that as well. Every wave of American immigration has been faced with a backlash of nativism, often most vocally expressed by those who were themselves descendants of immigrants.

What are you afraid of? Afraid for your church? Dan Martin wrote a powerful note on fear on Daystar one day in August, about how good people who are simply afraid for their church think and respond to the state of the church. Those folks see security in authority, but in an authority that cracks down on diversity. It’s easier to do that, you know, than to learn about new things and new people and new ideas. There’s security in the old and the familiar. Some people still don’t use the “new hymnal” for these very reasons.

What are you afraid of, men of God? I’m reminded of the bookend stories of Jesus’ life, and the appearance of angels who in each case tell the human players not to be afraid — to Mary at the annunciation, to Joseph, to the shepherds in the fields, to the women at the tomb. Jesus’ first words to the Marys on Easter morning were the same. But in each case the “Be not afraid” was not the end of it, but was followed by an imperative: go and tell! Those powerful messages from the messengers of God helped, but still I wondered.

Our campus is peopled by a lot of folks who wear those What Would Jesus Do? T-shirts or wristbands. So I decided to ask that question myself, and clicked open my MacBible software to do a word search and see what Jesus would say about all this fear.

Five times in just a few pages in the gospel of Mark we read of fear, and of Jesus either asking people what they were afraid of or telling them not to be. It is a frequent comment of his in each of the gospels. And it shouldn’t surprise us, we of little faith who so often forget to let God be God while we stay busy trying to be.

The Hebrew testament offers another, profoundly simple, answer: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

Good words to hold on to, but we humans have short memories. The fact of the matter is that fear has been a dominant force in human history. Those in power like it that way, because it is much easier to control people who fear you. The relatively few persons in history who risked life or reputation in the face of enormous fear are those we tend to celebrate as heroes. (The church often called those same people heretics, however.)

When we talk of heroes, we recognize in them the quality of courage. On the Fourth of July Americans celebrate the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but do we know what they risked in putting ink to that document? They knew their action was considered treasonable by England. And treason is punishable by death. Lutherans know well the story of Luther and the dangers he faced, and Bonhoeffer’s is another story of courage in the face of evil and danger.  We may not have stories of such high drama in our synod’s history, but we do have stories of courage. I think the Forty-Four qualify, first for convening and writing their Statement and then for not withdrawing it.

Arthur Koestler once said: “If the creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant us to stick it out.” But we rarely do, instead thinking it preferable to keep the peace, be good Christians, smooth things over, not stir things up, get over it. You know the cliches; your mother probably reminded you of them regularly.

A student of mine called one morning last summer to tell me a story about herself that she said she simply decided she wanted me to know. I was teaching a course in American religious history in which I always ask students in the first class period to introduce themselves in terms of their religious background. Michelle, in a gentle southern accent, said she held no particular religious belief, that she had a Southern Baptist background but was “nothing” currently. She described herself as an agnostic. The morning she called me was the day after we had viewed a video on Christian fundamentalism and discussed Bruce Bawer’s book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity. She wanted me to know that she had been sexually abused by a staff member in a Southern Baptist orphanage when she was 13. The abuse went on for a year before Michelle took a very big risk. She broke the no-talk rule against her abuser, for which she got thrown out of the orphanage. Her agnosticism, she realized, was a reaction to her reality. She was sure everyone felt the same way toward religion she did, and was surprised to learn otherwise from her classmates’ varying experiences. At the end of the course she wrote me this: “I feel as though there was something I had forgotten. That great truth that occurs to you that you can’t quite put into words. Something that you know you have to work through in order to understand and interpret, because it just isn’t simple. It just isn’t easy to express. Religion, isn’t it like this? I had forgotten how deep within us it lies. I had forgotten how there is a gentleness about it. I had forgotten the hope and comfort it offers. Now I know that not all religions close the minds of their followers. Please understand this is an awakening to me. It is also a relief to me.”

This very wise student of mine said one thing more that I’d like to share with you: “Nothing is more contagious than fear.”

Someone sent this poem by email one day. It came without attribution to an author, but it speaks volumes:

If there is fear, there is no imagination;

If there is fear, there is no creativity;

If there is fear, there is no risk;

If there is fear, there is no daring;

If there is fear, there is no experimentation;

If there is fear, there is no dream;

If there is fear, there is no sacrifice;

If there is fear, there is no questioning;

If there is fear, there is no courage;

If there is fear, there is no honesty;

If there is fear, there is no looking forward;

If there is fear, there is no freedom and independence;

If there is fear, there is no voice;

If there is fear, there is no action;

If there is fear, there is no individuality;

If there is fear, there is no real happiness, no real comfort;

If there is fear, there is no excitement, no vitality;

If there is fear, there is no reaching our full potential;


If there is fear, there is weakening;

If there is fear, there is silence;

If there is fear, there is surrender;

If there is fear, there is cowering;

If there is fear, there is only an echo;

If there is fear, there is only acquiescence;

If there is fear, there is playing it safe, being conventional;

If there is fear, there is going along to get along;

If there is fear, there is bondage;

If there is fear, there really isn’t very much going on except

going through the motions.

It appears the fear we find palpable in our church body today goes both ways—St. Louis is working out of fear and the church is responding in fear. What is the basis of this strange and unhealthy relationship? We had a discussion recently on the list about synod as family. Some of us took differing positions as to how we saw the relationship between the institutional and its members. Since that time I ran across yet another analysis about authoritarianism in churches, one premised on the church as parent.[5] The authors of this study, a spiritual director and a counselor, describe the difference between conditional or negative parenting and “good enough” parenting. This distinction has been used by other scholars to explain the polarization evident in the moral discourse in our society of late. Essentially it comes down to one’s fundamental understanding of human anthropology—are people by nature good or not, are they capable and competent beings or not? Conditional parents instill regular doses of fear; “good enough” parents provide instead regular affirmations of value and voice. Any of these analogies can be overdrawn, but what I found helpful in this family systems approach to churches was how well it explained the “closed system” of the dysfunctional family. In such a system, honest self-expression is virtually impossible and the growth and health of the whole family are seriously limited. These systems depend on top-down control, fear and shame to maintain the image of an intact family at the expense of wholeness or well-being. Both fences and fear are necessary to sustain the system. Interestingly, the authors’ solution to breaking the grip of the system is in “unmasking” illusions about the church. We seem to return always to matters of honesty.

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, said Bertrand Russell. But fear, like so many aspects of life, is more complicated than it might seem. Many of us in childhood learned that we were to fear and love the Lord. Wholesale rejection of the notion does not serve us well. In considering recently the unique place of paradox in Lutheran identity—the both/and tension of law and gospel, real presence, two kingdoms, at the same time saint and sinner—I recalled the rich tradition of midrash is in Judaism, in which rabbis apply their wisdom and understanding to interpret scripture. That model offers a refreshing opportunity to disagree profoundly on interpretation while upholding the authority of scripture. Muslims, too, have an equivalent to midrash. I heard this story the other day from a Muslim who told of a newly appointed caliph who sought counsel on being a good leader and was told this:

In your relationship with God, always fear God.

In your relationship with the people, never fear the people.


Luther would have liked that advice, I think. What he started almost 500 years ago tomorrow is known in history as the Reformation, but more accurately, was the first in a line of reformations. The church has been challenged by them all. Sometimes it has responded by putting up new fences, sometimes by knocking fences down, sometimes by building walls and sometimes by building bridges. At times it has stepped out in faith and fearing God, at times it has withdrawn in fear of the people.

A hymn we sang last week in worship sets the challenge of change before the pilgrim people of God and suggests what our response should be:

The Church of Christ in every age

Beset by change but Spirit led,

Must claim and test its heritage

And keep on rising from the dead. [LBW 433]

I can’t help but think that a colleague of mine was right, when in conversation the other day about the church and some very rigid students who come from this church body, said:

“Do they really think that when they get to heaven, God will greet them by saying:

‘Thank you for being so judgmental, for treating women so badly, and for excluding so many people from my altar.’

“My God wouldn’t say that,” she said.

So on this eve of Halloween, when synod comes trick-or-treating to our door we can say, “Oh, what a scary mask!” But you know there’s nothing to be afraid of if you are properly grounded in the gospel. “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice [fear in the KJV], but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  [2 Timothy 1:7]



[1]  David Stagaman, Authority in the Church (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999).

[2] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966).

[3]  Meneo A. Afonso, What Is the Nature of Authority in the Church? (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996).

[4]  Rayond de Souza, “Confronting the Church’s Past: An Interview with Eamon Duffy,” Commonweal (January 14, 2000), 14-17.

[5]  Kathleen Ritter and Craig O’Neill, Righteous Religion: Unmasking the Illusions of Fundamentalism and Authoritarian Catholicism (New York: The Haworth Press, 1996).






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