Whenever we are confronted with the unfortunate situation of a pastor serving a congregation of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod resigning his office and leaving Lutheranism for another communion (as has happened recently with a well-known Lutheran pastor named Daniel Woodring who converted to Roman Catholicism) - the claws come out and ugly accusations fly. Usually, such men are accused of "surrendering the Gospel" - which is a way of claiming that the one holy catholic and apostolic church is to be found only in one communion or church body, a bureaucratic definition of the church which is at odds with the definition found in our own confessional writings (e.g. AC 7 & 8).
Of course, these decisions are typically gut-wrenching not only for the former pastor and his family, but for his former parish, and for his friends left behind, and his erstwhile colleagues in the ministry who often feel betrayed, hurt, and angry. However, some of the responses border on frothing at the mouth. Too often, our discourse in the Missouri Synod is governed by emotion and rage instead of theology and charity.
One tactic used to try to throw gasoline on the fire is to accuse the newly-defected former pastors of "breaking their ordination vows." At holy ordination, the candidate takes vows at the altar just before hands are laid on him. A Lutheran candidate promises that his teaching will be governed by the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, since they are the Word of God. He also vows that his teaching will be normed by the various confessional writings that make up the 1580 Book of Concord, and in the Missouri Synod, he does so "because" these are a correct exposition of the Word of God. He also pledges to adorn his ministry with a holy life, and never to reveal sins confessed to him.
Now, if a man leaves his post as a Lutheran minister to become either a layman or clergyman of another communion (where, obviously, the Book of Concord is not normative), is he violating his ordination vows?
When his resignation is accepted by his bishop or district president, he is being released from those vows. At that point, he has been freed from that obligation, just as a man who works for Walmart or MicroSoft, if he quits his job, is no longer under obligation to take orders from the managers and to abide by company policy.
I had a parallel situation serving as a notary public, and later as a corrections officer in the State of Ohio. I had to swear certain oaths that specifically mentioned the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Ohio (I don't remember the exact wording). Of course, I am no longer a citizen of Ohio. Because of that (and the fact that I no longer hold either of those offices), I am no longer bound by any oaths to the Ohio Constitution.
Similarly, American soldiers take oaths to the U.S. Constitution. However, if such a soldier's term expires and he marries a foreigner, for instance, and moves to another country and becomes a citizen of that country, surrendering his U.S. citizenship, he is no longer bound to those oaths, nor to the obligations and duties of citizenship. Those oaths are tied to that vocation, that station in life. And when that vocation terminates, so does the oath.
It is especially ironic when Lutherans claim ordination vows are somehow binding for life, given that we Lutherans were named after a man who famously broke his own vows of ecclesiastical obedience and celibacy. I'm not saying Luther was wrong to do so, but I find the double standard to be emblematic of a logical inconsistency.
Other examples include the recent spate of pastors and congregations who have resigned from the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and yet remain Lutheran. Such pastors and congregations are no longer bound to the dictates of their former district presidents and various resolutions and bylaws of synod that were formerly binding upon them as members of synod. Nobody has ever claimed that, Rev. Jack Cascione, for example, is still in any way bound by the constitution and bylaws of the of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. He simply isn't. Neither are the pastors and congregations that were once LCMS, but are now members of ELDoNA.
Now, if a pastor were to remain in a Lutheran pulpit while teaching doctrine contrary to the Lutheran confessions, he would indeed be breaking his vow. The honest thing to do in such a case would be to resign. In fact, that would be the honorable thing to do. When Dan Woodring came to the conclusion that he no longer believed in the Lutheran confessions, he did the honorable and laudable thing to resign his ministry and leave the Lutheran confession of faith. We can all disagree with him and take exception to his reasoning, but it is simply fatuous to argue that he, as a Roman Catholic layman, is morally bound to believe in something he no longer believes in. Instead of hassling him about it, we should be grateful that he acted with integrity. Far worse would have been to remain as a "trojan horse". Now that would have been breaking his oaths.
And, of course, we don't burden men who leave other communions to become Lutherans with such rhetoric. My classmate Rev. LeRoy Leach was a former Presbyterian pastor who came to the conclusion that he could no longer in good conscience confess the Westminster Confession of Faith. Instead, he came to realize that he was a confessor of the Book of Concord, and resigned his ministry to become a Lutheran. No Lutherans excoriated him for "breaking his vows." In fact, he was allowed to attend seminary and colloquize into the ministerium of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. If Dan Woodring is to be blasted for breaking his ordination vows, so should LeRoy Leach.
But, of course, both men followed their consciences, acted honorably, and went to the communions that reflected their beliefs. Both men left behind former parishioners, and I think it is a safe assumption (and certainly in line with the 8th commandment) to presume that these men, and others like them, did not take these steps flippantly.
The same goes for men who have left the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church to become Lutheran pastors. I can't think of a single Lutheran who would argue that such a man is bound to continue his vow of celibacy that he vowed as part of his former ministry. We have men on our clergy roster who were pastors in Assemblies of God, Reformed, and Episcopal churches as well. Are they somehow morally obligated to the vows they made at their respective ordinations?
If ordination vows are to be considered irrevocable, lifetime vows (like the oaths of the Masonic Lodge), then we should never allow a man to resign from the clergy roster, nor should former pastors of other communions ever be allowed to renounce those vows and serve as pastors in our communion. In fact, such irrevocable vows would reflect a kind of "indelible mark" that would forever prevent a man from laicizing (though we do confess some sort of irrevocable nature of ordination since it is, like baptism, never repeated - though the church has always allowed men under orders to receive dispensations from vows when granted by superiors - which is exactly what happens when a man's district president accepts a pastor's resignation).
I don't think anything or anyone is served when a man leaves the Lutheran ministry and is then angrily accused of "breaking vows." I believe this is nothing more than an attempt to hurt him, an effort to inflame the situation and seek revenge. It's a low blow. Certainly, we ought to be more charitable. We ought to be consistent. We should not casually toss around such accusations - like politically-motivated charges of rape or racism - unless we want to be treated with as much skepticism as the "boy who cried wolf" or the accuser of the Duke lacrosse team.
I do believe that things told to such men in confidence - especially sins that have been confessed - must still be kept in confidence, given that those sins were confessed with that understanding to begin with, and furthermore, the word "never" is part of that vow. Maintaining confidence is also something that all Christians are obliged to do whether lay or clergy. In a life or death situation, lay people can indeed hear confessions and absolve - and they are just as bound to keep those matters confidential as any pastor under ordination vows and holy orders. That doesn't change when a Lutheran pastor leaves his ministry for any reason.
Finally, if we really want to root out violators of ordination vows, we would be duty bound to bring charges upon pastors who are not working to bring their congregations into compliance with the Lutheran confessions, such as pastors who do not offer private confession, pastors who are not working towards restoration of every-Sunday communion, pastors who are not working to restore traditional worship practices - as all of these things are part of those confessions that Lutheran pastors bind themselves to at ordination.
I'm not suggesting such a "witch hunt," but rather pointing out the inconsistency of the Scarlet Letter we emblazon on pastors who renounce Lutheran doctrine and leave, while we "turn the Nelson's Eye" to those pastors who ignore Lutheran doctrine and yet stay put. I'd rather have the former than the latter. It is the latter are guilty of breaking their vows, not the former.
If a man no longer accepts the Holy Scriptures to be God's inerrant Word and/or the Book of Concord to be a correct exposition of that Word of God, he needs to be encouraged to leave us in peace. Continuing to hurl invective at him afterward only makes us look like stalkers or spurned teenagers and it only impedes the man's former congregation from healing. Personally, I believe our confession is robust enough that we can defend it without resorting to hysteria and personal attacks. Besides, being charitable may leave the door open a crack, just in case the prodigal wishes to return. Burning the bridge makes such reconciliation a lot less likely.
But even if such a reconciliation never happens in time, we need to accept the reality that all Christians are our brothers and sisters - and far from being something to be disappointed about, we should rejoice that God is merciful and that the church extends beyond the borders of any one church body. And even if communion is not restored on this side of the grave between us and those who leave Lutheranism, we know that communion will be restored in eternity.