—by Jürgen Diestelmann, Translated by Peter A. Bauernfeind. Editors note--This article first appeared as “Die Stunde der SELK” in Lutherische Beiträge Nr. 4/2009.
“The denial of Luther in modern Protestantism”—that was the title lying before me, which appeared in a book in 1936. The author said to those of his era that a great danger was approaching Luther’s church, the danger of a new clericalism and priestly dominion. He came to this verdict because he saw the universal priesthood of believers as being in opposition to the apostolic office of word and sacrament. One could ask the author if he denied that such a premise was not the same as Luther’s, because these are two complementary concepts that supplement one another, and both are of fundamental importance for the life of the church. “The denial of Luther in modern Protestantism”—one could also write a book using this title today, albeit under very different conditions. In fact, many Protestants today see the universal priesthood of believers as being in opposition to the apostolic office of word and sacrament. But the denial of Luther in modern Protestantism continues in our time.
It was the will of Jesus Christ that the apostles bear witness to the Christian message, the gospel, “to the ends of the earth.” This is the commission and the mission of the church. Therein lies our promise. Therefore, we confess the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Therefore, Luther called the church to return to the gospel. Yes, the Reformation signals “a return to the original form.” The commission and the mission of the church is classically described in AC 7: The “one, holy, Christian (catholic) Church…is the assembly of all believers, by which the gospel is properly preached and the Holy Sacraments administered according to the gospel.” This is how the church should be in modern times!
The reality, however, seen over a long distance, is something entirely different. One hears complaints from the Roman Catholic Church and also from the national churches of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) that more and more people continue to give up on the church—and they are by no means the only ones who turn away from the faith. Now faithful people often see the gospel as no longer a credible witness in the church. The well-known public example is that of the former Federal Minister Apel, who left the EKD for that very reason.
In fact, the church appears to be largely swept into the maelstrom of modernity’s addiction to “political correctness.” This maelstrom reminds me occasionally of something, which I as an adolescent often had to reflect upon. I was fifteen years old after the catastrophe of Stalingrad and had heard on the radio the infamous Sports Palace speech in which Joseph Göbbels hysterically asked the audience, “Do you want total war?” After the war had ended, I saw the destruction of Braunschweig, which had been bombed to smithereens. It then became clear to me what this question had actually involved: total war means total destruction. I ask myself how it was possible that rational people could be dragged into such an irrational maelstrom to the point that they enthusiastically agreed to the total war. Not only is the rousing rhetoric of Joseph Göbbels still ringing in my ears, but also is the knowledge that his rhetoric had swept the people into the blindness of the Zeitgeist, which at that time was shaped by National Socialism.
Similarly, the question presents itself to me when I see that Christians who know the Bible, and know exactly what it says, nevertheless allow themselves to be swept into the maelstrom of the Zeitgeist, which is always the exact opposite of what is in the Bible. What was impossible for two thousand years in the church is now possible. Faith in the triune God, the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the holiness and reliability of his word, and the foundational declaration of faith are frequently placed into question, since they do not appear acceptable in the prevailing Zeitgeist. Often this goes along with an argument that appears biblical. Thus the demand that we preserve creation is all the rage—but God has crowned his work of creation so that he created and blessed mankind as male and female, and he called marriage a holy estate. This, however, is often overlooked, even as the demand for the preservation of creation is being affirmed. In any event, we are experiencing in our time understandings of marriage and sexuality that spread rapidly, which will make it questionable whether the Christian understanding of marriage will be subscribed to at all in a few decades. And this is only an example from today’s current opinions, in which the message of the Bible is placed into question. A new paganism arises.
The church lives in such a world today. How does she respond to this? Little congregations become combined with larger congregations. Structural debates occupy committees, associations, and high ecclesiastical bodies. Bureaucracies expand, and pastoral offices and congregations are sacked. Certainly the ecclesiastical apparatus becomes impersonal and alienated from the people.
And what appears? The church noticeably loses her unique profile. The union of the Lutheran Church of Thüringia with the Union Church of Saxony, and of the—for the time being—failed experiment of the establishment of a Lower Saxon Church, which is expected to join together without respect for the confessional profile of three regional Lutheran Churches and the Reformed Church of northwest Germany, signals the characteristic way.
The merger had “laid the tracks on which the train can now travel,” says Thüringian Bishop Vähler after the union of the Church of Thüringia with the Church of Saxony at the beginning of 2009. This statement agrees with the statement of Berlin’s Bishop Dibelius, who once said in consideration of the DEK (the predecessor of the EKD) that she was “the sleeper car in which we Lutherans travel into the Union.” The Lutherans appear actually to have fallen asleep in the EKD. There are no longer any churches in the EKD with a clear Lutheran profile, and the same is true in the Vereinigte Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche Deutschlands (VELKD), which barely has any Lutheran impulses. One need only read the VELKD promotional flyer officially advertising the Lord’s Supper. It is quite evident that modern Calvinist slogans are used at the highest levels as Lutheran slogans. All this occurs simultaneously with the demand to promote the unity of the church not only by creating an inner-confessional sphere, but also by fostering opposition to Rome. One calls for the “common Lord’s Supper.” One calls for “unity,” and destroys it at the same time where it still exists. How can unity with the Roman Catholic Church be achieved when one still wants to remain “Evangelical” in the sense of “not Catholic”? How can one demand a union with the Roman Catholic Church, if at the same time two thousand years of a common understanding of the office of the ministry and the sacraments are destroyed by the introduction of certain alterations?
This is the ecclesiastical environment in which the Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK) lives. She is a confessional Lutheran Church who owes her status to the fact that her fathers were in a bitter struggle for existence, fighting for the preservation of their confessional position. From there she should be immune from being drawn into the maelstrom of the modern ecclesiastical Zeitgeist. Otherwise even she herself would give up. She bound herself to preserve the legacy of her fathers.
This is the great opportunity of the SELK in our time. She is bound to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and that is why with complete justification she confesses in the sense of the Nicene Creed “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” She builds her life and her proclamation upon that foundation, and she is in the position to give a clear witness regarding the confusions of the ecclesiastical and intellectual pluralism of our times. She can give direction and support to all Protestants who suffer under those disowning the reformers, especially in the church that bears the legacy of Martin Luther. She clings to the Bible as the word of God, which leads to eternal salvation. She can give the young (and not only them) a solid path of guidance with Luther’s Small Catechism, to lead a life in relationship with the triune God.
Of course, the SELK also knows from her own history that this could mean a struggle. She asserts a claim so that she herself is not “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2). This could mean new threats from today’s Zeitgeist, which knows no tolerance if it sees current ideas of equality and self-determination of people attacked by the claims of the Bible. There are increasing examples that this could signal intense spiritual attacks when the public media discover that Christians “still” cling to their old, obsolete “ideas.” An entirely different kind of “total war” can very quickly begin.
Many Christians wait to be given a clear witness of faith, and they may again recognize where the church truly is the church. The SELK’s opportunity lies in this confusion of our modern times. The hour of the SELK has come!
Jürgen Diestelmann is pastor emeritus of St. Ulrici-Brüdern, Braunschweig, Germany. Peter A. Bauernfeind is pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Palisades Park, NJ.