Interview with SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt

The German evangelical journal IDEA conducted the following interview with The Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.

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The Lutherans

On October 31, Protestant Christianity celebrates Reformation Day. This is in remembrance of the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg (a town between Berlin and Leipzig in the Province of Saxony-Anhalt). What is the significance of the Reformation today? Here an interview with Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the SELK in his office in Hannover. The interviewer was Karsten Huhn.

IDEA: Bishop, you lead a rather unusual church. Liturgically the SELK is almost catholic; its organizational form is that of a free church; and spiritually you try to be more Lutheran than the Lutherans.

Voigt: I do not consider ourselves to be unusual. But I can understand that people are somewhat astonished. Yes, our worship services are quite liturgical. But we also use some newer forms of worship; but that is more a case of normality and exception. Financially we are organized as a free church: We do not participate in the church tax system; rather we depend on free-will offerings. Our synodical and episcopal structure is not typical for a free church. And whether we are more Lutheran than other churches? We attempt to organize our spiritual life in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions. We respect them as fully adequate expositions of the Holy Scriptures.

IDEA: You are theologically very conservative. For instance, you celebrate the Lord’s Supper exclusively with wine and you attach great value to confession and absolution (Beichte). And the SELK is one of the few churches in Germany that steadfastly refuses to have women serve in the Office of the Ministry.

Voigt: The facts you stated are correct. But likely a number of our congregations would bridle at being referred to as “very conservative.” We are indeed dealing with the questions of our time and we openly discuss them – and that also includes the question of women’s ordination. But we attempt to take seriously the message of the Holy Scriptures. For many of these questions the Bible is the critical guide in regard to what many people think and believe today. And we have to live with that tension.

IDEA: Possibly women’s ordination in the SELK is but a question of time. In 2006 you were elected Bishop by a vote of 42 to 40. The other candidate had confessed himself to be in favour of women’s ordination.

Voigt: We are discussing this question very openly in our church. This debate shows how we are wrestling with the truth. But the core issue is: What is our understanding of the ministerial office? The service of word and sacrament is a special ministry, and for it you need the gift of the Holy Spirit through ordination and a proper call. In this question the SELK is part of the majority worldwide, just consider the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. In this regard we are not as lonely as people like to assume in Germany. We are, of course, convinced that the equality of women is a great progress in society and we attempt to practice that in our church. Thus we have established the office of Pastoral Deaconess (Pastoralreferentin), with a qualification equal to that of the pastors and with the same salary. But according to our understanding preaching and administering the sacraments requires ordination. These functions are carried out in God’s name and by his command, “as if God’s very voice would sound from heaven,” as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 puts it.

IDEA: In your understanding of the ministry you are closer to the Roman Catholic Church than to the EKD (the Federation of the Protestant Territorial Churches).

Voigt: We see ourselves as the unifying centre of the various denominations. In regard to ordination my question is this: Is it merely an administrational act or a real event in which the Holy Spirit is passed on? If I see it correctly, the EKD generally derives ordination from the “priesthood of all believers.” We consider this to be a big misunderstanding.

IDEA: For many contemporaries this seems a surreal debate, because they have quite different concerns.

Voigt: When there is a convention of cardiologists they also debate the finer, more intricate issues – while the Ebola disease and hunger are spreading around the world. Does that mean the discussion of the cardiologists is superfluous? I do not think so. We expect physicians to be meticulous in their work, and we theologians should do the same. The question about truth should always be of concern to us. Of course, that includes such practical problems of how to deal with refugees.

 

Why is your Church also declining in numbers?

IDEA: Holding fast to traditional doctrine doesn’t seem to do the SELK much good. While Pentecostal groups and free Evangelical congregations are growing, the SELK is declining by about 1% a year (quite like Baptists and Methodists).

Voigt: The church is an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther once said: “We are not the ones that can maintain the church. Our ancestors were not able to do that either. Our descendants will also not be able to do that. Rather it is he, it is now and it will be he who said: I am with you always until the end of the world.”

IDEA: Basically that is true, of course. But it is easy to use this statement as an excuse for doing nothing.

Voigt: We are a missionary church with our own mission society, the Lutheran Church Mission (LKM). We organize faith seminars and offer diaconic services. And we do have growing congregations where people from other parts of the earth find a spiritual home. And, of course, we have congregations that are declining.

IDEA: Perhaps the liturgical formality of SELK worship services are turning people away?

Voigt: When you attend a soccer game for the first time, you will understand little of the rules and rituals of the game. You need someone who explains things to you and accompanies you. And that’s the way it is with the worship service. The language of faith needs translation. And liturgy arises wherever people meet regularly. Even in a home Bible study group, at the latest when they meet for a third time, a liturgy arises, that is a given way of doing things: you begin with supper, then you have prayer, reading the text, discussion, the Lord’s Prayer and a word of blessing. That is exactly what happens in the worship service: There is a set way of doing things, and in the centre is the sermon and the Lord’s Supper.

 

If possible Communion and Confession every Sunday

IDEA: There are different rules for the worship services in free church congregations, like the Baptists: A woman could preach the sermon, and laymen can institute the Lord’s Supper. And generally the latter takes place only every four weeks. And likely there is no confession and absolution. Don’t you just shake your head in disbelief in view of such liturgical laxity?

Voigt: We treat all fellow Christians with respect. But it is my observation that there is an increased interest in liturgical forms. They are of particular significance when human language fails. This is especially true in crisis situations which make you speechless. Then it is of great help to have words for which you do not have to go searching. Every worship leader knows how difficult it would be to invent the course of the worship service every Sunday anew. That is the real value of the liturgy.

IDEA: It is conspicuous that the SELK regularly disagrees with the EKD in regard to ethical questions. In contradistinction to the EKD Paper on the Family, which moved away from the understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, you published the Pastoral Letter “Marriage and the Family as Gifts of God.”

Voigt: Good relations between churches are more important to me than disputing about opinions. For instance, we are having friendly talks with the churches belonging to the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (VELKD). But basically we attempt to go our way in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions and the Holy Scriptures. This, obviously, can lead to disagreements with others, for instance, in regard to the understanding of marriage and the family.

 

No Joint Communion with EKD Churches

IDEA: Because of doctrinal differences there is no sacramental communion between the SELK and EKD. What would have to happen to change that?

Voigt: The unity of the church is not ours to make. We attempt to speak to one another; in such discussions we offer our Lutheran heritage; and we fully rely on the fact that in celebrating the Lord’s Supper the Body and the Blood of Christ are really and substantially present in, with and under bread and wine.

IDEA: You believe in “Wandlung” (“change” of the elements) – almost like the Catholics.      

Voigt: The concept of “Wandlung” appears in the Lutheran Confessions, but of course not in the sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic Church.

IDEA: Despite my theological studies I never did understand the difference between the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran concept of consubstantiation.

Voigt: Basically the Lutheran Confessions state that the Body and Blood of Christ is substantially and really present under bread and wine. That is obviously quite close to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the latter continues to maintain that the substance of the sacramental elements of bread and wine changes into another substance, that is, only the Body and Blood of Christ; and only the outward appearance of bread and wine remain. I admit those are fine distinctions.

IDEA: This past May the EKD has published a Paper of Theological Principles for the Reformation Jubilee 2017, called “Justification and Freedom.” There was some agreement, but also severe criticism. Could you sign that paper?

Voigt: It is good that in the paper core issues of the Reformation are addressed. But I cannot agree with the view of Holy Scripture expressed in that paper. It says: “Since the 17th century the Biblical texts have been studied historic-critically. Therefore, unlike at the time of the Reformation, they can no longer be understood as ‘the Word of God.’” The significance of the Bible as the decisive norm is thus weakened. According to the Lutheran understanding the Holy Scriptures are the highest doctrinal authority in the church.

IDEA: In 2017 the EKD will celebrate a great festival in Wittenberg on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Will you celebrate with them, or will you celebrate separately, perhaps in Hermannsburg, which is considered one of the founding places of the Old Lutherans?

Voigt: To be in on their celebration we’d need an invitation. And we would have to assess whether our participation would even be possible. We are talking to the EKD, but everything is in the initial planning stage. For 2017, I can envision a Confessional Service of our Church on the Day of the Augsburg Confession, 25 June, possibly in Wittenberg.

IDEA: Are you a thorn in the flesh for the EKD?

Voigt: That’s not the way we see ourselves. We are going our way, self-confident, confessional, Lutheran.

IDEA: You Old Lutherans are looking back to almost 200 years of your history. What would your church have to confess in that confessional service in 2017?

Voigt: The church is a fellowship of believers. But there are two things that are entirely individual: Baptism and Confession. I view critically that in our own history there have been tendencies toward divisions. If it were possible, I wish it had not happened. And I also view critically that at times our church has enjoyed its solitary status too much.

IDEA: Shortly it will be 31 October. Many are now observing Halloween. How would you persuade the fans of this creepy feast to celebrate Reformation instead?

Voigt: Originally Halloween referred to the evening before the high festival of All Saints. That is we are reminded of the saints, our examples, like King David, the apostles and prophets, or the church fathers like Augustine and Boniface. It’s a day still observed in the Lutheran church. We could supplant Halloween by more consciously taking note of the examples of the faith that went before us. Certainly one of them would be Martin Luther. And that brings us to October 31, 1517, the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses concerning repentance and indulgence on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. What the theses stated is important: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, then wanted that the entire life of the believers is one of repentance.”

IDEA: Repentance – how do you do that?

Voigt: My brother is a master carpenter. When he works on a piece, he takes careful measurement and, if necessary, corrects it. Repentance: like a good artisan we should measure our life against God’s standard and, where there is a difference, correct it, be set straight.

IDEA: Thank you very much, Bishop Voigt.

District Visitations

President Matthew Harrison and I have been engaged in recent months in a program of visitation of the districts of the Synod. We are a little more than half way through this visitation of the 35 districts mandated by the 2013 Synod Convention. Resolution 7-01A in 2013 called for a renewal and strengthening of visitation among us, beginning with the President and Vice Presidents visiting district presidents and district boards of directors.

What does such a visit look like? Spread over 2-3 days, we spend time individually with the district president and corporately with the district board of directors. Often we are able to visit with the district praesidium and district staff as well. In many cases we have included meeting with most or all of the district’s circuit visitors. In some cases, open forum meetings have been scheduled so that people are able to hear us and ask questions.

What is the purpose of such a visit? We are coming to listen and to encourage, taking our cue from the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Romans in preparation for his visit with them,

“without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:9-12). 

In every district I have visited, the district president and the district board of directors have good working relationships, addressing issues, even difficult ones, in a spirit of confidence and trust in Christ, and in collaboration with one another. Our conversations have been honest, fruitful and blessed by God. We hear and encourage the good God is doing by His Word in each district and we bring explanations of our shared work as a Synod. The visits deepen our understanding of the blessings, opportunities and challenges facing each district. They also help district boards see the broader picture of what God is doing on behalf of all 6100 plus congregations of the Synod through the national office.

A much more complete report will be given to the district conventions next year and to the national Synod in 2016.

Herbert C. Mueller
1st Vice President