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.
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.
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
Every congregation exists to give away life. In worship and communion we receive the life Jesus gives. We feed on Him and live through Him who gives Himself for us in Word, and in water, bread and wine connected to the Word. But this life of God is not meant to be kept to ourselves. God has put you and your congregation where it is located in order to give life to your community and beyond. Baptized into Christ, we are called to grow in this life as well as to bring others into this life.
The life of Jesus does not come from a new program, but through repentance and faith. The life of God is not the result of moral instruction and moral living, but flows from God’s gift of a new relationship with Him in Jesus Christ.
This is the beating heart of your congregation – the life of Jesus Christ, His life lived for us and offered up for us on the cross. His life triumphant in His resurrection. His life freely given in His body and blood, in the forgiveness of sins, in the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.
You are alive because you are in Christ. You are alive because Jesus gives life to you and to all who believe. You are alive because Jesus gives life to you through your congregation, your pastor’s work and your fellow members’ witness to Jesus. You are alive in Christ because He has made you alive in His Spirit.
When we say that your congregation exists to give away life, we are simply praying for your parish to become more and more the body of Christ. We have received in Jesus Christ our true Head. “Now you are [together!] the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27). If Christ is the Head, and we the body, then we are sent into the world as members of the body to extend His ministry of love and service to the world. The Church then becomes the sign of Christ’s presence and Christ’s care for the world, giving away His life.
The life of Jesus given for us therefore implies that we take worship seriously. If Christ is our Head and we His body, we nourish ourselves at the font, the lectern, the pulpit, the altar, wherever the Word of God is found. Here Christ gives Himself to us that we may give away the life of Jesus by serving others and drawing them into the life we have received.
The new life Jesus gives implies that we are always ready to teach the Word of God, “ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks us a reason for the hop that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15). Led by the Spirit, we search the Word of God together to discover and to grow in the will of God for our life together. No one is too young or too old to be taught, but everyone is drawn into the Word.
The life of Jesus connects us to one another in love. We are not alone, but we receive His life – together! We are “thankful for your partnership in the Gospel, from the first day until now…” (Philippians 1:5). We stand together in a new relationship to God in Christ. We seek to strengthen one another in the faith by our words and our actions, helping each other enjoy the good gifts of God.
The life of God in Jesus means that we take prayer and family worship seriously. We teach families to pray together. We provide many opportunities for worship and prayer and study of the Word. We provide holy absolution and holy communion as often as they are desired.
Jesus gives life also in order to send us into the world, for the sake of the hungry, the needy, the lost, those who do not yet know Him. Jesus gives life so that we also present ourselves as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” in Him (Romans 12:1). We are a community of servants sent into the world and into our various vocations to serve God by serving others. We are the sign of God’s love in Christ for the sake of the world.
Then every week the Spirit pulls us back to the beating heart of the church’s life in the Word of God proclaimed and the body and blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. Christ Himself fills us, enlivens us, and sends us out again to give His life away. How’s it going in your locale? (Various thoughts in this article drawn from A.C. Piepkorn, The Church, pp. 116-118).
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to the earth: on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth…” (Psalm 146:3-6).
These reflections are written the morning after the election. As I was watching the returns last night and praying this morning for the leaders of our country, this passage from the Psalms comes to mind. No matter who is in charge of the government, of the country, the Lord God is still in charge. Those who “bear the sword” in government, whether they acknowledge it or not, have their authority ultimately from God.
This does not mean that one political party is necessarily closer to God than the other. It simply means that governmental authority derives from God (see Romans 13:1-7). Our trust and faith are to be in Christ, who gave Himself for us, and in the Father’s care. Him we serve, no matter who is in power. Indeed, in America those who serve in government are to hold office as servants of the people.
In the state where I live (Illinois), we now have (at least it appears so) a new governor from a different party than the previous governor. I also have a new congressman from a different party than previously. It appears now that one party is in charge of the White House and the other is in charge of both houses of Congress. The people desired change and worked for that change under our system.
As Christians we are called to pray for those in authority, that they might govern wisely, respecting both God’s law and the rights of the people. “First of all, then,” the apostle writes, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in everyway” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). What is our ultimate purpose in praying for those in authority? The apostle continues, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
We pray for our rulers because we desire room to proclaim the Gospel. No matter who is in charge of the government, we pray that the church has room to do the work God has given us as His “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). And that’s what we need to be about no matter who is in charge.
“Put not your trust in princes… but blessed is he… whose hope is in the Lord His God” (from Psalm 146).
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
What is most sure in our lives is the name God placed on us in our Baptism: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
All Saints Day, November 1, comes the day after Reformation Day. This juxtaposition points to the fact that we do not make ourselves holy, but that Jesus makes saints by His death and resurrection through His Word of promise. Everything we do apart from Jesus is tainted by sin and leads only to death. God forms the Church, His holy ones, through the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus. So we begin with the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for this is how God has revealed Himself. Attached to that name are the promises of God, promises beginning in the Garden for our first parents, promises for all people. Every promise of God is fulfilled, comes to a head, comes to full flower in Jesus Christ.
The Church follows from these promises, for the promises of God create the church: especially the promise that all who trust in Christ alone are justified by grace alone through faith alone. Therefore we do not put our trust or confidence in the Church, or the character of the pastor, or the behavior of Church members, but only in the promises.
Did you ever notice that the definition of the Church in Augsburg Confession VII is singular? “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII.1).
The assembly – singular…
Also, the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, we say in the creed (that is “catholic,” small “c,” “universal,” wherever believers are found). One holy Christian Church, that is, the communion of saints.
The communion – singular…
Though now tragically divided by schism and heresy, by false teaching and sinful pride, we still confess that the church, properly speaking, is one. In essence the Lutheran theology of the Church sees the Church from the perspective of the end. We see the Church as the Lord revealed it to John in the Book of Revelation, as the Bride of Christ, prepared by her bridegroom, adorned, washed clean, no spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, ready for her husband. Now we see this only by faith. Now we perceive it in the Promise, but she is, in the end, truly the ransomed and forgiven Church of Christ, revealed to John in the Revelation (7:9-17):
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (ESV)
Human beings will fail us. “Put not your trust in princes,” Psalm 146:3 says. Human organizations and structures will fail us. This is why the Lutheran Church can exist in various structures – episcopal, congregational, Synodical. The STRUCTURE is not ultimate. It can and does fail. People fail. But the Word and promises of God? These will never fail us. And these are what create the Church.
That’s why the article on which the Church stands or falls is the article of justification. Everything hangs on the promise. Who are those we see around the throne? “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
Who are those who are justified? Drawn from Scripture, in Augsburg Confession IV we confess: “Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us” (AC IV). So, from the perspective of the end, the Church is the one assembly of all believers in Christ, justified by faith, gathered around the throne.
All believers are justified sinners, saints, holy ones, in the Lord Jesus, “for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
But where do you find this Church today? Looking for the right structure, or the right organization, will not necessarily reveal the church. The Church exists within various structures, but the Church LIVES by the Word and Promise of God. That’s why our confessions also say, by the way, that we find the Church by its marks, by looking for the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. This is also the reason the Lutheran Church is identified, not by a structure or an outward gathering, but by our Confession of faith, by the content of our Symbols.
Or, to ask the question another way, if the Church is believers, where do you find believers now? You look for what brings people to faith, namely the Word and Promises of God. But these Words and promises of God are not simply abstract words on a page. The Word of God must be spoken, proclaimed, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
So there must be preachers and teachers of the Gospel, those called and sent to proclaim the Gospel, publicly, that is, on behalf of all. “That we may obtain this faith…” our confession says, echoing Scripture, God “instituted the ministry,” the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.
Yet Scripture also charges all the baptized with the task of “proclaim(ing) the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In our vocation, our daily life, wherever God has placed us, all the baptized are called to tell what God has promised. Because the Church lives by only Word and promise, God has called the whole Church, the whole communion of saints, to speak that Word before the world. “Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Our testimony points beyond ourselves to the things most sure and certain: the name of God applied in our Baptism, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together with the Word and promise of God in Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for us. “Come and see” (John 1:39), we say, “see what Christ has done for me and for you.” His Word gives life. That’s what is sure. May God bless our witness and our continued reflection on All Saints and Reformation!
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod
 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, ed, The Book of Concord, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000, p. 42.
 Kolb/Wengert, pp. 39f.
 Augustana V, Kolb/Wengert, p. 40.