German Bishop decries newly-declared “Right to Death”

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – On February 26, 2020—Ash Wednesday—Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court declared that all people have a constitutional right to end their life in a manner of their own choosing and to seek outside help in doing so. The courts further ruled that access to assisted suicide should not be limited to those suffering from an incurable condition.

In response to the ruling, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK) has issued a letter arguing that “No one has the right to decide the circumstances of his own death.” Bishop Voigt also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.

While the letter responds specifically to the declaration of Germany’s highest court, the issues it addresses—euthanasia and assisted suicide—are being increasingly considered in many areas of the world. In Canada, for example, the federal government has recently announced it will expand physician assisted suicide and euthanasia to allow those suffering from mental illnesses, and those not facing imminent death, to seek aid in dying.

Those seeking a Christian response to end of life issues faithful to Scripture will find Bishop’s Voigt’s words helpful. The letter appears below. (You can also read it in German here.)

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“NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF HIS OWN DEATH”
Death and Birth are not Subject to Human Decisions – for the Sake of Man’s Dignity

Statement by the presiding clergyman of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt D.D. (Hannover), concerning the verdict of Germany’s Constitutional Court of February 26, 2020 regarding “a person’s right to decide on the circumstances of one’s death”.

First Preliminary Remark

The Federal Constitutional Court (“Bundesverfassungsgericht” or BVG) is Germany’s highest constitutional authority and deserves our utmost respect. The welfare of our state, its services, its advantages and their protection which we as citizens and as Christians enjoy every day, is very much dependent on this respect; because, according to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, all legitimate state authority is given and willed by God. Thus it is difficult for me to criticize yesterday’s verdict by the Court.

Second Preliminary Remark

We ought to exercise the highest regard and the utmost restraint when we talk about the distress sick people feel and their fervent wish to die. The kind of suffering some people have to endure for years surpasses a healthy person’s way of thinking. In such times of suffering almost every person will likely consider thoughts how actively to end one’s own life. And even those people who will turn such thoughts into action deserve our Christian love and final accompaniment. Dr. Martin Luther often expressed the view that people who committed suicide should be given a Christian burial, because they “did not do it easily” and likely were in an internally vulnerable situation, and were “as if overcome by a robber in the forest.”

There is no “Right to Decide on one’s Own Death”

In its verdict of February 26, 2020 the Constitutional Court established a new legal principle when it stated in Point 1: “The general principle to define your own personality includes, as an expression of a person’s autonomy, the right to decide about one’s own way of dying.”

The Basic Law/Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany states in Par. 2, Sect. 1: “Every-one has the right to freely live out his personality, provided he does not violate the rights of others and does not transgress the constitutional order or the moral law.” Here the BVG makes a connection to Par 1., Sect. 1 of the German Constitution, where we read: “The dignity of the person is inviolable. To honour and protect it is the duty of all state power.”

At no point does the German Constitution posit a “right of self-determined dying.” This statement could possibly be rightly understood in reference to the manner of a person’s death, e.g. that it is a matter of one’s free determination to die with or without therapy, with or without pain medication. But the sentence that follows in the verdict under Sect. b states: “The right to a self-determined death includes the freedom to take one’s own life.” Within its context this sentence claims that there is a right to determine one’s own time of death. This claim arises out of nowhere. And it is new and wrong, and it is not in accord with the spirit of the German Constitution, as I will try to show hereafter.

This Verdict contravenes the Fifth Commandment

“You shall not murder”—so reads the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. This Commandment applies in regard to the life of others and also in regard to my own life. The dignity of man is based on the uniqueness of his being born. And that also implies the non-violability of his end. That man cannot in principle decide his own death is one of the reasons for his dignity.

These days various commentaries made the point that religious convictions cannot be applied to the general public in a secular state. But the Constitution of the Federal Republic does precisely that. The very first sentence of the preamble defines its background: “In full awareness of our responsibility before God and man…” The Constitution’s reference to God is the reminder that there is a higher law, so to speak, “the connection with on high”; human law needs to have a connection to divine law, to prevent it from ending up in arbitrariness.

The legal philosopher Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde has defined the ethical-moral connection this way: “The secular libertarian state is dependent on presuppositions that it cannot guarantee of its own.” Because the verdict of the BVG contravenes the ethical standard set by the Fifth Commandment—which is posited not only in the Judeo-Christian religion—the Court has cut itself off from the reference to the Divine in the Constitution.

Legal Uncertainty for Physicians and Supporters is not the Real Problem

Legal flaws and uncertainties as they derive out of Par. 217 of the Law until now prohibiting commercial support for suicide since December 3, 2015 are not the real problem. It is much more fundamental, because to posit a “right of self-determined dying” and the freedom to take one’s own life, there might then arise as a consequence the duty for the state to provide the necessary conditions for that right.

Up until now self-inflicted death was a taboo. Now that it has fallen, we can expect a subtle pressure on terminally ill patients to follow the expectations of their relatives and friends—even though they may be wrongly assumed—and have them take their own life. The first two articles of the German Constitution set forth the ethical position of a “culture of life.” Its present subsequent formulation now defines a “culture of death.”

I believe that February 26, 2020 will enter into the legal history of the Federal Republic of Germany as a kind of Ash Wednesday.

Hans-Jörg Voigt, D.D.
Bishop, Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK)
Hannover, Germany

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Translation by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson (Windsor, Canada)

 

Chairmen of ILC and GAFCON meet in Wittenberg

Participants in the latest round of ACNA-LCC-LCMS talks meet in Wittenberg, Germany. Representatives of the Anglican Church in North America during these meetings included: ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach; the Rev. Peter Frank, ACNA pastor; the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Riches, Reformed Episcopal Seminary rector and professor; and Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) Presiding Bishop Ray Sutton, ACNA Dean of Ecumenical Affairs. Representing the Lutherans were LCC Past President Robert Bugbee; the Rev. Joel Kuhl, Chairman of LCC’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR); the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, Executive Director of the LCMS’ CTCR; and the Rev. Larry Vogel, Associate Executive Director of the LCMS’ CTCR. International guests included: the Rev. Dr. Christoph Barnbrock, Rector and Professor at SELK’s seminary Lutherische Theologische Hochschule; outgoing Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE) Chairman Jon Ehlers; Free Church of England (FCE) Bishop John Fenwick; Reformed Episcopal Church in Germany (Anglikanische Kirche in Deutschland – AKD) Bishop Gerhard Meyer; Reformed Episcopal Church in Croatia (Protestantska Reformirana Kršćanska Crkva – PRKC) Bishop Jasmin Milić; SELK Bishop Emeritus Jobst Schöne; SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, and the Rev. Dr. Vatroslav Župančić of the United Methodist Church in Germany (Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche – EMK.

GERMANY – The respective chairmen of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, and of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), Archbishop Foley Beach, met in Wittenberg on October 30 during the latest round of dialogue between confessional Lutherans and Anglicans from North America.

ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt and GAFCON Chairman Foley Beach meet at the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg, Germany.

Bishop Voigt is the spiritual leader of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) of Germany, and has served as ILC Chairman since 2010.  Archbishop Beach is Primate of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and is currently Chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council. The ILC is a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies committed to the authority of Holy Scripture as God’s written Word, and to the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ as the heart of the Church’s faith and mission. GAFCON was born out of the realignment of world Anglicanism, as those who uphold the authority of Scripture banded together to respond to theological and spiritual decay within the Anglican communion. The churches associated with GAFCON now represent around 50 million of the 70 million Anglicans around the world.

“The theological and historical background of GAFCON deeply impressed me,” noted Bishop Voigt. “Their understanding of Holy Scripture is very close to that of ILC churches,” he continued, while acknowledging there remain differences of theology between the two organizations which would benefit from further dialogue.

For nearly a decade, representatives of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC) and the ACNA have carried out semi-annual dialogue meetings, rejoicing in their discovery of substantial biblical teaching held in common. The decision was made to hold this fall’s round of talks at Wittenberg’s Old Latin School, an agency of the LCMS, SELK and ILC, to afford the regular participants an opportunity to be introduced to each other’s European partners and mark the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation together. In that context Bishop Voigt traveled to Wittenberg and had opportunity to speak with Archbishop Beach, who was present for the regular dialogue meetings. The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England was also present, as were Anglican bishops from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Croatia.

Much of the week’s discussions provided an opportunity for those present to introduce the churches they serve. In addition, there was significant attention given to the possibilities for cooperation in theological education in Europe. Participants also toured historical Luther sites throughout Wittenberg, and in the town of Eisleben, where Luther was born and also died. On the early morning of Reformation Day, the group walked to the famous Thesentür (“theses door”) of Wittenberg’s Castle Church to offer prayers to the Lord and to acknowledge His grace in uncovering the truth of the Gospel at the time of the Reformation 502 years ago.

For more information on the dialogue meetings held in Wittenberg, see this release from the Anglican Church in North America, Lutheran Church–Canada, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

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ILC reelects Bishop Voigt as Chairman

The ILC’s Executive Committee (l-r): ELCE Chairman Jon Ehlers; LCP President Antonio Reyes; LCMS President Matthew Harrison; Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, ILC Executive Secretary;  SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, Chairman of the ILC; FELSISA Bishop Dieter Reinstorf; LCC President Timothy Teuscher; Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee; and ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem, ILC Secretary. Not present: President Rudi Zimmer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil.
ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt.

BELGIUM – On September 27, 2018 delegates to the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) World Conference unanimously reelected Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt as ILC Chairman for another triennium.

Chairman Voigt is Bishop of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, a position he has held since 2006. He was first elected Chairman of the ILC in 2012 and was reelected to the position in 2015. He had previously served as Interim Chairman of the ILC beginning in 2010.

The ILC also reelected President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium to serve as Secretary for the Executive Committee.

The remaining five elected positions on the ILC’s Executive Committee are filled by church bodies as opposed to specific individuals. Serving as the representative for Africa is the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa, which is led by Bishop Dieter Reinstorf. The region of Asia will be represented by The Lutheran Church in the Philippines, which is led by President Antonio Reyes. Europe will be represented by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, which is led by Chairman Jon Ehlers. The world region of Latin America will be represented by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil, led by President Rudi Zimmer. Finally, the North American region will be represented by Lutheran Church–Canada, which is led by President Timothy Teuscher.

The Executive Committee has the right to appoint additional voting members to the committee, as per new bylaws adopted in 2017. On September 28, the Executive Committee reported that Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee (Past President of Lutheran Church–Canada and former Vice-Chairman of the ILC) has been reappointed to serve on the Executive Committee, and that President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has also been appointed to serve.

The Vice-Chairman of the ILC is not elected by the World Conference, and is instead elected by the Executive Committee from its World Area Representatives. That election will take place during the Executive Committee’s first meeting.

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Note: This story and its photo have been updated to indicate additional members appointed to the Executive Committee.

Hans-Jörg Voigt continues as Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt addresses the convention upon his reelection.

GERMANY – The Extraordinary General Synod of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany opened April 19, 2018 with a Service of Confession and Communion in Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Stadthagen. In the first synodical session the election of the Bishop was on the agenda. This had become necessary because the term of office for Bishop Voigt was set to expire at the end of the year.

For the proposed election the General Pastoral Conference of SELK last year nominated Bishop Voigt and Rev. Markus Nietzke as candidates. In the afternoon these candidates presented themselves to the assembled delegates and answered questions that had previously been submitted to the leadership of the synod. The election by the 47 delegates took place in the evening. On the first ballot, Bishop Voigt received 30 votes, and Rev. Nietzke 17. Therefore Bishop Voigt continues to serve as the presiding clergyman of the SELK. The term of office is not limited.

Far beyond the confines of his church, Bishop Voigt’s pastoral letters on the plight of refugees and of Christian marriage have received considerable attention in Germany. Another important issue was the process of reconciliation begun with the Union Churches in the Protestant Federation (EKD) in Germany.

A native of Dresden, Rev. Dr. Voigt was installed as Bishop in 2006. In 2012 he became chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). “I regard the bishop’s office as serving the unity of the church,”  Bishop Voigt explained. “I have learned that leadership in the church is always a question of teamwork. It is important to listen, accept helpful suggestions, and continue to listen. It is essential to prevent polarization and to encourage people to speak with each other.”

For his second tenure in office, Bishop Voigt considers it a goal to be a confessionally sound Evangelical Lutheran Church with a heart for missionary outreach and ecumenical responsibility. Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt is married to his wife Christiane; the couple is blessed with four children.

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The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church
Hannover, Germany

2015 World Conference of the International Lutheran Council begins in Argentina

Delegates at the 2015 ILC World Conference.
Delegates at the 2015 ILC World Conference.

ARGENTINA – The 25th (10th) World Conference of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) officially opened the morning of September 24, 2015 as Lutheran leaders from across the globe converged in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt delivers a homily.
Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt delivers a homily.

The ILC is a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies which proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the basis of an unconditional commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God and to the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord as the true and faithful exposition of the Word of God. Every three years ILC member churches and friends gather to conduct business, hold elections, and discuss challenges and opportunities facing the Church at large.

The conference began Thursday morning with a Matins service, with ILC Executive Secretary serving as liturgist. ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, gave the homily, drawing the parallels between the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the plight of Syrian refugees today. Like the Good Samaritan, he said, we too are called to care for the downtrodden—and Jesus, who is our own Good Neighbour, can give us the strength to do so despite our own weaknesses.

Bringing the Reformation to the World

A primary focus of the Thursday morning session was a keynote lecture from Rev. Alexey Streltsov, rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Rev. Streltsov was invited to speak on the topic of bringing the Reformation to the world in the 21st century.

That task assumes three different but related goals, he said. First, it requires us to “evangelize or re-evangelize the world outside the Church.” Second, we must “testify to the truth of the original Reformation to other Christian traditions.” And third, we must “correct errors in our own midst.”

Delegates listen to Rev. Alexey Streltsov's keynote lecture.
Delegates listen to Rev. Alexey Streltsov’s keynote lecture.

Rev. Streltsov explored these goals through a close reading of the Augsburg Confession. “We face a markedly different situation than that of the 16th century,” he explained, noting that the Reformers and their opponents all agreed on basic principles like faith in the Triune God. Today that is often not the case, at least in much of Western society. In other places, it is the challenge of Pentecostalism, he suggested, that will shape how Lutherans share their message with the world around them.

But though the challenges we face are not the same as our Lutheran forebears, we have the same mission: to correct error where we must, to maintain true faith where we have it, and to pass on that faith to others. We may face challenges, Rev. Streltsov said, but “Decay will always be followed by regeneration.”

“This is not the end,” he continued. “The end has come at the cross. And this end makes for us a new beginning.”

Churches apply for ILC membership

Also during Thursday morning, the ILC Executive Council introduced three Lutheran church bodies that have applied for membership in the International Lutheran Council. These applicants include two church bodies from Europe (Norway and Siberia) and one from South America (Nicaragua). Leaders of the three churches all addressed the conference, sharing their churches’ backgrounds and desire to join the International Lutheran Council.

Voting to receive the proposed new member churches will take place later in the conference.

The morning session ended with a Bible study on Romans 3:21-31 led by Bishop Modise Maragelo of the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa.

The 2015 World Conference of the ILC runs September 24-27 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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‘A rather unusual church’: IDEA interviews ILC Chairman

Chairman-Voigt
Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – In the lead-up to 2014 Reformation Day observances, the journal IDEA (a prominent evangelical German publication) featured an interview with Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany. In addition to leading SELK, Bishop Voigt serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

The interview was conducted by Karsten Huhn and attempts to answer the question: “What is the significance of the Reformation today?” Throughout the discussion, Bishop Voigt ends up speaking on a number of topics, including liturgy, confessional Lutheran witness, the nature of ordination, and the Reformation in 2017.

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 [State Church] 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.

The interview continues from there. Members of the International Lutheran Council will find it an insightful look at the position of confessional Lutheranism in Germany. Read the interview in German here and in English here.

In addition to leading SELK, Bishop Voigt serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

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