On the Visitation of Mary, a Pastoral Letter Encouraging Young People to Marry and Raise Children

Chairman-VoigtGERMANY – A year ago today, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany released a pastoral letter entitled “Discovering Marriage and Family as Gifts of God.” Its July 2 publication coincided with German observances of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)—an appropriate day to consider the blessings of marriage and children.

The letter came in the midst of turmoil in Germany, following the publication of a reference paper on marriage by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The EKD paper—entitled “Between Autonomy and Dependence—Strengthening the Family as a Reliable Community”—was widely criticized, both by other Christians and in the German press, for abandoning a traditional biblical understanding of marriage.

Bishop Voigt’s letter, by contrast, was widely praised. Bishop Wolfang Ipolt of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Görlitz was one of those who hailed its publication. “Given the irritation caused within the Catholic Church by the EKD’s guidance on the subject of marriage and family,” he wrote, “the pastoral letter of the Bishop of SELK is for Catholics a positive sign from Evangelical Christianity. Especially when it comes to the important area of marriage and family, Christians of different denominations must stand together and not lightly abandon the testimony of Scripture.”

In addition to serving as head of SELK, Bishop Voigt is Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). His letter, which presents the case for a biblical understanding of marriage and family in clear, positive language, is now available in English, thanks to a translation by Rev. Charles Schaum.

“Hardly a day passes by currently in which basic questions regarding marriage, family, and sexuality are not dealt with in the public sphere of our western society,” Bishop Voigt’s letter begins. “Uncertainty has now reached even the internal sphere of the Church. With this pastoral letter I would remind you of the foundations of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Church concerning the area of questions on marriage and family.”

“Hardly a day passes by currently in which basic questions regarding marriage, family, and sexuality are not dealt with in the public sphere of our western society.”

“In light of all this uncertainty,” he continues, “I am writing this pastoral message especially to offer encouragement to young people, that they might get married and start a family.”

Throughout the letter, Bishop Voigt discusses the desire young people have to start their own families. To that end, he encourages young adults not to let concerns in this world—extended periods of education, temporary employment arrangements, a desire for greater mobility, and so forth—prevent them from entering into marriage and raising children.

Bishop Voigt also calls on the wider Church to demonstrate love and care for young families, so that they are not overwhelmed by the challenges rearing a family brings in contemporary western society. “Congregations can become a place where older people help younger families with their child-rearing tasks,” he writes. Noting especially the difficulties single parents face, he writes that “the Church is required in a special manner to stand helpfully in allegiance with them.”

This is a truly biblical and Christian model of marriage and family, Bishop Voigt explains. “The words of Jesus and the explanations of the Apostle Paul allow no doubt that the New Testament recognizes no other models for life than marriage and family on the one hand and celibacy—which is a special spiritual gift—on the other. Consequently, alternative models of marital relationship—including polygamy and homosexuality—must be rejected. But this does not condone the mistreatment of people who subscribe to such models. “It is a fruit and consequence of the winsome love of Christ,” Bishop Voigt writes, that the Church must treat “people with same-sex inclinations with respect and love, and additionally stand against discrimination against them.”

Download the full letter in English here. The letter can also be read in German at SELK’s website here.

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Lutheran Church Superintendent murdered in Germany

Superintendent Christoph Scherling.
ELKiB Superintendent Christoph Schorling.

GERMANY – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Baden (ELKiB) has reported the sad news that Rev. Christoph Schorling was murdered June 24, 2014. Rev. Schorling was Superintendent over the seven municipalities of Baden, and served as pastor of congregations in Pforzheim and Freiburg.

Rev. Schorling was stabbed to death in his rectory by a man suffering from mental illness to whom Rev. Schorling had often provided pastoral care. The suspect has since been apprehended. Rev. Schorling leaves behind a wife, three grown children, and several grandchildren.

“We cannot understand how it came to this terrible act,” ELKiB Bishop Jochen Cornelius-Bundschuh said, “and we bring our bewilderment before God.” He continued: “Pastor Schorling was a regular guest at our synodical meetings. We felt very connected to him always and will miss him painfully.”

Prior to entering the ELKiB, Rev. Schorling previously served as a pastor in the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, a member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt—who also serves as ILC Chairman—expressed condolences upon hearing the news of his death. “Superintendent Christoph Schorling died while fulfilling his ministry in pastoral care and diaconia,” Bishop Voigt reflected. “His love for all people led him to his final steps, and so he follows in the way of his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Pastor Schorling’s faithful service becomes for me an example to emulate in my own ministry.”

“We grieve over the loss of Pastor Schorling,” he continued, “and we keep his family and loved ones in prayer. May God grant them comfort through Jesus Christ in this difficult time.”

The ELKiB is a partner-church of SELK. It is is a member-church of the Lutheran World Federation, though not a state church in Germany nor part of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

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Latvian and German Lutherans hold meetings

Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.
Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – From March 24-25, representatives of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCL) visited Hanover for meetings with Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Dean Andris Krauliņš of Latvia’s Jūrmala circuit and Romāns Ganiņš, Head of Administration at the Consistory in Riga, represented the ELCL. SELK was represented by its Bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt.

Discussions over the two days focused on church-congregational life in the two partner churches. Michael Schätzel of the German church’s council gave Romāns Ganiņš a detailed description of the financial systems of SELK, focusing on congregational budget-planning systems. Dean Andris Krauliņš and Bishop Voigt shared together the different structures of organization in the two church bodies, with the latter describing the meeting structure of the church’s council.

“Last year I visited the synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia,” Bishop Voigt noted. “Whenever I meet together with our brothers and sisters in Latvia, I appreciate our closeness in the liturgy of the Lutheran worship service and in our confessions. We need to support one another as we face our secularizing European culture.”

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany has 187 churches, 124 active pastors, and approximately 35,000 members. Its bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt, also serves as Chairman for the International Lutheran Council.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, a member of the Lutheran World Federation, is one of the largest Christian church bodies in Latvia, with nearly 300 churches throughout the nation served by 140 pastors and ten evangelists. Of Latvia’s 2.3 million population, approximately 430,000 identify as Lutheran, with about a tenth of these active in the life of the church.

The German and Latvian churches signed an “Agreement of Partnership” in 2002 on the grounds of common subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. The two churches are in the process of seeking full altar and pulpit fellowship. In addition to SELK, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has ties to other ILC churches, including The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod with which it achieved altar and pulpit fellowship in 2001.

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Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church welcomes Iranian converts

selk-webGERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) continues to see remarkable numbers of Iranian Muslims converting to Christianity. According to a recent SELKinfo story, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church (Steglitz, Berlin) reports that the number of congregational members and applicants for baptism of Persian background at his church has recently grown by 75%. The same report notes three groups of Iranians were preparing for baptism at the time, with the first group scheduled to have been baptized December 15, 2013.

“It is a kind of miracle which we experience in Berlin right now,” explained Rev. Dr. Jobst H.M. Schöne (Bishop Emeritus of SELK) during a 2013 visit to Canada. It all began when a few Iranians showed up for service at the church one Sunday, he said. As time went on, they expressed an interest in being baptized. “We thought at the beginning,” Dr. Schöne reflects, “that’s it: two people, maybe three people, maybe four people. I tell you, it’s now more than 300.”

While the number of Iranian converts is something to rejoice over, conversion often comes with a cost. “They are sometimes suffering very much from their fellow country-men, living in an asylum home [for refugees],” Dr. Schöne explains. “All day long they are together with Muslims, and if they find out that some of them are going to become Christians, then there is a big controversy.” Moreover, many of these converts are still in the middle of refugee claims. Converting to Christianity, and then being forced to return to Iran could see them face severe persecution, even capital punishment, as converting to Christianity from Islam is a crime which carries the death sentence in Iran. Such fears have “increased the pressure placed on them when they have to prove their commitment to being Christians before German courts,” notes the SELKinfo report, “in which process they have seen themselves subjected to very arbitrary standards as Lutheran Christians.” Dr. Martens and other members of St. Mary’s often appear as witnesses on their behalf during these refugee trials.

In addition to baptismal instruction for Iranians, St. Mary’s is reaching out in a number of other ways, including through home Bible studies, confirmation classes, and youth group. The congregation also hosts regular lunches following Sunday worship. “On account of many guests,” the SELKinfo story explains, “teams of cooks prepare the food ahead of time on Saturdays, with those who take part looking after a good portion of the cost of these meals by donation.” The fellowship meals have become an even stronger opportunity for spiritual growth since November, the report continues, when Sister Martha Brauner (a deaconess of the Bethel Diaconal Community) began attending. “Sister Martha worked for over 40 years in a hospital in Afghanistan, and thus speaks Farsi,” the report notes, “which makes it possible for the new congregational members to hear about faith in Christ in their mother tongue.”

Dr. Martens and his work among Iranians was featured in a 2012 Christianity Today article entitled “The other Iranian Revolution.” He was also named 2012’s “Pastor of the Year” by ideaSpektrum (a German Christian magazine) for his work caring for Iranian converts over the previous five years. “These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” noted Dr. Martens in the Christianity Today article. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians.”

For more information on German Lutheran outreach to Iranians, watch the following video. It features Dr. Schöne and was recorded at Lutheran Church–Canada’s 2013 National Pastors and Deacons Conference.

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(English translations of the SELKinfo report courtesy of Rev. Dr. John Stephenson.)