FORT WAYNE, Indiana – The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) recently held talks with representatives of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) on October 10-11, 2017 to discuss entering into altar and pulpit fellowship, as well as to consider potential opportunities for partnership.
Representing the SELK at the meetings were Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt and Rev. Dr. Werner Klän. Representing the AALC were Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins, Rev. Richard Shields, and Rev. Joseph Dapelo.
The meetings began the morning of October 10 on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the AALC has its national headquarters. Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins of the AALC led opening devotions. Discussions the first day focused on confessional basis and ecclesial identity, as well as the doctrines of Holy Scripture, God, sin, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the Church, and the office of the Holy Ministry, with general agreement on the issues discussed.
Leading the SELK’s delegation was Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide. Both SELK and the AALC are member churches of the ILC. The second day of meetings between SELK and the AALC began with devotions led by Bishop Voigt, followed by discussions on the sacraments, worship, ethics, and eschatology, with the two sides finding consensus in these areas.
Each group plans to encourage their respective church bodies to vote on entering into fellowship at coming conventions (SELK at their pastoral convention in November 2017 and the AALC at their general convention in June 2018).
Earlier in 2017, the AALC also entered into fellowship talks with Lutheran Church in Norway (Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge – LKN). March saw talks between the AALC’s President Pastor Leins, Rev. Dapelo, and Rev. Jordan Cooper and the LKN’s Bishop Torkild Msavie and Rev. Eirik-Kornelius Garnes-Lunde. On the basis of those talks, the LKN decided to enter into fellowship with the AALC. The AALC will bring the matter forward for a vote at the AALC’s general convention in June 2018. The LKN, like SELK and the AALC, is a member church of the International Lutheran Council.
HANOVER, Germany – From May 1-2, 2017, Rev. Ville Typpö and Rev. Mikko Tiira of the Istanbul Lutheran Church (İstanbul Luteryen Kilisesi – ILK) visited the national office of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) in Hanover. Rev. Typpö oversees the young Lutheran church body in Turkey. Meanwhile, Rev. Tiira is stationed in Izmir, the Biblical city of Smyrna.
The Istanbul Lutheran Church numbers 200 members in four congregations: two in Turkey (in Istanbul and Izmir) and two in Bulgaria (Peshtera and Krusevo). Some ILK members from Bulgaria have emigrated to Germany in recent years. ILK pastors seek to help the transition of these people to German Lutheran congregations. The SELK’s pastoral leader, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, pledged the spiritual support of his church.
In addition there was discussion about possible cooperation between the Lutheran Theological Seminary of the SELK in Oberursel, Germany and the Evangelical Lutheran Institute of Religion (ELRIM) in Istanbul. The visitors from Turkey emphasized that students from Germany are always welcome at ELRIM. There one can learn of Islam as practiced in Turkey, while cultivating contacts with the Orthodox and other Eastern churches. Lectures by visiting German professors would be very much encouraged.
Following the Hanover consultations, Revs. Typpö and Tiira traveled on to Luther’s Wittenberg to participate in a conference at the Old Latin School, a joint project of the SELK and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Bishop Voigt remarked to the SELK News Service that the Lutheran work in Turkey impresses him deeply. Along the way there was also discussion on political issues. The conversation with the visiting pastors confirmed his impression that one cannot ignore the ideologizing taking place in Turkish society.
The Istanbul Lutheran Church is a Turkish-speaking confessional Lutheran church body officially established in 2004. It carries on the tradition of the first Lutheran congregation in Turkey established in Constantinople in 1709. In addition to SELK, it has developed closer relations with the LCMS in recent years, signing a Working Agreement with them in 2015. (You can find out more about the history and work of the ILK by reading this 2013 interview between The Canadian Lutheran and Rev. Typpö).
SELK and the LCMS are member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. Bishop Voigt of the SELK serves the ILC as its chairman.
With files from a SELK News story as translated by Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, Lutheran Church–Canada.
GERMANY – While most Canadians celebrated the Christmas season in relative comfort, that wasn’t the case for all people across the world. In particular, one German pastor is raising the situation of Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity living in Germany, who are facing mass deportation despite the dangers they will certainly face if they are returned to their homelands.
Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin-Steglitz, a member congregation of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). This congregation, along with several other SELK churches, have welcomed hundreds of converts to Christianity in recent years, mostly Iranian and Afghan refugees living in Germany. Dr. Martens and his congregation were widely covered in international media in early 2016 for their work among refugees. But the German government has recently begun to deny en masse the refugee claims of many of these converts, following what Dr. Martens is calling deeply flawed refugee hearings.
“Desperate reports have been reaching me from members of our congregation,” he writes in a letter released December 23. “At this time, the Federal Ministry for Immigration and Refugees is rejecting almost all applications for asylum from our Iranian members, and in many cases also from our Afghan congregational members and candidates for baptism, and is sending them deportation notices.”
Germany has recently increased the number of personnel responsible for hearing asylum applications—a necessary change, given many refugees have been waiting three years for their first hearing. “Yet not even in our worst nightmares could we have pictured what this change would entail,” Dr. Martens says. “Many [of those hearing the cases] are manifestly clueless about the situation of Christians in Iran and Afghanistan, and worse yet they are utterly clueless concerning questions relating to the Christian faith. But all of this does not prevent them from assuming the role of self-appointed experts, whose questions ‘unmask’ the supposedly deceitful Iranian asylum applicants one after another, even when those hearing the cases don’t even know the difference between the [Apostle’s] Creed, and the Our Father [Lord’s Prayer].”
Instead, refugees are being tasked with obscure or even irrelevant questions to determine the “authenticity” of their conversions. “Questions are put such as the names of the two sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or what Martin Luther died of, or the occasion of Queen Margarethe of Denmark’s recent visit to Wittenberg,” Dr. Martens reports. “In this way, Christians who learned the first elements of the Christian faith in their house church in Iran are well and truly hung out to dry. Many hearings are more like kangaroo courts in which our congregational members and candidates for baptism have absolutely no chance of presenting what is important to them.”
Dr. Martens further reports that those hearing the cases are dismissing or even mocking the refugees when they express their faith in the importance of Christ dying on the cross for their sins. “What the applicant says here makes absolutely no sense,” one official is said to write in his official reports. Those tasked with translating for the court—mostly Muslims with little knowledge of the Christian faith, and in some cases reportedly hostile to it—are also accused of incorrectly or even falsely translating what the refugees say during their hearings. Such improper questioning and translating seriously damages the applicants’ claims for refugee status, as the final decision is made elsewhere in Germany on the basis of these reports and transcripts.
Dr. Martens says the flaws in the system are so great that the situation must inevitably be raised to a higher court. “Orders have obviously been given from above no longer to recognize Iranian converts as having the right to asylum in our country,” Dr. Martens suggests. “The systematic failure of the Federal Ministry in hundreds of cases must come to the light of day through the efforts of the superior courts.”
The challenges come after a year of other difficulties, as converts to Christianity have faced increasing persecution from Muslim refugees angry at their conversions from Islam. “This year many of them suffered violent attacks from Muslim residents of their institutional homes and from Muslim watchmen once they learned of their conversion. Time and time again—most recently last week—we have had to collect people from residences, in order to prevent worse from befalling them,” he notes. The attacks even led SELKS’ bishop earlier this year to call on the government to give Christian refugees to be given separate accommodations from Muslim refugees. “But our congregational members and candidates for baptism are continually finding that those who attack them and threaten them with death have no problem securing the right of abode here in Germany, while they themselves—the ones under attack—are ‘exposed’ by the Federal Ministry as not entitled to asylum.”
As an example, Dr. Martens notes the case of six Christian converts who were beaten by a group of nearly 100 radical Muslim asylum applicants in February 2016. Police dogs had to be released in order to protect the Christians. And yet the police investigation was eventually dropped. Now, the six Christians are among those receiving deportation notices.
Despite the challenges, Dr. Martens reports good news too for his congregation. In his letter he goes on to explain the process by which refugees are instructed in the Christian faith prior to baptism—or excluded, if a genuine conversion is not evident. Currently baptisms sit at between 30 and 40 a month. And renovations to the building to accommodate more refugees continue apace.
Dr. Martens ends his letter with a request for prayer. “Please keep praying for the work here in Stegltiz,” he writes. “It is and remains in many ways a spiritual battle loaded with many afflictions and temptations. And yet for me personally, even after 25 years, it remains the most beautiful service in the world, which I would never exchange for anything else. Pray above all that all the members who have found their way to our congregation in the last years may continue to hold to Christ and not let their love for their Lord falter!”
You can download Dr. Martens’ full letter here. The translation is by Rev. Dr. John Stephenson of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario).
SELK is a member church of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).
MOZAMBIQUE – Missions in Mozambique continue to bear fruit as the Lutheran Church of Concord in Mozambique (Igreja Luterana da Concórdia em Moçambique – ILCM) shares the good news of Jesus Christ.
In August 2015, the ILCM celebrated the ordination of its first graduating class of pastors—eight pastors to serve the young church body’s then ten churches. The celebration saw approximately 1,000 members converge on Villa de Sena, an event which drew considerable local and even national attention.
Amambo and Maviga
Among those discussing the event were Christians in Amambo, who heard the story from a local woman, who herself heard it from a truck driver. The Christian community in Amambo had been left on their own five years earlier, when the priest serving them left the village. Without pastoral care, the congregation remained isolated and alone, slowly dwindling as members fell away. The news of the ILCM ordination celebration encouraged the remaining congregation members to try to make contact with the Lutherans they had just learned of.
Two members travelled twenty kilometers by bike to a nearby town, where they found transportation by truck to Villa de Sena. In total, their trip took two days along rough roads in territory known to be frequented by lions. When they finally arrive in Villa de Sena, they were directed to Rev. Manuel Jambo, President of the ILCM, who welcomed them into his home. After a night of conversation they joined President Jambo and Rev. Mateus Sifa at the local church for worship. They returned to Amambo with the good news that the Lutherans had agreed to visit them to begin a course of instruction.
Within a few weeks, the newly ordained pastors from the ILCM did indeed visit. And on September 6, 2015, members, pastors, and visitors dedicated the Lutheran Church of Amambo. Just three weeks later, they dedicated another congregation fifty kilometers away in Maviga, as the members of Amambo shared the clear Gospel message they were now receiving.
Nine months later, international partners had the opportunity to visit the Amambo congregation. Rev. Carlos Winterle, a Brazilian pastor serving the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA) with long-time involvement in the mission in Mozambique, and Rev. Shauen Trump, Area Director for Eastern and Southern Africa for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), joined eight local pastors in visiting the community. 110 members were on hand to welcome them. Knowing that the guests would be unable to visit Maviga on the same trip, the congregation there also sent a delegation to welcome them as well—twenty-one representatives who travelled the fourteen-hour journey by foot.
The village of Cado similarly found themselves interested in learning more about Lutherans—though their reasons for doing so are somewhat different. The Christians of Cado paid dearly for pastoral services, struggling under the tyranny of a pastor who mandated a substantial cash payment for each visit. It was not until villagers started going to town, some forty-five kilometers away, to find a market for their goods that they realized not all churches operate in the same way.
When the possibility of life together under a different model came to light, the congregation took action to learn more. They sent out two youth by bicycle to Villa de Sena to make inquiries of the churches there—and once they arrived they met President Jambo and Rev. Sifa. President Jambo hosted the two Cado villagers in his home, where they discussed the theology of stewardship, offerings, and matters of financial administration in the church. Through these discussions, President Jambo was able to clearly share the Gospel, and explain the church’s focus on Word and Sacraments.
That Sunday, the two villagers attended São Paulo Lutheran Church in Villa de Sena, and got to see these focuses in practice. By the end of the service, their path was clear. They explained to the church members in Villa de Sena that they were sent out to find a parent church body for their congregation, and that they had been convicted that the Lutheran church was the one they had come to find. The Cado villagers requested the blessing of the São Paulo congregation to send a pastor to support a Lutheran church in Cado.
A few weeks later, three Lutheran pastors traveled to visit the people of Cado. The first Lutheran service was attended by fifty villagers meeting under a tree. Within a year, the congregation had grown to eighty.
It was in ministering to the community of Cado that another mission opportunity presented itself. Rev. Sifa was traveling the forty-five kilometer trip home from Cado—a trip that would be taxing in the best of circumstances, and even more so on one of Africa’s typical heavy one-speed bicycles on rough dirt roads. About ten kilometers into the trip, Rev. Sifa stopped at a trading centre for rest and a refreshment. While there, a teacher noted his clerical collar and asked if he were a priest. Rev. Sifa explained he was a pastor of the Lutheran Church, and they began to discuss the history and doctrine of Lutheranism. Interested in what the pastor had to say, the teacher asked him to consider starting a church in his village of Cado-Nhachiva.
Several weeks later, Rev. Sifa was on his way to Cado again. On the way he found the teacher and several other villagers waiting for him in Cado-Nhachiva. Rev. Sifa spoke with them and invited to travel with him to the church in Cado. They went. Not much later, Cado-Nhachiva held its first worship service, with 80 people attending. Today 150 members regularly attend services where the Gospel is clearly proclaimed.
The clarity of the Gospel preaching done by Lutherans is making an impact elsewhere in Mozambique too. In Chemba, a local community radio station host learned that firsthand. In Chemba, as in communities across Mozambique, the radio station gives regular airtime to local pastors. But when Lutheran pastor Rev. Julio Castomo had his first moment on air, the host was taken aback by his message. It was so different from the other preachers who came for their five-minute radio time.
After the broadcast, the host spoke extensively with Rev. Castomo about his message and about the church. The next day, he came to visit the pastor in his home. And that Sunday, he came to church to learn more. Immediately afterwards, he travelled to his home village of Suero to tell his extended family about the love of Christ. They asked him to go back to Chemba, collect Rev. Castomo, and bring him to tell them himself. After a few evangelistic visits, the people of Suero organized a church and invited Rev. Castomo to come. The first week 60 people attended. The next week there were 80.
The ILCM has welcomed other churches too. Rev. Rui Jalene Souza of Kapasseni has seen his evangelistic visits to nearby villages bear fruit, with four new congregations planted in the area. And an independent congregation in Mutarara, hearing of the ILCM’s work, recently sent two representatives forty kilometers to Villa de Sena looking for a church body with substance. The dedication of a Lutheran congregation in Mutarara is expected in the near future. Work continues in other areas as well.
There is a burning desire in Mozambique for clear Gospel preaching, both among the unchurched and those lacking pastoral care. The Lutheran Church of Concord in Mozambique is meeting that need, and they are supported in that work by faithful international partners. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (IELB); the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA); The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS); The Mission of the Lutheran Churches (Bleckmarer Mission) of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (SELK); and Redeemer Lutheran Church (Victoria, B.C., Canada) have all signed a memorandum of understanding with the pastors of the Lutheran Church of Concord in Mozambique to provide guidance to ongoing mission work in the country.
Lutheran missions in Mozambique grew out of the work of now retired Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) pastor Rev. Joseph Alfazema and his wife Perpetua. Their work resulted in the creation of the Kapasseni Project, a Canadian organization that helped lead to the creation of a Mozambican Lutheran church body.
IELB, FELSISA, LCC, SELK, and the LCMS are all member churches of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
BELGIUM – From June 1-5, 2016 Lutherans from several European Lutheran churches assembled in Antwerp, Belgium, for the 24th European Lutheran Conference (ELC), under the theme ‘Reformation then … and now.’
The conference was attended by ELC member churches representatives from Belgium, Denmark, England, France, and Germany, as well as by guests from the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States of America.
A keynote address on the conference’s theme was delivered by Dr. Werner Klän of Germany. An opening service, morning devotions with Bible studies, and evening prayers shaped the spiritual frame of the conference. Several of the guest churches in attendance have expressed their intention to apply for membership in the coming years.
A special focus of this year’s conference was the commemoration of the 450th anniversary of the establishment of the first Lutheran congregation in Antwerp, which was founded in 1566. From June 2-3, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB) hosted an international conference highlighting this event, organized by ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem in cooperation with the University of Antwerp, and held at the Rubenianum.
The conference was opened with two keynote lectures: “The International Dimensions of the Wittenberg Reformation” by Dr. Robert Kolb (Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri), and “Reformation Movements and the Wonderyear: the Antwerp Context” by Dr. Guido Marnef (University of Antwerp). The second day of the conference featured six additional lectures: “The Role of Antwerp’s Reformed Augustinians in the Early Reformation” by Dr. Robert Christman (Luther College, Decorah, Iowa); “Humanists on the Move: The Transfer of Ideas Between Wittenberg and Antwerp” by Dr. Victoria Christman (Luther College, Decorah, Iowa); “The First Lutheran Congregation 1566–1585 and Beyond” by Rev. Gijsbertus van Hattem (Lutheran Church of Antwerp, Belgium); “Polemics, Church Order and Confession: Matthias Flacius Illyricus in Antwerp during the ‘Wonderjaar’ 1566/67” by Dr. Luka Ilic (Leibniz Institute, Mainz, Germany); “Christopher Plantin, Printing for the Reformation” by Dirk Imhof (Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, Belgium); and “The Image Debates in the Low Countries: an Art Historical Review” by Dr. Koenraad Jonckheere (Ghent University, Belgium).
The conference concluded with a walking tour through 16th Century Antwerp, ending with a reception at the Town Hall, where Antwerp’s mayor Bart De Wever welcomed the participants.
The European Lutheran Conference concluded with Divine Service on June 5. ELKB President and local pastor Gijsbertus van Hattem led the liturgy, while President Leif Jensen of the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church in Denmark preached.
The next conference of the European Lutheran Conference will be held in England in 2018.
All of the member churches of the ELC are also member churches of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.
FINLAND – Representatives of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses began church fellowship talks with the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE) during meetings April 13-14, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. The Nordic Lutheran Dioceses officially formed in 2015, and is composed of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, the Mission Province of Sweden, and the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Norway.
These three churches have attempted to operate within the confines of their respective national church bodies, but have increasingly come into conflict with them as the national churches have become increasingly liberal. The bishops and almost all clergy associated with the Dioceses have been defrocked by their national church bodies for their confessional stance.
Planning for these talks has taken three years and was first only envisioned to include the ELCE and the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. But as discussions progressed, it was considered prudent to include the other two Nordic Dioceses as well as the SELK so that the scope and breadth of these talks could be increased.
The discussions were held at the Finnish Diocese’s Koinonia Centre in Helsinki.
Meetings began with worship and discussion soon followed on the nature and identity of the Church. Each church body presented their constitution and spoke about how the Lutheran Confessions shape their self-understanding and ecclesiastical identities. Despite the influence of national and historic influences on the wording and structures of their constitutions, it was agreed that a clear and common understanding, founded upon the Lutheran Confessions, existed between the Nordic Missions Dioceses, the SELK, and the ELCE. The definition of “free” and “independent” churches were discussed and clarified, and the Nordic Dioceses made it clear that they were independent of all national church structures, governance, and practices.
The two day conference discussed twelve other topics as well, including the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the Holy Trinity, the person and work of the Son of God, the person and work of the holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the end times, and ecumenical relations with other churches, both inside and outside Lutheranism. It was agreed these discussions were very helpful and that there was substantial agreement on these doctrines among all five churches.
The area that garnered most discussion was on the subject of the church and church structure. The Nordic Mission Dioceses and the SELK are episcopal, meaning they have bishops and a more centralised church structure. The ELCE, meanwhile, is more congregational and does not have a bishop. Dialogue here led to further discussions on the Office of the Holy Ministry. All participants agreed that while the particular form and structure of a church is important, what is ultimately important is how that structure assists the church to proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments as she carries out Christ’s mission in the world.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in England and the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. The churches of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses recently began official discussions about becoming members of the ILC.
ARGENTINA – On September 26, delegates to the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) 2015 World Conference in Argentina reelected Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt as ILC Chairman.
Chairman Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, a position he has served in since 2006. He was elected ILC Chairman at the 2012 World Conference held in Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada. Bishop Voigt had previously served as Interim Chairman of the ILC since 2010, after being automatically advanced from Vice-Chairman when the position of Chairman became vacant.
Despite the modest size of his church body, Chairman Voigt has become a prominent leader in confessional Lutheran and wider Christian circles. His 2013 Pastoral Letter “Discovering Marriage and Family as Gifts of God, along with other public action, won him recognition as “2013 Bishop of the Year” by a German interdenominational Christian news service, and he was likewise awarded a “Declaration of Respect” by the Association of Christian Publicists. In 2014, Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Canada awarded Chairman Voigt an honourary Doctor of Divinity Degree in recognition of his service not only to the German church but to Lutherans around the world.
Also on September 26, the ILC reelected President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB) to serve as Secretary for the Executive Council.
The remainder of the ILC’s Executive Committee is composed of five World Area Representatives. According to the ILC’s constitution, members elect church bodies rather than individuals to fill these roles. Elected to serve as Latin America representative for this triennium was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay (IELP), currently served by President Norberto M. Gerke. The remaining World Regions saw the previous triennium’s representatives returned to office. Representing Africa is the Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN), currently served by Archbishop Christian Ekong. The Asia World Area will be filled by The Lutheran Church of the Philippines (LCP), currently served by President Antonio del Rio Reyes. Europe will be represented by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE), currently served by Chairman Jon Ehlers. Finally, elected to represent North America is Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), currently served by President Robert Bugbee.
The ILC’s Vice-Chairman is not elected by the World Conference. Instead, the Executive Council will elect a Vice-Chairman from among the World Area Representatives at their first council meeting.
GERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany has drawn international media attention recently as a result of the large number of Iranian and Afghan converts their congregations have received into fellowship in recent years.
Over the past decade, Germany has seen an unprecedented amount of Iranian and Afghan refugees converting to Christianity. For many of these converts, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens has been the pastor who shepherded them through the process. A recent Associated Press article features his work among refugees, beginning with a recent baptism service he conducted. “Will you break away from Satan and his evil deeds?” the pastor asks an Iranian named Mohammed Ali Zonoobi, and “Will you break away from Islam?” The candidate answers yes to these and other questions, and Dr. Martens baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Dr. Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin, a congregation which has exploded in size due to the dramatic number of Iranian and Afghan converts joining the church. In two years, the church has grown from 150 members to more than 600, with more than 500 of these members being Farsi and Dari speakers. Prior to joining Trinity Lutheran, Dr. Martens served at St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, also in Berlin—a congregation that had, as of early 2014, seen congregational membership and the number of baptismal candidates of Iranian descent grow by 75%.
“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” Dr. Martens said in the Christianity Today article at the time. “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.” Persians is another term for Iranians.
Of course, some have questioned the authenticity of these widespread conversions, suggesting a more pragmatic reason for the number of Iranians and Afghans professing faith in Christ. The Associated Press article, for example, hints that “the decision [to convert] will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.” In places like Iran and Afghanistan, converting to Christianity from Islam is a punishable offense that can lead to imprisonment, torture, or even execution.
But for Zonoobi and others like him, that threat existed long before they left Iran. Zonoobi converted to Christianity as a teenager while still living in Iran, and fled to Germany only after Christian friends began to be arrested for their faith. The total number of Christian converts in Iran is difficult to pinpoint but is widely understood to be growing. “The proselytizing from Muslim-to-Christian converts in the Diaspora as well as Christian neighbors closer to home has led to the religion taking hold throughout Iran in numbers previously unseen,” The Guardian’s 2014 report suggests. “The underground nature of the Christian conversion movement has made numbers impossible to determine accurately,” they note, but estimates of the Christian population in Iran range anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000.
Perhaps some Iranians and Afghans in Germany are joining Trinity Lutheran and other churches merely in an attempt to increase their chances of a successful refugee claim. But Dr. Martens has confidence in God to work through the Word and the Sacraments even then. “I know that whoever comes here will not be left unchanged,” he says in the Associated Press report. And the numbers bear his confidence out—Dr. Martens estimates that roughly 90% of those baptized have remained members of the church.
And there are plenty more waiting in the wings for their baptismal day. At least 80 more Iranians and Afghans are reportedly working towards their own baptisms at Trinity Lutheran, an event that is first preceded by three months of instruction in the Christian faith. If recent history is anything to go by, a new class of converts will be ready to take their place shortly thereafter.
The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
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.
GERMANY – 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.”