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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Trouble in our sister church, SELK

Editor's Note: This comes from the Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson, a pastor in the SELK and visiting professor this coming fall at St. Catharines. He has asked us to post this update regarding the efforts of some in SELK to push for women's ordination, and the counter-efforts to remain faithful to the Scriptures. He includes an open letter for which he is soliciting signatures from LCMS and LCC clergyman. If you would like your name attached, please email Dr. Torgerson directly at: concordia AT lutherwb DOT de - +HRC

Latest Turns in the Theological Debate on Women’s Ordination in the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany:

An Update from Wilhelm Torgerson

With a Concluding Appeal for Help

A formal (but hollow?) reiteration of orthodoxy

On 20 June 2011, in the course of its regular Church Synod (=National Convention), representatives of the SELK adopted the following three propositions almost unanimously (with no votes to the contrary, but three abstentions):

The matter of the ordination of women to the holy ministry of the Church is not an open question but rather a disputed one

SELK’s official position in regard to WO continues to be what is set forth in Art. 7,2 of her constitution. Since the foundation of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1972, this section has clearly stated that only men (in the male sense of the word, i.e., Männer) may hold the office of the public ministry.

The Consistory (Kirchenleitung) is to establish a commission, made up of equal numbers of men and women, clergy and laity respectively, to guide the ongoing discussion of WO within the SELK.

The June resolution apparently represents the sixth or seventh formal decision by an official assembly of the SELK that has reiterated our Church’s official stance with respect to WO.

Specific background: an errant sister synod provokes crisis in the SELK!

This time around, such a public decision was particularly necessary because of a dramatic series of events immediately preceding the Synod.

On 2 March 2011, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baden (ELKiB), with which SELK has long stood in altar and pulpit fellowship, decided to call a female pastor from the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands to serve as assistant minister in its Freiburg congregation. Mrs. Cornelia Huebner had hitherto served both a nominally Lutheran and a Calvinist parish in the Netherlands, a fact that immediately raises the additional issue of her (and the ELKiB’s) doctrine and practice concerning the Sacrament of the Altar.

Like the SELK, the ELKiB is not one of the Territorial Churches of Germany that replaced the old State Churches after the First World War. Indeed, ELKiB’s roots are in the Old Lutheran movement of the 19th century, and at one time the ELKiB was part of the Hannover Synod that joined the SELK in the merger of several distinct Old Lutheran bodies in 1972.

Despite its roots in orthodox Lutheranism, the ELKiB officially approved the introduction of WO at its 1994 Synod, though it did not act on this decision at that time.

Unfortunately, SELK did not promptly react at that fateful juncture, e.g., by discontinuing church fellowship with a body that had just opted for heterodoxy in doctrine and practice. The maxim on which SELK failed to act was the misguided notion that “it’s only theory, so long as they don’t implement it.”

Informal - and controversial! - response from some in the SELK

On 28 March 2011 the Pro Ecclesia group of confessional SELK pastors met in Hannover,

and after thorough discussion addressed an Open Letter to the Superintendent of ELKiB.

This letter decried both the 1994 decision of his church body with respect to WO in principle and the Freiburg congregation’s issue of a solemn call to Mrs Hübner in particular. Moreover, it informed the Superintendent that its signatories could no longer in good conscience practise communion fellowship with his church. 45 clergymen of the SELK have by now signed the Open Letter.

Here is a translation of the text of the Open Letter of 28 March:

Esteemed Superintendent Schorling,

We, the undersigned, are disconcerted and sad that we had to take note of the fact that the Freiburg Parish of ELKiB has called a woman to serve a vacant pastoral position in its midst. Mrs. Hübner is active in a committee of the Lutheran World Federation with the goal of securing the introduction of women’s ordination also in those LWF churches that have not yet on theological grounds practised WO.

This now creates an entirely new situation in the relationship between our two churches. Now as before we support the Resolution of SELK’s 2001 General Pastoral Conference and of its 2003 National Convention “that it is not possible for a SELK pastor to officiate together with an ordained woman”. In calling a woman into the Office of the Proclamation of the Word and the Administration of the Sacraments instituted by Christ, the undersigned recognize an offence against clear apostolic instructions. “This offence not only indicates a broken relationship with the Word of God, but is also irreconcilable with the Evangelical Lutheran understanding of the ministry as the Pastoral Office” (Commentary by SELK’s first Bishop, The Rt Rev Dr Gerhard Rost, on Art. 7 of the proposed constitution of SELK, 1970). The ordination of a woman to the Office of the Church creates a situation that touches upon the Gospel itself. For the Gospel needs to be proclaimed and handled legitimately, properly, and in an authorised way. According to Christ’s will and command, it not possible for a woman to do so. In this sense there is doubt that the sacraments administered by a woman can be considered valid and in accord with Christ’s institution.

On the basis of Art. 7,2 of SELK’s constitution in connection with Art. 7,1, as well as with a conscience bound by the authority of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, we therefore state publicly: The actions of ELKiB make it impossible for us to practise altar and pulpit fellowship with ELKiB.

S i g n a t u r e s

Hostility within some quarters of the SELK to Pro Ecclesia Open Letter –and an attempt at damage control by Bishop Voigt

The above letter was duly posted to ELKiB in Freiburg and to the SELK Consistory in Hannover. At SELK headquarters it was by no means received entirely with favour or approval. On the one hand, some SELK officials offered the procedural argument that Pro Ecclesia had no right to speak for the Church as a whole to the leader of another church body. And then, on the other hand, some church officials and pastors—especially in Western and Southern Germany—loudly proclaimed the view that Pro Ecclesia was maliciously “rocking the boat”, wilfully causing a disturbance in the relationship between the two churches. Most shockingly, some from this wing of the SELK were even fully supportive of the ELKiB’s decision, and there were some calls from these quarters for church discipline to be exercised against the Pro Ecclesia signatories.

As may be imagined, a rather disruptive debate promptly ensued within the SELK.

In the prevailing situation, after consultation with SELK’s Consistory and the College of Superintendents, the Bishop of the SELK, The Rt Revd Hans-Jörg Voigt, felt constrained to issue a Pastoral Letter to the church at large, dated 1 April 2011. The Bishop made several points, of which I offer this summary:

The Bishop reminded the Church that SELK’s 2003 Church Synod had formally reiterated the position that the Church is bound to her Constitution, especially Art. 7,2, and to the decisions taken at successive conventions to confirm her official position on WO.

He stated that, until the discussion process on WO within the SELK is resolved, church fellowship with ELKiB may continue to be practised; at the same time, however, he cautioned that such altar and pulpit fellowship cannot not be insisted on.

Even where church fellowship is practised, no pastor of the SELK may officiate together with an ordained woman.

The Consistory and the College of Superintendents enjoin all pastors to refrain from creating any kind of offence or confusion in their congregations and in the church at large.

The Bishop continued his letter as follows:

As the Bishop of the Church I am deeply concerned for our sisters and brothers in the Baden sister church. In a fraternal letter “from Bishop to Bishop” I wrote to Superintendent Schorling, that WO and the service of ordained women in the church are not “catholic” in the proper sense of that word. This means WO does not reflect what has been believed on the basis of Holy Scripture at all times and in all places. And also the debate among our Baden brothers and sisters in regard to a possible subscription to the Leuenberg Concord causes me real anguish. But I feel equal anguish about the tensions in SELK with an increased nervousness prior to our church convention. …It is my observation that both sides, the opponents and the proponents of WO, are pushing hard. With good intentions we increase the pressure on others, especially in view of the coming convention. The understandable desire for clarity and for the resolving of all conflicts and tensions is becoming ever stronger. I have the impression that an internal separation has already taken place in our church and that the “faithful” on both sides of the issue are counting their troops. It is my task as Bishop to serve the unity of the church. Therefore I’m asking all pastors, workers and parishioners deliberately to live with the tensions in our church, to bear with them and, by working with one another and not against each other, to help reduce them. The unity of the church is not an emotional daydream but rather a mandate and instruction of Christ, as is His command to stay with the truth and pure doctrine. I recommend that in the coming period of time we consider the theological and spiritual question of the church’s unity, the value thereof, and under what conditions this is to be achieved. Let us not grow tired of praying for the unity of the Church, something that was in danger from its very beginning and yet has always existed. In Christ, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt

The Bishop felt compelled to follow up this missive with a brief letter in which he explained that in the Pastoral Letter he did not mean to plead for unity at the expense of pure doctrine—so obviously this is exactly the impression that it made among some members of the SELK. The very fact that the Pastoral Letter kept referring to Einheit (= outward unity) instead of Einigkeit (= unity of mind and spirit) makes one wonder about its underlying theological agenda.

Is it high time for pastors in LCMS and LCC to express solidarity with Pro Ecclesia and concern to Bishop Voigt?

Since, as the sainted Dr Marquart used to say, altar and pulpit fellowship between church bodies involves joint responsibility for doctrine and practice, I thank the editors of Gottesdienstonline for permitting me to update our North American brothers and sisters in the faith on the recent dramatic developments within the SELK, which will ultimately have consequences on the other (your) side of the ocean. And I am particularly grateful that they are making it possible for pastors in LCMS and LCC to sign the following Open Letter to Bishop Hans Jörg Voigt:

Open Letter to Bishop Voigt

Dear Bishop Voigt,

We, the undersigned, rejoice in the fellowship that binds us to the SELK as the mother church of the branch of Holy Christendom that has grown out of the Lutheran Reformation. The high value we place on our fellowship with the SELK causes us to look with great alarm upon the recent unhappy events in your Baden sister synod that threaten to impair the communion we enjoy with you, your pastors, and your people as a good gift of God.

We hereby voice our solidarity with the good confession made by the pastors of the Pro Ecclesia group in their Open Letter of 28 March 2011.

We respectfully ask you to put the whole weight of your office behind the position taken by Pro Ecclesia with respect to the consequences of the intended installation of Mrs Hübner as a “pastor” of the ELKiB.

We note that women’s ordination is not a matter of secondary importance. To the contrary, its introduction has gravely challenged the Christian integrity of all those church bodies that have adopted it. Indeed, to speak colloquially and sharply, it might be said without exaggeration that all churches that introduce women’s ordination to the Pastoral Office instituted by Christ our Lord find themselves sooner or later as it were on the exit ramp from the highway of Holy Christendom. Since the crystal-clear testimony of Holy Scripture as received by the historic Church makes WO as much an “open” question as are the Divinity of our Lord and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, we earnestly ask that the SELK promptly break church fellowship with the ELKiB and that discipline be exercised on those pastors of the SELK who continue to practise altar and pulpit fellowship with the ELKiB.

Let us pray for each other as we endeavour to heed Christ’s call for faithfulness in these ominous times of mounting apostasy. And let us encourage each other to hold fast to Christ’s whole truth in all matters of faith and practice, firmly resisting the contrary pressures of the devil, the world, and our own flesh.

Yours, in Christ,

[If you are an LCMS or LCC clergyman and would like your name attached, please email Dr. Torgerson directly at: concordia AT lutherwb DOT de - +HRC]

Pr. H. R.5 Comments