Changing times for the church or is it but more of the same?

Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._-_Adam_und_Eva_(Gemäldepaar),_Herzog_Anton_Ulrich-Museum

If I remember correctly we Lutherans from Hermannsburg’s Kleine Kreuzkirche were ultimately  kicked out of the Hanoverian State church because the Prussian king at that time was Reformed and the changes he brought about in those parts of Lower Saxony were opposed to the Lutheran way of doing things, which had been the way since the Lutheran Reformation centuries ago. Quite a number of people in those Welfen lands considered these Prussian reforms in state and church to be more of a forceful revolution, than just a legal reformation for the betterment and advancement as the king would have liked to have them understood. Just because you have the power to do something, does not mean that this your doing is right, good and salutary as such. It – like you – remains subject to higher judgement – even if you are king or some kind of tribal chief or something of that sort. The superior firing power of the Prussian war machine and the dominating multitude of Prussian grenadiers and mercenaries did not give him the right to change the old traditional and God pleasing ways. That’s why he was wrong and  therefore our forebears remained radically opposed to him and all his doings – especially his changes in the church. See, they were conservatives at heart and the Prussian king was seen as a radical revolutionary, who would not even stop at the innermost circle of faith issues, which deterimened their lives and traditions. Instead he was just turning these old and proven orders on their head and with that attacking the foundations of their very life and faith. Something more or less in line with Napoleon and other  political tyrants of that time.

See before this Prussian intervention it was all straight forward Lutheranism in Hannover – at least more or less and even though they were struggling against the ever growing threats of rationalism and other godlessness, but that’s how the people understood this and the congregation of Pastor Ludwig Harms and he himself were no exception in this opposition. They had followed the Lutheran Agenda of Lower Saxony/Hannover without any questions before. That was their church order. The same held true for the Lutheran Hymnal and Luther’s Small Catechism off course. The Prussian king however wanted to change this and change it, he did. He put the Heidelberg Catechism on the same par as that of Luther’s. He demanded that his reformed soldiers were admitted to the Lord’s supper even in Lutheran sanctuaries and during their divine services.

As if this was not bad and offensive enough for the Lutheran pastors like Ludwig Harms and his brother Theodor along with their congregations, the king went even further in his provocation than this – and this is what makes it so relevant even today – he wanted to change the legalities of marriage and take away the prerogative of the Church to declare man and women husband and wife in the name of the triune God Father Son and Holy Spirit and change and revolutionize this divine institution into but another legal contract and secular institution of this world and changing time.

In the Church the pastor is authorized and mandated to utter the command and divine law of our Lord and God: „What therefore God hath joined together, let not man pull asunder“ (Mk.10:9) Now through political intervention it was supposed to be but a legal and just temporary contract, built solely on mutual consent of humans and lasting about as long as theirs lasted too. We Lutherans believe this to be an illegal interfering of the secular powers into spiritual matters of the Church. Here the words and confession of St. Peter hold true: „We have to obey God more than men“ (Acts 5:29) The king had overreached his authority. He was not mandated to change these basic rights of the Church to have marriage solemnized by the command and promise of our Lord and God – before him and in front of the Christian congregation. Obviously the king had the political right and even the societal power to follow whatever precepts he wanted and got through his parliament, but and that was the key issue – the Lutherans would not follow him through on that. They were critical of his absolute powers and believed them to be subject to higher, divine law and command still. Yes, these would be his and the Prussian’s laws, but not theirs and not God’s sanctioned and blessed ways either. They believed in religious freedom. They believed and held high the divine right, responsibility and obligation to follow God’s word and their own conscience in matters of life and faith as Dr. Luther had stressed under great duress in Worms. That’s why they would rather give up the relatively safe haven of monarchial and whatever state support and rather live independently of state intervention and interference as free Lutheran congregations and Churches bound only and founded entirely on the saving truth of God’s most holy Word in both the Old and New Testament in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions as the true and binding exposition of this very true and saving Holy Word of God. Even if thus they were considered rather like outlaws and even hated by the people – not just those up there, but also by those around and with them. 

That’s why the Hermannsburg people, who were on the mission from God to proclaim this truth not only in their political rulers and ecclesial authorities, but right to the very ends of the world went to far and distant places like Hermannsburg near Alice Springs in Australia – right in the outback. Or to India and to Ethiopia, but also to Zululand. See it was not due to some cultural hegemony or in favour of colonial expansion of similar political ideas that they went out there, but rather to proclaim the salvation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those, who did not know it before and who were at a definite loss with out it. It was a question of eternal life and death, salvation or damnation.

In the final analysis it’s not because you or I or somebody dreams up polygamy as to be an outdated, selfish and pagan expression of family life, but because God himself in his very Word declares that marriage is between but one man and wife – like between the bridegroom Christ and his beloved, chosen and sanctified bride the congregation. That is why polygamy – simultaneous or consecutive or parallel – remains out of bonds and adultery not acceptable to the faithful Christians and the new creation either. That’s why the Church will encourage married couples to remain together in good and bad times. That’s why the Church doesn’t have a licence to sanction divorce or call something marriage, which obviously does not deserve that description but is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, because it doesn’t pass his criteria of holy matrimony and blessed union of husband and wife, which he instituted right back in the good old days of paradise at the very beginning of all things. This is not just about the law of the Land or some tribal chieftain, but rather the Law of God. That’s why Rome as long as they want to remain in the ways of the Lord and his holy Christian Church can’t just change this to suit some poll or social development even if all press campaigns for such change – and if the evangelical church so easily accommodates fluctuations in society it’s not because it’s so authentic and true, but because it just goes this and that way the wind blows it. It’s fickle, but not faithful. All the more reason to cry out with all those, who love the Church: „Lord have mercy!“

In the Logics class many years back the Philosophy professor enlightened us about the right, legality and authority to do this or that. The baptism „played“ by the little child with her doll is obviously not one, which is as sure here on earth as it is in heaven. The words are uttered, the ritual is practiced in astonishing resemblance of the real thing, but it is very far from being authentic. That’s why it’s not just about rhetorics, when the pastor reminds the congregation before the absolution: „I as a called and ordained servant of the Word – by the command of God and founded on his promises – forgive you all your sins“ or in the same way „… pronounce you husband and wife!“ It is not for the king or some queen to do or undo. He/she can’t marry dolls, animals or anything but a husband and wife into what is rightly called marriage. It’s not for some bureaucrat or political animal either to come up with some novel idea or unique connections and conjugations, but rather reserved to the called and ordained servants to do the right, meet and salutary thing called „wedding“ to „married life“. Otherwise it’s a revolution, but not a reform. An experiment or adventure, but not a sanctified and holy institution for the good and blessing of the individual man and/or women – nor for the human family as a whole.

Another story I remember was as vicar in Gr.Oesingen, when after the funeral the chief of the fire brigade stood up and at the grave said: “Go in peace!” Well, those words were probably quite pious and even full of feeling and heart-felt emotions, but lastly really quite empty and meaningless. What peace could he possible give? He had none to give. He was powerless at that grave just as he was powerless against the powers of sin, death and devil. He was just blowing against the wind. Whereas Jesus Christ said to his disciples and his church: “Receive the Holy Spirit …” (cf Joh 20:22) That is why his admonition is still so noteworthy: “Give to Caesar, what is Caesars and to God, what is God’s.” (cf Mt 22:21) That’s the fundamental difference, why in the Church we’re busy with God-given and holy facts and the very realities of life – and not just with rhetorics and vain ideologies of men. Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit vouchsafe for that.

Our forebears in Hermannsburg knew what it was they believed in. The true Church does so even today. We can’t get the churches agenda from some political party or ideological mainstream, but are called to remain in what has been true from the very beginning: The Word of God remains in eternity and thanks to the living God the true Church too will remain always. Perhaps not here or there, but where and when it please God.

  1. Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide, For round us falls the eventide; Nor let Thy Word, that heavenly light, For us be ever veiled in night.
  2. In these last days of sore distress Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness That pure we keep, till life is spent, Thy holy Word and Sacrament.

  3. Lord Jesus, help, Thy Church uphold, For we are sluggish, thoughtless, cold.Oh, prosper well Thy Word of grace And spread its truth in every place!

  4. Oh, keep us in Thy Word, we pray; The guile and rage of Satan stay!Oh, may Thy mercy never cease! Give concord, patience, courage, peace.

  5. O God, how sin’s dread works abound! Throughout the earth no rest is found, And falsehood’s spirit wide has spread, And error boldly rears its head.

  6. The haughty spirits, Lord, restrain Who o’er Thy Church with might would reign And always set forth something new, Devised to change Thy doctrine true.

  7. And since the cause and glory, Lord, Are Thine, not ours, to us afford Thy help and strength and constancy. With all our heart we trust in Thee.

  8. A trusty weapon is Thy Word, Thy Church’s buckler, shield and sword. Oh, let us in its power confide That we may seek no other guide!

  9. Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word We here may live and die, dear Lord; And when our journey endeth here, Receive us into glory there. (Nikolaus Selnecker) 

About Wilhelm Weber jr

Rector of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane
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