The Protestant Church in Germany as I Saw it

Many impressions concerning the state of Protestant church life in Germany, received during a one year’s stay at the University of Hamburg, vie for supremacy. In the following lines an attempt will be made to sort out these impressions in order to present a picture of some of the more significant developments in German church life during the year 1969–70.

Repercussions of the Kirchentag

At the time of arrival, mid-August 1969, the meetings of the huge church convention, called Kirchentag in German, which is held biennially, were a thing of the recent past. The convention, in which some 20,000 people participated, had been held in Stuttgart, from July 17–20. The very locale of it, Stuttgart, determined to some extent its character. Stuttgart is located in the German state of Wurttemberg, an area which has long been known for being a center of German Pietism. This is a movement which has been critical of some of the radical expressions of the new theology coming from German universities. And so it happened that, also upon the urging of the so-called Confessional Movement, “No Other Gospel,” the convention agenda came to include a topic called “Struggle About Jesus” (German: Streit um Jesus). This was meant to allow the discussion in depth of the newer theological approaches to Jesus, the denial of his divinity, the question of the reliability of the gospel accounts regarding him, and other matters. A panel of three proponents and three opponents of the new theology presented their viewpoints and engaged in debate. The Confessional Movement, by the way, had consented to be present at the convention only if opportunity for this kind of discussion would be provided. They had boycotted the meetings held two years previously when it was detected that modernist tendencies were in control.

As it turned out the topic as indicated drew the largest crowds. No less than 8000 people braved the heat of these summer days and attended the discussions pertaining to the Person and Office of Christ. One of the first church papers the present writer ran across in Germany, called Church and Man., August 1969, commented rather sourly on this achievement. They called this whole discussion a question of Rechthaberei (I am right and you are wrong), and changed the title of the topic from Streit tim Jesus (Struggle About Jesus) to Streitereien um Jesus (Petty Quarrels About Jesus). This is a rather clear indication of how this discussion struck the editors of Church and Man. After all, were there no more important questions to discuss than the divinity of the Savior and his atoning work?

A Courageous Appeal

The above reaction to the discussion of such a vital subject as the Person and Work of Christ is typical of the conflict situation in which the German Protestant church, and not only that church, finds itself.

Another vivid indication of this conflict is a full page ad which the Confessional Movement published in many daily and weekly papers during the 1970 passion season. The tone of this moving manifesto is robust and prophetic. It decries first of all what the document calls the “breach of the dam,” namely the despising of the moral order, the rejection of authority and the loss of norm-consciousness which characterizes our times. The document deplores the fact that governing church bodies do not wish to utter an unambiguous “no” to the disturbing tendencies of our day. By refusing to do so, thus the document maintains, the church has lost its credibility in this world.

The manifesto furthermore points an accusing finger at the widespread use of historical-critical methods in the interpretation of the Bible—methods which, so it is pointed out, are often based on philosophical rather than Biblical presuppositions. This method has been guilty of proposing hypotheses as scientific facts and has thus reduced the Biblical tradition to a mere heap of ruins. Other parts of this courageous document speak of the decline in ecclesiasical journalism. There has been a surrender to the “both-and” spirit. Error and truth are printed side by side. The document also refers to many future ministers who appear no longer to have a living personal relationship to the Bible as God’s Word but consider the Bible to be nothing more than a discussion partner. These same aspirant ministers, so the document charges, are out to restructure the church which will result in its destruction.

Admittedly, the language is bold and one may question even whether at some points the picture is not painted in too somber a hue. But the main spirit of the document is positive in its affirmation of the true meaning of the gospel and in its desire to make that gospel once again paramount in the church. And on this score the No-Other-Gospel Movement deserves the wholehearted support of every right minded Christian the world over.

Christ the Only Hope of Renewal

The true concern of the phrasers of this confessional appeal is most clearly expressed at its conclusion. At that point an urgent appeal is issued to all ministers, church workers and church members in general to give their wholehearted trust to the gospel of Christ and to oppose the anti-christian spirit of the times. The question is raised why the church leaders do not take away the opportunity of leading astray the church from those who at present are causing such confusion in Christ’s body. The document concludes with a fervent confession of the atoning sacrifice of the crucified and risen Lord, through whom alone can come the renewal of the church rather than through mere outward reform or structural change.

The reason why we have extensively quoted from this moving appeal is that we so heartily agree with its basic thrust. Though questions of Biblical understanding are often pressing and complex and though the ordinary church member should be cautioned not simply to ignore these questions, nevertheless we may not waver in our basic commitment to the confession of the Bible as the authoritative Word of salvation and of Christ as the divine Savior from sin and as the Restorer of sinful human relationships.

Light and Shadow in German Churches

Hamburg’s skyline over the centuries has been dominated by its many church steeples. Even today this is still the case. There are no less than 81 Lutheran congregations in the area of this former Hansa city, and many of them have very stately church bl1ildings which have been rebuilt in their medieval forms after the ravages of the Second World War. There are also two Reformed congregations. With the pastor of one of them, the Rev. Martin Hausmann. I became fairly well acquainted. I found him a conscientious person who, by and large, preached a Biblical message of good expository quality. But the epithet “conservative” would not be applicable. He showed a great deal of interest in the nature and operation of the Christian Reformed church and also informed me of the life and history of the Reformed denomination of which he was a part. Within the midst of this denomination the same concerns live as in many other Reformed churches today. From a report of a meeting at which Reformed church members were permitted to direct questions to the church’s “superintendent” it appears that the main tenets of the Christian faith were unambiguously reaffirmed hy the leading churchman. These included the belief in the living and omnipresent God, the divinity of Christ. his virgin birth. and his bodily resurrection. But the superintendent also pointed out that the universities had the right and duty to search out the pure truth.

Next to the churches already mentioned, Hamburg. a city of 1,800,000 people. also has churches called Free Evangelical, plus some Baptist and other “free” churches. But the bulk of the population belongs, nominally at least, to the Lutheran Church. Church attendance, both in the Lutheran and the Reformed churches, could generally be called poor. It was better in the Free Evangelical service I attended last winter. Part of this deficiency is due to the fact that the downtown churches are no longer where the people live. Attendance in the residential areas was slightly better, although not impressive. Much of the church’s activity, in spite of poor attendance on Sunday, continues to be on week days, such as youth work, diaconal work, etc. The newspapers reported an occasional case of a Lutheran pastor who would rebel against this nominal church membership by refusing to baptize children of parents who showed no other concern for the church, or by not confirming the young people, confirmation being a form of public profession and acceptance into adult church membership. But no major dent seemed to be made by such isolated incidents. The so-called confirmation services which I attended were impressive. They had been preceded by a period of instruction in the Christian religion. But. since the church does not insist on regular church attendance, one wonders how much of the instruction received will be retained in later life.

Some of the sermons heard in Lutheran churches were warmly evangelical in the American sense of that term. Others seemed to be of the nature of learned discourses aiming too high for the average churchgoer. There were also some sermons which betrayed the inroads made by the modern critical approach to the Bible.

Experiments in new forms of worship were occasionally tried. also in the stately medieval church structures in the inner city. On the second Sunday in Advent, Hamburg’s imposing St. Michael’s church, perhaps the city’s most beloved landmark, resounded to the strains of the popular song. “In the Year 2525,” a song in which the problems of the future are rather tellingly set forth. The service had no sermon and also other customary elements were lacking. A group of theological students under the guidance of their professor had worked out a kind of dialogue in which problems which the world faces were delineated and commented on. Most of these pertained to the pressing social questions of our time. This raises the whole question of the purpose of the worship service and the function of the church, a question too large to comment on within the scope of this article. Attendance at and observation of this experiment left this observer quite dissatisfied although the regular services did not always offer greater satisfaction.

Billy Graham: Better or Worse than Luther

The week-long telecast of Billy Graham’s campaign last April, originating in the Westfalen Halle in Dortmllnd and broadcast through many European cities including one in Yugoslavia, drew large crowds in Hamburg. During the first evening a crowd of 4100 had gathered to witness the televised program. This was In spite of very inclement weather. Later attendance climbed to 5000. Many young people. also the long haired ones, were present during the meeting which I personally attended.

Comments in the church and daily press were not undividedly favorable to Graham’s aims and methods. The Hamburg church monthly Viewpoint of May, 1970, carried a pro as well as a con article on this campaign. What is remarkable in this division of opinion is that both authors appeal to the teachings of Martin Luther, either to praise or to condemn Dr. Graham’s emphasis. The one who defends the evangelist states that he detected in him a stress on the doctrine of justification such as few among his readers might be willing to make. On the opposite side, however, sharp criticism is voiced of Graham’s emphasis on the decision of the will in the act of accepting Christ. If you only want lo have the change of heart, so Graham teaches, according to Bernd Diebner, you can have it, and everything is well between God and you. “But,” so the writer states. “I do not want to.” And he continues: “Luther’s ‘by grace alone’ means more to me than Graham’s ‘by free decision of the will alone.’” “Graham,” so he maintains. “just does not know how much separates him from Martin Luther.” This very pertinent critique of Graham’s Arminianism, coming as it does out of the pen of a Lutheran, should be very gratifying to any Calvinist reading this. Much as one may appreciate Graham’s stress on some of the main points of the gospel, his Arminian approach constitutes a serious obstacle for anyone committed to the belief in God’s total sovereignty in the salvation of the sinner.

Church life in Germany, in its widest sense, touches on many things. It includes the discussion of the place and function of religiousinstruction in the dayschools and secondary schools. Attendance at such instruction has dropped sharply of late, especially on the secondary level. Questions of indoctrination versus a mere representation of “religion” are widely discussed. The Hamburg theological faculty has issued a set of guidelines which did not appear to this observer to do justice to the questions involved.

Germany’s Attempts at “Christian” Politics

Today’s Protestant or Christian Germany does not have what could be called a truly Christian political movement. The Christian Democratic Union, presently in opposition and at the time of arrival the ruling party, does not present anything like a Christian political platform to the voters. At one political meeting held during last fall’s federal election campaign Mr. Schroeder, minister of defense, addressed a gathering of followers plus some dissidents. There was no attempt to wrestle with the problems from a consciously Biblical perspective. Upon the urging of a questioner the only thing the speaker did was to make some sort of confession of a personal Christian commitment.

At one time, during the early thirties, Germany did have a party which sought to base its approach more explicitly on Christian teaching. It was called the Christian Social People’s Service (CSPS). It recruited its members largely from the “free” churches and had strong backing in Pietist Wurttemberg and among certain laymen’s groups. Cunter Opitz in n recent book calls this development a late political fruit of the pietist movement. The aim of the CSPS was to ensure “God’s dominion” in public life. A very laudable aim, indeed. Rcpresentatives elected to parliament found it difficult, however, to indicate in which way the measures they proposed were specifically Christian. There was much Christian commitment, but little political experience. Moreover, a political program had never been worked out, only a set of guidelines. This left a wide gap between basic principles and concrete political decision. Opitz, as quoted in a newspaper review in The Christian and the World (Christ und Welt) observes that this development shows that there arc essentially no Christian democrats. At best, so he holds, there are Christians who are also democratic, or democratically minded people who are also Christian. This, it would seem, is the position which many Christians in North America are taking with respect to the political scene. But is there not a more excellent way? At any rate, much hard work will be needed on the part of those who in North America rightfully ask for the political engagement of Christians on the basis of a fairly clear understanding of God’s demands in this area. People working for and with the Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies, with headquarters in Toronto, Canada, may well be those who under God’s blessing will be able to help us avoid the mistake of the German Pietists of about 1930.

Germans Ponder Church’s Role in Today’s World

The German church, like any other church that is alive to its mission, ponders its role in society. Last November Bishop Hans Lilje, a prominent churchman, called together a conference at the Evangelical Academy of Loccum in which ministers as well as political scientists, psychologists, and economists took a part. Some argued strongly for “involvement” of the church in the economic and political arena, others argued strongly against. Present were also Pastor Martin Niemoeller and the publicist Heinz Zahrnt, some of whose works have been translated into English. The latter, reflecting on the Stuttgart church convention of July, stated that there were people who flee from the world into faith, while others, for the sake of the world, have left faith far behind them. Zahrnt himself rightly rejected this alternative and called it a false one. Man, so he emphasized, can only experience God in the reality of this world. The church should help him in doing so, whether as a person or as a group. Lilje himself also uttered a word of caution when observing that one should not judge the church’s value just by the norm of its usefulness for society. However, the newspaper report from which this and the other comments are gathered, does not provide enough of a basis for intelligent assessment of and comment on the value of this conference.

The local Grand Rapids newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, recently wrote of the alarming rate at which resignations from the church, both Protestant and Catholic, are taking place in Germany today. This is confirmed from other sources and formed the substance of many a discussion in the church and daily press during the past year. In Hamburg, during the period from January through September 1969, the resignations from the Lutheran church were almost double that of the previous year: it rose from 2856 to 5424. There was some leveling off in subsequent months. While in December of 1969 the number of cancellations was still as high as 1655, in January of 1970 it had declined to 964 and this decline continued through the following months.

Why Axel Springer and Others Leave the Church

Conflicting motives are given by those who sever their formal ties with the church. For some the church is too conservative, for others too progressive. Some object to the church’s meddling in too many affairs, while others reproach the church for not doing enough. There are those who say the church has become an old people’s church, while others believe it has been too open to student demonstration and protest.

The controversial head of the Springer publishing concern, Axel Springer, last winter changed his membership from the larger Lutheran church to that of the Old Lutheran denomination (membership 40,000 in all of Germany). Springer stated that he objected to the fact that the church had constantly tried to impart uncalled-for political and economic advice while it had neglected its essential task. The noted publisher said he needed the church for having peace with God, for comfort and counsel and for the search. ing of conscience by the absolute standards of the gospel. There is no denying the fact that these are of the church’s cardinal duties. But should the church refrain completely from speaking concretely to the problems of society? How can it do its duty in sharpening the Christian conscience without having some idea of how this conscience should react to corruption and injustice in the world? And should not the causes for such corruption and injustice be mentioned by name if they continue to exist in spite of incessant warning?

Looking into the Church’s Pockets

One of the specific causes for separation from tho church in Germany as reported in the American press is the duty which all church members have of paying a church assessment which is levied by the state on every registered church member with the exception, e.g., of the Reformed church of which I wrote above. This assessment assumes the form of a surcharge of the income tax. It may differ from one federal state to the other. For the Lutheran church in the Hamburg area this assessment was expected to amount to an estimated intake of 109,400,000 German marks over a joint period of the years 1969 and 1970. (One mark is about 28 American cents.) From this amount, next to the support of the narrowly ecclesiastical services, the church is expected to maintain and support extensive diaconal work, hospitals, homes, institutions for the retarded, etc. The church’s total estimated income for this period stands at 115,090,000 marks. In order to counter mounting criticism the Hamburg church issued a little booklet called, The Church has glass pockets, in which it explained the way the pie of the church’s income is cut. Voices have been raised to change the structure of the church tax, but thus far to no avail. Nominal Christians, faced by the recently imposed federal surcharge, now draw the consequences, and for reasons stated or unstated sever their last formal ties with the church.

In spite of the church tax system there were also regular collections at each of the services I attended. The purpose of the collection was clearly stated, usually accompanied by a description of the project and a recommendation to give generously. Around Christmas all the Lutheran collections were earmarked for the program “Bread for the World,” an assistance program for the underprivileged countries.

The Protestant church in Germany as I came to know it in the course of an entire year of residence in the country shows an indistinct picture. I have indicated that there are forceful voices raised for a stand for God’s gospel of peace and against the fateful application of a destructive method of Biblical research. But humanly speaking the odds are great. It cannot be easily said who will win the battle for a contemporary expression of the truth of the Bible. May the above lines have served to provide the Christian readers of this journal with enough concrete information to pray intelligently to the Lord of the Church that his Word may triumph over the errors of man also in the post-war Germany of 1970.

NOTE: Along with information gathered through personal observation the facts mentioned in the above article have been culled from a great many sources somc of which have been mentioned by name. Three prominent weeklies with a Christian emphasis are Christ und Welt (Christian and World), Deutsches Allgemeines Sonntagsblatt (German General Sunday Magazine, not to be confused with the American idea of a Sunday paper), and Publi, a Roman Catholic publication of recent origin, representing the “progressive” opinions in that church to a large extent. The Reformed denomination to which reference was made publishes the Sonntagsblatt fur fur evangelisch-reformierie Gemeinden (Sunday paper for evangelical-reformed congregations). In its masthead it carries the emblem of a 16th century ship with the following words, in old-Dutch, rather than old-German, in the margin: Godts Kerck Vervolgt Verdreven Heeft Godt Hyr Trost Gegeven, which means: To God’s Church Persecuted and Dispersed God has here given Comfort. An obvious reference to the refuge which northwest Germany provided during the days of Spanish persecution of Dutch churches in Holland.

Dr. Marten H. Woudstra, professor of Old Testament Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, has just completed a year of study at the University of Hamburg.