A guest post by Rev. Dr. Holger Sonntag. Since Dr. Sonntag is from Germany and very familiar with the ecclesiastical situation, I asked if he would have any thoughts on the resignation of Dr. Margot Käßmann, who was the head of the EKiD and the bishop of the largest territorial Lutheran church in Germany recently. Here are his comments:
On February 24, 2010, Dr. Margot Käßmann, the chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the bishop of the largest Lutheran territorial church in Germany, resigned from all her offices. She had been a bishop for a bit more than ten years and at the helm of the ECG for about four months. Prior to becoming a bishop she had held a parish pastorate for only a few years; instead, she had spend much of her time holding various functions in the global ecumenical movement.
What caused her to resign? On February 20, at 11 p.m., the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, she had been caught running a red light while intoxicated. The police established her blood alcohol content as .154%. While her fellow council members assured her of their ongoing trust in her in a telephone conference on February 23, but left the final decision up to her, she resigned nonetheless on the following day. As she put it once, she wanted her “personal power to convince” to be “unhampered.” And this public moral failure was apparently seen by her as a major hindrance to such authenticity.
The reactions in Germany range from dismay (not so much about her drunk driving, but about her resignation) to respecting her integrity. Many saw her as a dynamic, honest leader who made the church credible again in the eyes of non-members. Others, however, saw her as a divisive figure who felt constrained to comment on any number of social and political issues, even without (or against) God’s clear Word, and who personalized her office as probably no one had done before in recent history.
What can be said about this major event? First of all, it was perhaps providential that she resigned from her offices on the day of St. Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas. Important are these words in Acts 1: “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it; and Let another take his office [episkopee, same word use for bishopric]. So one of the men [andres, males] who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” All apostles, thus, ought to be males; accordingly, all pastors ought to be males as well. This is what God’s Word here and elsewhere teaches. Therefore, even though Dr. Käßmann had occupied her episcopal office for over ten years and women’s ordination is seen by many in the Protestant church as normal, it bears repeating that she should not have held this office in the first place. What is more, not only did she hold this office illegitimately, she also, during her tenure as bishop, ensured that those objecting to women’s ordination would not be allowed to enter into the ministry in the first place. The fact that this totally unscriptural practice did not cause an outcry in Germany and around the world speaks volumes about the level of indifference and ignorance regarding the deformation of an institution of the Lord of the church.
In December of last year, the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, archbishop Hillarion of Volokolamsk, cancelled his participation in an event celebration half a century of doctrinal discussions between the ECG and the Russian Church. In a letter, he did not blame Dr. Käßmann’s election alone; rather, he expressed his frustration in general with the direction Western Protestant churches have been moving in the past decades. While the Western churches have become more and more in tune with the liberal spirit of the age to the point of ordaining openly homosexual candidates, they still wanted to keep the dialog with the East going and, in fact, got angry when the East stuck to its traditional positions and raised certain issues time and again. Indeed, what is the point of dialog if one partner moves farther and farther away from the other against God’s Word, thereby deliberately diminishing the truths once held in common? This is, of course, also a serious questions for the dialog between various Lutheran churches in the US and around the world.
Perhaps it was because she did not hold her office legitimately, Dr. Käßmann made it all about herself: her views, her positions, her opinions, but also her integrity, her moral attitude. In a variation of Jesus’ saying, one could say: Those who live by authenticity will die by authenticity. Behind her Ego striving for societal stardom, the office and its actual tasks withered away. Since she did not allow the office to limit and focus her self, the office in turn then also offered her no support in times of need. Accordingly, the publicized media commentary asked only: with her moral stature and claim, can she still continue after such a public moral failure? The question was no longer asked, not even in the churches she led: does her teaching agree with God’s Word and the Lutheran confessions? Does she perform the duties of a bishop outlined in the Lutheran confessions based on God’s Word or is she, like the traditional bishops at Luther’s time, more interested in gaining and preserving political power and influence? And since she had reached such a high social status, no one dared asking anymore: should she actually hold this office? This is the power of facticity in action: what is is not only what it is; it is also right, especially when it agrees with public opinion.
Public opinion also supported her when she, at the beginning of the year, publicly criticized the engagement of the German army in Afghanistan. In fact, she clarified this later to mean that even though there is no theological justification for war at all (because all wars are horrible), German soldiers should still fight in that country until a peaceful conflict resolution with the Taliban could be worked out. What she was saying then, in essence, was that, even though soldiers sin when they carry out the duties of their vocation, they should keep sinning until further notice. One wonders: is this the apex of cynicism? Or is theology just a mind game without any real-world or spiritual implications? One cannot condemn sin and then encourage the sinner to keep on sinning, unless one does not really believe that sins have eternal consequences. One also wonders: what gave her the authority to condemn the vocation of soldiers in such a general way? Certainly not the bible (Luke 3:14) or the Lutheran confessions (Augsburg Conf., art. XVI, 2) or Luther (Am. Ed., vol. 46:95ff.). In an interview, she referred to a 1948 resolution of a committee of the World Council of Churches that, even though it was not even adopted by the general assembly, has become the gospel for pacifists in the church: in 1948, “the church” has said that war shouldn’t be. If this is how conscience-binding theology is made, then those supporting this kind of “resolutions” have lost all right to criticize the Roman Catholic Church. For one of the key traditional Protestant criticisms of Rome has been that it, by its own authority as “the church,” decrees articles of faith and moral commandments that, even though they are not supported by God’s Word. Among those advocating pacifism, there is obviously little desire to endorse the Roman commandments for fasting (such as no alcohol during Lent). So the factor deciding what “human traditions” are necessary in the church is no longer God’s Word but personal preference or public opinion about what is the morally correct thing to do.
One can, finally, raise the issue of Donatism which is the heretical opinion that the moral stature of a minister determines the validity of his ministrations. Lutherans have, from the outset, joined the catholic condemnation of Donatism (Augsburg Conf., art. VIII; Apology, art. VII/VIII): the moral life of the minister might exclude him from the ministry as an unrepentant sinner or as one damaging the office by his lifestyle, but it has no effect on the power of God’s Word active in the means of grace, so long as the pastor is orthodox in his doctrine and practice. We, therefore, need not secretly wonder what pastor X does in the parsonage or during his vacation and thereby doubt the words from God he correctly teaches; we can simply focus on the word he proclaims as God’s own Word from heaven. The power of this word doesn’t rest on his imperfect authenticity or credibility, but on God’s perfect eternal faithfulness to his promises. Public opinion, fostered by the likes of Margot Käßmann, on the other hand, is naturally Donatist: moral credibility and authenticity is all it knows, both in political and ecclesiastical leaders (is this the hidden self-righteousness of the “little guy”?). And, of course, morality is here not measured by God’s Word, but by what everybody thinks is good, right, and salutary. Being for homosexual pastors, for divorce (Dr. Käßmann is divorced), and against war is then good, progressive, courageous, and loving. Being against women’s ordination, divorce, and for war, on the other hand, is bad, medieval, and discriminating against women.
This type of moralism, that is actually a characteristic of unbelievers, should not hold sway in the church. Here the first question should be: what is a teacher’s teaching? Does it agree with God’s Word? Moralism, to be sure, spurred many a reform movement before Luther (just think of John Wycliffe, but also Erasmus of Rotterdam), but it typically missed the doctrinal boat entirely. The corrupt life of a minister or bishop became the focal point of popular outrage; no one cared about his teachings. Pastors experience this even today: deny baptismal regeneration, and no one even notices; move the baptismal font by one inch, and you’re in hell. On the contrary, Luther emphasized: life is earth; doctrine is heaven (cf. Am. Ed., vol. 27:41-42). This is to say: every Christian’s life is going to be messy because we are and remain sinners, although we strive by the power of the Holy Spirit to be more and more holy in our lives as well. Yet our doctrine comes from God. It is not only perfect; it makes us perfect because it is God’s light brining us the light of the world, Jesus Christ. Tolerance ought to be extended to a messy life, not to messy doctrine. Because with doctrine, heaven and hell are at stake. For even though a person’s life’s example can move people in one way or another, it cannot change anybody’s heart. It is, after all, only a human power. This is possible only for God the Holy Spirit working in law and gospel through the means of grace, the Word and the sacraments, rightly preached and administered (cf. Augsburg Conf., art. XXVIII, 21).
Things have changed among Lutherans: So eager not to anger public opinion — no doubt, with the good intention of making church more attractive and appealing to unbelievers! — one is drawn into operating according to the rules of engagement established by the world. And the world cares little about doctrine and lots about life, e.g., about the church’s proposal for saving failing families or a failing ecosystem, depending on one’s political preferences. “The world sets the agenda of the church” — maybe Dr. Käßmann picked up that maxime of the ecumenical movement somewhere along her path through one of the many ecumenical organizations. Yet, if this slogan is embraced, then the world — it always changes but always remains the same: fallen — has become the lord and god of the church. Such a church is then no longer the church of Jesus Christ.
In summary, Dr. Margot Käßmann is not an isolated case. Pastors and churches everywhere strive to impress and please the public by displays of moral righteousness, also known as “authenticity,” that follows the public’s standards and thereby compromises or belittles doctrine. It doesn’t really matter whether that takes place in ultimately meaningless public pronouncements to any and all topics already digested in daily talk shows of the correct political persuasion or in the form of worship services that have been made devoid of any “offensive” characteristics of genuine Christianity. The thinking is: hey, if we buy into the world, maybe the world will buy into the church. Unfortunately, it’s working: the world is taking over the church more and more where such a course of action is followed. — Dr. Käßmann’s quick rise and fall is thus, above all, a cautionary tale for all Christians and church leaders. Let us focus on what God has given us to do and to speak in our respective vocations. Let us not do violence to the First Commandment by taking what he has not given us (cf. Large Catechism, I, 26-27).