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500 years after The Reformation, the church remains divided

October 15, 2017 Updated: October 16, 2017 at 3:02 pm
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Berlin Cathedral: bas-relief with an episode of Martin Luther. Berlin Cathedral was originally Roman Catholic, from 1539 Lutheran, Calvinist since 1613, from 1817 Evangelical Protestant

On a cold, cloudy day in February 1974, Mark Patzke went into exile. He and more than 200 other students at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., walked out of their classrooms and away from their church in a modern exodus.

Their professors were accused of heresy, their school president was suspended, and they wanted to know why. The students and faculty formed their own seminary and called it Seminex - Seminary in Exile - at nearby St. Louis University.

"Whenever anyone asks me where I went to seminary, I can't just say one school. I have to tell the story," said Patzke, an associate pastor at First Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs.

Patzke's story is one of many in the fractured history of the Lutheran Church.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of The Reformation. In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther split Christendom, and many scholars argue that, out of the shadow of the Catholic Church, Europe was thrust from the Medieval Period into the height of the Renaissance.

Now Christianity is a mosaic of fractures and schisms, and for the denomination with Luther's namesake, this year marks a time of reflection and questions about future unity.

A house divided

The Lutheran Church has hundreds of denominations around the world. In North America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are the two biggest.

The Missouri Synod branch has roots stretching into the 1800s in the Midwest, while the ELCA formed more recently, in part due to Seminex.

More than 40 years ago, Patzke was a student at Concordia when it became a battleground.

"The more progressive interpretations of scripture were being taught," he said. "The conservative side, including the president of the synod, opposed and accused the president of the seminary of fostering false teaching."

The conservative Lutherans emphasized a literal reading of the Bible and a centralized disciplinary power. Moderates favored an open view of scripture that allowed portions to be read as allegory or myth.

Patzke said he and other students stopped going to classes until the synod pointed out exactly what the false teaching was.

The students and some staff formed Seminex, but they faced the challenge of finding church homes without a denomination to support and place them in churches.

In 1988, the Lutheran Church in America and the American Association of Lutheran Churches joined with the members who had left the Missouri Synod to form the ELCA, which now boasts more than 3 million members.

The church fractured again in August 2009 when the ELCA voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to lead congregations. Previously, gay pastors were allowed to lead churches only if they remained celibate. And while the vote was clear, 559-451, it was far from unanimous.

A massive chunk of ELCA congregations and pastors left after that decision, forming the North American Lutheran Church in August 2010.

Dealing with a broken past

"There are tens of thousands of Christian denominations," said the Rev. Michael Tassler. "So nothing like unity occurred as a result of the Reformation, and for the ELCA Lutherans, that's a wound in the body of Christ."

Tassler - pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in central Colorado Springs - has been thinking for months about the legacy of the Lutheran Church.

The Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA, which covers all or parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Texas, put together a three-phase commemoration called Re.Formation: Then, Now, Always. Tassler led the team on "Then," a section with readings and teachings that explore the church's history.

"We have a lot of resources that allow congregations to dig into the heritage aspect," Tassler said. "And we included, intentionally, materials that remember the not-so-pretty parts of our heritage."

In 1543, Luther wrote a stinging anti-Semitic treatise, "On the Jews and Their Lies." It called for persecution of Jews, forbidding rabbis from preaching and burning down synagogues.

"That's a real thorn in our side," Tassler said. "It can be explained but not excused."

Tassler attributes Luther's diatribe partly to his anger because he felt his movement had failed..

He expected mass conversions from Judaism. When that didn't happen, he turned bitter and also condemned Anabaptists - today's Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites - for rejecting infant baptism.

"But there's really no explaining why someone who preached that love of God, that's free to all, would have done that," Tassler said.

Most Lutheran denominations have disavowed that work, saying it has no place in the church.

Tassler said the Rocky Mountain Synod is purposefully not calling this an anniversary. Commemoration fit better because it's an act of remembering for a purpose.

"We're not saying this is the independence day of the church," Tassler said. "This is a huge event in Christian history, and it's very meaningful in the lives of all Christians. But what is God calling us to do now in the future?"

Luther's reformation, legacy

Although disputed in many scholarly circles, lore says that on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of a church in, Wittenberg, Germany, starting The Reformation. The 95 theses were a list of subjects he wanted the Catholic Church to address.

"Luther wasn't trying to create a new church," said the Rev. Jonathan Kern. "Luther was trying to get the church reconnected with God's word."

A monk tortured by his sin, constantly seeing his confessor, was Luther's journey to reform, said Kern, pastor at the local Immanuel Lutheran Church, part of the Missouri Synod. After visiting Rome, Luther began to speak out and write about what he viewed as troubling practices in the Catholic Church.

"Eventually word got out to Rome, and they were not happy with his writings," Kern said. "So they tried to discipline him, call him out. They asked him to recant of his heretical writings, in their words."

Luther didn't recant, and while the Catholic Church undertook some reforms, the two never reconciled. Indeed, Luther was excommunicated.

While the legacy of The Reformation is a Christian faith divided into hundreds of thousands of denominations, the church has at least one thing in common, Kern said.

"We're always looking to be called back to the truth by the word of God and allowing that to be the one thing that guides us."

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