A Tale of Two Churches: Lessons from Swedish and Finnish Lutheranism

On 23 July 1933, the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on Matthew 16:13–18 in Holy Trinity Church, Berlin. The sermon coincided with the calling of the church elections of that year, the first such elections since the Nazis took power, and therefore the first where the openly pro-Nazi “German Christians” were represented (they would go on to win major victories on parish councils in many parts of Germany).

In this alarming situation, the young Bonhoeffer meditated on the Confession of St. Peter:

…it is not we who are to build, but God. No human being builds the church, but Christ alone….We are to confess, while God builds. We are to preach, while God builds. We are to pray to God, while God builds. We do not know God’s plan. We cannot see whether God is building up or taking down. It could be that the times that human beings judge to be times for knocking down structures would be, for God, times to do a lot of building, or that the great moments of the church from a human viewpoint are, for God, times for pulling it down. It is a great comfort that Christ gives to the church: “You confess, preach, bear witness to me, but I alone will do the building, wherever I am pleased to do so. Don’t interfere with my orders. Church, if you do your own part right, then that is enough. But make sure you do it right. Don’t look for anyone’s opinion; don’t ask them what they think. Don’t keep calculating; don’t look around for support from others. Not only must church remain church, but you, my church, confess, confess, confess”…Christ alone is your Lord; by his grace alone you live, just as you are. Christ is building. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.…But victory belongs to the church, because Christ its Lord is with it and has overcome the world of death. Don’t ask whether you can see victory but believe in the victory, for it is yours.[1]

This call to “remain church”, to “do your own part right”, rings out to the Church at all times, but especially in times of crisis. It stands equally against activism and passivity. Both can exist in optimistic and pessimistic forms. Optimistic activism thinks that the future is bright, so long as we do enough of the right things; pessimistic activism thinks that the future is gloomy unless we do enough of the right things. Optimistic passivity thinks that the future is bright because “God is in control” regardless of what we do; pessimistic passivity thinks that the future is gloomy because there is nothing we can do.

Both these positions have elements of truth in them, but they are not the full truth. God’s will is indeed sovereign, and he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3). His word accomplishes that which he purposes (Isa. 55:11). On the other hand, God works through means. In order to accomplish that which he purposes, he sends out his word by means of apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers (Eph. 4:11).

Thus, a clear division of labour is established: we do what we have been called to do, while God accomplishes through the work given to us that which he purposes. It is not for us to determine what God’s purposes are, only what it is that he has called us to.

Let me illustrate this with a story of two churches in crisis, and two different responses to those crises.

In 1958, under enormous political pressure from the government and with unusual political interference, the ordination of women was passed by the General Synod (kyrkomötet) of the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, only a year after a similar motion had been defeated by the majority of bishops, pastors, and laymen.[2] Given that there was very significant opposition to women’s ordination within the church, a conscience clause was inserted, to allow both proponents and opponents to continue to co-exist within the church. No bishop or pastor would be forced to co-officiate with female pastors, it was said.[3]

The opposition soon organized. The bishop of Gothenburg, Bo Giertz, formed an umbrella organisation for the opposition, Kyrklig Samling omkring Bibeln och bekännelse (Church Gathering Around the Bible and Confession), initially drawing thousands of clergy and lay members. Conferences were held, journals and magazines published. Nevertheless, despite a few remarkable cases where open and eloquent orthodox bishops were appointed, in practice the episcopate was soon closed to opponents. The last orthodox bishop, Bertil Gärtner, was consecrated in 1970.

At the same time, the pressure on those opposed to the majority view grew. As a result, the conscience clause was dropped in 1982. From 1993, anyone seeking ordination in the Church of Sweden had first to give public assent to women’s ordination. Since 1999, the church has demanded acceptance of women’s ordination of anyone seeking appointment as a rector of a parish. Opposition will also render any episcopal candidate formally incompetent for the episcopal office.

At the same time, a much wider liberal agenda, ushered in by the decision of 1958, began to erode the life and teaching of the church in almost every area theology and practice.

While all this was taking place, the concern for the future of biblical Christianity became increasingly urgent within Kyrklig Samling and other “opposition” forums. However, when the inevitable question was raised, whether it was time to start thinking about establishing a viable alternative to life within the official structures of the Church of Sweden, the answer was always, “Not yet.”

Over the years, the magazines and journals kept coming out, and conferences kept being held. The answer remained the same, but so did the people giving it, though with less hair and more wrinkles. Instead, the strategy was to carve out space for the minority to be allowed to stay in the church and work for renewal from within, even as ordinations and appointments for those holding to the traditional faith dried up, and the apostasy of the church became ever more flagrant.

Finally, in 2003, the time had come, at least for some. The Mission Province in Sweden was formed of six congregations, ranging from the Anglican equivalents of evangelical to Anglo-Catholic (though in Sweden, the former are more sacramental and the latter more evangelical than their English counterparts); not as a new church, but as an independent fellowship of churches with its own episcopal oversight within the church. A bishop from Kenya, in fellowship with the Church of Sweden, consecrated the new bishop.

By this time, however, the thousands of orthodox believers from the early years of Kyrklig Samling were nowhere to be found. Bishop Gärtner retired in 1990; Bo Giertz died in 1998 at the age of 92, having been forced by old age from an active role years previously.

In the meantime, a whole new generation had grown up knowing nothing but the new status quo.

I met the General Secretary of the Mission Province a few years after its founding. He was a wonderful man, a brilliant organizer, and a great lover of the Gospel and of the Church. I asked him how things were going in Sweden. He said, sadly, “We were 20 years too late.” The momentum was long gone, the minority had slowly but surely been brought into line with the majority, and wider society had long become aggressively secular. Moreover, what held the minority together was as much opposition to the majority, rather than a common positive conviction.

To this day, the Mission Province is the only such ecclesiastical structure in Sweden, and it remains relatively small, with 15 congregations, and limited signs of growth.

In the meantime, Sweden’s eastern neighbour and former province of Finland has tended to be a decade or two behind its big brother with regard to the progressive agenda. Women’s ordination was not accepted in Finland until 1986; but the speed of change was all the faster, with the conscience clause being abolished in 2000.

The example of the Swedes led the Finns ultimately to follow a different path. After a decade of activity as an opposition movement trying to carve out a living space within the national church, a small but highly influential group decided to pursue a proactive model.

In a pan-Nordic gathering of confessional Lutherans,[4] a Finnish theologian presented a paper where he proposed what he coined the “Luther Foundation”, an independent funding body that would start the process of planting churches that are characterized not by their opposition to errors but by their faithfulness to Lutheran doctrine and practice, to providing a biblically faithful alternative to the status quo.

In 1999, the last remaining orthodox bishop, Olavi Rimpiläinen, ordained a young man who was assigned to the task of serving the newly-founded Luther Foundation. Effective fund-raising enabled him to start drawing a full-time stipend within a year.

The following year, the Foundation planted a small independent congregation in Helsinki, under the oversight of Bishop Rimpiläinen. All the while, the voices of the Swedish neighbours were loud and clear: “Don’t do what we did! Don’t wait!”

What difference did not waiting make?

The small church plant in Helsinki soon began to grow, as the faithful remnant in the wider church heard about it. The Luther Foundation became an active publisher, producing a regular magazine, pamphlets on a wide variety of topics for lay readers, and books for both general readership and for theologians.

As the word spread, invitations began to come in: “Come over and help us!” Bible studies gave way to occasional services, until there was sufficient momentum to form mission congregations. Following the retirement of Bishop Rimpiläinen, new pastors were ordained in the Mission Province of Sweden; some retired pastors also came to serve the congregations of the Luther Foundation.

Finally, in 2013, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland was formed as a de facto new church body. Today, it has over 50 congregations in every part of the country, and is served by 50 pastors.

Having grown organically, the Mission Diocese is characterized by theological and liturgical uniformity with very strong grassroots involvement. It is very much not an opposition movement, but a fellowship of local churches that have consciously striven to “be church” and “to do it well”. It also has strong international connections to other confessional Lutheran churches around the world.

And what happened to that young pastor starting out in Helsinki in 2000? In 2014, he was defrocked by the Church of Finland for his role in the founding of the Mission Diocese. Indeed, almost every pastor ordained in the national church who has held a role in the Mission Diocese has been likewise defrocked. Yet today, the Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola is the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese and President of the International Lutheran Council.

What is the lesson of these two stories? It is the lesson of Bonhoeffer’s 1933 sermon. While it is not within our power to build the Church, we have been given a different task: to be the Church. The faithful are not called to carve out space among, or to live by the toleration from, the progressive forces holding the levers of power.

Instead, the faithful are called to be the Church by acting as the church. It may come at a great cost—indeed, that is very likely. But if it pleases God to give his blessing to such faithfulness, the Church will be built.

The alternative is to acquiesce to the forces of progress (falsely-so-called), and allow a generation to grow up who no longer hear the faithful voice of the Good Shepherd, until there is little left to build.

Tapani Simojoki is a pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Fareham, Hampshire, England, a member congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, and editor of The British Lutheran.

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932 – 1933: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 477–482.

  2. Fredrik Sidenvall, “Forty Years of Female Pastors in Scandinavia,” in Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless, Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective, Third Edition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2012), 221. According to Sidenvall, the General Synod was normally convened every six years, but following the 1957 vote, the government re-convened it immediately, and there was significant party-political interference in the run-up to the 1958 meeting of Synod.

  3. Sidenvall, 228.

  4. Within Lutheranism, the term ‘confessional’ refers to those who are characterized by adherence to the Reformation definition of the faith found in the 1580 Book of Concord. It has a similar ring to the word ‘evangelical’ within Anglicanism.

Image Credit: Flickr


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