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Religion Library: Lutheran

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Ted Vial

While there have been tensions within the Lutheran church (between rationalists and pietists, between those closer to or further from Reformed theology, etc.) there were few schisms in Lutheranism for much of its history.Lutheranism spread quickly from Germany to Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark), and is the official state church of Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.It has been more closely tied to the specific languages and cultures of the regions in which it was dominant.In Scandinavia these are called "folk" churches.As a result, divisions within Lutheranism have tended to be along national lines.It is only in the 1980s that different Lutheran groups descended from immigrants to the United States have banded together into non-ethnic synods.

There have been some splits.In Prussia in 1817, King Friedrich Wilhelm III took the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Reformation to form the Evangelical Union, which united Lutheran and Reformed churches with a common liturgy.Part of his motivation was personal-the king was Reformed, his wife Lutheran, and they wanted to celebrate the Lord's Supper together.But major theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) agreed that the doctrinal differences between the confessions had become so small that to maintain separate congregations was becoming anachronistic.John Scheibel, a Lutheran deacon in Breslau, refused to accept the union, and when he was deposed from office he formed a sect known as the "Old Lutherans."For a while they were persecuted, then recognized as a separate Lutheran sect, and eventually their numbers dropped to insignificance.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler attempted to co-opt the Lutheran Church into alignment with Nazism.He was largely successful in Germany, though Danish and Norwegian Lutherans resisted.He was aided in his efforts by two factors: 1) the close link between Lutheranism and German culture (Lutheranism as a folk religion), and 2) a Lutheran tradition of anti-Semitism.Martin Luther had at first been an advocate of Jews, seeing in them heroic resistance to what he saw as the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church.He was convinced that the Jews, the Chosen people of God, would come over to true Christianity as he conceived of it.But after the Reformation was underway and Jews still did not convert to Lutheran Christianity, he turned on them, seeing them not as resisters to Rome but as enemies of Christianity.While this is not modern anti-Semitism in the sense that it is not tied to theories of blood and race regardless of religion, it did lead to many anti-Jewish sermons in Germany that gave rise to pogroms.A small number of Lutherans resisted Hitler's overtures and formed a separate movement, called the "Confessing Church."This church, which opposed Nazi anti-Semitism, was founded by Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945), Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), and Karl Barth (1886-1968). They were resisted by those who supported Hitler, who called themselves "German Christians."Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping Jews escape to Switzerland, and was executed after his role in a plot to kill Hitler became known.


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