The German state church

Mathew Block, in the course of correcting a media error, explains that the Protestant state church of Germany is NOT Lutheran, but a federation of Protestant churches with a number of different theologies, including particularly the “Prussian Union,” which drove confessional Lutherans to Australia and America:

Two days ago, the Catholic Herald posted a story about Pope Francis meeting with Rev. Dr. Nikolaus Schneider. The article is entitled “Lutheran pastor meets Pope Francis in Rome,” and the text of the article also refers to Dr. Schneider as a Lutheran pastor. There’s just one problem, as the friend who brought this story to my attention noted: Dr. Schneider isn’t Lutheran.

You’d be forgiven for thinking so. He is, after all, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. And surely the Evangelical Church in Germany is Lutheran, right?

It depends. The thing English speakers often miss is that the Evangelical Church in Germany (which formed in 1948) is actually a federation of separate church bodies in Germany rather than a unified denomination itself. Among its twenty-two member churches—all but one of which are regional churches, restricted to a particular geographic area—are Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant church bodies. While the churches have full altar and pulpit fellowship with each other, they each retain their own denominational distinctives.

Which brings me to the point: Dr. Schneider is a member of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland (EKIR), which he served as Praeses (the equivalent of “president”) from 2003 to 2013. And the EKIR is not Lutheran: it’s part of the Union of Evangelical Churches, and originally comes out the United Protestant tradition.

The United Protestants can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. At that time, King Frederick William III began instituting the unification of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia. (For lack of a good online history of the Prussian Union, you can read the Wikipedia article here. Lutheran dissent over this forced union led, by the by, to Old Lutherans immigrating to Australia and the United States—laying the groundwork for today’s Lutheran Church of Australia and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.)

The resulting Prussian Union represented a blending of Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and it’s out of this body that the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland comes. Indeed, they claim not only Lutheran documents like the Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession as part of their heritage but also accept the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism.

So no, Dr. Schneider isn’t a “Lutheran” pastor. While the error is understandable, it shows the need to be careful when discussing German Christianity. Twenty-two regional church bodies may together hold membership in the Evangelical Church in Germany, but these churches profess different theologies. Some are Lutheran, but the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland is not one of them.

via The Curious Case of the German Church » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

Roman Catholicism, I’m pretty sure, is also state-supported.  (Someone who knows might confirm that.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    There is state support within Germany for the Roman Catholic Church through a state-mandated tax; register as a Catholic and the German Catholic church gets the money. The primary issue is Germany is that there is both increasing mobility characterized by traditionally Roman areas becoming less so, and a simultaneous change in traditionally Protestant or Lutheran states. There is also the concomitant increase in “unaffiliated” persons who have been effectively excommunicated because they object to the tax.

  • fjsteve

    SKP, isn’t the church tax in Germany a very longstanding tradition? Why would increased migration cause any great increase in the number of unaffiliated? I don’t get the connection. I mean, I get that migration itself causes an increase in the numbers of unaffiliated, but I don’t get how the church tax is connected.

  • Joanne

    Here is the web site for the EKD and Dr. Schneider’s visit with Pope Francis is featured here as big news.
    http://www.ekd.de/english/
    Here is the web page at this site that lists the regional member of the consortium. The Lutheran (by tradition, not by current doctrines) member churches actually use the word Lutheran in their name.
    The church tax registration is in rapid decline in Germany for both protestants and for Catholics and they are at roughly even numbers now (about 20 million each). Both the protestants and the Catholics are receiving much less money from the tax (kirchen steue) each year and that has stressed these churches greatly. However, the protestant clergy (about 30 percent female now and growing rapidly in percentage) salaries are state determined and are in no decline at all.

  • Joanne

    Here is the link to the Member church list.
    http://www.ekd.de/english/regional_churches.html
    The remnant churches of Orthodox Lutheranism, a very small number with pitifully low membership and are not growing in numbers. Compared to the German country population of just north of 80 million, the small German “self-standing (self-supporting, no tax money) churches are pitifully small. The one in fellowship with the LC-MS has just over 50 thousand members and that number is in slow decline.
    There are many, many more Moslems (mostly Turks) in Germany than orthodox Lutherans.

  • Joanne

    An interesting development: When the East German protestant regional churches reestablished themselves right after the Mauerfall in 1989 (the communist had organized them to suite the needs of the workers’ paradise), initally there was a regional church in Sachsen-Anhalt, and in Thuringia, the former being a Prussian Union church, and the latter being an Evangelical Lutheran. After a few years, these two regionals merged into the Evangelical Church of Mitteldeutschland, a by its nature Union church, but with individual churches in Thuringia still styling themselves as Ev. Luth. All of the primary Luther sites are in this region, i.e. Wittenberg, Eisleben, Eisenach, etc. Consequently when one attends a protestant church in this region, one is attending a Union church, as at St. Mary’s and the Schloss kirke in Wittenberg and the reason one sees Calvin and Zwingli portrayed in what Americans think should be Lutheran worship spaces.

  • SKPeterson

    fjsteve – the rise in the unaffiliated comes from people not wanting to pay the tax, so they disenroll or are removed from the rolls. As to migration, the issue is not so much with unaffiliation but rather that the old lines between Protestant and Catholic regions have largely broken down.

  • fjsteve

    SKP, I was just wondering why now? Since the church tax is a very old tradition.

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