« Reflections on “Reformation” today » – Munib A. Younan

Reflections on “Reformation” today

Munib A. Younan

1. The Lutheran Communion Today – A Short Description

I am writing today as the President of the Lutheran World Federation, which is comprised of one hundred forty-five churches in seven regions all over the world. LWF was found in 1947 and established in Lund, Sweden, in order to make a coordinated Lutheran response to the refugee crisis across Europe. At that time, after the Second World War, every second German was a refugee. From that time until now, LWF member churches have been committed to diakonia—living out our faith through serving the poor, the refugee, and the oppressed.

The Lutheran church’s history is in fact a missional one. Many of the global churches in the South were founded by missionaries from the north. However, in the latter part of the 20th century an effort was made to empower these churches to become independent. In 1970, the Evian Assembly officially empowered these former mission churches to be independent church bodies with indigenous leaders. This move has transformed our federation. When it was established in 1947, the LWF included hardly any churches from the global south. Today, we are on all the continents, and each church has equal representation and equal voice. We are now more than a federation—we are a communion of Lutheran churches. And in fact, soon the density of Christians will be in the South. Will we someday see missionaries from the Global South to the North?

We are from many cultures, but every church in the LWF shares in common the Bible and the Augsburg Confession. From our theology of justification by faith, we share the values of equality, including intergenerational and gender justice. We are committed to ecumenical work and interfaith dialogue. We are committed to relief work and development, and our diaconal service continues in thirty-six countries. We are not all the same, but in these important ways we are more than a federation of independent churches — we are a communion of churches with pulpit and altar fellowship. In our relations with one another across continents and cultures, we reflect the words of one of my predecessors, Bishop Samuel Kabira, who was fond of saying:

“There is no church so small, so poor, so young in age that it would not have something to give to other churches; and there is no church so old, so rich, and so old in tradition and history that it would not depend on these gifts from others.”

There have been several important milestones in the history of the Lutheran World Federation. One is the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999.[1]

Another is the 2010 official apology to the Mennonite Church, in recognition of the persecution of Anabaptists by Lutherans in the 16th century.[2] Part of this reconciliation process was a service in which we washed each other’s feet, asking for forgiveness in the name of Christ.

And more recently, we have just experienced an historic reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church at a common prayer service in Lund, Sweden. [3] This service of common prayer, co-hosted by the LWF and the Vatican, and co-lead by Pope Francis, myself as LWF President, and the LWF General Secretary Martin Junge, was not a call for uniformity, but for a new era of unity. When His Holiness Pope Francis and I spoke after the event, we agreed that the new stage of ecumenism is seeking unity through diakonia—living out our faith through serving the poor and the oppressed, just as the LWF was founded to do in 1947.

This historic event also has the potential to reform the ecumenical movement in the years to come. The significance of this event to our respective churches has shown us that the ecumenism of the future must be dependent not only on theological dialogue, but also on trust and friendship.

Uniformity, or ignoring our differences in theology and tradition, should never be our goal in interfaith or ecumenical dialogue. Even within our Lutheran communion, we may have differences. The question for us is not, “How can we solve all of these differences?” but rather “How can we be committed together for mission in the world?” This is the reason we talk often about mission in context, and about the theology of accompaniment. We remain committed to being a communion of churches in which every church is autocephala (maintains its own leadership) and has the right to take its own decisions.

One area of importance to all of our churches is gender justice. I am proud to say that the LWF has been engaging in questions of gender justice for many years. In 2015, we published a policy document committing our global communion to pursuing gender justice. We have done this because God created all human beings on an equal basis. Christ has equally saved each of us on the cross. Roman Catholic Theologian Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza has spoken of the “discipleship of equals.” She emphasizes that disciples have “equality in diversity. All of them have equal standing, worth, dignity, and access to the gifts (of the Spirit), although they bring different voices, experiences, vocations, and talents to such a discipleship community.”[4] RiniRalte, a theologian in the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, India, has said that though men may tell us that women are not disciples, Jesus did not limit discipleship to men only. The criteria of discipleship is first of all to be called by Jesus. This call is inclusive, irrespective of sex, race, and class.[5] Gender justice is not only an issue for women to consider. It is an integral part of our theological identity. If gender justice is not practiced in the Churches, how can we expect that it will be practiced in the world?

At the same time, we are aware that not all of our churches are yet ordaining women to Word and Sacrament ministry. We do not impose this on any church. Yet, in light of our understanding of gender justice, we encourage our member churches to reflect on the theology of justification by faith. We continue to believe that our faith calls us to be laborers together—women and men—in God’s vineyard. In fact, every human being, saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, possesses the call to proclaim the Gospel of love in our world.

Areas of tension also arise when member churches take decisions on social ethical issues. In 2007, the LWF committed to studying together issues of family, marriage, and human sexualities. It is clear that among our churches there are many different approaches to these issues. We must continue to discuss, study, and discern where God is calling each of our churches. This is the reason that in 2012, in Bogota, Colombia, the LWF Council commenced the “Emmaus Conversation”. As Christians, we are called to walk with and listen to one another. We are proud to be a communion that is mature enough to discuss even issues of deep disagreement. At the same time, it is important to me that we remember what unites us: Justification by faith through grace. This is dear to all of us. This is the theology that keeps us standing together as one. Our passion for Christ and our passion to serve our neighbor should transcend any differences in how we view social and ethical issues.

An area of great urgency for the church, and the world, today is the issue of climate change. I was very impressed to see how many young church leaders were present at the Paris COP21 meetings on climate change. The advocacy efforts of young people from the LWF, World Council of Churches, and many other religious institutions is a message to the global church. Our institutions are slowly being converted by these young voices to a greater concern for the environment and climate change. We are beginning to understand that the world is not owned by any one of us, and certainly not by corporations and governments. Instead, as the Psalmist says, “the earth” is the Lord’s, “the world and all that is in it” (Ps. 89.11). Climate change is a question of justice for God’s creation, and it is ultimately linked to all other struggles for justice and human rights.




[4] Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, “Discipleship of Equals,” in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, ed. Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 70. See also Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1993).

[5] Cf. Lalrinawmi Ralte, “Discipleship of Equals.”in Envisioning a New Heaven and a New Earth, ed. L. Ralte et al., New Delhi: AICCW/NCCI

2. Concerning Luther and his importance today

Appreciation for Luther is not only a German phenomenon! Globally—especially during this 500thAnniversary Year—there is an admiration for what Luther and other reformers have done for the ongoing reform of the church. In particular, I would highlight these three ways that Luther remains relevant to churches across our communion:

  1. Luther has brought us the freshness of the Gospel. He has taught us the importance of reading in our own languages and interpreting from within our own contexts. Hearing the Good News in the vernacular, and being empowered to live out the faith in our place and time, is a gift of the Reformation that follows the tradition of the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
  2. Luther has given us a very remarkable freedom of conscience. The Christian is liberated by faith, able to both interpret the Gospel and to act freely in response. This understanding has given Lutheran Christians the means to break free of their Middle Ages cocoon, and to seek the Lord’s call on the church in today’s context.
  3. Luther helped us to understand the Christian as one who is “a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” (On theFreedom of a Christian) This is the understanding that moves Lutheran churches across the world to promote human rights, gender justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Luther’s theology propels us out of the church and into the marketplace, into the world, to offer the world the love and dignity gifted to us through the cross.

In the same way that Lutherans engage in dialogue with the Bible, so we also have dialogue with the church and with Martin Luther. Especially today we must be in conversation with Luther’s texts written against the pope, against the Jews, and against Muslims. In 1984, the LWF distanced itself from Luther’s writings against the Jewish people. In our Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, we have also distanced ourselves from his writings about the pope and the Catholic Church. Now, the time has come for us to distance ourselves from Luther’s writings against Islam. This is not a repudiation of Luther as a whole, but a recognition that as a human being, he had a dark side. Not all of his ideas were reflections of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But the theology he did give us—that of being liberated by God’s grace alone—gives us a solid basis to take what is constructive of Luther and at the same time to disagree with him.

3. Are we in a post-denominational age?

As a Middle-Eastern Christian, it is difficult for me to say that we are in a “post-denominational age.” Nor do I see any real benefit in making such a claim, partly because for me I believe a good Lutheran is an ecumenist. For me, I can only understand my faith through the doctrines of my confession. I see denominational confession not as a liability, but an asset. It molds my identity. It gives me a solid foundation for interpreting Scripture and living out my faith. I see this as a protection against a Christianity which is wishy-washy—a faith which is everywhere, but nowhere.

A confessional identity is not fanatic, or extremist, or introverted. A confessional identity empowers me with a community, a history, and a framework for understanding my place within Christianity. It does not impede me, but propels me into the world to walk and work alongside Christians of other confessions, other denominations, other traditions. It gives me to realize that what unites us is much more than what divides us.

When we worked together with the Roman Catholic Church on the “From Conflict to Communion” document, we investigated the Reformation from Catholic and Lutheran points of view. We recognized our differences in theology and tradition. And together we have concluded that we are engrafted into the Body of Christ through baptism. Our baptisms—not our social statements or liturgical traditions—send us into the world with a common witness.

In the joint statement signed by Pope Francis and myself at the Lund Commemoration, we have also addressed the deep need for healing in our ecumenical dialogue, especially around the issue of communion:

“Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual thirst and hunger of our people to be one in Christ. We long for the wound in the Body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”[6]

For me, my confession is a tool that helps me to show Christ’s love to others. It helps me to see the image of God—not only in other individuals, but in other churches and other Christian confessions.

I can understand that there are places in the world where Christianity is growing rapidly, apart from a denominational identity. We must really bless these mission efforts. At the same time, I wonder: If you are a first-generation Christian, how does a post-denominational identity connect you with the global community? How does it carry you into the future? I just pose a question, not a conclusion.

[6] Joint statement.

4. The future of the Church

This is a very important question today, in a time when extremist strains of all religions are gaining popularity. I have a few thoughts about the future of the Church:

First, the Church of the future will need to be ecumenical. This is not to say that we must ignore differences in theology and tradition, but that we must learn to work together for the sake of Christ and for the sake of our neighbor. As it is written, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) When we are imprisoned in our own small worlds and confessions, we are ineffective in proclaiming the Gospel of love. Today more than ever, we must understand ourselves not as independent churches, but as interdependent members of the same Body of Christ. It is this interdependency which will give us the strength of faith to carry the Gospel into an increasingly hostile world. For this reason, ecumenical dialogue is not an end unto itself, but is a tool for communicating the Good News.

Secondly, the Church of the future will also be focused on a common witness through diakonia (working together in the service of the poor and the oppressed.) To this end, Caritas and the Lutheran World Servicehave signed a letter of commitment to engage in common diakonia through Caritas and LWF World Service. Together, we will work to alleviate poverty, combat contagious diseases (including HIV/AIDs), and work on relief and development, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we do this Gospel work together, the blessings will pour out, not only for the ones we serve, but for those who see Christ in our actions. Perhaps they will say, as the first great North African theologian Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) imagined folks saying about Christians: “Look how they love one another, and how they are ready to die for each other.”

Thirdly, the future of the Church is to be a prophetic presence in the world. Our people are waiting to hear a word of comfort, a word of strength, and word of empowerment—and they are not getting this from political leaders. As our Lutheran brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.”

This is not a strategy for gaining more power or for increasing our numbers in church on Sunday. This is about reclaiming our credibility as voices for peace, justice, and reconciliation in the world. As the church of Jesus Christ in the world, we must dare to be prophetic, for the sake of our neighbors.

Fourthly, the future of the Church is also an interfaith future. In today’s world, we understand that Christianity is not the only religion—it is a religion existing alongside other faith traditions. We understand that our faith calls us to be in necessary relationship with other traditions, and to be concerned not only for the suffering of Christians, but for the suffering of all human beings. For this reason, interfaith dialogue—like ecumenical dialogue—is not an end to itself. It is not only for the purpose of sharing smiles and photo opportunities. We do it in order to address our common values for justice, peace, and living together. We do it in order that we can save humanity from destroying itself.

Finally, the future of Church is in martyria. This is the most challenging aspect of the future that faces us. Christians right now are being persecuted in many places across the world—in Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt, and many other places—and these are the present-day martyrs of the faith. They need not only our prayers, but our action. We must not only pray for them and admire them, but stand with them and for them.

Furthermore, these persecuted Christians are to be our role models for the future of witnessing to the Gospel. The age of a powerful Christendom, aligned with the political powers of the world, is in the past. Our future is in standing with the poor and the oppressed, even if it means persecution and ridicule. Our future is in boldly proclaiming Christ, even when our culture denies him. Our future is with Christ, on the cross, for the sake of the world. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1.16)

In a conversation with His Holiness Pope Francis not long ago, he said to me, “This is what the world needs now: ecumenical martyria.” For clarification, I asked him, “Do you mean white martyria (bearing witness through sharing the Gospel) or red martyria (bearing witness through death)?” He said, “Of course we prefer the white, and we do not seek the red. But if it is necessary, we are ready.”.

5. Conclusion

For my faith, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a call to remember that the church is “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda”—the church always reforming. We must always be asking ourselves, “What is the call of Christ—for the sake of our neighbors?” If the Holy Spirit is renewing us, reviving us, and reforming us, then it is for the sake of God’s love for every human being.

In this 500th Reformation Anniversary year, I pray that we will truly be “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda”—not for the church’s sake, but for the sake of the world.


Munib A. Younan, a Palestinian born 1950 in Jerusalem, is Bishop of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and (since 2010) President of The Lutheran World Federation. He studied theology in Helsinki/Finland and was pastor at different Lutheran churches in Palestine and in Jerusalem. In 1998, he was consecrated Bishop. Among his numerous activities related to Just Peace in the Holy Land is the Jonah group which he initiated in 1991, a number of informal long-running dialogue groups, serving as forums for joint reflection of local Christians and Jews. The Jerusalem Post (October, 2000) called this “quiet ecumenism”.He received numerous national and international awards, among them, in 2014, the honorary doctorate from the University of Münster (protestant faculty).

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