Bishop Paul’s letter

Rev Paul Smith
Bishop, Lutheran Church of
Australia and New Zealand

It has become more and more common in this century, to speak of the ’Lutheran ethos’ of a school or community of care in our church. This expression comes from the desire to point to the overall culture and purpose of a ministry that carries the banner ‘Lutheran’, but for some, it is not always initially clear what the words ‘Lutheran ethos’ mean.

I like to write the words ’Lutheran ethos’ in a pictorial way that highlights the heart of being ‘Lutheran’. I write the word ’Lutheran’ in a vertical line, then the word ’ethos’, horizontally across the word ’Lutheran’ connecting them through the letter h. When you do this, the words ‘Lutheran ethos’ make the sign of the cross.

In 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle Paul focuses faith on the work of Christ Jesus on the cross of Calvary. He writes, ’When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’.

Dr Martin Luther explains why this witness to ‘Christ and him crucified’ is so central for faith. In his ‘Smalcald Articles’ in 1539 he described the first and chief article of faith: ‘That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” … Now because this must be believed and may not be obtained or grasped otherwise with any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up.’

These two ‘nothings’ from St Paul and Martin Luther explain everything we need to say about ‘Lutheran ethos’. To be Lutheran is to keep the work of the cross central in our witness and service.

When the cross is central, we expect sin to be at work in our world and lives. We also expect God’s means of grace to be at work for the forgiveness of sin. Where the cross is central, Christ is known as God and Lord, Saviour and friend. The cross is central where the word of God is properly distinguished as law and gospel and where God’s people strive daily to lead a holy life, even as Christ has made them holy. This is our Lutheran ethos.

In February 2023, we are gathering for the second part of our Convention of General Synod in Melbourne. Delegates will have significant matters before them, including proposals regarding whether only men or both women and men are to be ordained as pastors among us. Some are troubled about what is ahead for our church. What is the future of our ‘Lutheran ethos’?

Early on Sunday 28 November 1965, Lutheran leaders from two Lutheran churches in Australia and New Zealand gathered in a common church service to proclaim ‘altar and pulpit fellowship’ between their two churches. In this moment of our history, we received a good charter for our continuing work as Lutherans on both sides of the Tasman.

Firstly, Rev Dr C E Hoopmann, honorary president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia read a preamble, ‘By the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Australia have been led together in the confession and unity of the one faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and of the one doctrine of his holy gospel. We accept this unity as an unmerited gift of our God, in sincere repentance for that which lies behind us since our fathers went their divided ways, and in humble gratitude for all that God in his mercy has done through each of us in the years since 1846. He has kept us and blessed us, and for this we magnify his holy name’.

Then the presidents of the two churches, Rev H D Koehne and Rev Dr M Lohe, each called on the people to this witness to Christ and his cross, when they gave identical exhortations: ‘I call upon all pastors and members of our church to practise such fellowship in the spirit of true brotherly love as the expression of our common faith and confession. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’

Finally, during the Prayer of the Church, the people prayed for the unity of the church using a prayer written by William Laud in the 1600s.

As we gather for Synod 2023, we continue this united common faith of the ‘Lutheran ethos’ that we have received: to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing can be conceded or given up of this doctrine of the gospel. Please pray for those who gather in February, that the Lord would continue to build his church through our Christian witness and service, as people of the Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand.

In Christ,

Lord Jesus, we belong to you,
you live in us, we live in you;
we live and work for you –
because we bear your name.

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