What Has Wittenberg To Do with Addis Ababa?

Tomorrow’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses has inspired so many books, articles, blog posts, and other reflections that you might think there’s nothing new to say about the Protestant Reformation. Until, that is, you’re prompted to consider its relationship to African Christianity, both historical and contemporary.

First, the history — courtesy of McCormick Seminary professor David D. Daniels, who points out Luther’s fascination with one of the oldest Christian communities in the world:

David D. DanielsIn a sense, the Church of Ethiopia was the “dream” for Luther, a true forerunner of Protestantism.

As an ancient church with direct ties to the apostles, the Ethiopian Church conferred legitimacy on Luther’s emerging Protestant vision of a church outside the authority of the Roman Catholic papacy.

As a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of Ethiopia embodied the gospel message more robustly and faithfully.

Ethiopian Christians practiced elements of the faith absent in Roman Catholicism, elements Protestants would later adopt: communion in both kind, vernacular Scriptures, and married clergy.

Absent from Ethiopian Christianity were practices Protestants would dismiss: the primacy of the Roman pope, indulgences, purgatory, and marriage as a sacrament.

Indeed, in 1534 Luther met with an Ethiopian deacon named Michael, who read some of Luther’s writings and responded, “This is a good creed, that is, faith.”

I don’t know if this is really the “game-changer” that Daniels claims it to be — especially as presented as an op-ed in a local newspaper, rather than — yet — a peer-reviewed article or book. (At least, none that I could find — please correct me if I’m wrong!) But Luther’s encounter with Ethiopian Christianity potentially “disrupts the narrative that the Reformation was solely the product of western civilization.”

And such a disruption comes at a time when Lutheranism itself is becoming less Western, as Jean Hopfensperger reported over the weekend in an article for Minneapolis’ StarTribune. Not only do Ethiopia (8 million) and Tanzania (6.5 million) have more Lutherans than the United States (4 million), with Madagascar (3 million) close behind, but African immigrants are reshaping Lutheran congregations in places like the Twin Cities, “bringing rich voices to church choirs, fresh faces to Christmas pageants, and new flavors to potluck dinners….The Lutherans’ success in Africa can be felt in Minnesota, where the juxtaposition of cultures is adding both fresh energy and cultural confusion to congregations.”

As one ELCA leader told Hopfensperger: “If Martin Luther were alive today, he’d be surprised at what happened to the church carrying his name. Lutheran is not Lake Wobegon.”

While she nodded to “cross-cultural glitches” that have ensued when Africans join or partner with largely Euro-American congregations, I think Hopfensperger could have said more about the tensions within a Lutheranism whose center of gravity is shifting to the south.

She acknowledges “conflicts with liberal foreign denominations, such as the ELCA, over gay rights and other issues,” but doesn’t mention that in 2013 Africa’s largest Lutheran denomination, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, formally severed its ties with the ELCA — four years after the American group voted to allow individual congregations to recognize same-sex marriage and call openly gay clergy in committed relationships.

Wakseyoum Idosa Negeri in 2012
Wakseyoum Idosa Negeri, president of the Mekane Yesus denomination, at the Lutheran World Federation’s 2012 meeting in Columbia – LWF

Here see Sarah Dreier’s 2014 article for Luther Seminary’s Word & World journal, in which she provides some political and social context for the Mekane Yesus decision and some reflection on how Lutherans can “confront the bitter remnants of the colonial history within which all of our churches are inextricably bound.”

She notes that most African Lutheran denominations stayed in relationship with the ELCA, even as they expressed strong disagreement with the 2009 vote. That October, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya issued a statement condemning “sexual perversion in all its manifestations.” While it didn’t break with the ELCA, its leadership wanted

the general public, particularly the Church of Christ here in Kenya and elsewhere in the world, to take note… that we condemn in the strongest terms possible this unfortunate and anti-scriptural development in a church body that bears the name of the great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther.