The Protestant Churches in Eastern Europe: A New Era

By Martensen, Daniel F. | The Catholic World, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Protestant Churches in Eastern Europe: A New Era


Martensen, Daniel F., The Catholic World


A man awakened one day, according to a German story, to find himself tightly bound, hand and foot. Gradually, and with great effort, he learned to move about again, to take care of himself, and eventually to execute fancy flips. He built a new life for himself in the circus, performing the tricks he could do all tied up. Then one day he woke to find that his bindings had disappeared as inexplicably as they had once appeared. Disoriented by his sudden freedom, he staggered, hardly able to walk. Barbara Green, an expert on the churches in eastern Germany, cites this early twentieth-century story, The Bound Man, to illustrate the present experience of Eastern European Christians.

A young man from Romania sums up the experience of Christian youth in another way: "It's like being thrown into deep water when we don't know how to swim." In both comparisons, the church is depicted as unprepared for new tasks in a new environment.

The following paragraphs are based in part upon answers to a question that is repeatedly posed to members of the Protestant churches in Eastern Europe: what basic challenges do you face now after the demise of the communist states? Of all the challenges cited, three surface over and over again.

Bishop Kaldur of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church said that re-education was the most basic task his parishes faced. He emphasized that re-education does not simply mean replacing a Marxist ideology with some other system of thought and practice. "The danger for us is that people simply want to transfer their allegiance from one ideology to another. If Christianity is reduced to an ideology and held up as a replacement for Marxism, we have lost the battle," he said.

A pastor at Wittenberg in eastern Germany, where Luther began the Reformation, said that the church once overflowed with people. "Those crowds are gone now. The passion of protest filled the pews just a few years ago. Now, those people have other outlets," he added.

It seems that eastern Germany's serious economic difficulties and cultural upheavals have been accompanied by a dramatic plunge in religious worship. Erwin Scheuch, a Cologne University sociologist, said that tough times are good for religion, but for now and for the foreseeable future, eastern Germany is a de-Christianized society. His research indicates that atheism's roots run very deep after more than four decades of communism. More than 75% of the population in the eastern part of Germany does not believe in God, he noted. In the West, the percentage is 32.8%. The education, or re-education task is a formidable one for both church schools and public ones. This leads us to a second major challenge Christians must face, namely, the reconstitution of church-state relations.

Some countries like Estonia will be able to resolve church-state relations problems much more easily than will others. All, however, need to address questions of taxation and the relations of clergy to the military. Efforts to get at these tasks have been complicated by the public charges against church leaders for "complicity" with the former communist regimes.

One such example comes from the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in the former Czechoslovakia. In 1991, both the bishop and the deputy bishop of that church were voted out of office at an extraordinary meeting of the church's synod. It was claimed that the two bore "major responsibility for the deterioration in church life as well as for political and atheistic influence on both church and society."

Among the accusations were the unlawful punishment of pastors, the active selection of a cadre of theological students who would meet the approval of the communist authorities, the pursuit of material advantage, and the open praise of the regime.

Bishop Christopher Demke, the chairperson of the East German Protestant Church Federation, criticized the public handling of the files belonging to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) state security system (Stasi). …

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