What percentage of Germans are evangelical Protestants?

Protestant church : Where do Luther's heirs live?

In the German heartland of the Reformation the churches are emptying, in Africa, Latin America and Asia they are filling up. Protestantism has long since become a worldwide phenomenon with more than 800 million believers, and it is constantly growing. However, only a minority of almost 13 percent of Protestant Christians still live in Europe, 37 percent are at home in southern Africa, 33 percent in South and North America, and 18 percent in Asia. The fastest growing evangelical communities are in South Korea and China.

The spread of the evangelical faith goes hand in hand with an unmanageable pluralization of piety styles, organizational forms, political attitudes and ethical-moral positions. The colorful evangelical family includes Lutherans, Reformed and Uniate, Baptists, Pietists and Methodists, Mennonites and Quakers, Evangelicals and Pentecostal churches, including the Anglicans - and these are just the major currents. Among them there are political left and right, there are warmongers and pacifists, dictator friends and democrats, racists and liberation theologians. There are the Bible fundamentalists, who take everything literally, and those who consider Jesus to be an invention, evangelicals believe in miraculous healings, and Pentecostal churches speak in tongues, while others seek purely rational approaches to faith. In many parts of the West, women pastors and bishops are taken for granted, elsewhere women in gowns are still unimaginable. Evangelical pastors in Germany trust gay and lesbian couples and invite them to divorce services, colleagues in Africa regard homosexuality as a punishment from God and divorce as the work of the devil.

Luther did not want to found a new church

Martin Luther would probably not have liked this diversity. He wanted to stay in control and reacted indignantly as soon as groups presumed to draw their own conclusions from his teaching. Actually, he didn't want to found his own church, but rather reform the Catholic one.

On October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints' Day, he published his 95 theses because he considered the Catholic indulgence trade to be a scandal. Pope and bishops promised the faithful that if they paid money they could shorten their time in purgatory. The Catholic Church then functioned - at least at the top - more according to the secular laws of the early capitalist banking and trading houses than according to Christian principles. Anyone who had money could buy anything: ecclesiastical offices, palaces, salvation. Those who had nothing went away empty-handed.

Martin Luther messed up the well-oiled system by claiming that no matter how much money people could buy themselves out of purgatory. But they don't even have to, because God have mercy on them, including the poor swallowers and the criminals. All you have to do is believe in him firmly and repent.

Luther took some of the fear of hell away from people

Even before Luther, clergy and humanists had denounced the grievances in the church. But no one caught the nerve of contemporaries like the monk from Wittenberg. That had something to do with his personality, his power of speech and his monstrous output of texts, also with the newly invented printing press and of course with the global political upheavals at the beginning of the 16th century. But it was also due to the fact that Luther not only turned a little cog, but basically flipped a switch - away from a religiosity that primarily aimed at the outward observance of rules and the veneration of saints and relics, and towards a new one Inwardness, which was about the direct, personal relationship between man and God. Luther weakened the power of the clergy, encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves, and freed many contemporaries from their fear of hell - even if he still felt himself persecuted by the devil.

It was not just the painter Albrecht Dürer who thanked “Doctor Martinus” for helping him “out of great fears”. He found followers everywhere in the German Reich and in all walks of life. Printing companies settled in Wittenberg that only lived off the fact that they distributed Luther's writings, so great was the interest.

Within a few years, Luther's teaching spread across Europe

But the Pope and Emperor didn't want to hear about it. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated as a heretic, and the break with the church he wanted to reform was irreversible. That didn't detract from Luther's popularity - on the contrary. The writings of the rebel who defied the highest authorities spread across the continent in a few years. Religious brothers, merchants, university teachers and students brought his writings into circulation, as the church historian Thomas Kaufmann describes in his book “Redeemed and Damned”. The humanists also wanted criticism of the church to spread. In Northern and Eastern Europe, the German population groups acted as multipliers.

As early as 1519 professors were discussing his theses at the Paris Sorbonne, and in 1520 theologians in Cambridge, the Netherlands and Prague dealt with them. Young men from all over Europe came to the University in Wittenberg to study the new teaching at its sources.

But there were also others who interpreted Luther's writings without asking the master for permission. Peasants no longer wanted to be enslaved by princes and feudal lords after Luther had preached about the “freedom of a Christian”. The so-called Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and military service and called for a classless society after they had followed Luther's invitation to study the Bible and read about Jesus' non-violence and visions of justice. The reformer foamed with anger over so much arbitrariness and verbally intensified himself into veritable orgies of violence. He demanded of the princes, the deviants, first and foremost the peasants, "to stab, to slain and to strangle where possible". But all the raging, rushing and hating was of no use: the more successful his teaching became, the more Luther lost control.

In Switzerland, Johannes Calvin developed his ascetic form of Protestantism, which was strictly separated from the state, preached diligence and zeal for work and also went his own way at the Lord's Supper. A hundred years later, the Pietists rediscovered Luther's idea of ​​the priesthood of all baptized and tried out ways in which lay people - especially women - can participate more in the community. European emigrants and religious refugees took their religion with them to the New World, missionaries like the Moravian Brothers brought the Reformation doctrine to the South Seas. The locals appropriated and transformed the faith in their own way. The once missionaries are now sending missionaries to Europe in order to inspire the Europeans who, in their eyes, are slack in faith.

Luther did not intend diversity, but included it in his teaching on the priesthood of all baptized. Every Christian should read the Bible for himself and enter into a personal relationship with God. The importance of the church as an institution and community consequently faded into the background for its heirs. The reformer also did not provide for a supreme teaching body that, like the Pope in the Catholic Church, can determine which beliefs are permissible. So every generation, nation and ethnic group reinterprets the Reformation teachings and in such a way that they fit their own needs. Now it is mainly the Chinese and Koreans, the Congolese and Nigerians who translate Luther and Calvin's writings and receive them anew.

Pluralization makes communication difficult

There is only agreement worldwide that the sermon is the focus of evangelical worship, that the congregation chant is very important, and that baptism and the Lord's Supper are the only ordinances. Education continues to play an important role for the global crowd of Protestants, and at least in theory it is clear to everyone that lay people should have as much say as clergy.

The pluralization of faith contributes to the great dynamism and vitality of Christianity, but it does not make global understanding easy. Many Protestants in Germany are closer to the German Catholics today when it comes to piety, political and ethical-moral attitudes than Evangelicals and Pentecostal Churches from other parts of the world. And Martin Luther? Would he be welcome to the big "Christ Festival" in Wittenberg in 2017? Christina Aus der Au, Swiss theologian and President of the Evangelical Church Congress 2017, has her doubts. Because those who express themselves racist have no place on the podiums of the Christian meeting. "Luther's hostility towards Jews would probably have disqualified him," she told Deutschlandfunk a few days ago.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page