By Pamela Nielsen
At Palanga, Lithuania — a site of extreme persecution against Lutherans during the Stalinist era — leaders of church bodies and seminaries around the world gathered Aug. 8-11 for the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) Fifth World Seminaries Conference to explore the theme of “Suffering, persecution and martyrdom as a mark of the church.”
Representing member church bodies of the ILC, 76 participants came from every continent except Antarctica to attend the conference hosted locally by Rev. Dr. Darius Petkunas, a professor at Helsinki University; the congregation of Palanga Lutheran Church; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania.
The ILC is a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
In opening remarks, the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, who is ILC secretary and director of Church Relations for the LCMS, reflected on the conference theme.
“Ironically, the more the church prays to be a witness to the world, the more likely the church is to experience the cross and suffering, which in itself becomes a witness,” Collver told participants.
He noted that the theme of suffering, persecution and martyrdom has been a topic of theological reflection since the time chronicled in the Book of Acts.
“At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the church has passed through a century where more Christians numerically have been persecuted and martyred than at any other time in history,” he continued. “At the same time, Islam is spreading among peoples and through lands where the Gospel once held sway. If the external threats of secular humanism and Islam were not enough, the church is under attack from within,” said Collver.
Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania, a member church of the Lutheran World Federation, also greeted the group, which met at the Palanga Lutheran Church and Diaconal Center. He noted that for Christians in Lithuania, persecution in one form or another has been nearly constant throughout the past 400 years.
Conference speakers addressed facets of the conference theme.
The Rev. Dr. William Weinrich, professor of Church History at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., provided the keynote address, setting the stage for deep reflection. His presentation titled “A historical view of martyrdom and the cross” explored suffering, persecution and martyrdom in the early-church era.
Underscoring the relevance of the topic for today, Weinrich noted that credible research estimates that more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith each year; others are either displaced, see their churches destroyed or experience the abduction of their leaders.
“As we think about the present circumstances of our Lutheran churches in the world and about how best to prepare our people for further suffering,” Weinrich explained, “we should not forget the great resource we have in the Sacrament of the Altar. For it is not merely that which ‘strengthens’ faith, but is itself the reality of life over death.” He then quoted John 6:54 — “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
Petkunas, a member of the faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki, continued the discussion with his topic, “A further historical reflection of martyrdom and the cross,” which included findings from his extensive research into the Marxist-Leninist era persecutions of the 20th century.
“The life of the church has been marked from the beginning by the presence of the cross, that particular form of suffering borne by those who confess the name of Christ,” said Petkunas. “Marxist-Leninist communism clearly stated that for communism to succeed, the church and its superstitions must be destroyed and that the very idea of God must be erased from man’s heart and soul. … By the mid 1930s, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches in Soviet Russia had disappeared from the scene.”
Petkunas reminded conference participants that the seven marks of the church, as outlined by Martin Luther, provide a way to know that the true church is present.
He explained, “The seventh sign has always been regarded as a secondary mark of the church. Its absence at a particular time and at a particular place does not necessarily mean that the church is no longer the true church. However, it often happens that where the church is unwilling to bear the pain of the cross, other marks and signs of the church, including the pure proclamation of the Gospel, the right administration of the Sacraments and the proper ordering of the Holy Ministry disappear, as well.”
Responding to Petkunas’ presentation, the Rev. Alexey Streltsov, rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Novosibirsk, Siberia, reflected on the nature and shape of suffering.
“In secular culture,” he said, “suffering is viewed as something to get over. … No, when suffering comes it is not something to get over; it may never go away, it may only increase.”
“Around us [today] it doesn’t look like things will get better. This history of the martyrs will help prepare us for what is to come,” Streltsov concluded.
The Rev. Roberto Bustamante, New Testament professor at Seminario
Concordia, Buenos Aires, Argentina, provided …..
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