Two days ago, the Catholic Herald posted a story about Pope Francis meeting with Rev. Dr. Nikolaus Schneider. The article is entitled “Lutheran pastor meets Pope Francis in Rome,” and the text of the article also refers to Dr. Schneider as a Lutheran pastor. There’s just one problem, as the friend who brought this story to my attention noted: Dr. Schneider isn’t Lutheran.
You’d be forgiven for thinking so. He is, after all, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. And surely the Evangelical Church in Germany is Lutheran, right?
It depends. The thing English speakers often miss is that the Evangelical Church in Germany (which formed in 1948) is actually a federation of separate church bodies in Germany rather than a unified denomination itself. Among its twenty-two member churches—all but one of which are regional churches, restricted to a particular geographic area—are Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant church bodies. While the churches have full altar and pulpit fellowship with each other, they each retain their own denominational distinctives.
Which brings me to the point: Dr. Schneider is a member of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland (EKIR), which he served as Praeses (the equivalent of “president”) from 2003 to 2013. And the EKIR is not Lutheran: it’s part of the Union of Evangelical Churches, and originally comes out the United Protestant tradition.
The United Protestants can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. At that time, King Frederick William III began instituting the unification of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia. (For lack of a good online history of the Prussian Union, you can read the Wikipedia article here. Lutheran dissent over this forced union led, by the by, to Old Lutherans immigrating to Australia and the United States—laying the groundwork for today’s Lutheran Church of Australia and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.)
The resulting Prussian Union represented a blending of Lutheran and Reformed traditions, and it’s out of this body that the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland comes. Indeed, they claim not only Lutheran documents like the Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession as part of their heritage but also accept the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism.
So no, Dr. Schneider isn’t a “Lutheran” pastor. While the error is understandable, it shows the need to be careful when discussing German Christianity. Twenty-two regional church bodies may together hold membership in the Evangelical Church in Germany, but these churches profess different theologies. Some are Lutheran, but the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland is not one of them.