I have received blessings and birthday wishes from all over the world upon my 60th birthday June 25, 2020. I want to express my thanks for all of them. Unfortunately I will not be able to answer all of them personally. There are simply too many of them, but I will try to answer as many of them as I can.
Prof. Thomas Schirrmacher turns 60
The Associate General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Prof. Thomas Schirrmacher (Bonn), will turn 60 on June 25. In this position, he represents the theological interests of 600 million Protestant Christians. He is also Chairman of the WEA’s Theologian Commission and President of the International Council of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) as well as the Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom with offices in Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo, and Brasilia. Schirrmacher is also the managing director of the working group for religious freedom of the German Evangelical Alliance and the Austrian Evangelical Alliance. He is professor of the sociology of religion at the University of the West of Timisoara (Timisoara, Romania), a public university, and also teaches human rights and religious freedom at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. He is also the founder and Vice Rector of the Martin Bucer Seminary, a theological seminary for professionals with study centers in seven German and nine foreign cities. Schirrmacher is also the bishop of the Communio Messianica, which has congregations in 75 countries around the world. He was ordained a bishop in 2015 in the US state of Florida according to the Anglican rite. The Communio Messianica consists of converts who were previously Muslims. He is also the founder and advisor of the international aid organization “Gebende Hände” (Bonn).
The greatest gift was given to me by the renowned sleep and ENT specialist Prof. Dr. med. Ramin Naim, According to the Focus doctors list, he is one of the top doctors in Germany. For four decades (!) I tormented doctors and clinics with all kinds of symptoms. He was the first one who listened extensively and attributed all symptoms to one and the same cause and proved this in the sleep laboratory: For my entire life, I have never fallen into deep sleep at night since my internal alarm system wakes me up shortly before I go to deep sleep due to a potential lack of oxygen. Even though I still need a couple of weeks for complete recovery, extensive surgery on my nose, sinuses, etc. has now solved the problem. I have entered my seventh decade of life as a new person with unprecedented energy.
What a birthday present God gave me through Prof. Naim!
“A Lack of Bible Knowledge threatens Christianity”
Thomas Schirrmacher is an Evangelical thought leader on a global scale and is well networked in the dialogue the World Evangelical Alliance conducts with other churches and religions. In connection with his 60th birthday on Thursday, the theologian and sociologist of religion spoke with pro about the current situation of Christianity, converts, and the role of Evangelicals.
pro: When one hears Evangelicals referred to in the German public sphere, it mostly has to do with Evangelicals here in our own country or with Evangelicals in the USA and Brazil and above all associated with a politically conservative, right-wing populist orientation. To what extent are these political conflations representative of the world-wide Evangelical movement?
Thomas Schirrmacher: As the World Evangelical Alliance we do not stand for “the Evangelicals,” where each individual can define who actually belongs in this grouping. Rather, we stand for organized Evangelicals. The Evangelical wing, which in the USA is very close to Donald Trump, and in Brazil close to President Jair Bolsonaro, does not represent all Evangelicals even is those locations. The problem is also growing in other countries. In Australia there is also an Evangelical Prime Minister who has precious little for refugees. But what distorts the matter, of course, is that, on the other hand, we have very positive developments However, the term “Evangelical” is not used for them. For example, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, who was the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019, is an avowed Evangelical, and that has hardly been mentioned anywhere. The National Evangelical Alliance USA, together with the World Alliance, has not only recently spoken out very firmly against racism but against the entire right-wing populist development. That is not seen here. An Evangelical position is a theological position. There we have surprisingly many things in common. On political questions, Evangelicals have never been united.
You have stressed in the past that pluralism in the movement must be recognized and tolerated. What is the core that is non-negotiable for Evangelicals?
When the World Evangelical Alliance was founded in 1846, churches were marked by tremendous pluralism. It was said: For the sake of mission, it is an obstacle to the gospel that people only see all these different forms of theology and churches; we must work together at the heart of the matter. This core is: the gospel, salvation in Jesus Christ; the Bible as the “constitution” of the Church, as the only text that unites all the churches and to which all refer; and religious freedom for all – the founders of the movement at that time already considered it Christian DNA that the proclamation of the Gospel must be completely peaceful and without any compulsion. In 1846, at the height of the colonial age, this was a frontal critique of the way Christianity appeared worldwide.
You also have very many relationships outside the Evangelical Alliance in Catholic, Orthodox and other churches. What do you say to critics who accuse you of making common cause with Christians who do not share this “core” of the Christian faith?
The history of the Evangelical Alliance indicates that the unity of all Christians was the goal – that has remained the goal until today. It can only hurt us to have not yet achieved it. The caveat: this must of course be a unity in faith, a theological unity. We have to wrestle with other churches for the DNA of Christianity – by clearly professing our colors, but also by visibly reaching out and showing that we believe that with the Bible in our hands we can find a way to each other. An example of this is, for me, the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World,” developed from 2006 to 2011. I am convinced that Christianity has a DNA. And that DNA, for example, I say quite openly I share with Pope Francis. I do not share his Marian devotion at all – it seems to me today to be a bigger problem than it was in Luther’s time. But if I take what he says and what he writes, what the gospel is, then we have arrived at a broad consensus worldwide.
In the Catholic Church there is also a doctrine that the Catholic Church alone is the sole church which brings beatification. Evangelicals say that salvation lies in Jesus.
The question is: Do we measure the Catholic Church against documents that it adopted in the past and which are formally still legally valid? Or do we measure it against today’s reality? Pope Francis once said to me in a quite everyday manner: “A baptized Catholic who does not believe in Jesus as Savior is not saved, and a Christian who is not baptized Catholic and believes in Jesus as Savior is saved.” We need to discuss the role of the Pope, the understanding of the Bible, Marian devotion. We have very clearly formulated this again in our 2018 document “‘Scripture and Tradition’ and ‘The Role of the Church in Salvation’” with the Vatican. However, I would like to remind all Protestants that even Luther, who left nothing to be desired in his statements about the Catholic Church, was deeply convinced that it can be reformed with the Bible. And we can only do this when we are in conversation, not when we are at war with one another.
With regard to Germany, the importance of religion as a whole has decreased if one looks at churches’ membership figures. How do you see the situation worldwide?
I would not quite share the comment on Germany. In our country, religion is declining in the everyday life of individuals. However, I would say that it is on the rise among decision-makers in business and politics. Helmut Kohl, for example, was certainly much more Christian in his everyday life than Angela Merkel but extremely reluctant to bring Christianity into the public arena. Ms. Merkel says almost in passing: “We are called the CDU because we stand on the Christian conception of humanity.” Alternatively, whether one shares this view or not, when she allowed refugees from Hungary to come, she said: “As a convinced Christian, I couldn’t do anything besides this.” Kohl would never have done that. The worldwide trend is, of course, that the proportion of non-religious people is decreasing. The percentage of atheists, however, is vanishingly small. And there is a second trend: The world religions have seen enormous growth. In Africa, for example, almost everyone today, at least officially, is Muslim or Christian. After the Second World War, about 40 percent of the inhabitants were still neither Muslim nor Christian. Rather, they, belonged to an ethnic religion, for instance.
Pious Christians in Germany are also afraid of a growing dominance of Islam in Germany and Europe. Do you share these concerns?
There is little point in speculating how things will be in a few decades. If one makes a purely statistical projection of how many Muslims live in the country and compares this with Christians, there is a big mistake in doing so: In the case of Christians, we count either active ones or at least those who are considered to belong to the religion through membership and by donations or church tax – with the result that the number goes down. On the Muslim side, we only count people who were born in a Muslim country or into a Muslim family. Nobody knows whether they practice Islam or whether they consider it to be correct. We are also putting together all the movements, the Ahmadiyya, who have come from Pakistan because they want more religious freedom here, as well as the extremists.
The reality is that the majority of Muslims in Germany have long been rather secular. With the return of religious movements in home countries such as Turkey, the proportion of Muslims practicing religion here has also increased. However, the number of Muslims in Turkey is already declining sharply, and this will again change here in the not too distant future. Then one has to look at the movement between religions. In Germany, we already have more conversions from Islam to Christianity than ever before. In Iran there are over a million Christians underground. Therefore, many of the Iranians who come here have great interest in Christianity. I would say that in Germany our Christianity is in part so weak in the chest that it can be replaced by something anyway, be it another variety of Christianity – we Evangelicals have long thought that was the alternative – or be it Islam. However, we still have such a small percentage of Muslims in our country compared to others that, even if they were all conservative practicing Muslims, I cannot see how they could seek to take over the country.
The proportion of people with religious beliefs is generally significantly higher among refugees than the proportion of religious people in Germany. Where do the challenges for their integration lie?
I see a problem in that our everyday political reality is rather non-religious. Lawyers, decision-makers within the public authorities, but also journalists are often quite officially or practically secular. It is immediately visible that people who personally have no use for religion also have great difficulty with this topic and actually understand integration to mean that people who come here restrict religion to the private sphere. That will not work. It is also not in accordance with our Basic Law. However, the reality is that judges, who not only do not know the differences between Catholic and Protestant and even sometimes the differences between the religions, have to decide on conversions in asylum cases. That is my experience, also outside Germany at the EU level.
I had the experience of a top politician taking me aside in private and saying: “If someone leaves Islam at the risk of his life or possibly becomes a Christian in Iran – can you somehow help me to understand what is going on within him? I can just barely understand that someone had a religion into which he was born. But why does he have to change it at the risk of his life, or if he really wants to, why does he have to say it out loud when he knows it can cost him his life?” A religious person, whatever his religion, can understand that. He understands that religion is not a hobby like making imitation flowers, which I can also not do for a while. For religious people, however, it has something to do with their identity.
The Federal Constitutional Court recently confirmed that judges may check how intensively a convert believes …
But for that to happen, they must have a certain standard. Which categories are paramount for the judges to accept a convert’s change of religion? One may say that the asylum seeker knows the entirety of the dogmatics of his religion up and down and has certainly learned it by heart. The other says that the convert cannot describe the contents of his new religion and has thus not really become a Christian. It remains completely open whether one should doctrinally know the new religion particularly well, or better not, or whether one should talk about how the new faith warms one’s heart.
Among other things, with regard to refugees, Evangelical circles often criticize the church for expressing itself too politically instead of spiritually. The topic of sea rescue is very topical. How do you see this from a theological and sociological perspective?
There’s no simple, straight answer to that. First of all, our perception of the political commitment of the church is above all a political commitment on the part of church leaders. Whether it also represents that of local church communities is another matter. For instance, I see that in church declarations regarding dialogue with Islam. It is above all church leaders who urge that every missionary aspect be sidelined. At the same time, former Muslims are being baptized in practically every parish. Such declarations completely miss parts of reality because for all practical purposes they only see the political side – how do we get along nicely with each other in our country – and lose sight of content, especially the Gospel. This is the reason why Muslims become Christians, not political positions.
Additionally, church leaders express themselves in day-to-day politics, and here is a concrete example: We should now save refugees in the Mediterranean – they have to take a political stand. The difficulty always arises when a considerable proportion of their own members pursue a different political direction. It is no coincidence, then, that those who protest and find the churches too political are also those who think differently in these matters. I think it would be a great pity if, on a day-to-day political issue like this – a ship yes or no? – the underlying question of Christian DNA is lost. In this case, it is that a refugee in the Mediterranean, as the image of God, has the same human dignity as someone who happens to live in a more fortunate situation. This is not because this or that person is devout but because he or she is human. This is in the first pages of the Christian and Jewish Holy Scriptures. In Islam, the majority opinion is that only those who submit to Allah have certain rights. Religion thus has political implications, including the gospel, that Jesus has collectively redeemed us.
Another example of socio-political commitment is the topic of climate protection and sustainability. The World Evangelical Alliance also has a Sustainability Center. What is the specific contribution that the Alliance can make to this topic?
This center has two motives. We believe that according to the first chapters of the Bible, we have the mission to preserve creation. This is happening more and more on a global level. We should not be on the outside, but rather in the middle of things, if not ahead of things. As our world as a whole becomes more religious, this entire question of sustainability also becomes a question for religious communities. Thus, our center is also a major program for dialogue. The desire other religions are demonstrating to cooperate with us is increasingly being articulated. Since many officials themselves come from religious countries and practice a religion themselves, they find it increasingly difficult to work with completely secularized people. This cannot be avoided in the UN, but secularists no longer represent the worldwide majority.
Can you identify an issue that is particularly pressing for the WEA or for Christianity beyond global issues such as climate and migration?
The biggest threat is that Bible knowledge decreases. It is not a matter of knowledge learned by heart but of Bible knowledge as the basis of the central truths of Christianity. More and more people are coming to faith in Germany who did not grow up as Christians and hardly ever start out with biblical knowledge. And it is becoming more and more difficult to win them over to catch up. In China there are so many people becoming Christians that it is practically impossible to train them in terms of content, often due to the fact that structures are missing. Or in the favelas in Brazil: We have our own program to train pastors there. Why? Because so many new congregations are emerging there, especially when it comes to Pentecostal churches, that often the one who has been there the longest is the pastor. And we have many cases where the pastors cannot even read and write.
However, this is not only a problem for Evangelicals. Orthodox Churches, for example, have joined Bible societies and want to actively ensure that the Bible is spread in Orthodox countries. Pope Francis said something similar. In his writing on preaching, he has written that the basic problem of the Catholic Church is that priests no longer read the Bible and suddenly have to get a sermon from somewhere to preach on Sunday. The right thing to do, he says, is for the priest to live so with the Bible during the entire week that on Sunday he doesn’t even know which of the many references he has come to realize that he should preach about.
Why is that a danger?
Due to the fact that Christianity is never just religious practice but has a confession at its core. If, for example, Christians are no longer aware of the fact that the Trinity comes from Revelation, then the door is open for everyone to do with Christianity what suits them. This cannot be forbidden to anyone, as we have religious freedom. However, it is, then, no longer Christianity. Christianity cannot do without content. What unites us are the contents, not the forms we use to express them.
Thank you very much for the interview!
The questions were posed by Jonathan Steinert.