East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Rebirth and Renewal in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church

Juris Rubenis

The phrase "rebirth and renewal" relates particularly to the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church's situation and recent history.  Ten years ago, on 14 June 1987, the pastors' movement, called Rebirth and Renewal, was founded.  Seventeen Lutheran ministers united and vowed to strive to create new opportunities in the life of the church. It should be noted that the concept of "rebirth and renewal" is primarily a theological one. In the New Testament letter to Titus (3:5), Paul speaks of the salvation Christ procures by "the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit."

With the democratization of the former Soviet Union, new social processes emerged in Latvia.  After almost 50 years of ideological oppression following the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, people joined in the struggle for a truly dynamic, independent, and free religious life.

Sorting Out Church-State Accommodation and Confrontation
It was very inspiring when, after many long years of oppression, the church could suddenly release its own publications, prepare television and radio broadcasts, organize Sunday schools for children, reclaim abandoned sanctuaries, hold services in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, military bases, and so on.  Eventually, however, it became clear that these opportunities required qualifications that not all church workers possessed.

During the last few decades, two very contradictory principles shaped church life in Eastern Europe.  One was the principle of self-sacrifice, which governed the life of the heroic martyr.  The other was the principle of survival.  Alongside self-sacrificing, fearless witnesses to Christ stood collaborators who rationalized their collaboration as serving the interests of the church, as the only way for the church to survive the Communist regime.  After the fall of Communism, no church in a post-Communist nation has managed to avoid a period of complicated internal struggles. Many East European churches have split apart, e.g., in Croatia, Slovakia, Bulgaria.  These conflicts were exacerbated by lack of tolerance and by the hardships endured by people who had lived through the Communist years and wanted swift, moral compensation for their suffering.  In the heat of the "battle," many church-going Christians had a very difficult time adhering to Christian principles while trying to settle their own personal conflicts.

In response to these struggles the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church convened a synod in April 1989 and unseated its former archbishop, a man who belonged to the collaborationist school of thought.  In his place the church elected a new head and a completely new consistory, or governing body, effecting a 100 percent turnover in church leadership. The pastoral model that had been appropriate in totalitarian times was now insufficient and out of place.  Congregations and ministers had to learn unfamiliar methods of work.  This was often frightening, and many congregations and ministers continued in the patterns and inertia of the past.  Consequently, one of the church's objectives became the formation of a qualitatively superior system of theological education.  But here the church confronted an even more complex set of problems and questions. In the beginning, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, all East European churches were prepared to believe in and learn from West European churches. As communication continued, serious concerns arose between the two.  The East European churches and their people had been theologically isolated for 50 years.  The circumstances of their existence had challenged them to develop a dynamic, living faith outside the framework of formal church membership.  Gradually, the dialogue between West and East European churches made it clear that the two were not based on the same theological paradigm.  Even more important, East European church representatives increasingly felt that Westerners did not understand their experience but looked upon them as somewhat immature children who could eliminate their deficiencies and meet their needs only by completely adopting the theology and practices of West European churches.  East European church representatives often concluded that their West European counterparts weighed organizational objectives more strongly than the more subjective and spiritual elements of faith and church life.

As mentioned before, East European churches had suffered and been persecuted, yet had also experienced the faithfulness of their martyrs.  At the same time, the churches had been deformed by totalitarianism because they existed within a deformed society.  Survival was bought at a very high price.  Every church had its compromised clergy, some of whom were in positions of leadership.  The church could not urge society toward spiritual life and truth if it had not yet resolved the burdens inherited from the past.  The process of clarification and cleansing was very complicated and, at times, unrealizable.  One of the most essential questions for East European churches remains: how to retain the positive Christian elements and knowledge gained in the last few decades while freeing themselves from the stamp of a totalitarian regime.

The Church's Renewed Dialogue with Society
As soon as the church had the chance to begin speaking, it suddenly became interesting to society.  After long years of totalitarian oppression, society longed to find fast and easy answers.  To many it seemed that the church could fill the now empty ideological chair, an impression based on erroneous conceptions about the church.  The church knew that it needed to influence the public life of the nation, yet it did not quite understand how to go about it.  In the first years after the fall of the Iron Curtain several ministers ran for office and were elected to parliament, but their work did not always resonate positively in the church, nor were they always able to get their parties interested in Christian issues.  It is interesting to note that even in the sector of society that supported the church, clergy participation in politics was looked upon very critically.  Church people did not want their clergy to be bound to party programs.

It became clear that the realization of Christian values within society was not to be achieved through the clericalization of politics, but by the actualization of Christ's teachings, the Gospel, without the church trying to duplicate social and political institutions.  However, Westernization of society in East Europe is occurring more rapidly than changes in the church.  And democracy in the East most often means rapidly adopting the worst experiences of Western nations, accepting the consumerist philosophy, proclaiming one's own egotistical  interests as the highest Credo.

The Outlook
My sketch shows fairly clearly that the processes of rebirth and renewal in East European churches have not flowed as smoothly as many would like.  The processes are painful, as are all processes of birth.  Only confidence in one's foundation grants security in the world.  Indeed, the roots of intolerance are often found in feelings of insecurity.  It is no secret that theology in Western Europe is experiencing a serious crisis.  Theoretically, it is finely developed and well-articulated, but it is spiritually uninteresting and lifeless.

East European churches have much to learn from the mistakes of West European churches.  We in the Baltic countries are pleased with our well-attended worship services and do not covet the empty churches of Germany and Sweden.  We do not want a theology that proclaims the practice of Christian faith unnecessary or dubious.  We want a theology that helps people attain spiritual experience and knowledge.  The church must do something other than speak tediously about God, often in language which people do not understand; it must help people meet God.  Only the experience of God's reality makes the church necessary and meaningful. Without it the church, with all of its developed systems of social service, will become a peripheral and unnecessary relic of the past--a harmless, rather unnecessary social institution.

A great spiritual thirst dwells within the peoples of Eastern Europe. Public opinion polls in Latvia reveal fantastic statistics.  At the end of 1996 a survey was conducted jointly by the universities of Upsala and Riga concerning high school religiosity.  It was ascertained that 80 percent of Latvian students believe in God.  In a December 1996 survey of Latvian society it was found that 55.4 percent of the population trust the church and consider it the nation's most credible institution. In comparison, television rated at 46.8 percent, the press at 30.4 percent, Latvia's parliament at only 13.9 percent.  This means that the church in Latvia has great potential, for only a small percentage of those who trust in it are registered church members.  In public life the church can help to lessen intolerance and hate.  For East European churches this entails finding the proper tone in accomplishing their national tasks. The question is how the churches can help small, formerly oppressed nations, such as the Baltic states, recover their self-confidence and spiritual identity without the churches themselves degenerating into nationalistic institutions that proclaim one nation's superiority over others (as is happening, unfortunately, in church life in Russia and the former Yugoslavia).

One more problem which the church can help to unravel in social life is the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors of the past.  How do we go about smoothing relations between the two groups?  It is, indeed, a question to be solved through confession of sin and absolution.  What should be done with the past?  What should be done with the politically compromised?  Should only "clean," uncompromised candidates be considered for public office, even though they are most likely tainted with other faults?  The role of the church is not that of judge and jury; rather, the church should help make change possible.  It is impossible to find anyone without some negative "baggage" in his or her past, not just in Eastern Europe, but in the world.  To look for totally unspotted people is illusory.  The real question is how to help compromised and erring people to change.

As we look back on the experiences of the last ten years?  I believe that the conviction has grown clearer among the world's Christians, our brothers and sisters, that we East Europeans are not just needy and immature orphans, but people gifted with a rich history and experience.  We are a people who must learn to make decisions and take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.  Above all, our experience has taught us that if the spiritual, vertical imperative in our relationship with God is lost by relegating it to the margin of church life, in truth, the church loses everything.  Relationship with God must always be the church's most vital concern. 

The Rev. Juris Rubenis, Doctor of Theology, is senior pastor of Martin Luther Church, Riga, Latvia. His paper is excerpted with permission from a presentation given at the Seminar on Religion and World Civilization, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, 8 April 1997.  The website for Butler University is http://www.butler.edu/www/philrel/seminar.html.

Church Membership in Latvia
Evangelical Lutheran 
Roman Catholic 
Old Believer 
c 300,000 
c 300,000 
c 100,000 
c 70,000 
c 5,000 
Source: Rev. Juris Rubenis

Editor's note: In a 1996 poll 39 percent of Latvians, or approximately one million, identified themselves as Lutherans.  Rev. Rubenis notes, however, that far more Latvians identify themselves as Lutherans in surveys than practice their faith.

Juris Rubenis, "Rebirth and Renewal in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Fall 1997), 9-10.

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1997 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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