Passion for the Church: in conversation with Martin Junge

25 Oct 2021
Rev. Martin Junge during a solidarity visit to Zimbabwe in March 2020. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson

Rev. Martin Junge during a solidarity visit to Zimbabwe in March 2020. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson

LWF’s outgoing General Secretary reflects on the call to unity for member churches and the wider Christian world 

(LWI) - As Lutheran churches, “let us learn from the apostles, who did not shy away from long journeys to come together, to pray, discern and find ways to witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world longing for words and actions of peace, justice and reconciliation.” 

After eleven years as General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Rev. Dr Martin Junge reflects on the call to unity that he sees as “a strong mark” of the communion of 148 member churches. He underlines the need for further reflection on the relationship between the autonomy of each local church and the mutual accountability that holds such a global community together. 

As he prepares to step down from the post, Junge looks back at highlights of his time in office, celebrates some ecumenical milestones and explores the journey that the communion has taken over recent decades to promote equality for women in the church and in society. In times of fragmentation and communications breakdown, when people struggle to find common ground, he stresses, “our calling is to walk together, countering forces of division, as we bear each other’s burdens.”  

Looking back to the start of your tenure, how did you begin to shape the priorities of the LWF? 

When I addressed the LWF Assembly in Stuttgart in 2010, I kept emphasizing the need to discern together, repeating the refrain: “We will jointly find the way forward.” Right after I started my term, the LWF engaged in a very thorough participatory process, reviewing the Assembly outcomes and listening to member churches to envision together the priorities for our joint work and witness. 

As a result, we ended up with the first LWF strategy ‘With Passion for the Church and for the World’. That strategy helped to articulate our shared foundation, our theological identity as a communion, our values and priorities, and the way we carry out our joint work and witness in the world. 

What do you understand by those words, Passion for the Church? 

I think one of the dimensions I have always appreciated in the LWF is its deep commitment for the church, grounded in the Gospel, witnessing and reaching out to people with its life-giving message. We do care passionately for the mission of the church, as we do care for the unity of the church.  

You began by strengthening cooperation within the regions, didn’t you? 

Yes, when the LWF expressed its self-understanding as a global communion of churches at the 1990 Assembly in Curitiba, there was no prescription on how such relations would be expressed. However, the delegates agreed to start by fostering togetherness at regional level and I think this was a good entry point. There is a proximity, geographically, and often also linguistically, culturally, so this has proved to be a strong way of deepening the theological understanding of being a global communion of churches.  

I see today, in times of COVID, how regional leadership has come together to encourage each other, to pray for each other, learn from each other. The practical support through COVID-19 Rapid Response Funds has been a global expression of that sense of mutuality and solidarity among member churches. Overall, the journey from federation to communion has been a wonderful story of consolidating relationships of trust, developing shared practices, and supporting each other in mission.  

30 years on from that Assembly in Brazil, the LWF is working to deepen that sense of a shared Lutheran identity, lived out in very different cultural contexts, isn’t it?  

We have moved a long way, thanks be to God! Regional structures and platforms have been established. Through regular connections, exchange and worship, LWF member churches are no longer strangers to each other. Through visits and practical cooperation, churches express their shared responsibility for God’s mission, beyond borders or ethnic lines. Through spaces of prayerful discernment and discussion, challenges in relationships, or to the mission can be taken up, problems solved and tensions mediated.  

Personally, I am enriched by the exposure I have had to member churches witnessing under such different, sometimes difficult circumstances. It has been a gift to see the Triune God at work, calling communities together, nurturing them with Word and Sacraments to equip them for joyful presence, announcing in words and deeds that God is good, up to the point of offering Jesus Christ so that all may live.  

How does that sense of shared identity help to deal with differences or tensions that arise? 

Firstly, the church has always lived with differences: just read the Acts of the Apostles and see how they were disagreeing on questions about what kind of food they could eat, or what rites they needed to observe to be called Christians. Let us learn from the apostles, who did not shy away from long journeys to come together, to pray, discern and find ways of witnessing as a community that accepts differences and bears each other’s burdens, as Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. These are important lessons, particularly in times of fragmentation and communications breakdown. When people struggle to find common ground, our task today is to walk together, to grapple with differences and to hold on to each other. 

That way of walking together has been successfully applied over recent decades to the question of women’s ordination, hasn’t it? 

I think there are very strong theological reasons to include women in the ordained ministry of the church. Our Lutheran theological tradition makes this possible in particular ways. Women’s ordination is a gift we can offer, and we should offer it with confidence. Today, around 85 percent of LWF member churches include both men and women in the ordained ministry, and that number continues to grow. I was very happy to hear the recent news that the church in Poland has voted to ordain women priests. 

Since the 1984 Assembly in Budapest, LWF member churches have expressed a commitment towards women’s ordination, inviting and encouraging each other to work towards that goal. The decisions to do so, however, remain with the member churches. While they work towards this, we continue to acknowledge each other as fully the church, and do not allow this question to be a reason to exclude each other. This is the position we hold until today, which has its strong foundations in the way that Lutheran confessions define unity among churches.  

As we continue journeying this way, we give fuller witness to the gospel and embody, in deeper way, what God has come to bring to the oikos, the world as a whole, and to humankind: oneness. That’s the reason why we have to pursue this goal, a reason that is deeply biblical and strongly rooted in our theological understanding of the church and of the ordained ministry as defined by Lutheran confessions.   

You believe the LWF should be leading the way on issues of gender justice, don’t you? 

Yes, I’m a strong defendant of gender justice as a concept, here again because I believe it has deep roots in the Bible and in theological thinking. It aligns with the whole way in which Jesus came into the world, talking and including women in ways that were not acceptable in his day. He did so in view of the message of the kingdom of God breaking into this world, which is the message we are entrusted to continue proclaiming to the world today. If we truly continue waiting for God’s reign to break into this world, we shall continue taking up the question of gender justice. 

How can you implement this vision within the local churches? 

In 2013, the LWF Council adopted the Gender Justice Policy. It did so with the clear understanding that its decision has no legislative authority over its member churches: according to the constitution, the LWF is a communion of churches, with each church retaining its autonomy and authority to make decisions. Yet these churches are also interdependent, because of God’s call into communion. Hence, there is a reciprocity: what happens locally shapes their global witness, and what happens globally informs their local ministry. Autonomy and mutual accountability define a relationship that needs further reflection and articulation in the life of the LWF.  

But I am really pleased by how local reception of the Gender Justice Policy has unfolded. It is the LWF document with the largest number of translations into local languages. We know how it has been taken up in pastoral conferences and Synod meetings, informing also the promulgation of church policies. It has been contextualized, with member churches adding their own perspectives as informed by the realities within which they witness.  

Overall, however, we are aware that there is also a push-back on all the gains that were made over recent decades on women’s rights and gender justice. Churches are not exempt from that overall tendency and we observe how revisionist approaches are rising here and there. We address them with what we have at hand: a biblical witness and a theological reflection that point at gender justice, not simply as an “okay to have”, but as necessary to have.   

 Magnus Aronson/IKON

Rev. Martin Junge with Pope Francis, LWF former president Bishop Munib Younan and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden in October 2016. Photo: Magnus Aronson/IKON

As the LWF General Secretary, you are also its chief ecumenical officer: what gives you most hope in the work for the unity within the wider Christian world? 

To be Lutheran is to be ecumenical and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I have had to live this out in a privileged position as General Secretary. There are so many good stories which I could share of these last 10 years! My tenure started with the reconciliation between Lutherans and Mennonites, which was so moving and so powerful. I recall I was invited to speak at the General Assembly of the Mennonite World Conference and how that news of reconciliation was received with a lot of joy and emotion.  

I’m convinced that the process with the Mennonites also informed strongly the process ‘From Conflict to Communion’ with the Catholic Church, moving towards the joint commemoration in 2016 as a landmark event in our relationship.  

Relations with the Anglicans moved from dialogue into practical cooperation and mission on the ground, building on what already existed, because ultimately unity is not a purpose in itself, but it is about the church becoming whole for the sake of God’s mission in the world. So when we wrestle with questions of unity, it is about being out there together, announcing and proclaiming the message in words and deeds.  

In this decade, we managed to complete a dialogue phase with the Orthodox church too and I have been so encouraged to see, in times of COVID, Orthodox and Lutherans continuing their engagement online in preparation of the next plenary meeting.  

In 2017, the LWF signed the Wittenberg Witness with the World Communion of Reformed Churches, affirming our call to continued renewal and cooperation. And very importantly, as we moved towards the Reformation anniversary in 2017, we were able to have a good dialogue with the Pentecostal churches globally.  

In 2018, we published the LWF’s Commitments on the Ecumenical Way to Ecclesial Communion, a document which strongly reaffirms our engagement on the journey towards Christian unity and includes some very practical suggestions for the application of those principles. 

These are all dimensions to celebrate, as well as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification becoming, over recent years, a platform on which five Christian World Communions - Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Reformed and Anglicans - stand together.   

You mentioned the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation as a landmark event of your time in office? 

Yes, it was extremely significant in so many respects. When we started, we focused on three key directions, namely that the anniversary needed to be approached with the understanding that Reformation is today a global citizen, that it is ongoing, because God has not walked out of history but continues to call people and communities to become witnesses, and that the anniversary needed to be commemorated with a deep sense of ecumenical accountability.  

The ecumenical accountability piece was vital to ensure that the anniversary did not take us back into the past, but invited us to look forward into the future. I am extremely grateful to the Catholic Church, through the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, which supported our desire to move beyond our history of division and violence and to live into the history into which God is calling us. In a similar way, other Christian World Communions also joined us and supported us: you can’t be ecumenical on your own! 

The commemoration in Lund (2016), the prayer service with Pope Francis and President Younan was significant, but so was the event in Malmö that followed our prayer in Lund: because we understood that our coming closer together can only unfold its deepest meaning for humankind when our move towards reconciliation becomes a gift of justice and wholeness for people who are oppressed and suffering. This is why we signed a Declaration of Intent between World Service and Caritas Internationalis to work together, wherever we can, to offer a joint witness of faith and a commitment to justice, peace, life in abundance for everyone. 

The Reformation anniversary celebrations then culminated in the Assembly in Namibia, didn’t they? 

Yes, and there were so many actors involved in shaping this. As a Communion Office, we offered our reflection from the unique position of seeing the global perspective of the churches. The theme “Liberated by God’s grace” takes the first words of the LWF’s vision statement “Liberated by God’s grace, a communion in Christ, living and working together for a just, peaceful and reconciled world”. It connects us with two foundational words of Lutheran theology: grace and freedom. I keep insisting: a church that proclaims the good news of justification, is a church that promotes freedom as an expression of faith: justification and freedom are inseparable siblings.  

We identified three sub-themes under the tagline ‘Not for Sale’, which was the trigger of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It was the question whether grace, as a gift of Christ, can be made into money. And the Lutheran response remains unequivocal: it is not for sale.  

But instead of revisiting issues of 500 years ago, we applied them to today’s world and came up with three sub-themes: salvation is not for sale, we can’t commodify the despair and anxiety of people for wholeness, for peace in their minds and hearts, nor the free but costly gift of Christ, who came so that all “may find life and find it in abundance.”  

The second sub-theme was: human beings are not for sale, where we took up issues around human trafficking and slavery, which are prevalent in so many parts of the world. Also, the subordination of the value and dignity of human beings to an economic system which excludes people and entire nations or regions, rather than serving people. We wanted to underline the importance of human rights as a common language to safeguard the dignity and intrinsic value of each person, which is so much under threat today.  

And the third sub-theme was: creation is not for sale, looking at what we have made out of our relationship with the created world. We depend on it, we are part of the ecological system, but we have broken away, isolated ourselves from it with devastating consequences: the loss of biodiversity and the climate emergency. Here again the question is whether we think that creation is nothing other than a resource to be exploited for money? What does our faith say about human beings as part of the created world? What are the boundaries, responsibilities and tasks that come with it? 

You increasingly stress the importance of witnessing in the public space about these crucial issues, don’t you? 

Yes, and let me refer here to the theological roots of what we are trying to do in the public space. God’s incarnation in Christ was a phenomenal step into this world, to transform it into what God wants this world to be.  A church that withdraws, retreats, at times hates that world, which God loved so much, is a church which, I believe, is on the wrong track. Our ministry is about a world that God loves and wants to be transformed so that life can flourish, so that peace – shalom - is planted firmly in our relationships. That is the mission in which the church participates, into which it is called, and it requires the church to be out in the open. Because the public space is an open space. Just read what Jesus was doing: he was very seldom in the religious places, but most of the time he was out in the villages, looking for situations that were urgently needing a word and a presence inspired by God’s kingdom. I believe this is where the church needs to be too. 

Looking back now, what do you see as the biggest joys and challenges that you faced? 

On the challenges, there would be many to name.  But let me say this as I prepare to leave office: this will be a time to accept the undone, the unfinished construction sites, and to trust that others are stepping in with new ideas, fresh energy and new vision to continue the work. In the end, this is not ours, but God’s work, and what God has done and continues to do with and among Lutheran churches in this time.   

The joys, too, are countless. You can't imagine how privileged I feel to have had this unique opportunity to serve the LWF as its General Secretary. At this point, I'm more convinced than ever that if the LWF did not exist today, it would need to be founded. Immediately! For the sake of what God is doing in this world.  

Because I am a person of hope, let me mention a special joy, which is also a thanksgiving: LWF’s young people have been a blessing. They have brought so much life, hope, energy to us. They have helped us understand that climate justice is an issue of intergenerational justice: that the garden we inherited, we are making it into a desert. That the earth we enjoy today is not the earth our children will be able to enjoy.  

Do you have a message to hand on to the new General Secretary? 

I think it is the message that I have repeatedly given to the Council, very much in line with what I have just said: there is an amazing vitality, sustainability and resilience in the LWF, because God’s calling into communion relations remains strong and vigorous, and the Holy Spirit helps us to keep our hearts and minds open to that call. Therefore, our task is not to create anything, but to build on what is already there, by God’s grace, to make it blossom and grow for the sake of what we can bring as a Christian witness to the world. A world in pain, a world in conflict, a world in fear. Despite this, a world that is still in God’s hands.  

LWF/P. Hitchen 


Part 1 of our in-depth interview with LWF’s outgoing General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge who steps down from that role on 31 October 2021. A former president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile, he was the first Latin American to hold the post of General Secretary of the global communion of churches. He was elected by the LWF Council in 2009, took office on 1 November 2010 and was appointed by the Council for a second term in 2017.

Part 2 : Passion for the world: in conversation with Martin Junge