Embracing differences in multi-faceted Asia

17 Dec 2015
Asian church leaders gathered to discuss differences and commonalities across Lutheran churches of the Asia region. Photo: LWF/JC Valeriano

Asian church leaders gathered to discuss differences and commonalities across Lutheran churches of the Asia region. Photo: LWF/JC Valeriano

Lutheran identity acknowledges solidarity amidst suffering

(LWI) - If there is no one common Lutheran identity in multi-faceted Asia, what unites the various Lutheran expressions across the continent?

Asian theologians acknowledge that the core Lutheran teachings ought to shape today’s witness to the world. They should be guided by God’s love and by the understanding of the theology of the cross. Still the debate continues.

This formed the basis of discussion for 30 church leaders, theologians, women and youth representatives  at a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) consultation on Asian Lutheran identity and self-understanding hosted by the Lutheran Church in the Philippines, in Manila. It included LWF member churches in Australia [including New Zealand], Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar Singapore and Taiwan.

Australian theologian Rev. Dr Stephen Haar, for one, maintains that hospitality ought to be at the heart of Lutheran theology in complex Asia.

“Hospitality will be a fitting metaphor for the identity and mission of Asian Lutheran churches in a religiously pluralistic and postmodern culture because it involves invitation, response, and engagement,” says Haar, who teaches theology at the Australian Lutheran College.

Haar invites Lutheran churches in Asia to reflect on their responses to “otherness” - other people, cultures, faiths, religions, and worldviews - in order to discover their identities and the nature of their mission. They should do so in global and local contexts that are variously impacted by post-modernism.

Women’s experiences

In Manila, Rev. Dr Adlin Reginabai challenged Asian Lutheran churches to speak out against violence against women in church and society. No-one should suffer discrimination based on sexuality. Both sexes should be given equal opportunity and responsibility.

She was backed up by Indonesia’s Rev. Rospita Siahan. “In our quest for gender equality we are reminded that the oppressed should not be the oppressor. Let’s not perceive men as an enemies that need to be defeated, but as equal partners in family, church and society,” said Siahan.

Dr Pauline Simonsen from New Zealand acknowledged that one of the gifts of postmodernism is that it allows women’s experiences and voices to be heard. It influences attitudes towards their role and abilities, she said.

“Constructive confessional Lutheranism defines what many women in the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Lutheran Church of New Zealand believe about who we are—Christians informed by the Lutheran understanding of the gospel, engaged in loving, effective service in the world,” Simonsen added.

Japanese theologian Rev. Dr Arata Miyamoto argued for understanding of both the Christian tradition of the theology of the cross and the East Asian notion of dukkha (suffering). This should encompass a God who suffers, the suffering of Christ on the cross for the sin of humanity—suffering that transcends all human suffering.

Participation in public life

Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata, LWF study secretary for Lutheran theology and practice, encouraged the churches in Asia to design theological and spiritual formation that equips members for participation in shared public life in rapidly secularizing societies.

Rev. Dr Wilfred John Samuel, principal of Sabah Theological Seminary in Malaysia said Asian Lutheran identity needs to have an open attitude in celebrating our differences. But this needs to be combined with a search for mutuality and cooperation. He pointed to six vital areas that must be considered when re-thinking Asian identity - communion identity, confessional identity, liturgical identity, Reformation identity, social transformation identity and contextual identity.

There are signs the conversation on Lutheran identity in Asia is critical and that it will continue.

“I am happy that we are heading in the right direction. I am glad to be here and it is a privilege to listen to the formation of Asian Lutheran identity,” remarked Prof. Frank Lin from China Lutheran Seminary.

Rev. Selma Chen from Taiwan, who has been part of the conversation on Lutheran identity in Asia since 2012, added that the Asian Lutheran Identity and Self-Understanding process is becoming clearer and is crucial.

Participants drafted a document that represents Asian Lutheran Identity and Self-understanding that will be published early next year.

Asian Lutherans will then publish a special document on the process in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.


(A contribution by Steven Lawrence, LWF regional expression officer for Asia.)