What 'Evangelical' Means to Us

Sermon for June 18, 2023

A few months ago I recommended Dresden, Germany, to you all as a place you ought to see. Well, please allow me to recommend another little trip to you. If, indeed, you ever are in Germany, there’s a journey along the Rhein River I think you ought to take. It includes the cities of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer, because each of these cities has a magnificent, thousand-year-old Romanesque cathedral.

Mainz is the most important and best known. Their cathedral is still very much the center of the city, and it’s still the seat of a Roman Catholic bishop. Going up the river, Worms is next. It’s very historic, and I think of it as the coziest of the three. But there’s no longer a bishop of Worms. And then comes Speyer. There’s still a bishop in Speyer, but he’s an auxiliary. Their cathedral, however, is one of the most stately anywhere, and it was Speyer that helped give us our name.

Most of us don’t give much thought to the term Protestant, but if we do, we probably assume that we’re called Protestant because we protested against Rome. But that’s not really the case. The term Protestant comes out of an event called the Protestation at Speyer. Early on in the Reformation, the ruler of each individual German state could determine the state’s religion. Some chose Roman Catholicism and others Lutheranism. But the emperor reversed that rule and decided to ban the teachings of Luther. And it was at an assembly in Speyer in 1529 that six princes and fourteen cities protested this decision. They were the first to be called Protestant, and they weren’t protesting Rome; they were protesting a decision of the emperor.

The term Protestant somehow made it into English, but it’s never used in German. In Germany, they use the term evangelical, which is a broad term applied to just about any church that isn’t Roman Catholic. So there’s the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Reformed Church, and even the Evangelical Methodist and Evangelical Free churches.

So let’s look at what used to be Germany’s most powerful state. It was called Prussia, and it was found in the east. But it also ruled over many western areas, so that the Prussian Union was spread out from the Dutch border to what is today Russia. And most of the people in this region were Lutherans. But the kings of Prussia were not Lutherans. They were Reformed, and had been for two centuries when King William Frederick finally decreed in 1817 that the Lutheran and Reformed churches would be united into one denomination.

By the way, last week I told you about the cape I wear sometimes, which is what most Hungarian Reformed pastors wear in church. And I told you I’d tell you a little about my other robe. This one is called a Talar, and it’s what just about every German evangelical (Protestant) pastor wears. The white attachments at the neck are called tabs, or, in German, Beffchen. And you can tell pastors’ roots by looking at their Beffchen. If the two parts are separated from top to bottom, they’re Lutheran. If they’re sewn together from top to bottom, they’re Reformed. And if they’re sewn together part of the way down and then left separate the rest of the way, they’re from a united church—both Reformed and Lutheran. The United Church of Christ is in communion with all the united churches in Germany, so my tabs are half-and-half.

Before 1817, when German Protestants immigrated to North America, they formed either Lutheran or Reformed congregations. But after 1817, the congregations they formed were simply called evangelisch, or evangelical, and they consisted of both Reformed and Lutheran Christians. These were people who didn’t have to have everything their way. They were willing to coĆ«xist with people they didn’t always agree with. The most important thing to them was that they had a church to go to and a place where their children could receive a religious education.

The denomination they formed was originally called the Evangelical Synod of the West, and though they were never a huge church, they were relatively common in the Midwest—even here in Ohio. After about a century, they merged with the German Reformed Church to form the Evangelical & Reformed Church, and 25 years later, merged with the Congregational Christians to form the United Church of Christ.

Just because the Evangelical Synod was small doesn’t mean it was insignificant. Because it wasn’t. Its voice was very important. For example, between the two world wars, it sponsored a pastor from its much larger German counterpart to come to the United States and study the American church. The pastor’s name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and as the Nazis came to power, many people assumed he would stay here and remain safe. But he didn’t. He returned to Germany and became a leader in the Confessing Church—the part of the church that refused to cooperate with Hitler. During the Second World War, Bonhoeffer was arrested, and on Palm Sunday 1945, he was executed. He is remembered as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and has gone down in history as an example of courage in the face of persecution.

The split in the biggest German church was well known, and for people like Bonhoeffer, which side to join was a life-or-death decision. But the little American church also had its differences of opinion. As a German-American church, these differences surfaced before and during the debate about whether the United States should enter World War One. A few decades later, the question was whether there was any such thing as a just war. The most famous debate on this issue was between two brothers: Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr—both of whom were ordained in the Evangelical Synod. Reinhold was a professor at Union Seminary in New York City, and Richard was a professor at Yale. Richard was a Christian idealist and a pacifist. Reinhold was more of a pragmatist.

The debate happened in the 30’s on the pages of The Christian Century—a magazine originally founded by the Disciples of Christ in 1884, and which has survived to this day. It was a model of how Christians could think opposing thoughts, take different sides of an issue, and hear each other out. The Niebuhrs showed us that Christian unity didn’t require perfect agreement, but it did require respect.

Both Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr were very highly respected in the mid-20th century, and their writings continue to influence theologians today. They also remind us that there was a time when the pastors who got attention were not the ones who shouted hatred and division from the pulpit, or who wore designer clothes and hung out with celebrities. There have always been fiery preachers, but there was a time when people who spoke thoughtfully and who listened carefully were also seen as leaders.

By the way, Reinhold Niebuhr is best known for something else, and that is a prayer he wrote. Though most people don’t know where it came from, it’s prayed more often than just about any other prayer that doesn’t come from the pages of the Bible. And that’s the Serenity Prayer that we opened our service with today. When you think about its words, you can see in them Niebuhr’s faithfulness to God and his realism. And this is the very approach he recommended to other Christians when he talked about current events in an era when the Cold War was at its height.

And so, today as we think about the evangelicals, let’s remember that, to us, the word evangelical stands for unity—unity among strangers and siblings, unity even across an ocean.

The word evangelical also stands for thoughtful speech—even in the face of oppression. It is standing up for the truth of the gospel, both when our words are welcome, or when they are spoken in disagreement.

And our evangelical forebears were known for listening to what others have to say. We see this in their lives and writings. And we even see it whenever 12-step groups gather and say the Serenity Prayer, and then offer support by listening to one another’s stories.

The Evangelical Synod was never a big church. But its voice was important. As Pilgrim Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) become eclipsed by megachurches, let us continue to be faithful to the gospel, accepting with serenity those things we cannot change, acting courageously to change the things we can, and praying for the wisdom to know which is which.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.