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Marcin Hintz Poland, Warsaw

The Ethical Dimension of the Church

This article consists of four parts. Firstly, I would like to refer to an ethical discussion in the Polish Lutheran Church. Secondly, I will introduce several comments of a historical nature. Thirdly, I will attempt a systematization of the issue in question and, finally in fourth step, I will try to draw some practical conclusions. Introduction The aim of our conference is a mutual exchange of remarks and experiences pertaining to the functioning of the Church in a Europe ever more multicultural. To be Church in Europe, that is to discover how to be a real Church of Jesus Christ in the contemporary world, is an issue that has been addressed by all 20th century schools of theology. Some Protestant scholars and those associated with the pietistic movement have suggested reviving 16th century patterns of religiosity and ways of thinking. Others have risked an attempt at bringing faith and theology more into line with existential philosophy. Whereas the Barthian school announced the exclusivism of Gods revelation in Christ, some deemed oecumena and the inter-religions dialogue to be absolutely indispensable. Still others decided to follow the different paths of postmodernism. Polish theological thought places itself somewhere between the first (conservative), the second (barthian) and the third theological currents (progressive) Majority of Polish theological thought places itself somewhere between conservative, Barthian and existential theologies. The Polish Church endeavors to live in compliance with its confessional tradition, but, at the same time, it remains open to contemporary challenges. One of the issues most relevant to present Polish conditions, is certainly the issue of ethics. The process of globalization, and, consequentially, the global village syndrome as well as the ever-closer integration of Poland with the EU continue to pose new questions. However, it is not the moral aspects of globalization, a common market or currency or the Internet that troubles the Poles the most. In becoming part of a multi-cultural Europe, Poles are faced with issues that hitherto have either functioned as cultural taboos or been treated as foreign and incomprehensible. Meanwhile, the mutual exchange of information, shared experiences and ever-closer contacts with our neighbors cause issues from the past to emerge again with fresh relevance for we Poles. 23

Two months ago, in a public discussion, we were forced to take a stand on several ethical issues. One was a bioethical problem regarding an alleged act of the actual cloning of a human being. Another was an issue of sexual ethics, which arose simultaneously with the American Episcopalian Church giving its approval for a homosexual pastor to become a bishop. Many church-affiliated circles, and churched young people, quite openly required the church officials to take up a stand on these controversial issues. It is notable that their questions did not have a strictly church-connected focus. The media, and especially journalists, have a tendency to almost force church officials to express their viewpoint on certain issues. The Roman-Catholic Church has a coherent doctrine, known as the public teaching of the Church. The Pope, in his consecutive encyclicals, has drawn clear conclusions about human behavior in the spheres of sex or business. The so-called principles of this, the Churchs public teaching have been put into the following formulas: solidarity, subsidiarity, and social justice. Protestantism, Lutheranism included, does not have a similar coherent moral doctrine1 and the odds are against such teaching being formed on a wider, international platform, such as, e.g. the Lutheran World Federation. Indeed coming up with a unified Lutheran moral teaching? Would it be at odds with the main aim of the Federation itself? That very fact poses a related question. Who, according to Lutheran tradition and confessional identity, has the right to express a binding viewpoint on problems of morality? To put it in other words, what church body is, or bodies are, authorized to pass moral judgments? Is it the Synod, the highest legislative Church body? Or is it the Conference of Bishops, the highest ecclesiastical assembly? Is it the nation-wide conference of all clergymen and clergywomen? Or maybe deciding on morality matters should be left to the Church experts, that is to highly competent theologians, who would work out a stand that would later be verified, accepted and announced by the two or three bodies hitherto mentioned? Or should maybe each one of us, according to our own conscience, coram deo and coram hominibus, individually strive for formulating a personal opinion? According to both Reformation and contemporary understandings of Lutheran theological ethics, all the above answers are valid, and, what is more, all the mentioned bodies should be eager to take up a stand on morality matters, shunning, at the same time, any attitude of exclusivism. The above shows that currently one of the most significant dimensions of the church is its ethical dimension. The Church functions simultaneously in many different dimensions and we experience that in our everyday life. Through taking part in worship services we come into contact with its liturgical dimension, which, helped by

See: M. Hintz, Czy Koci ewangelicki potrzebuje nauki spoecznej?, Zwiastun 17/2003, p. 9-12.


the recent reform of the liturgy and the introduction of a new hymnbook, is especially meaningful for the Polish Lutheran Church. But the Church also functions through other dimensions: ecclesiastical, dogmatic or ecumenical. Nonetheless, at Bible studies, discussion clubs or youth group meetings, it is not dogmatic issues or, e.g. the recently widely discussed questions of the clerical office, that evoke the most emotions. It is clearly ethical problems that lead to the most passionate discussions. Undoubtedly, during our conference the issue of understanding the clerical office will be taken up many times. For my parishioners, however, it is far more important to know the Churchs attitude towards abortion, euthanasia, regular organ transplantation, xenotransplatation, cloning, or legitimizing homosexual relationships than to determine whether there is one church office dividable into two or three so-called ministries. Or even if there are three kinds of offices within the Church. I think, therefore, that one of the most important tasks for not only the Polish Church, but, thinking more globally, for the European Church is its realizing the significance of ethical reflection within the entirety of the Churchs many functions. Just as initially, for the first Christians, orthopraxy was equally, if not more, important than orthodoxy, so now moral issues are becoming more important to the Church than matters of doctrine. This is brutally proved by opinion polls, in which many Christians seem quite remote and obscure. After these words of introduction I would like to proceed by recalling several events and examples from Church history. Some historical remarks Our program of theological study in Poland is very historical. This means that any course of ethics at a Christian Theological Academy will be of a historical orientation. When teaching a theological ethics class to theology students, I try to indicate such passages in the Scripture that point to the significance of moral issues for the lives of the patriarchs, prophets and the apostles. Having discussed the biblical passages, the first text the students are given to analyze is The teaching of the twelve apostles (Didache dodeka ton apostolon). This was not included in the canon of the New Testament, even though it had been of prime significance to the ancient church. Almost always, a thesis that is suggested by the students is that moral issues be given priority over matters of dogma, which are hardly mentioned in the text: Gods love in the text is seen as equivalent to another persons love2.

Nauka dwunastu apostow, in: Ojcowie apostolscy, Przekad i przypisy A. widerkwna. Wstp i opr. W. Myszor, Warszawa 1990, p. 56.


Programmes in Church history and, later, Church dogma are dominant in introductory courses in the Faculty of Theology, and through them students are taught that it was the evolution of the Christian doctrine that was the most important for the new Church and that this was a process that contributed to the Churchs unification and strengthening. Later, in the course of studies, studying the history of ethics, students observe that both for Paul and for Apostolic Fathers, orthopraxy and orthodoxy were equally important. That same remark is relevant to the climate of the 16th century Reformation. The famous 95 Theses, or Luthers papers of 1520, were directed just as much against abusive practices of the contemporary Church as against distorted doctrine. Even though the so-called Reformation discovery of grace was about Luther recognizing mistakes in the Churchs teaching on justification, the theses themselves were directed mainly against abusive practices of the clergy that were allegedly unknown to an ill-informed Pope in Rome. A thesis can be risked here: that in Luthers early thought a large emphasis was put on moral issues, whereas later in his ministry, after 1526, Luthers reflections and teaching on morality were more influenced by the questions directed at him by individual pastors struggling with dilemmas, emerging within the new Church. For that reason, Oswald Bayer, a Tbingen theologian, advanced a statement that Luthers ethics were of a pastoral kind3 and that it was through sermons that Luther most often addressed the various problems that were troubling his contemporaries. Although it is true that Luther did not leave behind an ethics manual for posterity, it should not be forgotten that he never wrote one on dogmatics either. That fact, on the one hand, should not obscure from our sight the main guidelines of Reformation morality; nor, on the other hand, should it prevent our attempts at assuming an attitude of an epigone. It is only in the period of Lutheran orthodoxy that the problem of morality was pushed aside and the issue of fidelity to Luthers teaching became a matter of utmost importance. Over time, the significance of ethics for the Lutheran Church was gradually rediscovered, until it was finally overemphasized by the 19th century liberal theology school. Polish Lutheran theology, as of now, has not been particularly blessed with systematic theologians. In the 16th century, a period of dynamic and quite spontaneous growth by the Lutheran and Reformed Church in the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, no significant theological tracts, worthy of recalling today, were produced. Later, in the Counter-Reformation era, for obvious reasons, practically no Protestant theological documented reflection was produced in Poland. Such theological reflection was shaped only

O. Bayer, Nachfolge in der Welt. Luthers seelsorgerliche Ethik, in: Zwei Kirchen Eine Moral?, O. Bayer und andere, Regensburg 1986, p. 53.


as late as the third decade of the 20th century and was stimulated by the opening of a Protestant Theology Department in the University of Warsaw. Systematic theology, however, was not in a good condition. Rev. Karol Serini, the first professor lecturing on that subject, died without leaving any textbook on dogmatics or ethics behind. His successor, Rev. Rudolf Kesserling, having opted, for no explicable reason, to support the Germans during the II World War, was unable to retain his professorial office and continue his academic career after the war had ended. The first original Polish textbook on theological ethics was published as late as 1976. Its author, a Methodist minister, Rev. Witold Benedyktowicz (19211997) drew heavily on the heritage of Karl Barths school of theology. Benedyktowicz, in his book, did not address the issue of our principal concerns today: European identity. Nor did he mention the notion of Europe in the index of entries. Writing about culture, Benedyktowicz stated that the terms Christian culture and European culture were used interchangeably until the crisis of the latter. Along with the process of secularization, however, the equation between these two notions lost its validity4. For Benedyktowicz, who wrote his book in the seventh decade of the 20th century, the concept of a multicultural Europe or of a European identity did not have much relevance for Protestant theological ethics. Nonetheless, the remarks pertaining to the core of the Christian ethics, included in his book, will be a significant point of reference in the third part of my lecture. Before we proceed to analyze the systematic issue, I would like to recall, for me, two important authors from our Polish Church environment. One of the brand-new German textbooks on ethics, authored by Martin Honecker,5 a Bonn-based theologian and well known in Poland, discusses in the context of Charta Oecumenica, the problems we are addressing in our conference. Honecker dedicated a whole chapter to the idea of Europe. He observed that currently Europeans are having to deal not only with cultural diversification, but, even more, with an ever greater pluralism of social attitudes and ethical convictions.6 Honecker concludes his reflections with a statement that Charta Oecumenica points to the Churchs common responsibility for the European continent and gives significant hints on how such responsibility should be carried out. The Chartas content indicates directly the significance of the Churchs involvement in ethical problems.

W. Benedyktowicz, Co powinnimy czyni. Zarys ewangelickiej etyki teologicznej, Warszawa 21993, p. 181. 5 M. Honecker, Wege evangelischer Ethik. Positionen und Kontexte, Freiburg-Wien 2002. 6 Ibid., p. 364.


The second author I would like to recall is completely unknown in the Polish context. Over recent decades, a trend that emphasizes the common experience of members of a community as a point of reference in ethics, has been gaining considerable popularity in the USA. The pioneer of that trend is Paul Lehmann, author of Koinonia Ethics7. Lehmann tried to make his readers realize the significance of the ethical dimension of the Church as something connected with the heritage of the New Testament and the Reformation teaching on the Church as communio sanctorum. A contemporary continuer of Lehmans thought, and an ardent advocate of that particular trend in ethics, is Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist minister. Hauerwas claims that the basis for Christian ethics lies in the act of attentive listening to the Story, that is to the Biblical narrative. Taking part, in a friendly environment (in good company), in such communal experiences and allowing oneself to be compelled by the contents of the Book, leads to a specifically Christian morality and produces desirable Christian patterns of behavior. Over time, character, or a correct attitude, which in traditional oral philosophy is described as virtue, builds up in a Christian. These ideas are quite well expressed in Hauerwass book A Community of Character Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethics (1981) and in another book entitled In Good Company The Church as Polis (1995). Hauerwas has already found his followers in Germany (Reinhard Htter, Hans G. Ulrich). His insight into the role of a Christian community which directly instigates ethical behavior is particularly relevant to our discussions today. One important incentive for our debate can also be a conviction about the necessity of building Christian character. Systematic issue After these general remarks and after recalling certain facts and phenomena from the past and present of Protestant ethical thought, it is high time to come to some conclusions and to state some theses. I would like to emphasize that both the conclusions and the subsequent theses are determined considerably by a particular context: the functioning of the Polish Lutheran Church in Diaspora and the permanent exposure of that Church to Catholic public teaching. This, in Polish ecumenical and political reality, is of inestimable significance. As has already been stated, Polish Protestantism, for a long time, lacked a coherent ethical as well as dogmatic analysis. One consequence of the historical situation till the end of 19th century and in the second part of 20th century (when the Church was under a communist regime) was that both Poland and, therefore, the Polish Church was isolated from international platforms or discussions by other European Protestant Churches. The exchange of thoughts,

P. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context, New York-Evanston 1963, p. 45.


the participation of Polish professors in conferences, or involvement on such organizations as for example Societas ethica was practically impossible. The communist authorities wanted to reduce the range of activities and interests of Polish Protestantism to general ministry, homiletics, exegesis and religious teaching theory. Only. In the last decade the situation has changed considerably. The access to information and the possibility of partaking in ethical discussions hosted by the Commission of European Churches, the World Lutheran Federation, or the World Council of Churches has become not only an opportunity, but also a challenge that Polish Protestantism has to accept. International ecumenical organizations simply require their memberChurches to take up a stand on current ethical controversies. Polish Protestantism, and Lutheranism in particular, draws heavily on the theological tradition of the German speaking countries, and, more specifically, that of Germany and Switzerland. The texts, then, that are of great value to our individual reflection are translations from German. That is one of many reasons for the great popularity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with Polish readers. In the last couple of years, Polish Protestantism has been trying to make up for lost time and to become a fully legitimate participant in Protestant and ecumenical discussions. It has been mentioned above that the moral doctrine of Roman Catholicism is of great importance for our frame of reference. It is noteworthy that the Polish pope John Paul II, when still rev. Prof. Karol Wojtya, taught ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. The highest hierarch of the Roman Catholic Church put the main emphasis of his teaching into moral theology. All Polish Catholic schools of theology give ethics priority on their curricula. The syllabuses for teaching Catholic theology at colleges and faculties, after being attested by the National Ministry of Education, by law also become obligatory at other schools of theology whether Orthodox, Old Catholic or Lutheran. That is true for our Christian Theological Academy also. This is the main reason why a comprehensive course in theological ethics is dominant in the curriculum of the Protestant Faculty of the Academy in the most recent semesters. Another platform on which the voice of Catholic public teaching is very well heard is politics. In discussions on abortion, euthanasia, cloning and in earlier debates on the ethics of economics and of organ transplantation, notions and categories typical of a Catholic ethical perspective were being introduced. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland stresses very strongly two dimensions of civilization. Following the lead of John Paul II it talks about the civilization of life and the civilization of death that compete with each other in the contemporary world. In this view, Christianity is supposed to be the stronghold of the former and secularization the sign of the latter. In contrast, for the 29

Protestant tradition indebted to Bonhoeffer, secularization is not an adversary but an opportunity in and of itself. It has to be admitted, however, that some Polish Protestant circles often view the issue in that same black-and-white manner that many Catholics do. It is noteworthy to recall that in addition to that conservatism and distrust of theological novelties which have characterized Polish Protestant theological thought for a long time, recent years have also shown a considerable dependence on Catholic-originated reflection. The facts mentioned above should direct our attention towards finding an answer to a very important question: what should the moral dimension of the Church consist of? We turn now to some practical conclusions. Practical proposition My first and immediate answer to the question what should the moral dimension of the Church consist of is this: following Roman Catholicism while constructing Lutheran public teaching would be erroneous. Lutheran ethics have always been characterized by open-mindedness and a readiness to enter into a constructive dialogue. Therefore, certain purely imitatory attempts at uniformity, evident in Polish Protestantism, can only eventually lead to its isolation in an international forum. Such an approach is incompatible with our confessional tradition and the spirit of the New Testament ethics. Drawing from another confessional tradition may not necessarily be wrong, but each time such a procedure takes place, it needs to be examined against a background of comprehensive theological reflection. The ethical dimension of the church, as has been shown, is not identical with a coherent moral system. More desirable is the objective of instigating moral behavior in all the members of a local church. As has been observed by P. Lehman, the ethical reality of the Church consists in helping one another to grow in love8. That can only be achieved through forming a koinonia. Witold Benedyktowicz, already mentioned here, started his ethics textbook as follows: Theological ethics is one of the aspects of theology as a whole, and Christian theology, in turn, can only be a venture of the Church, irrespective of the innovative, revolutionary, or even deviant routes that theology might take up.9 Two generations of Polish Lutheran pastors and theologians have been brought up to accept that thesis. And there is another aspect to that thesis that I would like to direct your attention to: no matter how radical, or, as

8 9

P. Lehmann, ibid., p. 54. W. Benedyktowicz, Co powinnimy czyni, ibid., p. 9.


Benedyktowicz calls it, deviant, our theses may be, they should be voiced within the Church. In Polish reality, all kinds of theological reflection, whether made by the clergy or by the laity, remain deeply rooted in the conditions of actual church life. The existence of only one school of theology automatically rules out any competition between schools or other educational centers. Such a situation has both its advantages and disadvantages. It might, for example, protect us from simply accepting proposals made by groups influenced by a Big Brothers theology. The Church as a whole, starting from an individual congregation, and ending at meetings of the General Synod, should voice its opinions on matters of morality. Here we touch upon yet another aspect of the Churchs involvement in morality. That aspect is the Churchs responsibility for the world, for the local community within which a given church functions, and, finally, for the individual human being whose condition is in fact a criterion against which the genuineness of the Churchs message is to be measured. A discussion on ecology, for example, should start with the propagation of that idea at a grassroots level, that is in a congregation. Meanwhile, in practice, a concern for ecology is still understood as a luxury, or even a whim. It is the high environmental costs of ecological heating that, within a congregation, should make them re-consider such actions as burning trash, heating with coal or with coal-dust. It is rather difficult to expect our parishioners to get involved in ecological projects, when their local church sets a quite contrary example for them. The Churchs ethics, then, are not theoretical only, but must apply for and to the whole community. Remember Hauerwas and his conviction that the Church is a good company. We have to testify to the Truth by our attitudes, especially when we are the teachers of others.