(RNS) Tackling a delicate issue as it begins its yearlong celebration of the Reformation's 500th anniversary, Germany’s main Protestant church has officially renounced its mission to convert Jews to Christianity.
In practice, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), made up of 20 regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches, mostly gave up efforts to convert Jews in the decades after the Holocaust, and closing that chapter should have been a formality.
But officially abandoning the “Judenmission,” or Mission to the Jews, turned out to be theologically complicated.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave his Apostles the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.” And small groups of evangelicals in a few member churches have long opposed an official statement against conversion, despite calls from Jewish groups to issue one.
The EKD’s annual synod, which it calls its “church parliament,” finally drew up a resolution that was passed unanimously on Nov. 9 in Magdeburg. It said that Christians “are not called to show Israel the path to God and his salvation.”
Since God never renounced his covenant with the Jews, his chosen people, they do not need to embrace the new Christian covenant to be saved, it said.
“All efforts to convert Jews contradict our commitment to the faithfulness of God and the election of Israel,” the resolution read. That Christians see Jesus as their savior and Jews don’t is “a fact we leave up to God,” it said.
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, welcomed the resolution, which his group had been urging the EKD to pass for several years.
"This clear renunciation of the Mission to the Jews means very much for the Jewish community. With it, the EKD recognizes the suffering that the forced conversion of many Jews over the centuries has caused,” he said.
The EKD has worked for the past decade to prepare a year’s worth of events worldwide to commemorate Luther’s 95 Theses, which legend says he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. Lutherans worldwide will mark the anniversary, but the focus will be in Germany.
Although he initially expressed concern for the plight of Jews in medieval Europe, and hoped to bring them into the Christian fold, Luther changed tack later in life and in a treatise titled "On the Jews and Their Lies," he urged his followers to burn down their homes and synagogues and confiscate their money.
The move to renounce the Judenmission was part of the EKD’s drive to deal with this embarrassing strain of anti-Semitism in their history so the Reformation anniversary could focus on Luther’s other legacies.
The EKD synod last year denounced the “undisguised hatred of Jews” in Luther’s writings and acknowledged that his anti-Semitism had inspired the Nazis centuries later.
In fact, the EKD synod broke with traditional theological anti-Semitism in 1950 by declaring that God’s covenant with the Jews was still valid. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that most member churches came out clearly against evangelization efforts.
The EKD wasn’t alone in changing its approach to Jews slowly. The Roman Catholic Church renounced its theological anti-Semitism in 1965 with the pioneering document Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council.
It took another 50 years before the Vatican issued a clear statement last December that it “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
US Lutherans take different approaches
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest U.S. Lutheran body and a mainline denomination, denounced theological anti-Semitism in a 1994 declaration and urges its members in dialogue with Jews to “respect our neighbors’ concerns” about conversion.
The conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., has also denounced Luther’s diatribes against Jews but follows his injunction “to pray for them, so that they might become converted.”
In Germany, most evangelicals belong not to the 23 million-member EKD but to the German Evangelical Alliance, which claims over 1 million members. But some evangelicals are in EKD regional churches and have long defended some kind of mission to Jews.
They are strongest in the regional church in Wuerttemberg, the region around Stuttgart, where a group called the Gospel Service for Israel opposes outright conversion but supports “Messianic Jews” who accept Jesus as the savior of Israel.
The group claims to have over 1,000 members, including immigrants who have come from Russia since communism collapsed there in 1991.
In Bavaria, a group calling itself Confessing Christians — a name that recalls the Protestants who opposed Hitler — were against any renunciation of evangelization efforts, maintaining this would limit religious freedom by denying Jews the right to change faiths.
Messianic Jews pose a conundrum
Internal debates leading up to the synod focused on how clear the renunciation of the Judenmission should be.
The final text denounced efforts to convert Jews but did not specifically mention Messianic Jews, a group of Jews who accept Jesus as savior but who are not regarded as Jews by mainstream Judaism.
“The secret of God’s revelation includes both the expectation of the return of Christ in splendor and the confidence that God will save his first-called people,” it said.
Some synod participants felt the declaration should have renounced the Messianic Jews and worried that the failure to mention them meant the EKD was keeping a back door open to encourage Jews to convert.
Schuster, the Jewish leader, said he understood the renunciation of evangelization "also applies to the so-called Messianic Jews, who are not Jews.”
Detlef Klahr, a senior synod official, told journalists there was “no loophole” in the resolution. Evangelization of Jews was clearly ruled out by the resolution, he said.