By Kevin Armbrust
“My prayer and hope is that all our congregations are known for and preach the free Gospel of Christ, that they are faithful to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions,” said the Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, who, on Aug. 1, was consecrated as bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF). Immediately following his consecration, Pohjola said: “There’s a long tradition that at his consecration a bishop shares his motto. I have chosen my motto from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘For me to live is Christ’” (1:21).
Participating in the consecration were the Rev. Risto Soramies, bishop of the ELMDF since its inception as an indepedent organization in 2013; the Rev. Dr. Matti Väisänen, bishop from 2010 to 2013, when the ELMDF was a mission diocese; the Rev. Hanss Jensons, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia; the Rev. Bengt Ådahl, bishop of the Mission Province in Sweden; the Rev. Thor Henrik With, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese in Norway; and the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Clergy from the International Lutheran Council (ILC), the ELMDF and the LCMS — including the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Shaw, director of LCMS Church Relations; the Rev. James Krikava, associate executive director of the LCMS Office of International Mission and director of the LCMS Eurasia region; and the Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, general secretary of the ILC — also processed in support of the new bishop.
“We Christians confess Jesus and His redemptive words and deeds as our life and salvation. Corrupt culture calls us to reject this ‘little Word’ in favor of flashy signs and woke wisdom. The consecration of Rev. Pohjola as bishop of the ELMDF, the LCMS’ newest sister church, was a witness to that triumphant ‘little Word,’” said Shaw. “How heartening to join with the faithful who boldly confess Christ and His doctrine, despite the liberal Finnish state church having defrocked ELMDF clergy, seized church buildings and brought criminal charges against Bishop Pohjola for publishing a pamphlet on divinely ordered human sexuality. Other confessional Lutheran churches — small by the world’s standards — sent their bishops to participate. Bishop Ådahl put it succinctly: ‘We are not a small church among big churches. We are the church.’ As the Body of Christ, we together receive from the fullness of His grace.”
Confessing during persecution
The consecration of Pohjola took place amid persecution from the Finnish government. Pohjola has been charged with inciting hate speech, stemming from his endorsement of a 2004 booklet published by the Luther Foundation, As Man and Woman He Created Them: Homosexuality and the Challenge to the Christian Concept of Man. The pamphlet was written by Dr. Päivi Räsänen, a medical doctor and longstanding member of the Finnish parliament. Räsänen, who is also facing charges from the government, said, “It is essential at this time to have a lot of people praying.”
During the consecration service, Soramies preached on the parable of the manager in Luke 12:42–48: “The vocation of every Christian includes a testimony of Christ. It often brings with it the suffering of abuse or injustice, as Päivi Räsänen and Juhana Pohjola have had to experience. Injustice against [them] is injustice against all Christians and against God.”
Addressing Pohjola, Soramies said, “In the Word you hear the demands of God’s holiness. You will realize that you deserve [because of your sins] to receive a severe beating. But your Savior took the lashes in your stead. Remember your Baptism, where you were raised from death to a new life in communion with your Savior. Come to the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus will give His body and blood to you and all His own for the remission of sins. This is the work of the entrusted servant. … Live by this grace, and share it with others.”
“This is a turning point for this little church body of ours,” said the Rev. Harri Houvinen, pastor of Samuel Lutheran Church, Lahti, Finland. “For one thing, this is our third bishop, and he is the first one who won’t be a retired pastor. This is a new step for the church body organizationally.”
Houvinen continued, “Dr. Pohjola has been the dean of this organization from the very start. He is the public face of it all. He’s one of us, and this is very exciting.”
History of the ELMDF
The ELMDF traces its roots to the Luther Foundation, begun in 1999 to support confessional groups within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. It became an independent church body in 2013 and has grown from one congregation with one pastor to over 40 congregations, 61 pastors and more than 2,000 members.
Yet the numbers and the growth are not the ELMDF’s focus. According to its website (lhpk.fi), the ELMDF “supports congregations built on a truly Lutheran foundation of faith. In accordance with the mission given to the Church, it will assist in the formation of new congregations … to invite people to the life-giving connection of Christ. … Christ bestows Himself and His life in the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Alongside these gifts, a family community is created in which the pastor knows his flock.”
Pohjola explained the impetus for the formation of the mission diocese. The national Lutheran church “had a major inner struggle about the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Unfortunately, we couldn’t continue in the established church. I was defrocked from the ministry with several others.”
But Pohjola and others continued to preach and teach Christ crucified in accord with the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions. Pohjola said that many people in Finland are looking for the truth and finding it in the ELMDF: “There’s a growing demand to hear the pure Gospel, and although there’s a lot of resistance also in the society, there’s also a need for this eternal work.”
Räsänen said, “The national church body is divided at the moment. It has such difficulties that it is important in Finland to have this diocese that confesses … and believes the Bible.”
Protest and call for freedom
The ELMDF, like the LCMS, is a member of the ILC, an association of confessional Lutheran church bodies that “proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the basis of an unconditional commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God and to the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord as the true and faithful exposition of the Word of God” (ilc-online.org/about-us).
On June 25, the Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the ILC, along with 48 signatories representing Lutheran churches worldwide, published “A Protest and Call for Free Religious Speech in Finland: An International Lutheran Condemnation of the Unjust Criminal Prosecution of the Rev. Dr. Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, and a Call for All People of Good Will to Support the Freedom of Religious Expression in Finland.”
“This isn’t just a document in legalese,” said Quill, executive director of the ILC. “Juhana is a real person, and he is going to stand before a real court. And I want him to know that I’m a real person who is standing with him. And so is [Harrison] … [and] almost 50 church leaders, and they represent almost 7 million people. … The Lord is giving him a chance to speak. And if I know him, they are going to hear the Law and the Gospel, which will save their souls.”
“Rome watches what we do very carefully,” said Harrison. “They know that we put out this statement. And there is a great deal of support among Roman Catholics — especially American Roman Catholics — and a very broad and orthodox ecumenical community … aware of what we have done. The church … is wherever Christ and His Word and Sacraments are. … A much larger [group] than just the 7 million stands with you,” Harrison told Pohjola.
Forward in God’s Word
Speaking about the state of Christianity in Finland, Pohjola noted: “We live in a time when everything is being talked about as hate speech. This is silencing the truth of God’s Word.”
Pohjola encouraged the church to reflect Paul’s attitude expressed in Philippians: “Our calling is to speak the truth in love to proclaim Christ to all people. My attitude is the same as Paul in prison, who said that his imprisonments resulted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Juhana [is] a natural leader for us clergy,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuli Siikavirta, pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Helsinki, Finland. “We all know him very well — he recruited many of us personally. He’s going to be a very good pastor to us pastors. … I personally know that I would not be able to bear the burden of the office and all of its challenges if I didn’t have a bishop to turn to, when the going gets tough, who is on my side.”
“You are our newest partner church body in full fellowship,” said Harrison in his address to the members of the ELMDF, with whom the LCMS declared full altar and pulpit fellowship in 2019. “By comparison, the LCMS is large … but we know that we are a little flock … and that’s the way it is in the Bible. The flock is always small, but the Lord is always large.”
Soramies echoed Harrison: “When you almost disappear because you are so small, it is a big challenge for the pastor to stick to the truth and to believe that Jesus actually calls people through His simple Word.”
Since its early days, the ELMDF has joined the dioceses of Norway and Sweden in the Nordic Communion of Lutheran Dioceses. “We have an obligation to assist each other in the consecration of each other’s bishops, if possible,” said With, bishop of the diocese in Norway, who participated in the consecration. “[It] gives inspiration for further working because we see that our brothers … are alive and carrying the work of Christ’s church in Scandinavia.”
“The ELMDF has been an inspiration to me as the regional director [of the LCMS Eurasia region] through the work of one of their pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jari Kekale of Helsinki,” said Krikava. He explained that Kekale developed a concept of mission called the “post-Constantinian model of the church.” (The “post-Constantinian church” refers to the time after the reign of Emperor Constantine, who was a supporter of Christianity.)
“There were many blessings to the church through the state sponsorship and support of Christianity,” Krikava said. “But in the end, the corruption of the state ended up corrupting the church and vice versa. The fresh look at this from Dr. Kekale is truly informative for our LCMS mission work.”
‘A crucial moment’
Following the consecration service, Harrison discussed the relationship between the LCMS and the ELMDF: “It’s a crucial moment for them. … It’s clear that the church here is growing. They are planting churches and ordaining new clergy. It’s an exciting time. … We will be in this together. We will listen and learn and help in any way we can.”
Soramies admonished those present, “Dear brothers, pray for our new bishop that he will always receive strength from the grace that Jesus Christ has won for us on the cross.”
The ELMDF is part of the Body of Christ, sheep listening to the voice of the shepherd. When asked about his priorities as bishop, Pohjola echoed the Good Shepherd’s voice, even as he leads this little flock: “Preaching the Gospel of Christ, supporting our pastors in their calling and encouraging our congregations. … This is a difficult time, but we believe it is an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.”
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Posted Aug. 26, 2021