‘To Live Is Christ’
The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland stands firm on the Word of God, despite opposition and persecution.
“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, the new 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 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 the Rev. Dr. 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. … As the Body of Christ, we together receive from the fullness of His grace.”
Gathered under the theme “The door to heaven is open,” the ELMDF held its Diocese Summer Festival on the campus of the Evangelical Folk High School in Loimaa, Finland, from July 30 to Aug. 1, 2021, to study the Scriptures, sing, spend time in fellowship and, most importantly, consecrate their newest bishop.
“This is a turning point for this little church body of ours. For one thing, this is our third bishop, and he is the first one who won’t be a retired pastor,” said the Rev. Harri Houvinen, pastor of Samuel Lutheran Church, Lahti, Finland. “Also, 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.”
The ELMDF traces its roots to the Luther Foundation, begun in 1999 to support confessional groups within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and it became an independent church body in 2013. Since then, it has grown from one congregation with one pastor to over 40 congregations, 61 pastors and more than 2,000 members. Yet the numbers are not its focus. According to its website, 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.”
Confessing During Persecution
The consecration of Pohjola took place amid threats and persecutions 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, written by Dr. Päivi Räsänen M.P., a longstanding member of the Finnish parliament and a medical doctor.
Räsänen is also facing charges from the government. When asked how people can support her and Pohjola, Räsänen said, “It is essential at this time to have a lot of people praying.”
The ELMDF’s history is tied to confessing the truth in the face of opposition. The national Lutheran church “had a major inner struggle about the authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions,” explained Pohjola. “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.”
“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 the Bible and believes the Bible,” commented Räsänen. “This church has an important role to confess Jesus and Christianity in Finnish society.”
The ELMDF, like the LCMS, is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. On June 25, 2021, the Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the ILC, along with 48 signatories representing worldwide Lutheran churches, 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. … 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 [LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison] … and so are all the almost 50 church leaders, and they represent almost 7 million people. … All of these signatures are real people and real prayers and real love for your church,” said Quill. “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. They know that we put out this statement. And there is a great deal of support among Roman Catholics — especially American Roman Catholics — and also a very broad and orthodox ecumenical community who is very aware of what we have done,” said Harrison regarding the ILC statement. “The church is broader than the Lutheran church. We are the church catholic gone right. The church is wherever Christ and His Word and Sacraments are.”
Forward in God’s Word
In an address concerning the state of Christianity in Finland, Pohjola noted that the first firefighters who responded to the Chernobyl disaster walked into the situation without protection from the radiation because they were unaware of the danger. Pohjola said that Christians in Finland are in a similar situation and asked those assembled, “Are we going out without the proper gear for this warfare? … We live in a time when everything is being talked about as hate speech. This is silencing the truth of God’s Word.” Yet, the real danger is that this results in many not hearing God’s Word and trusting in Christ.
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.”
Pohjola is “a natural leader for us clergy. We all know him very well — he recruited many of us personally. He’s going to be a very good pastor to us pastors, which really is the bishop’s role. We really appreciate having a bishop who’s there … for us,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuli Siikavirta, pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Helsinki, Finland. “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.”
The ELMDF continues to face challenges from the unique situation in Finland, which includes the national church and the influence of Pietism. One of the manifestations of Pietism in Finland was the denial of the importance of the local congregation and her pastor, as well as the need for the liturgy.
“You can have congregations … where the pastor knows everyone in the congregation, everyone who comes. … This is something we have learned and taught, and it is very beneficial,” observed the Rev. Risto Soramies, outgoing ELMDF bishop. “Through much of the history of Finnish Christianity, we thought very little of the liturgy, and we thought that we could live without it. But we cannot.”
Siikavirta explained that the bishop’s comment reflected the situation in the national church, which has large congregations whose members have no relationship with their pastor. To which Soramies replied, “Yes, but those huge numbers aren’t real — they are just on paper.” The ELMDF aims to retain the relationship of pastor to those under his care as they grow.
Fellowship in the Word
The gathering was not focused on persecution or even standing firm on the truth; instead, Christ and His gift of salvation provided the focus of the weekend and consecration. The pastors of the ELMDF and the clergy who came from sister church bodies taught from the Scripture and the Confessions. The assembled group sang hymns and prayed Vespers and Matins. And outside of time in the Word in prayer, families enjoyed games and fellowship together. The fellowship continued through shared meals under a tent and seated around the campus.
The strength of the ELMDF was evident during the gathering. Law and Gospel preaching fed all spiritually, as the Word delivered Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The love for one another in this close-knit church body flowed in fellowship and companionship throughout the weekend. It reflected both the roots of this Finnish diocese and its future, as the people of the ELMDF met under a tent, a gathering similar to the conventicles of their past. Yet, the content and the leadership eschewed pietistic errors and honored both the Office of the Holy Ministry and the biblical teaching of the Word and Sacraments as God’s chosen Means of Grace. Heartfelt singing of hymns surrounded biblical and confessional proclamation of the Word from those called into the ministry of that Word.
“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.” Harrison then explained the certainties that we all have — those found in the Word of God.
Soramies echoed Harrison’s thoughts on being a small church body: “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 … and through our liturgy.”
Since its early days, this diocese has joined the Diocese of Norway and that of Sweden in the Nordic Communion of Lutheran Dioceses. “This is a great event for us because we love to see this diocese thrive and grow,” said Norwegian Bishop With. “To come in and to take part in this event gives inspiration for further working because we see that our brothers in this diocese are alive and carrying the work of Christ’s church in Scandinavia.”
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.”
In all of this, the ELMDF is not a political organization, but the church, the Body of Christ, sheep listening to the voice of the shepherd. Pohjola echoes the Good Shepherd’s voice, even as he leads this little flock. When asked about his priorities as bishop of the ELMDF, he said, “Preaching the Gospel of Christ and 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.”
Pray with Us
Heavenly Father, You call people to Yourself through Your Son, Jesus Christ. We rejoice that You knit together Your church throughout the world. Bless Bishop Pohjola and those in the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. Keep them firm in the faith and confession of Jesus Christ, especially in the face of persecution and prosecution. Strengthen Your entire church, that the Gospel may be proclaimed to all, so that all may hear and trust in Jesus Christ. Deliver Your saints from all evil as we wait the coming of our Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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Dr. Kevin Armbrust
Director of Editorial for LCMS Communications.