Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee gives the keynote address during the ILC’s anniversary celebrations in Wittenberg, Germany on October 14, 2023. Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford.

GERMANY – The International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) anniversary celebrations continued the afternoon of October 14 with a keynote address by Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, Past President of Lutheran Church–Canada and a current member of the ILC’s Board of Directors.

Dr. Bugbee’s lecture was entitled: “Treasuring the Treasure: Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the International Lutheran Council.” He began by considering the motivation that drove Martin Luther and the early reformers—namely, “that the Church must be devoted to the eternal salvation of people and must, above all, hold out the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ as the One who brings God’s righteousness to us.”

“‘The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God,’” Dr. Bugbee reflected, quoting the 95 Theses. “That is really the heartbeat of Lutheran proclamation and church life. It needs to remain the heartbeat of what we preach and how we believe and live. It needs to remain the heartbeat, even though more than 500 years have passed since Luther’s Reformation uncovered the treasure anew. It needs to remain the heartbeat among those who come after us for long as the world endures.”

Luther preaches Christ crucified. Lower panel of the Altarpiece at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Cranach the Younger, 1547.

It was this same “foundational conviction which brought representatives of confessional Lutheran churches together in the North German city of Uelzen in 1952,” he continued, “to initiate a series of theological conferences that decades later morphed into the formal creation of the International Lutheran Council.” Dr. Bugbee went on to trace the evolution of the ILC over the decades, leading to the eventual reorganization of the International Lutheran Theological Conference—as it was first known—as the International Lutheran Council in Antigua, Guatemala in 1993. It is this the anniversary of this reorganization that the ILC is celebrating in 2023.

Since then, Dr. Bugbee noted, the ILC has grown to be an important voice for confessional Lutherans around the world—providing news, information, and resources; developing public statements; supporting theological education; and engaging in biblically faithful ecumenical dialogue, among other important work. But in everything it does, the ILC is and must remain motivated by the same thing that motivated Luther and the early Reformers: the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners.

“It will not do for us simply to make passing reference to ‘Gospel” in our church life, or to redefine it as some general form of acceptance which has the effect of saying ‘Yes’ to anything and everything people wish to believe and do,” Dr. Bugbee said. “Nor can it be our way to set aside the apostolic proclamation of repentance and forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in favour of focusing instead on climate change, on obscuring the biblical distinctions between man- and womanhood, or on conforming the church’s primary message to ever-changing political and social agendas.”

“Something has gone wrong in a Lutheran church,” he noted, “where there is seemingly endless talk of concepts like love and acceptance and inclusivity, but where God’s people are not called to repent of their sin and to find their joy in the Christ who gave His life to win their pardon and bring them to God.” Instead, he argued, Lutherans must commit themselves ever more deeply to Scripture and draw their life from it; and to the Lutheran Confessions as well, as a true and faithful witness to that Word of God.

In conclusion, Dr. Bugbee prayed: “May God in His mercy bless our Council, all its member churches and leaders, all its affiliated seminaries and their teachers, with an enduring commitment to His Christ, His Gospel, His written Word in Scripture, and the Lutheran Confessions which reflect the heartbeat of the Scriptures! This commitment will always be the most precious contribution we could ever make to the life of the neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and countries into which the God of salvation has placed us.”

The full text of Dr. Bugbee’s presentation will be released online at a later date.

Honouring ILC leaders

Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill (left) and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt are recognized for their service to the International Lutheran Council.

At the conclusion of Dr. Bugbee’s presentation, the ILC turned its attention to honouring two leaders who have played an important role in the ILC’s recent history: outgoing ILC General Secretary Timothy Quill and the ILC’s former Chairman, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany.

ILC Chairman Juhana Pohjola addressed each of these leaders individually, highlighting their contributions to the growth of the ILC and its maturation into the strong voice for confessional Lutheranism worldwide that it has become. Chairman Pohjola and Dr. Bugbee then presented Bishop Voigt and Dr. Quill each with a plaque honouring their service.

Regional Perspectives on the Work of the ILC

ELCE Chairman George Samiec.

The afternoon continued with a panel of speakers who provided regional perspectives on the work of the ILC today and what that work might look like in the future. Panelists included Chairman George Samiec (Evangelical Lutheran Church of England – ELCE); Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya – ELCK); President Alceu Alton Figur (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay – IELP); and President Matthew Harrison (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod – LCMS). All four also serve on the ILC’s board of directors.

Chairman Samiec introduced the topic for discussion, asking: “What might the church be doing in your region, and globally, by 2030?”—that is to say, by the 500th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 2030. Chairman Samiec noted that the European region has been particularly concerned lately with the reemergence of armed conflict and increased political tension between European nations. The question of how churches respond not only to the conflict but also to one another takes on new importance, he noted, as member churches can find themselves embedded in countries on opposing sides of these conflicts.

ELCK Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo.

Archbishop Omolo discussed some of the challenges facing Lutherans in Africa and in other developing regions more generally: namely, the pressure of external organizations that offer funding and grants to churches but undermine those churches’ adherence to the authority of Scripture. For that reason, Archbishop Omolo praised the ILC’s focus on bolstering seminary education and church worker formation. As a result of this work, he said, “I see the future of confessional Lutheranism in Africa becoming more and more strong.” And this strength can be seen in the growing number of ILC member churches in Africa today.

IELP President Alceu Alton Figur.

President Figur spoke on the growth and strong community present in Latin American Lutheranism. He noted, for example, that when the ILC was reorganized as a council in 1993, the region counted seven church bodies as members. Today, it counts eleven. And the cooperation between churches in the region—on seminary education, for example—is giving birth to increasingly fruitful mission work abroad. This missionary impulse, he noted, is itself an outworking of the missionary work of confessional Lutheran missionaries in Latin America a century ago. “We are together with you,” President Figur encouraged participants. “Together in the same faith, in the same confession of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

LCMS President Matthew Harrison.

Finally, President Harrison brought a North American perspective to the reflections. “It is a desperate time in Western Society,” he said, acknowledging the challenges of the contemporary age. But even this can lead to greater unity in the church, as confessional Lutherans learn to stand together against these challenges. And while there are challenges in the West—declining numbers of pastoral students, for example—he noted that cooperation between ILC churches is helping churches to stand strong together. Brazil, he noted, has begun to send some of its seminary graduates to serve in the United States—a testament both to the missionary zeal of the Brazilian church and also the need in the United States to serve growing immigrant communities.

As the ILC looks to the future, President Harrison reflected, we need to work together in this cooperative way, proactively recognizing our unique strengths and applying them wherever there is need. “We need to recognize the unique capacities of the ILC,” he said—resources such as theological training capacity, language abilities, and more—“and bring them to bear on specific circumstances.”