A letter from Eric Hinderliter in Lithuania
Greetings from Klaipeda. Winter shows no sign of abating here. As a result we’re indoors much of the time. Some of the indoor time is spent in worship at the Klaipeda Reformed Church. It’s a small but inspiring congregation. Here’s what we have learned from them over the years about some unknown parts of Reformed tradition.
We speak of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a connectional and confessional church. In its confessions the PC(USA) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. “Presbyterians confess their beliefs through statements that have been adopted over the years and are contained in The Book of Confessions. These statements reflect our understanding of God and what God expects of us at different times in history, but all are faithful to the fundamental beliefs described above. Even though we share these common beliefs, Presbyterians understand that God alone is lord of the conscience, and it is up to each individual to understand what these principles mean in his or her life” (PC(USA) website). These words have taken on new meaning. The Reformed churches embodied their convictions in confessions of faith. These confessions are meant to assist the church in the confessing of its faith in each new situation as it arises. The church's creeds and confessions are a tool designed to assist us in delivering the liberating message today. The Book of Confessions tells about this confessional heritage. We have “a multiplicity of confessional statements which were left to stand side by side.” Confessions are “only a provisional, temporary, relative authority,” yet they are “significant and instructive in both our individual and corporate Christian lives.”
I’m a historian by training. Life here is very historical. We speak of "historic churches" and historic confessions. Our connection in Lithuania is more with a Geneva church rather than a Scots church. The Reformed churches of continental Europe include Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania and, for us, Lithuania. This continental expression also includes pre-Reformation movements, the Waldensians in Italy and the Bohemian Brethren in Czechoslovakia. The confessions of faith important here are less familiar to us: the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).
We’re from the second type of Reformed, the Presbyterian churches, mostly from Scotland and John Knox. The distinguishing characteristic is polity, church government, Presbyterian-style collegial leadership. This tradition of Presbyterian churches recognized the Westminster Confession (1647) as the basis of their doctrine and preaching (World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) website).
A new one for us is the “Consensus of Sandomierz.” This confession is the result of a meeting of Reformed, Lutherans, and Bohemian Brethren in 1570 in a town now in southern Poland. The Sandomierz confession is largely based on the Second Helvetic Confession (1562), the universal confession of the majority of European Evangelical Reformed Churches. It is an early plea for unity among Reformed, Lutheran, and Bohemian Brethren. In the 1570 Consensus an accommodation was reached over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, a dispute that had bitterly divided Lutherans and Reformed. Concerning the Lord’s Supper, “we have agreed to believe and confess that the substantial presence of Christ is not merely signified, but that the body and blood of the Lord are represented, distributed, and exhibited to those who eat….” The confession urged Lutherans and Reformed to attend each other’s services and to partake of the sacraments. It called for the end of all “bickering, disagreement and controversy” in order to build up the church in “fraternal union.”
Relations between church and state remain complex with the legacy of post-Soviet times still looming large. Religious liberty and restitution of church property confiscated in the Soviet era are major concerns of the Reformed Church of Lithuania. In Eastern Europe churches must register with the state to be recognized. Through an unfortunate sequence of events, a pretender to church authority was allowed to register with the state as the official Reformed Church in Lithuania. Using this illegitimate claim, a faction was able to sell church property in Vilnius, the capital, and threatened to do the same with the principal church building in Biržai, the historic seat of the church.
The Reformed Church describes itself as "small" and "minor"—meaning very much a minority denomination. There are only nine congregations and seven ministers. Trying to find equitable public space remains difficult; the Reformed Church sees itself as disadvantaged by actions of the state. The Reformed Church defined its subordinated position this way: “In the states that have freed themselves from totalitarian regimes the dialogue between the representatives of minor denominations and the state which should respect the autonomy of the church is not yet mutual. It should be mentioned that denominations themselves, after years of oppression of forced atheism, are recuperating slowly; they lack experience of how to safeguard their interests in the state.” Much remains to be done for the Reformed Church to achieve coequal status in the new Lithuanian state.
By the time you receive this letter we will be well into Lent. Lent is a time a reflection, prayer and discernment. Here’s a good question to consider in light of our confessional heritage: “What is the living Lord of Scripture saying and doing here and now, and what do we have to say and do to be faithful and obedient in our time?” (“Confessional Nature of the Church Report” 1997, Book of Confessions). We’re wondering what God is saying and doing—and how we can respond as “salt and light" in our little corner of the world.
Eric & Becky Hinderliter
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 278