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"Towards the ecclesiology of United Churches" Evangelical Church of the River Plate: challenges and vision.

In preparing this article on the possibilities we foresee in the Evangelical Church of the River Plate (Iglesia Evang31ica del R[R]o de la Plata--IERP) regarding the union of churches in our context, I realized that I first need to introduce the IERP in order to say what our vision is and then proceed to focus on our ecclesiology and role within ecumenical relationship s in our area. This will then lead me to be better able to present our challenges and possibilities in the particular context of our location (in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), and the path we find we can walk towards building new relationships among churches.

1. About the IERP

a) A Brief Review of Our History

The first congregation of the IERP came into being as evangelical immigrants reached the region of the Rio de la Plata in the mid-19th century (1843 in the capital of Argentina; 1856 in Montevideo, capital of Uruguay; shortly after in Asuncion, capital of Paraguay). These immigrants came from Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and Russia (regions of the Volga River, the Black Sea and Volinia).

The history of this church is, then, that of its members and communities, for most congregations came into being and continued to exist due to the efforts of laypeople rather than as the result of the work of missionaries. This was the case because these congregations were basically founded by ethnic and religious groups of immigrants seeking to recreate their original religious institutions and the life-style they had in the places they came from.

In terms of location, the IERP extends over a large region. Forty-two congregations are members of this church, in the three countries mentioned above (Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), comprising some 260 places for preaching, 75 pastors (men and women), deacons and vicars (also men and women) serving in several different places.

b) Ecclesiology of the IERP (1)

Our understanding of mission, according to Scripture

Ecclesiology will be functional to the understanding of our mission. This will be so in every church, and the IERP feels called by Jesus to announce the good news, the message of salvation and freedom for all in this world ("go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... and teaching them" [Matt. 28:18-20 NIV]; "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all ... that repentance and remission of sins should be preached" [Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8]). Consistent with Article 2 in our Statements and Rules, (2) this church understands our major challenges to be the following:
   The proclamation of our Lord Jesus Christ's Lordship both inside
      and outside of our communities.
   The call to repent and accept forgiveness for our sins.
   Inviting others to have faith in our God of the Trinity.
   The building of communities of love, caring and service.
   The call to follow Christ as His disciples.
   The public denouncement of structures and situations of sin, and
      the announcement of God's
   An active commitment to help those in need and defend their rights
      (human rights defense).
   A commitment to the preservation of our environment.
   The universal priesthood of all men and women who believe in our
      Lord Jesus Christ.

Elements of our ecclesiology

With its Protestant roots, conjugating the United Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the IERP recognizes with the Reformers that its identity is only Christ, sola fide, sola gratia and sola Scriptura (only Christ, only faith, only grace, only Scripture). Consistent with the doctrine of the Reformation, and Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, the IERP understands the marks of the church to be the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and our Lord's last supper. These two elements are, in accordance to that article, sufficient to the unity of the church, with no need to unify all rites.

In this sense, the IERP affirms itself as a Christ-centred church based on the Scriptures, and not as an institution working towards its own purpose, but owing itself completely to the will of the Lord of our church. So all historical forms adopted by the church throughout time are just circumstantial and will change as the context will, and as it seeks to faithfully fulfill the commission given to it by our Lord (God's Word and the challenges of our changing realities, with human responses in obedience to God, throughout a dialectic process). This means we are a church which will have to be continuously reformed, for it will never have a final conformation--Ecclesia reformata semper reformada (as a statement aptly summarizing the principles of reformation in terms of society, institutions, liturgy and rituals).

The IERP understands that the mission of the church as a whole pertains to all those who have been baptized. This is what has been called the "universal priesthood of all believers" (1 Pet. 2:9). This means that for this church, whoever is baptized is also called to participate in accordance to the gifts given to them, to testify to and bear witness of the salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whatever situation they work or live. This call pertains to the community of believers, as the body of Christ.

In terms of the ministries ordained, the IERP recognizes two: pastorate and deaconship. (3)

I mentioned earlier that the IERP is formed by 42 congregations. Each one has its own registry number and is in turn an affiliate church of the IERP, which has a second-grade registry number. This means that in addition to accounting for the welfare of its own community, congregations are accountable for their commitment and that of the church in general as well as all other congregations in it. The authority of the IERP is the general assembly formed by lay representatives from all congregations and ordained ministers (two laypeople to each minister), with the purpose of avoiding an emphasis on the clergy within the church. This means our ecclesiological structure is not Congregationalist, Episcopalian or centralized. It is important to point out, however, that there are some conflicts in this model, as is the case when local interests dash with the general interests of the church.

c) An Ecumenical Character

Ever since its beginnings, the IERP has maintained its ecumenical character. (4) This is the reason for its having taken part in an endless number of meetings, agreements, movements, councils and entities, some of which were co-founded by the IERP and other churches in the region.

Consistent with the reason for its existence--namely, the proclamation of the gospel "the preservation and building of the community of Faith in the Lord of a single, universal and apostolic Church", (5) the IERP understands itself as a part of a much wider, larger whole. (6) The Fundamental Article of the Ecclesiastic Rule of the IERP states that it is "... committed to seeking the union of the evangelical churches in the region of the Rio de la Plata. This commitment includes all efforts towards jointly reaching, with other Christian churches, agreements and testimonies of unity, faithfully consistent with God's Kingdom". (7)

The commitment of our church as an advocate of human rights is included in our status confesionis. With a number of other churches, the IERP founded the Ecumenical Movement for the Defense of Human Rights in 1976 (from 1976 to 1983, military dictatorship in Argentina resulted in 30,000 people "missing'); the Ecumenical Service for the Defense of Human Dignity (SEDHU) in Uruguay; the Committee of Churches for Emergency Relief (CIPAE) in Paraguay; and the Argentine Committee for Helping Refugees. These entities continue to work today, to defend human rights in the three countries in this region.

Along with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peru and our sister churches in the Rio de la Plata (Evangelical United Lutheran Church, Evangelical Waldensian Church of the Rio de la Plata, Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina, Reformed Churches of Argentina), the IERP mutually recognizes ministries, church membership and communion of pulpit and altar. With the Reformed Churches in Argentina, over the past few years we have been working in a process of organic union (foreseen to be completed two years from now).

2. Religious Scenario Within the Context of the Rio de la Plata Region

The three countries where IERP congregations exist are mostly Catholic, but the neo-Pentecostal and Evangelical phenomenon is currently attracting large numbers of people. These movements and churches include Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), Iglesia Mundial (World Church), (8) Baptist Church pastors, and pastors from other Evangelical churches. The mega events planned by preachers are very welcome, as when in March 2008 Luis Palau gathered over 300,000 people in downtown Buenos Aires. The religious offering is wide and large; movements, pastors and churches holding meetings that include music groups, choirs, exorcism and healing sessions, promising wellness and blessings, are now very popular.

According to a recent survey on religious beliefs and attitudes in Argentina (9) (2,403 cases, people over 18 residing in Argentina), 9 out of 10 people interviewed believe in God. Survey results show that 76.5 percent define themselves as Roman Catholics, 9 percent as Evangelical (of which 7.9 percent are Pentecostals), 11.3 percent are indifferent, 1.2 percent are Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.9 percent are Mormons and 1.2 percent profess various religions. The survey also revealed these findings:

* Large cities show a larger share of Evangelicals (sometimes over 20 percent).

* In Argentina, most people state that they belong to a single religion.

* 61.1 percent of those interviewed say they relate to God on their own, 23.1 percent do so through a church (of these, 44.9 percent are Evangelical), and 4.2 percent, in groups or communities.

* Attendance at services is frequent in 23.8 percent of those interviewed (of which 60.6 percent are Evangelical), while 49.4 percent seldom attend and 26.8 percent never do so.

I find it interesting that over 60 percent of those interviewed declare they relate to God on their own, without any intermediary churches, and that only 23.1 percent do so through a church, while three out of four people seldom attend services. It is also to be noted that practising faith within the framework of a church and attendance at services is more frequent among Protestants (mostly Pentecostals) than among Catholics.

3. Challenges

When speaking of union and how to attain unity among churches, we can imagine various types of union. One is the union of churches working organically, as happens with the Reformed Church, in a long process that takes time and requires that each church clarify internal issues: theological-pastoral, legal and administrative-structural.

Working in unity can also mean an open dialogue, in search of joint actions represented by projects, events, manifestos etc. In this sense, the IERP has always remained open and willing to work with other churches. We need to point out that in this type of union, theological-doctrinal agreements do not necessarily mean automatic nearness, for various aspects, depending on circumstances and the context of history, will make it important to reach an agreement on at least a minimum number of issues. There have been and continue to be enriching experiences with churches that do not share our doctrines, such as with the Roman Catholic Church and joint work on human rights and environmental issues, or similar experiences with Pentecostal and Baptist churches.

The second article of the IERP Statements and Rules states that our church adheres to the Barmen Theological Declaration. (10) This statement clearly expresses that the church must always maintain a healthy distance and critical stance in relation to the state. This is one of the main reasons why many congregations and pastors of the IERP do not join pastoral councils (grouping various Evangelical churches, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, Congregational) in cities or towns. In Misiones, for instance, pastoral councils (created around 1995) in various towns and cities have always sought to be close to whichever administration is in power. In 2006, these councils blindly supported the provincial administration, which was seeking undetermined re-election periods, something that fortunately failed to materialize. In Argentina there are currently a number of pastoral councils in several provinces. Many Evangelical pastors and churches that are a part of these councils seek to be close to the administration in power, to offer support and votes in exchange for social help and a place in their candidate lists. (11)

Ours is a globalized though fragmented world, presenting the big challenge of seeking ways of working in unity to give testimony of Jesus Christ's salvation work and presence among us. In this global marketplace, human beings are no more than mere consumers, valued according to their consumption capacity. This means global unity, where the paradigm is the marketplace and consumption. Many churches echo this paradigm--mostly neo-Pentecostals and other Charismatic and Evangelical churches preaching the Theology of Prosperity or Theology of Glory. Millions of people, sometimes in desperate need, adhere to this religiosity promising wellness and financial growth (something more like individual salvation) in exchange for tithes and flail personal surrender to God. For those adhering to and promoting these theologies, success in life and business equals God's blessings, in exchange for faith and personal surrender. (12)

Many IERP congregations are located in cities or towns where there are many such pastors or churches, offering "lively" worship services with healings, witnessing and large crowds. In some places, members of IERP communities have expressed and continue to express a wish for more lively services which reach people's hearts, as happens during services by these pastors and churches. This claim, within the religious scenario mentioned at the beginning of this article, has caused the IERP to face the challenge of revising our formats without compromising our theology and doctrines. We need to revise a number of issues, including the following:

a) Service, liturgy, use of elements, gestures and symbols. People clearly expect and need something that makes them feel God's love for them, and this goes beyond greetings or sermons.

b) How we live, as a Christian community, in order to become a church that reaches people's needs, fears, pain, joy and celebrations. We need our communities to offer love, care and attention, where people can feel embraced (in this world which shows hostility, which feels no respect for life and values human beings only as consumers), where they do not need to find justifying arguments and excuses all the time. Our society of today tends towards individualization, and we need to build spaces of communion or common union.

When speaking of union, we are not speaking of globalization (as in globalized markets). Nor are we speaking of uniformity, as pointed out by Pastor Rodolfo Reinich in June 2008. (13) In our world of today, where diversity dominates the scene--cultural, racial diversity, cosmovisions etc.--uniformity is impossible. As we seek union we must avoid uniformity by respecting diversity and respecting one another in terms of specific issues or situations. What really matters is that we offer a united worldview towards our society, whose social and financial systems continue to destroy God's creation, with more and more victims every day.

Finally, I believe we need to remember at all times that he who keeps his people together, even in the face of all that sets us apart in this world, is God, in his love and mercy.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2009.00045.x

(1) Main source consulted: Krueger, Rene (2001) La eclesiologia de la IERP [The ecclesiology of the IERP].

(2) "The Evangelical Church of the Rio de la Plata owes its existence to the mission of communicating, strengthening and preserving the faith in our Lord, in a holy, universal, apostolic Church with faith based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. This Church, aware of the commission confessed the creeds of the early Church (Apostolic, Nicene, Athanasian), the articles of faith of the Reformation (especially, Luther's Minor Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Augsburg Confession) and the more recent ecumenical agreements and consensus (in particular the Barmen Statement and the Leuenberg Concord), and recognized it is committed and linked by faith to all churches participating in the ecumenical movement, mainly with the Evangelical Church of Germany due to its origins. The purpose of our church is the celebration of Protestant worship, Christian education and the fulfillment of all human rights and the preservation of our environment. To do so, we need to promote spiritual life in various manifestations, with special attention to ecumenical relationships and the building of Christian communities, empowering and strengthening their members and building closer relationships among communities and congregations, with a firm commitment towards the preservation of ecclesiastic discipline". Synod Report and General Assembly, XXXIII Synod Conference of the IERP, October 8-11, 1998, General Ramirez, Entre Rios, Argentina, p.160-161.

(3) The Synod of 1971 approved the pastorate of women. This and the deaconship of women have no differences in terms of rules set by the church.

(4) In the foundation of the German Evangelical Synod of the Rio de la Plata in October 1899, all the confessions of the reformation with the Evangelical term were included. In 1900, a formal bond was built with the church of the old Prussian Union. The synod was thus officially defined as united. In 1965, the German Evangelical Synod changed its name to IERP; once again, it reaffirmed its character as united, expressing in addition its close relationship with the churches of the ecumenical movement.

(5) Article 2 of our Statements and Rules.

(6) "The sanctity of the Church is based on the fact that its members have been chosen and called by God, and that they respond in love and faith. This call is expressed in Baptism. The universality of the Church is based on the fact of the IERP working on its mission locally in the three countries of the region of the Rio de la Plata, but projecting this mission worldwide". Rent Krueger (2001) La eclesiologia de la IERP.

(7) Synod Report 1998, p.169. Today, the IERP is a member of several organizations, including the World Council of Churches, the World Lutheran Federation, the World Reformed Alliance, the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America, the Latin American Council of churches (grouping some 180 churches of Latin America and the Caribbean), the Argentine Federation of Evangelical Churches, the Uruguayan Federation of Evangelical Churches (the two latter grouping Methodists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Reformed, Waldensian, Salvation Army, Mennonites and Presbyterians). With eight other churches, the IERP has founded and maintains the Theological Training Center, University College ISEDET, where theologians, pastors and deacons are trained.

(8) Universal Church of the Kingdom of God dissenters, criticizing mostly their business aspects and relationships with God.

(9) First Survey on Religious Beliefs and Attitudes in Argentina. Director: Dr. Fortunato Mallimad. Coordinator: Dr. Juan Cruz Esquivel. Assistant: Lic. Gabriela Irrazabal. Buenos Aires, August 6, 2008.

(10) The first point in the Barmen Declaration (1934) reads, "Jesus Christ, according to the testimony we have in Scripture, is God's only Word. This is the only Word we must listen [to], the only one we may trust, the only one we must obey, in life as in death. We reject false doctrines stating that in addition to this only one Word from God, the church could and should admit as source of its proclamation other events and powers, personalities and truths as if they, too, were God's revelations".

(11) This is the case with The People's Party, created some months ago by Evangelical pastors. According to journalist Franco Ruis (Perfil), the president of this party, pastor Raul Quintana, promised to gather 10,000 churchgoers on October 11 for a "prayer chain" for President Cristina Kirchner.

(12) Bernardo Stamateas, the pastor of a Baptist Evangelical church in Buenos Aires (and the author of self-help books that enjoy great success among politicians, actors and athletes), preaches and states in interviews that "Heaven belongs to business people". Raquel Roberti, Veintitres, 18/9/1008, 10, No. 533.

(13) Rodolfo R. Reinich presided over the IERP between 1982 and 1998.

The Reverend Pedro Kalmbach is a minister of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Argentina.
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Author:Kalmbach, Pedro
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Organization overview
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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