Dwelling in God’s Household: A Lutheran Perspective on Interfaith Relations

A Household Divided?
[1] In a single generation, the religious landscape of the United States has changed dramatically. America can no longer be described as “Judeo-Christian,” if ever it could. Today the religious demography of the United States reflects the spectrum of the world’s religions and the diversity of global Christianity.1 Certain forms of Christianity, including Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, are growing at rapid speeds, even as the mainline Protestant denominations are said to be in decline.

[2] This unfolding chapter of our religious history poses new opportunities for loving our neighbors, to be sure. But it also presents the unique challenge to refine our Lutheran identity and to redefine our leadership in light of this new context. We must ask difficult questions about how to engage effectively with religious difference — both intra- and inter-faith — without compromising core convictions.

Thinking Theologically About Our Religious Neighbors
[3] Luther’s legacy with regard to the interfaith relations of his day is troubling, at best. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America maintains two consultative panels — on Lutheran-Jewish and Lutheran-Muslim relations — that seek to address the historical consequences of Luther’s writings, and to build relationships with members of those respective traditions. In 1994 a “Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community”2 was adopted, repudiating Luther’s anti-Jewish and anti-Judaic writings, and reaching out in regret and love to the Jewish people. Resources have likewise been developed to educate Lutherans about Islam, and to facilitate relationship building with Muslims.3

[4] In light of this history, our task is to apply Lutheran theological resources to the unique challenge we face today. As a layperson, I am wont to start with the handbook for the laity, Luther’s Small Catechism. In his opening letter to the pastors and preachers who would use it as a teaching tool with their congregations, Luther encouraged them to “put the greatest stress on that commandment or part where your people experience the greatest need.”4 He had written the Small Catechism with precisely this sort of practical application in mind, and as such it is an exceptional tool for the task before us.

[5] Amidst all of the other present-day challenges we face within our tradition, it is difficult to recognize the needs we have in our relationships with others. Yet thinking about what it means to be Lutheran in light of our multi-religious reality is a priority if we want to remain authentic to our tradition, relevant to our context, and prophetic to the world. The first and eighth commandments, concerning our relationship to God and to our neighbor, are where I would suggest we ought to “put the greatest stress” as we seek a way forward.

The First [Commandment]
You are to have no other gods.
What is this? Answer:
We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.5

The Eighth [Commandment]
You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor.
What is this? Answer:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.6

[6] The simple Q&A format of Luther’s Small Catechism is deceptive. Like any effective literary device, it lures the reader into an unexpectedly complex relationship with the text. The principal question, “What is this?” provides an unassuming entry point into the challenging theological concepts at the core of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Through a series of sermons he preached in 1528, Luther had refined the technique of “reduc[ing] the meaning of a particular part of the catechism to a single sentence.”7 He knew that the people needed something they could grasp, even while wrestling with its meaning for their lives of Christian discipleship.

[7] As we begin to unpack the first commandment in light of our need, we are reminded that God is our utmost priority. Our commitment to fearing, loving, and trusting God must be cherished and upheld above all other commitments: a bedrock for how we participate in interfaith dialogue. In his explication of the eighth commandment, Luther reminds us that from this primary commitment to God flows our commitment to our neighbors. His wording is additive: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors…”(emphasis mine). Here “neighbors” is not defined in light of a shared commitment to “God above all things,” but rather it remains open, referring in the broadest sense to those who live in close proximity to one another. Going further, Luther doesn’t allow us to merely “tolerate” our neighbors. Instead he suggests that we are to engage with them, in order that we might “come to their defense” — in our hearts, in our speech, and in our actions. Bearing truthful witness to our neighbors is a disciplined responsibility within our own Lutheran household. When we venture outside those doors, we face an even more complex interpretive challenge.

God’s Household Comes Home
[8] In February of 1998, I returned to the ice-covered campus of St. Olaf College in rural Minnesota after a five-month Global Semester program. As my dad drove up the hill to Manitou Heights in rural Minnesota, I experienced a bewildering reverse culture shock back into my Lutheran heritage; the familiar had forever changed, I had forever changed. I felt, for the first time, a profound longing for the whole inhabited earth, God’s household, the oikoumene.

[9] For my independent study project, I had researched women’s roles in the world’s religions. I had visited countless temples, ashrams, mosques, stupas, pagodas, and gurdwaras around the world, and interviewed dozens of women who practiced their traditions in those places. What had begun as an academic exercise in my preparations before the trip became a profound “encounter of commitments”8 as my fieldwork unfolded on the ground. In many cases, the research encounter led to deep personal engagement with Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, and Sikh women. I became transformed through these personal relationships. Yet as much as I learned from them, I also learned about myself. My religious commitments were both complicated and clarified; my identity as a Christian woman became contextualized.

[10] Along the way, a number of critical theological questions inevitably rose to the surface: Where do I place the religious “other” in my eschatology? But even more challenging is the framing: where do I place this person or community of people in my eschatology? What impact does this have on my daily living in a multi-religious world — my daily living with this person or community? What resources does my tradition offer for engaging with religious difference in practical ways? These questions are part of a lifelong journey, requiring prayer and study — and the risk of human relationships.

[11] Those initial encounters on the other side of the world opened me to the wealth of blessings wrought in relationships with people of other faiths. Over the years I have actively sought to engage religious difference — not as a fieldwork assignment, but in personal relationships with friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Based on these direct experiences, I am able to “speak well” of my neighbors, and when differences of opinion, practice, or perspective frustrate this, I am compelled to try earnestly to “interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” For the hospitality I experience through others gives me pause to consider the unique hospitality to which Christ Jesus calls me, unexpectedly enriching my life of Christian discipleship through interfaith encounter. In a multi-religious world, even as I attempt to ground my own feeble practice of Christian hospitality in my love of God, I gain a greater awareness of and appreciation for the oikoumene, the whole inhabited earth.

[12] When I first experienced what we might call today this sense of “global citizenship,” I didn’t know this ancient Greek word oikoumene, only the longing. I didn’t discover it while working toward an M.Div. at Harvard Divinity School in the subsequent years either. It wasn’t until 2006 that I came across it in print. I was preparing to serve as a delegate for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the World Council of Churches (WCC) Global Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The modern ecumenical movement for Christian unity, extending back over the last century and beyond, had appropriated the term; in this context, oikoumene refers specifically to God’s household, as united through Christ. Unity in this sense is both God’s calling and God’s gift to us. The theme of the WCC Assembly that year was, “God, in your grace, transform the world!” As I gathered with a body of Christians from every part of the globe to pray this prayer, my identity as a Lutheran Christian was likewise complicated and clarified. My initiation into this longing for the oikoumene was equally, albeit uniquely, profound.

[13] I was surprised to learn that this word could describe these two distinct experiences so aptly, and yet I was delighted to have a word that held together the inherent tensions of Christian identity and interfaith relations. As a committed Christian who came of age in the most religiously diverse chapter of our nation’s history, I had always understood that “ecumenism” referred to relationships strictly among the churches, whereas “inter-religious” or “interfaith” described relationships across religious lines. Yet, as I came to discover, the ecumenical movement itself has resisted the limitation of the oikoumene to refer the churches’ own, internal affairs. In a speech in New York in 1991, the fifth general secretary of the WCC, Konrad Raiser, lamented that, “ecumenism has become church-centered and is largely separated from the human concerns in society, economics and politics. So we have to recapture this wider notion of the oikoumene and the ecumenical calling of the churches in the world.”9

[14] The world in which the churches are called has changed dramatically in my lifetime. As the world’s religions have come to call the United State home, along with the spectrum of global Christianity, “the whole inhabited earth” is closer than ever before. Reclaiming the fullest meaning of the oikoumene will be the challenge of my generation. This challenge, to be sure, is more than simply an acknowledgment of the religious diversity in our midst. Beyond that, we must better understand our Christian identity in light of this new context in order to discern how God is calling us to be in relationship to our new neighbors here in God’s household.

The Oikoumene, God’s Household
[15] If we look around the neighborhood, we can see different indicators of the how our religious landscape is changing. In 1909, a growing congregation of Lutherans in St. Cloud, Minnesota, purchased a building at 375 Fifth Avenue South, originally belonging to a Congregational Church. Over the years, Bethlehem English Lutheran Church continued to grow, today serving approximately 3,000 baptized members. It has since relocated twice, most recently to a new building it dedicated in 1996 on County Road 137. Today the Fifth Avenue building is home to the Islamic Center of St. Cloud, the city’s first and only mosque serving more than 3,000 Muslims, most of whom are recent immigrants from Somalia.10

[16] These realities are more than real estate transactions — they require interfaith engagement. St. Cloud, with a metropolitan area population of approximately 160,000, has become home to a sizeable number of the 16,000 Somali refugees that have been resettled in Minnesota since 1999. Challenges with regard to language and religious differences have abounded in recent years, including the accommodation of prayer times in public schools and in local workplaces. Alarming incidents — including the assault of a worshipper at the Islamic Center in 2007, and the posting of vulgar cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed around town in 2009 — have indicated the more deeply rooted bigotry Muslims have faced in St. Cloud.

[17] In March 2010, Pastor Dennis Campbell of the Granite City Church-Academy, a self-described Independent-Fundamental Church, placed a full-page ad in the St. Cloud Times. Entitled, “Does the Islamic Religion Represent a Threat to America?” it read, in part, “Moslems seek to influence a nation by immigration, reproduction, education, the government, illegal drugs, and by supporting the gay agenda.”11 Set within the post-9/11 context, a message like this — an echo of propaganda from other eras, directed toward other communities — is intended to destroy the reputations of Muslims, bearing false witness against them as our neighbors.

[18] In each of these cases, local clergy and Christian communities organized public responses, standing firmly against hate crimes, fear mongering, and the growing climate of Islamophobia. In the third instance, a unique response was required, one which made clear that the position of Pastor Campbell was not, in fact, the position shared by all Christians. The Minnesota Council of Churches, of which the six Minnesotan ELCA Synods are members, published a response in the Times entitled, “American Muslims do not present a threat to America.” It read, in part, “At MCC we strive to live out the Christian mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ from Matthew 25. Part of that work involves bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together so that they can get to know each other as neighbors…. The Minnesota Council of Churches encourages people…to reach out and connect with neighbors of different faith, ethnic, or cultural traditions.”12 Local organizations, such as the St. Cloud-based Center for Interfaith Encounter have been actively working to coordinate this kind of outreach for the past decade.13

[19] Ultimately, the onus for interfaith engagement rests with each of us, as neighbors in God’s Household, the oikoumene. We are not, as Luther reminds us, to “tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations.” But in order for that to be possible, we must first build authentic relationships with our neighbors, “welcoming the stranger” with the same hospitality we would wish to receive. Other neighborhood examples point us more clearly in this direction. For example, the Islamic Center of North Pittsburgh is conducting its daily prayers and Friday Jumm’ah in the Parish Hall at the neighboring Trinity Lutheran Church while its new building is under construction.14 Similarly in Michigan, University Lutheran Church shares a parking lot with the adjacent Islamic Society of Greater Lansing.15 Yet the deliberately relational models of the neighborhood are perhaps most instructive. Late last year, Joy Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hosted a Christian-Muslim panel, creating a lasting platform for dialogue between members of the Lutheran church and the local Islamic community.16 More recently, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota organized an alternative spring break trip, travelling to New York City with the express purpose of building relationships with Muslim students.17 Myriad other examples of the ways in which Lutherans are involved in inter-religious relations on the local level — in the neighborhood — with people of all faith traditions could be offered in a longer treatment of this challenge.

[20] At the heart of any neighborhood are its neighbors. In God’s Household, our neighborhood is the whole inhabited earth; our neighbors are the children of God. We are commanded, through our love for God, to not bear false witness against our neighbor. Knowing the truth about our neighbors, so that we can speak in their defense, and assume their best intentions, requires our personal engagement with them in authentic relationships. In this process, as I have experienced, we will find that our Christian identity is both complicated and clarified. The good news is that in God’s Household, the oikoumene, the responsibility for holding these pieces in perfect tension belongs not to us, but to the One in whose neighborhood we dwell. Thanks be to God.

Resources and Networks

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ELCA Inter-Religious Relations
Bethel Lutheran Church in Winchester, Virginia, Resources for Interfaith Dialogue

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University Interfaith Initiative
Christian Ministry in Multi-Religious America Workshop
The National Council of Churches USA Interfaith Relations Commission

The Faith Next Door: American Christians and Their New Religious Neighbors by Paul Numrich, Oxford University Press, 2009.


1. Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).

2. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community.” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Presiding-Bishop/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Christian-Jewish-Relations/Declaration-of-ELCA-to-Jewish-Community.aspx

3. The practical resource, “Christian-Muslim Talking Points,” is available for download. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Christian-Muslim Talking Points.” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Presiding-Bishop/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Christian-Muslim-Relations/Christian-Muslim-Talking-Points.aspx

4. Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 349.

5. Luther, “The Small Catechism,” 351.

6. Luther, “The Small Catechism,” 353.

7. Luther, “The Small Catechism,” 346.

8. The Pluralism Project. “What is Pluralism?” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.pluralism.org/pages/pluralism/what_is_pluralism

9. Konrad Raiser, “Ecumenism in Search of a New Vision, 1992,” in The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, eds. Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 75.

10. TedSher Flickr Account. “Once a Lutheran Church, now a Somali Mosque.” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedsherarts/818589279/

11. From the St. Cloud Times, weekend of 20-21 March. Reprinted in Paul Schmelzer, “Pastor behind controversial ad ‘not a racist,’ seeks to convert Muslims,” The Minnesota Independent, June 2, 2010, accessed April 15, 2011, http://minnesotaindependent.com/59672/pastor-behind-controversial-st-cloud-islam-ads-not-a-racist.

12. Twin Cities Interfaith Youth Blog. “American Muslims Do Not Present a Threat to America.” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://tcinterfaithyouth.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/american-muslims-do-not-present-a-threat-to-america/

13. Center for Interfaith Encounter. Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.creativeartisticnuance.com/uniite/cie.html

14. Islamic Center of North Pittsburgh. Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.icnpgh.org/

15. The Islamic Society of Greater Lansing. “Parking Tips, Rules at Masjid.” Accessed April 15, 2011. http://lansingislam.com/an2.htm

16. “Christian-Muslim Dialog at Joy Lutheran Church.” The Institute of Interfaith Dialog. December 13, 2010. Accessed April 25, 2011. http://www.interfaithdialog.org/interfaith-events-main2menu-82/talk-series-main2menu-88/888-christian-muslim-dialog-at-joy-lutheran-church

17. Bob Hulteen, “Lutheran Campus Ministry Offers Alternative Spring Break.” Metro Lutheran, March 24, 2011. Accessed April 25, 2011. http://metrolutheran.org/2011/03/lutheran-campus-ministry-offers-alternative-spring-break/

Kathryn Mary Lohre

Kathryn Mary Lohre is the assistant director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, a research project on the changing religious landscape in the United States. She is also the president elect of the National Council of Churches USA, and a member of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, representing the ELCA.