Recently, at his retirement, Sweden’s most prominent Evangelical and founder of the country’s largest congregation announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Stefan Gustavsson, General Secretary, Swedish Evangelical Alliance, offers this response, through my friend, Jacob Rudolfsson, Coordinator, Swedish Evangelical Alliance. I appreciate Gustavsson’s affirmation of common Christian faith and commitment to further cooperation in a country more secular and challenging than the U.S. Also note his warning against liberal theology among even Evangelicals.
Ulf Ekman, despite all the controversies along the way, is undoubtedly the most dynamic and influential Christian leader we have had in Sweden during the past half century. His international significance goes far beyond what most Swedes understand; countless people around the world thank God for the ministry of Ulf Ekman. His farewell speech to the congregation he started over thirty years ago on Sunday morning was marked by both warmth and humility.
Through years I have met a lot of encouragement and warmth from Ulf Ekman and really want to wish him and his wife Birgitta all God’s blessings!
For those who followed Ulf Ekman, the transition to the Catholic Church is no surprise. He has over a long period of years been enthusiastic, both in books and articles, about a clear Catholic theology and written about the necessity of a Magisterium which the Pope claims to possess.
In the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, we have had the pleasure of working with the Catholic Church in a number of important issues, dealing with the definition of marriage, human dignity and freedom of religion and conscience. We share a common confession of God as triune: Father, Son and Spirit. We share the confession of Jesus as true God and true man – just to mention a few of the many issues on which we stand united.
In other matters, there are crucial dividing lines which can’t be avoided. This applies to the matter of salvation where we do not agree on the importance of justification by faith. The matter of authority where we do not agree on the relationship between Scripture and tradition and it also applies to the view of the Church where we do not agree that the body of Christ has a visible organizational structure led from Rome, to name some of the main issues. These in turn lead to different approaches in matters relating to Mary, the saints, purgatory, the sacraments, etc.
Unity is a prayer and desire that all Christians share – or should share – and is one of the reasons that Ulf Ekman gives for his decision. At the same time there is also an underlying problem. The claim by the Catholic Church to be the visible expression of the Body of Christ have ever since the split between orthodox and catholic in 1054, is just one of the causes of division – and continues to be so.
One must admire Ulf Ekman’s integrity to always follow his beliefs, and it is something that has consistently characterized his leadership. But because his beliefs have shifted over the years, his leadership is also partly contradictory seen over time, which the transition to the Catholic Church is evident of. The transition is a personal choice, but since the choice involves an affirmation of Catholic teaching it inevitably contains a built-in criticism from the former undisputed leader against parts of the movement he himself has built up. One should not underestimate the pain and disillusion that this creates in many people today.
The liberal theology that characterizes many evangelical contexts, as well as the superficiality, subjectivity and an often painful anti-intellectualism that characterizes many other evangelical contexts, is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The need for a thoughtful, robust theology is a critical issue for Christians today. For Ulf Ekman the answer is in the Catholic faith. My own development concerning these issues has gone in the opposite direction. I’ve increasingly become convinced about the necessity of the Reformation and the evangelical understanding of justification by faith and the adherence to Sola Scriptura, which in turn has implications for the understanding of the Church.
As Christians, we stand together as brothers and sisters in the Lord; we are united in Christ. I look forward to meeting Ulf Ekman from his new platform and based on these new conditions work together in different areas.