The Occupied Folk Church

Christopher C. Barnekov, PhD

Entry of Gustav Vasa into Stockholm after being elected King, 1523. Though he won Sweden's independence, Vasa set a firm precedent for absolute government control of the Church of Sweden ... particularly after he executed a few bishops!

Artist: J.G.Sandberg [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons

[6 August 2013] The Nordic national churches have been aptly described as “occupied folk churches.” For an American to understand the religious environment in this region, it is necessary first to understand this phrase. What is a “folk church”? And what is meant by “occupied”?

Much has been written on these points, but little in English.[1] I'll try to sketch a broad impression in a few paragraphs. The original concept of “the folk church” (folkkyrkan) can be illustrated by a declaration by Nicolaus Olai Bothniensis, professor of theology at the Uppsala University and chairman of the Uppsala Synod of 1593 (Uppsalamötet). When this nation-wide assembly unanimously adopted the Augsburg Confession, Bothniensis proclaimed, “Now Sweden is one man, and we all have one Lord and God.”

For the next quarter-millennium, every Swede was Lutheran from birth by law, and no other denomination was permitted.[2] The Church of Sweden took to calling itself Den Svenska Kyrkan, “The Swedish Church.” The Swedish Church was literally the only one in town, and local life centered on it, even for those who were not believers. To be a Swede was to be a member of The Swedish Church. Education was centered on Luther's Small Catechism and the schools were Lutheran parochial schools. Similar developments occurred in other Nordic lands, and Scandinavia was solidly Lutheran.

Luther's understanding of the differences between God's “Two Kingdoms” (the Church and the State) was somehow ignored, however, as the Church became largely a tool of the state. The King assigned Lutheran pastors various government administrative functions[3] and they became, in a real sense, civil servants. This solidified political control of the Church (and paved the way for political goals to trump theology or Scripture in church affairs). Although other churches are permitted today, there is still a strong cultural hangover that views any other church as “foreign.” Even though few Swedes attend worship these days, The Swedish Church is the one they don't attend.

This discussion barely brushes the surface of the folkkyrkan concept in its original form, which has roots long before 1593. It is meant only to alert the American reader to this important factor.

This history is broadly similar in all the Nordic countries, with similar residual attitudes. This, it should be noted, is one strong reason the Confessional Lutheran renewal groups resist being identified as “new” (and thus “foreign”) church bodies. They also argue that because they have maintained the Confessional Lutheran teachings and practice of the historic national churches, they are not the ones who should leave and form a new church body!

folkkyrkan meets folkhemmet

This folkkyrkan concept began to deepen about a century ago, with some Church leaders beginning to re-assert that the folkkyrkan was much more than simply a state agency; but then it collided with the Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party concept of folkhemmet (the peoples' home) - the idea of making Sweden into one big, cozy family in which each member is cared for and equally valued. This plan of social transformation became the welfare state, in which a paternalistic, omnipotent state cared for every need of each of its “children” and equality became the primary objective. This seemed to work well for a while,[4] and kept the Social Democrats (“sossi”) in power for 44 straight years beginning in 1932, and intermittently since then.

Before they came to power, the socialists had campaigned fervently for abolition of the State Church, among other radical steps. Once they actually took power, however, the sossi soon realized that they could control the Church of Sweden and use it as a tool to “fundamentally transform” Swedish society ... and Swedes. The party's change of strategy[5] is documented in Daniel Alvunger's recently published doctoral dissertation, available only in Swedish, Nytt vin i gamla läglar (New Wine in Old Bottles). An abstract in English can be found at this link (scroll down and click on 'Abstract').

There are only a few fragments of Alvunger's work readily accessible in English. Probably the most useful is a fairly short piece that is something of a preview of his dissertation. Captive to Caesar - Church Politics in Sweden in the 20th Century is a brief description of the Social Democrat strategy. It was presented at a London conference in 2006 and is available in PDF format on the website of Kyrklig Samling (The Church Coalition for the Confession and the Bible).

The Church as the Party's tool

A sense of Alvunger's findings can be conveyed by this excerpt from a speech by a party theoretician, K.J. Olsson, at the Social Democrat Party Congress in 1944:

“The democratic society has a need to control even this aspect of social life … the best way of controlling … is to retain the state church for the time being and to modernize it … to make it more democratic, and to make use of it … as an instrument of the democratic society … to make the citizens loyal and faithful to the ideology of democracy [emphases added].”

It would be very informative to unpack each of the terms in this statement, but this is meant to be a very short overview.

King Gustav I Vasa accuses Bishop Peder Jakobsson Sunnanväder before the Cathedral Chapter. The bishop had tried to provoke an insurrection against the king, but it was discovered and quelled. The bishop was tried and executed 18 February 1527.

Artist: Carl Gustaf Hellqvist [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Another revealing statement is this excerpt from a newspaper interview with the chairman of a local congregation's board, noting his completing 25 years of service:

“Jag är socialist ända in i själen och ger inte ett skvatt för kyrkan. Jag sitter med för att bevaka vart skattepengarna tar vägen.”

“I am socialist deep in my soul, and don't give a damn for the church. I sit on the board to watch where our tax money goes.”

Imagine being a pastor with this gentleman as chairman of your church council. The gentleman is not being quite honest, however, because the Social Democrats care a great deal about what happens in the church … not proclamation of the Gospel, but using the church to push their ideological agenda. It has been very useful to have the Church endorse, or at least not vigorously oppose, the sossi social transformations. This chairman is not sitting on the board to protect taxpayers, but to implement the Social Democrat agenda.

Note that the church is (still today) financed not by voluntary giving, but by an income tax (surtax) assessed on its members. The rate is set by the church board. Think about this … among other things, it makes the church board a taxing authority, and thus the church's budget and priorities a political issue.

A two-pronged attack

The Social Democrats executed a two-prong attack on the Church aimed not (initially) at abolishing the state church, but rather at gaining control. The Party passed legislation making the Church “democratic” by changing the election process for the Churchwide Assembly (Kyrkomötet, the highest governing body of the Church), and later for all church governing bodies at every level, to reduce the influence of clergy and facilitate election of candidates nominated by the parliamentary political parties. At the same time, the Social Democrats - soon followed by the other parties - began nominating slates of candidates for all elected church positions. Thereby the Church became politicized at every level and governed not by the clergy or the worshiping community, but by members who vote but rarely if ever attend worship.

A third assault on the Church came through control of education and appointment of bishops: the most theologically liberal candidates available were consistently chosen. This began to influence the makeup of the clergy, though sossi were irritated by the persistence of Confessional Lutheran pastors, and especially by the ordination of new Confessional candidates.

Once control of the Churchwide Assembly was secured, it adopted some positions flatly contradicting Scripture. Eventually, candidates for ordination whose commitment to Scripture would not permit them to accept these unbiblical positions were barred from ordination, or if already ordained, from promotion to a higher office. This secured the sossi objective of eliminating Confessional Lutherans and High Church elements from the ordained clergy, solidifying control by the theological liberals. It also sent the Church of Sweden “over the cliff” theologically. Membership and participation has been plunging ever since.

This collision of folkkyrkan with the Social Democrats' folkhemmet produced a thoroughly politicized national church. Although it is still “Confessional Lutheran” on paper, CoS leaders emphasize that it is now a “democratic” church. In practice, this has meant that if Scripture or Confession conflicts with the majority opinion, the offending Scripture is “tossed on the scrap heap of history,” as now-retired Archbishop K.G. Hammar infamously put it in a 2005 press release.

In other words, it has become clear that the Lord of the “democratic folk church” is not Jesus Christ, because this church does not follow His Word.

Although Hammar's successor, Anders Wejryd, is usually more careful in his utterances, he is quick to repudiate politically incorrect (or inconvenient) portions of Scripture. In particular, he argues, “… from a Biblical theology perspective, for us, the command regarding love takes precedence over other commands and prohibitions in the Bible”[6]

This was also the official position of the CoS Steering Committee in defending its decision to offer same-sex weddings in the Church:

As regards a theological perspective, what is relevant is that the commandment of love is superior to other commandments and prohibitions in the Bible. What is crucial concerning the human cohabitation forms is not individual Bible passages but what is beneficial or harmful to people.[7]

Or, to paraphrase that ancient serpent, “You can be like God, deciding what is good and what is evil.” And the Steering Committee continues:

We therefore have reason to be critical of individual Bible passages about homosexuality. These need to be related to the Bible's more overarching message, including the double commandment of love, and to what the Biblical authors have expressed in other contexts.[8]

In the Year 2000, the Church of Sweden was formally “disestablished” as state church. In the revised law (enacted in 1995 when the Social Democrats were still in power), however, the rules governing the Church were set to assure a “democratic” church. That is, they were written to assure direct control of the church - not through the Riksdag, but by delegates nominated by the political parties. Roughly three fourths of the delegates to the Churchwide Assembly were elected from slates nominated by the parliamentary political parties.

More recently, as the Church continues to lose members, money and influence, several large political parties including the Social Democrats are deciding they will no longer nominate slates of candidates for church offices or be involved in church matters. The ruins of this once great Lutheran Church are no longer worth bothering about, and the apostates are in such firm control that there is no longer a “threat” within CoS from the Confessional Lutherans.

What, then, is an “occupied folk church”? It is a national church that has been invaded and captured by an alien philosophy, socialist utopianism, then used as a tool to implement this political agenda. In the process, Word and Sacrament ministry of the Gospel is pushed aside or even suppressed. Although echoes of the Gospel persist in liturgy and hymnody that has not yet been completely “modernised,” they grow fainter and fainter. The Holy Spirit always preserves a remnant, but for the most part they must find refuge outside the Church of Sweden. The people, no longer hearing the “sweet voice of the Gospel,” gradually depart, leaving beautiful, empty, whitewashed tombs.

God has, of course, preserved a believing Remnant. In recent years, this Remnant has begun to stir in the Nordic countries - among other things, establishing a path to ordination for new Confessional pastors. The goal of the Nordic Confessional renewal movements is to bring the Gospel back to these spiritually devastated lands.


1 One recent book in English is B. Ryman, ed., Nordic Folk Churches: A Contemporary History, (Eerdmans 2005).

2 Foreign merchants and diplomats were permitted to worship in their own churches in the port cities.

3 As government assignments grew over the centuries, pastors kept official population records, were involved in taxation and military conscription, issued certificates of good conduct for those wishing to relocate, served as school superintendants ??? and began to take on the character of government officials. To some extent this affected their pastoral relationships with parishioners.

4 As Lady Thatcher famously noted, "the problem with socialism is, you eventually run out of other peoples??? money.??? There are many other problems as well, but this one will eventually end the game.

5 Although the policy changed, until 1960 official party doctrine still called for abolition of the state church. The strategy changed to destroying the Church from within and controlling it to advance sossi ideological objectives. As discussed below, the state church was still abolished in 2000, once it had exhausted its usefulness.

6 Church of Sweden English Language Press Release,

7 Kyrkostyrelsens skrivelse 2009:6, Vigsel och ??ktenskap, p.24 .

8 Ibid., p. 57.