ELC 2023: Gender and Church

Report from the 27th European Lutheran Conference in Essen, Germany

Essen, 22.06.2023 – Delegates and guests from thirteen European countries, the U.S.A. and Canada gathered from 13th to 17th June at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Essen, Germany (www.euluthconf.org). After the Covid-19 pandemic, it was the first meeting again in person, usually held every two years. The theme of the conference was “Gender and Church – from a theological, legal and personal perspective”. What might be a taboo for some Christians to talk about, was boldly addressed by three keynote speakers and intensive discussions afterwards.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Barnbrock (Oberursel, Germany) presented his thoughts under the title: “Living as a Christian in a rapidly changing world. Reflections based on the example of the Gender Debate.” He argued that the gender perspective proves to be helpful as a methodical tool. But the gender debate also brings problems, briefly characterized with hostility between representatives of different positions, a radical constructivism in determining one’s identity, and a normative positivism, as if “everything that exists also has its good, possibly even God-given right”. Barnbrock suggested that Christians should overcome polarization, as Lutherans can think two things to be true at the same time (e.g. being righteous and sinner at the same time). This is to avoid simple answers in a complex world. We are all created by God, and as sinners that we all are, “we have no reason to exalt ourselves above others”. He suggested to “approach the debates of our time without fear and with trusting serenity, to show respect and solidarity to those who think differently than we do, and to rediscover ourselves as members of the one body of Christ.”

The second paper was given by the lawyer and notary Claudia Hüstebeck (Göttingen, Germany) to view “Gender and Church” from a legal perspective. She referred to the fundamental rights in Europe and Germany that prohibit discrimination on various grounds, including sex and sexual orientation. She explained the personal status law in regards to the “third gender” and the birth registry entry “diverse”. In Family Law, she showed the development from same-sex partnerships to same-sex marriages and the establishment of equality in regards to taxation and the adoption of a child. Even though churches may see this development critically, she asks, how churches will deal with “marriage for all”, “in particular whether acts of blessing or marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples come into question.” In summary, she says that the legal system of the Western European countries has undergone considerable changes in the past 20 years with the “aim of achieving equality of all sexual orientations.”

The third paper was a personal account of Bishop Juhana Pohjola (Finland), who is facing a legal trial in Finland after the publication of a booklet in 2004 on the relationship of men and women. He is accused of “hate-speech” (against homosexuals), even though the term is not clearly defined. Bishop Pohjola had no intention to break the law or to insult people. He called it a battle between the right of not to be offended and the right of freedom of speech. The prosecutor tried to silence him completely, but the court acquitted him. The Prosecutor claimed that the Bible may only be used as a historical quotation, but not as one’s own opinion. This would mean that a personal confession according to the word of God would be against the law. By this ruling, nobody may be called a sinner. This would be against the dignity of man. However Bishop Pohjola pointed out that all human beings are created in the image of God. That gives people their dignity independent of their acts. It seems that the prosecutor did not understand that God loves the sinners but hates sin. Christian teaching is increasingly answered with apathy, hostility and opposition. “While we might concentrate on the laws of the land and the courts, we should be conscious that the real battle is with the powers and principalities (Eph 6:12), whom Christ has defeated”, Pohjola said.

The European Lutheran Conference does not give guidelines about how churches should act but encourages member and guest churches to learn from our shared experiences on the topic of the conference. The individual churches would have to answer the many theological and practical questions themselves. However, the very stimulating discussions concluded that a blessing of same-sex partnerships or marriages would not be possible, because they are against the will of God. According to his word, God ideally wants couples of a man and a woman that are blessed with children.

The next conference will be held in Denmark, Portugal or Norway, to be organised by the new steering committee of Rev. Klaus Pahlen (Germany), Rev. Philippe Volff (France) and Rev. Claudio Flor (Great Britain).