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Homosexuality in the Danish Lutheran Church

 
 

[1] In the Church of Denmark a pastor can, after having sought guidance by his/her bishop, offer a "divine service" for a homosexual couple that has decided to enter into a so-called registered partnership. In order to understand this state of affairs, it will be helpful to review some basic information about the religious situation in Denmark.

[2] Denmark is a small Nordic country with a population that is still quite homogeneous. Of its 5 million citizens about 85% belong to the Lutheran Church of Denmark. With the Reformation in 1536 the church became closely related to the monarchial state, and this relationship was strengthened in the period of absolutism. In 1849 a "free" constitution was introduced, but this did not lead to a separation of church and state. Rather, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church was given the status of "the Danish folk church" that required support by the state. Although promised, the church never got its own constitution, and therefore its legal framework has remained unclear in many respects. For example, it is not quite clear whether or not The Church of Denmark has a body or an office that is entitled to speak on its behalf. Legally, the church is ruled by the Danish parliament (the Folketing). Internally, the church has no synods, but problems of a general character are dealt with by the ten bishops. However, there is no archbishop and the bishops do not constitute an official ruling body.

[3] The decision about the possibility of having services for homosexual couples was made by the Danish bishops in 1997 in a background of change in the attitude towards homosexuality in Danish society. In 1989, the Danish parliament passed a law on "registered partnership," giving two persons of the same sex the possibility of living together under juridical conditions that in many respects are the same as those valid for marriage.

[4] The process leading to the present state of affairs started with a letter to one of the bishops from the Association of Gays and Lesbians, requesting the bishops to consider several possibilities for giving a framework of worship for registered partnerships. One possibility would be that the very act of entering a registered partnership could take place in the church. This would be an obvious possibility since the Church of Denmark has status as a governmental body and its wedding ceremony has legally binding force. The bishops responded to the letter by creating a working committee whose task was to investigate "the relation between marriage and registered partnership and thoroughly analyse the concept 'blessing' as a basic concept in human common life and subsequently put forward points of view concerning a ritual for blessing of registered partnership." The members of the committee could be regarded as belonging to the liberal wing of the Danish church. But as this church contains almost all Lutherans, there are several conservative or evangelical groups within the church. Eight organizations representing the conservative view created their own, unofficial working group. Hence, in 1997 the bishops received two reports on the question. In the following I will present the main arguments in each.

The Official Report

[5] The bishops' committee published its report under the title Registreret partnerskab, samliv og velsignelse (Registered Partnership, Common Life, and Blessing).[1] In the introduction the authors make clear that they do not intend to analyse the general question about the church's attitude toward homosexuals. In part this was because the Church of Denmark in many respects had already demonstrated its attitude in practice. For example, theologians living in homosexual partnerships are currently being ordained and pastors already living in such partnerships are accepted. This has to do with the status of the church: as a public institution, it is bound by a law of 1996 that outlaws discrimination in the labor market.

[6] The main question for the committee was whether it can be theologically justified for the church to conduct a blessing ceremony for a couple living in a registered partnership. From a Lutheran point of view, two issues are important here. The first is the normativity of the Bible in relation to homosexuality. The report of course realizes that there are clear condemnations of homosexuality in Scripture. However, it points at Luther's principle that only those parts of the Bible that present Christ as savior are the word of God. The ethical consequence it draws from this is that only the teaching of Jesus is regarded as ethically normative for Christians of today. The second issue is the traditional Lutheran view of marriage as an order of creation. The report takes Luther's own view to be that monogamous, life-long marriage is the only legitimate frame of sexual life and family. It rejects this view with two arguments: (i) there is no unambiguous biblical basis for regarding marriage as an order of creation in this sense; (ii) modern historic and sociological knowledge about the changeability of human institutions shows the idea of marriage as an order of creation to be an "ideological superstructure." From these arguments the report concludes:

 

The registered partnership/homosexual relationship is in the opinion of the committee not in conflict with Christian teaching and morality. The committee has not found that the general ethical arguments adduced against homosexual practice are tenable. The committee reckons the biblical statements against the practice of homosexuality among the Bible's culturally conditioned historical statements which do not have normative character. The committee does not find that the 'orders of creation' theology inspired by Luther is tenable such as it has been advanced in these contexts where it has been applied to let the traditional marriage stand out as the only acceptable Christian framework around common life, sexual life, and formation of the family. (English summary, p. 2f.).

 

[7] This conclusion opens the way for the committee's more practical task of considering the need of a ceremony of blessing for registered partnerships. As to the very concept of blessing the report emphasizes that it is God and not the church who blesses. What the church does is to express prayers for blessing to God. The report also makes clear that blessing is not being asked for some institution-such as marriage-but rather for persons. What is prayed for in relation to marriage is the grace of God and frankness to take on the responsibility for the other person. These characteristics of a blessing ceremony according to the committee do also hold true for a registered partnership of homosexuals. The report concludes with a presentation of three different types of blessing ceremonies.

[8] Even if it is appropriate to call the report "liberal," the committee is very much aware of the fact that there are opposing views within The Church of Denmark. But it reminds its readers that there is a strong tradition within this church to maintain unity in spite of such differences.

The Conservative Report
[9] The group representing the conservative wing of the Danish church published its report under the biblical title Kærligheden glæder sig ikke over uretten! (Love rejoiceth not in unrighteousness!).[2] I shall focus on the two central issues I emphasized in the official report.

[10] As to the normativity of the Bible the report states that Christian norms and values are based on scripture and are therefore in principle independent of social development. The Bible has Jesus' teaching and acting as its center, so that they function as a criterion for the validity of other biblical statements. This means that the double commandment of love and the Sermon on the Mount are of utmost importance. The biblical statements against homosexual practice are clear. Two things might speak against their contemporary use: (i) they could be invalidated by other, more central texts; (ii) they might condemn a different kind of homosexuality from what we know today. Neither of those possibilities holds according to the authors of the report. On the contrary, the condemnation of homosexual practice is a necessary part of a comprehensive theological view of sexuality and common life. This view we find in Jesus Christ (Matt. 19:1-12), who points back at Gen. 1-2 as a description of a fundamental condition of life.

[11] The essence of this biblical view is that sexual differentiation is a condition given with creation and that all legitimate sexual life has to take place within marriage. This understanding of marriage is protected by the sixth commandment. This biblical view can be said to include the idea of marriage as an order of creation. Unlike the official report, this one does not discuss the Lutheran theology of orders. Rather, it concludes directly from biblical evidence that marriage is a God-given institution.

[12] The report mentions the hypothesis that homosexuality in some cases may be genetically conditioned, but argues that this would not legitimate the claim that homosexuality is an effect of the divine creative will. Confronted with this possibility, one should rather assume that the character of our existence is such, as both created and marked by the consequences of the fall, that homosexuality should be addressed in the same way as, for example, those people born with physical or mental handicaps (p. 51, my translation).

[13] On the basis of this analysis, the report of course cannot favor the introduction of a ceremony of blessing for registered partnership. Such a ritual would not only lack any biblical foundation, it would even have clear scriptural words against it, and consequently could not be recognized in a Christian church. As an alternative way of responding to the presence of homosexuality in congregations, the report devotes extensive discussion to forms of pastoral care.

[14] The Danish bishops concurred with the official report insofar as they have not regarded the living of two people in registered partnership as being in conflict with "what is basic and normative in the Evangelical-Lutheran confession of The Church of Denmark."[3] However, the bishops did not adopt any of the report's proposed rituals. They left it open to pastors to find their own solution from case to case. In this way the bishops tried to show consideration for the conservative minority within the church and thus prevent division.

A Critical Assessment
[15] The issue that separates the two reports is basically the normativity of biblical prescriptions about sexual life. Connected with this is the question about the status of marriage as a created order, and the relevance of historical changes in social life. In this concluding section I want to present my own view, focusing primarily on the ethical aspects of the issue.[4]

[16] By "homosexuality" I mean the following: A person is homosexual if his/her sexual urge is not directed toward the opposite sex, but toward persons of his/her own sex. Thus "homosexuals" covers both men (gay) and women (lesbians). One distinguishes between homosexuality and bisexuality, meaning with the latter those persons whose sexual drive is directed toward both sexes.

[17] I do realize that many Christians believe Christian ethics to clearly reject homosexuality. This view I shall call "the conservative view." It often implies a distinction between the homosexual orientation, i.e., the fact that a person's sexual desires are directed toward one's own sex, and homosexual practice, i.e., the actual consummation of sexuality in intimate activity.

[18] Adherents to the conservative view often justify their attitude from the Bible. There are clear sentences both in the Old and the New Testament to the effect that homosexuality is contrary to God's will. Thus, in Leviticus we read that a man must not "lie with" a man as with a woman (18:22). And Paul at various places dissociates himself from homosexual activity. Thus, in the beginning of his letter to the Romans he argues that such praxis is "against nature" (1:26). In contrast, there is no statement by Jesus at all on this question.

[19] Much of the controversy of course is about one's view of scripture. If one thinks that every single prescription in the Bible is valid today, there is not much to discuss. But this view, after all, is taken by very few. If we take Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians that it is better for Christians to stay unmarried, who would regard that as a valid prescription for Christians today? Nobody would, not even adherents of the conservative view (many of whom are content to live in marriage). If this is acceptable to conservatives, they should explain why the prohibition of homosexuality is binding in our days when other biblical rules about sexuality and common life are not.

[20] A question we need to clarify when assessing the biblical rejection of homosexuality is whether this concept is understood the same way in the Old Testament and New Testament as it is today. After all, the very word "homosexuality" does not occur in the Bible. It is a word originating in modern times that mirrors the medical and psychological knowledge about sexuality in humans (and animals) of our time. When homosexuality is an "abomination" in the Old Testament, that is due to-among other things-the fact that it was practiced in religions surrounding Israel, and that sexuality was connected with the necessity of the continuation of the family. Additionally, the homosexual practice Paul rejects seems to be connected with the practice of other religions (idolatry).

[21] Against the conservative view I want to argue that not all prescriptions in the Bible about human action are binding for us today. My own alternative view I regard as Lutheran. A Lutheran Christian must read scripture in the light of the idea that salvation rests in Christ alone. That means that not all statements in scripture are of equal importance. Rather, scriptural statements are important to the degree that they express salvation in Christ. Some are not of this character at all, and hence they basically lack interest to Christians. Luther himself regarded the legal provisions in the Old Testament as statutes primarily for Jews rather than Christians. They have the same character as the medieval "Danish Law," which was not valid for Germans.

[22] If one accepts this Lutheran view of scripture, its consequence for ethics is that it too must be bound to Christ. Good works spring from the belief that Christ is my savior, i.e., that Jesus' life, suffering, death and resurrection is a liberation for me, so that I can live my life as God has created it. Those works are good that can be expressed in the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself. A moral prescription that cannot be understood as an expression of neighbor love can hardly belong to Christian ethics. At least that is what I am claiming.

[23] A crucial role in the conservative Danish report is played by the text Matt. 19:1-12, where Jesus discusses divorce. Its centrality according to this report rests precisely on the fact that it contains statements by Jesus. I think it is worth recalling that this is not quite in accordance with Luther's view on which texts can be regarded as the word of God. The problem here is that unlike Luther we are forced by our historical knowledge to distinguish between the historical Jesus and Christ as the object of Christian faith. This distinction opens up the possibility that even statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels need not be regarded as the word of God.

[24] But in the case of Matt. 19:1-12 one does not need to question its authenticity. The very reading of the text as a defense of the "institution of marriage" is highly problematic. Is it really true that Jesus here adopts marriage as a social institution? That would strongly contradict Jesus' whole way of speaking and acting, which is so radical that it challenges every institution. I think we should read Jesus' words about divorce together with his words about marriage and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount. Here we are told that everybody who looks at another's wife and feels desire for her, has committed adultery and transgressed the sixth commandment (Matt. 5:27). What Jesus is saying about divorce is, as I see it, that love between man and woman must be unreserved to such a degree that divorce is unthinkable. This of course is as unrealistic as is the impossibility of feeling desire for another woman. In both places Jesus puts forward the unreserved being for the other as a contrast to the actual state of affairs. The actual state of affairs requires the possibility of divorce. Jesus does not adopt marriage as an institution, but speaks about a form of life that is beyond any institution. That is why he does not contradict the conclusion drawn by the disciples that "it is not good to marry."

[25] Against the background of a Lutheran understanding of the normativity of the Bible, my questions in relation to homosexuality are these. Does homosexual practice contradict neighbor love? My answer is: it might, exactly as heterosexual practice might. But the contradiction is not necessary. Homosexuality can be the ground for love between two persons exactly as can heterosexuality. Is it an expression of Christian neighbor love to dissociate oneself from people who practice their homosexuality? I cannot see how it could be.

[26] I want to conclude by drawing on Luther's reflections on sexuality and marriage in his treatise Vom ehelichen Leben. Sexuality as such, sexual urge, Luther regards as a strong and irresistible force in human life, built into nature by our Creator. God has created humans as sexual beings. Therefore, it is against nature and the will of God to try to suppress one's sexuality as celibacy demands. In Luther's view such a strategy can only lead to perverse sexual practice. Thus Luther has a realistic and rather modern view of sexual life. However, he is not totally free from continuing the traditional Christian attitude to sexuality, implying that it is as such-regardless of how it is practiced-marked by sin. Also, he totally rejects casual sex that lacks commitment. All in all he very strongly defends marriage. To Luther, marriage is the framework that prevents sexuality from being practiced in ways that contradict neighbor love.

[27] I think that some of Luther's reflections can illuminate the problem of homosexuality. If one condemns homosexual practice, it must be on the assumption that homosexual persons are able to decide whether to engage in the practice or not, i.e., that they are able to suppress their homosexuality. But what if homosexuality is not something one chooses or is seduced into? In recent years theories have been proposed to the effect that homosexuality in some cases can be genetically determined. Biologists also claim to find evidence of homosexual behavior in animals. If this can be established, Paul's claim about homosexuality as being "against nature" loses its justification. On the contrary, homosexuality would in that case be given by nature. But then, what is true of sexual urge in general according to Luther must also be true of homosexual desire: as it is given by nature, one cannot suppress it without ending in perversity. The best homosexuals can do therefore (as is the case for everyone else) is to engage in a permanent relationship. Thus an acknowledgement of contemporary theories of human sexuality can lead to a reading of Luther's sexual ethics that points in the direction of accepting or even endorsing homosexual practice.

[28] All things considered, I do not take as justifiable the claim that homosexual orientation or practice contradicts Christian ethics. On Lutheran grounds it is possible to make a case for encouraging the formation of homosexual couples, and also for recognition of registered partnership. The church's mission is not to remove itself from the homosexual community. On the contrary, in the name of neighbor love the church should welcome homosexual believers as well as all other believers. Whether or not the church should take the further step and give blessing to homosexual couples is a question that takes us beyond Christian ethics.


[1] The entire report can be found on the website of The Church of Denmark: www.folkekirken.dk. In English only a summary is available.

[2] Kærligheden glæder sig ikke over uretten! Til de danske biskopper vedrørende kirkelig velsignelse af homoseksuelle par. Fredericia, 1996. As far as I know, there is no English translation of this report.

[3] Quotation from the English translation of a press release by the bishops (to be found on the website mentioned). Note that the statement has the character of a press release and that it is signed by the bishop who happened to chair the meeting-a good indication of the organizational structure of The Church of Denmark.

[4] The following is based on an article published in a Danish newspaper in 1997. The article was used by the bishops' committee.

 
© December 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 12