Does homosexuality challenge the doctrine of the Church?

This lecture was held by Vesa Hirvonen, Adjunct Professor, University of Helsinki during the Symposium “To Follow the Law of Love” at the Finnish University of Helsinki on May 22nd 2009.

When I have participated the discussion concerning the subject of this presentation, that is, homosexuality and the doctrine of the Church, it has mainly happened in the Finnish context.  What I shall say now is mainly what I have found relevant in that context, that is, in the Finnish Lutheran theological-ecclesiastical discussion. Very roughly said, the Lutheran theology is somewhere between Roman Catholic and Reformed, so I hope also those of you who belong to the other churches may find some of our starting points and solutions interesting to you.

Doctrine of the churches

All the churches find the Bible basic to their doctrine. Besides the Scriptures, all the churches have also other normative texts. Most of the older churches find the old ecumenical creeds normative, particularly the Nicene Creed from the 4th century. Especially the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church recognize as dogma also such doctrinal decisions of the early ecumenical synods that are not presented in the creeds (that is, the decisions of the council of Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon etc.). Besides the texts from the time when the Church was more or less as one, every church has normative texts of its own. There are various decisions of the synods, popes, bishops etc. And as far as the churches of the Reformation are concerned, there are many kinds of confessional texts from the sixteenth century. And the churches have various interpretative texts from our times, such as catechisms, ethical guidelines and so on.

Therefore, the doctrinal basement of the churches is far from clearly defined. A big challenge is that the doctrinal texts were born in the period of thousands of years, and the texts are, of course, often in tension with each other. [Even the Lutheran Confession books from the sixteenth century are in a serious contradiction with each other in some questions.]

Being like this, how is it possible to know which doctrines are valid today? Which things in the teaching of the Churches are unchanging, and which are changeable? In other words, in which things the Church can be renewed, and in which it cannot? This important question is repeated in ecclesiastical discussions. In the Finnish Church, this was matter discussed extensively in the 1980’s, when the priesthood was opened to women. And it is discussed vehemently now when our Church re-estimates its position on homosexuality.

Unchanging faith or changeable love?

So, how to make a distinction between unchanging and changeable doctrines? In the 1970’s and 80’s, when discussing women’s ordination, some leading theologians in Finland remarked that in the Lutheran tradition, there was a way to make a separation between the doctrines or teachings which are unchanging – and the doctrines or teachings which can be changed. This separation is based on the distinction between faith and love, and between law and gospel. Unchanging things are those which belong to faith or gospel. In them, it is a question of our relationship to the unchanging God. Correspondingly, changeable things are those which belong to love or law. In them, it is a question of our relationship to our neighbours. Since the best of our neighbour (and our understanding of it) changes in history, the concrete contents of love changes. With other words, the application of love changes.

Our question today is whether the traditional attitude of the Church towards homosexuality belongs to the area of faith. Is it a truth of the unchangeable faith? The answer depends on how much anthropological and world-view material we place on the area of faith, that is, on the area of the saving gospel of the Lord. At least the apostolic conviction that we are created and redeemed by God belongs to the unchanging faith. If we give up this, we give up the Christian faith. How much other anthropological material does belong to the unchangeable faith? In the discussions concerning women’s ordination, some conservative theologians proposed that certain basic hierarchy of sexes belonged to the unchangeable contents of faith. The leading Lutheran theologians rejected this. Gospel is the message of Christ, they said, and it should not be mixed with things that do not belong to it. They also said, in the typical Lutheran manner, that the Gospel has to be kept pure; if we mix law and gospel, both get spoiled.

Conceptions of the sexual orientation and norms linked with them do not belong to the unchanging faith or Gospel. Knowledge about the human being, the human sexuality, the human characteristics and many other anthropological matters have changed and change all the time. Consequently, our conceptions of the roles and duties of the human beings change. For instance, the conceptions of matrimony and acceptable sexual behaviour have changed in history. There have been times when, for example, polygamy has been found natural and good. In some cultures it is still found good, even among Christians. Therefore, it is clear that things of this kind belong to the changeable doctrines, they belong to the area of love, love and ethics.

When homosexuality is considered as a matter of the changing love and ethics, it is pondered what would be, in our time, a loving way to treat gays and lesbians and their partnerships. This means a challenging ethical work for the churches. Let us now have a look at homosexuality as an ethical question.
Christian Ethics

In the churches, there is no consensus of the Christian ethics. There are churches which emphasize the role of the so-called natural moral law in ethics, a law which was given to the human beings already in the creation. Some other churches teach that the knowledge of the natural law was destroyed in the fall, and the Christians find a new law in the Bible.

In the Finnish Lutheran church we understand Christian ethics like this: Already in the creation, God put so-called natural moral law in the human hearts, and that law is, at least in principle, still evident for the human reason, the fall did not destroy the knowledge of the law in us. The ethics in the Bible is the same ethics that was put in the human hearts already in the creation. We refer to Luther who says that Moses and Christ did not reveal any new law but clarified the old law revealed already in the creation. So, every human being has, in principle, understanding of the law, but in Bible, the same law can be found in a clearer way.

The contents of the law of God is the commandment of love, You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10, 27, also Matthew 22, 37, 39, and Mark 12, 30-31)
also formulated as the Golden Rule: So always treat others as you would like them to treat you. (Matthew 7, 12). 
“That is the Law and the Prophets”, Jesus says (ibid.).

It is important to realize that the golden rule as the basis of ethics implies that all the individual commandments and instructions – also in the Bible – have to be interpreted with its help. Martin Luther, for instance, explicitly criticizes some individual Biblical orders with the help of the Golden Rule. Some of these orders concern sexual ethical questions, such as divorce.

Although there are differences among Christians in understanding ethics, I think most Christians find the Golden Rule as an important principle in ethics and think that ethical estimation cannot be done by an outside observer, but by one who deeply tries to take another person’s position and then tries to see what is best for him or her in his or her very situation. The Christian ethics understood like this may, therefore, resemble the ethics of the first-generation-Americans: I have heard that they used to say that you should not condemn another person before you have walked – was it two months – in his or her moccasins. A good piece of ethical advise, isn’t it?

Somebody may think that the Golden Rule is too easy guideline to love, but on the contrary: it is most difficult. It would be much easier to hide oneself behind some texts or traditions or casuistic rules, that is, behind a letter.

So, with the help of the Golden Rule, we are able to estimate what is best to our neighbour. The problem, however, is that we are not always too eager to do so, to set ourselves into other people’s situation. In the fall, we may have lost partly even the sense what is good to our neighbour, but much more we have lost our will to take another person’s position and do good to him or her. In order to will good for other people we need Christ present in us in faith.


So, if we apply the Golden-Rule-ethics to the case of people belonging to the sexual minorities, what follows? What is found to be best for the people in question? People belonging to the sexual minorities, just like all other people, should be able to live a safe and good life carried by close human relationships. How can this happen in their cases? Probably in the same way as in the case of all people: In an enduring and faithful partnership with another person. A reality is that in the case of gays and lesbians, the partner would be of the same sex. The Finnish Lutheran bishops said in autumn 2008:
“When the Church marries and favours a juridical contracted union, its purpose is to speak in favour of the safety of the spouses and especially of the children.”

One might add that for the same reasons, that is, because of the safety of the spouses and the children, the Church could, in its teaching, to favour a juridical contracted union also in the case of the partners of the same sex.

My title was: “Does homosexuality challenge the doctrine of the Church?” I would answer as follows: Homosexuality and questions concerning sexual orientation do not challenge the faith of the Church, but they challenge its interpretation of love. They challenge the Church to preach and live love applied to the conditions of our time.