Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

In Protestantism, gender roles and views of sexuality mirror the social contexts of the churches. Beliefs about gender and sexuality break down not necessarily along denominational lines but on conservative/liberal lines. Conservatives from any denomination (or non-denominational churches) often have more in common with their conservative colleagues from other denominations than with liberals from their own denomination. Liberals, in turn, often have more in common with liberal colleagues from other denominations.

Protestant churches in Europe tend to be quite liberal, working for the equality of women, and not believing homosexuality to be a sin.  In 2007, the Lutheran Church of Sweden announced that it would bless same-sex unions. Lutheran Churches in Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark ordain women and have female bishops. The first to ordain women was the Church of Sweden, in 1958.

In the United States, denominations that split in the 19th century over the modernist controversy or over slavery usually split into more conservative and more liberal branches. These branches remain conservative and liberal on questions of gender and sexuality. So, for example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) does not ordain women, and considers homosexuality to be a sin. In the early 20th century they disagreed with parts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on the issue of the authority of the Bible and its inerrancy.

Among almost all the mainline denominations, there is general unanimity on the question of gender. That is, they all ordain women, and offer lay and ordained women leadership roles in churches and in the denominational hierarchy. Many non-denominational churches, as well as Southern Baptists and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod do not. Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, while conservative on most issues, have a long history of ordaining women. This is because the ultimate authority for them is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit manifests itself in a woman, that woman becomes a leader, regardless of some scriptural passages that seem to forbid women leadership roles in churches. Phoebe Palmer, the famous 19th-century revival preacher and writer, is one important and early example.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the largest Reformed denomination in America, has adopted cautious middle-of-the-road official statements that lean perhaps a bit to the conservative side. But pressure continues from some in the Church to bless same sex unions and to ordain gay clergy, and so the issue continues to be discussed at all levels of the Church, and is frequently on the agenda of the General Assembly. Nevertheless, gays are to be welcomed into the church.

One can see almost precisely the same debates in the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Episcopal Church. Recently, numbers of conservative congregations of the Episcopal Church have removed themselves from the jurisdiction of their American bishops because of the ordination in 2003 of Gene Robinson, an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. As allowed by canon law, they have placed themselves under the jurisdiction of bishops in other countries, often Africa or southeast Asia, where, predominantly, more traditional Anglican views on theology and sexuality are held. In some instances, these American churches have gathered together to form a new unit within the worldwide Anglican communion, such as the churches that are members of the Anglican Mission in America.

The ELCA since 1991 has affirmed that gay and lesbian members are welcome. They do not bless same-sex unions, and expect all non-married clergy, gay and straight, to remain celibate. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod believes homosexuality to be a sin. They counsel abstinence for all gay members, arguing that since Christ has forgiven their sin, they should "go and sin no more" (John 8:11). United Methodists also do not officially discriminate against gay and lesbian church members. They do expect ministers to "maintain the highest levels of holy living in the world," and find that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. They therefore do not ordain gay clergy or bless same-sex unions.

On the issue of the role of women in Church leadership positions, there seems to be slow but steady movement in many denominations toward embracing women in all roles within the Church, including ordination and senior pastoral leadership. Those churches that are not moving in this direction refrain from doing so because they believe that though the Bible teaches the priesthood of all believers it also teaches some distinctive roles and responsibilities for men and women respectively.

Study Questions:
     1.     How are views of sexuality split within the Protestant church?
     2.     What is the role of women in different Protestant denominations?
     3.     What is the predominant understanding of human sexuality? How is it changing?

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