Pursuing Gender Justice in the German Protestant Church

Gender justice – aim and task of the Church

[1] Nobody argues directly against the value of gender justice in public. It is a question of political correctness to strengthen it in the Church. Gender equality is an explicit aim in the constitution of our Church, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Northern Germany. In article eleven on “Gender equality of women and men” states:

[2] “The communion of women and men in the Church is given (constituted) by baptism in Jesus Christ. It is visible in equal participation in positions, services and tasks. Different life situations of women and men should be considered and work-life-balance should be made possible.”

[3] The article creates a wide frame. It provides orientation and a space of interpretation as well. As an article of the constitution it is fundamental and it was approved as a result of intense dialogue in the synod. Therefore I shall deal with that article later by describing its essence in order to show the opportunities it opens up as well as the themes it ignores.
[4] A lot of basic questions concerning gender justice cannot be addressed in such a short article. For example: What are the indicators of gender justice in all the fields of practice within the Church? What is ‘just’ concerning gender relations? And what exactly do we mean when we use the term ‘gender’?

[5] When we give these questions to members of our church, we get very different answers. These answers correlates with one’s specific experience, the understanding of gender as a social or biological (natural) category, with one’s incorporated values and norms, and with theological thinking and biblical hermeneutics.

[6] As commissioners for equality and gender of a big Church, we help persons in leading positions to develop a ‘gender just Church’.[1] We often meet aggression and have to struggle with what kind of strategies work best because questions of gender are near to everyone. We have different understandings of gender justice, gender and gender relations. Different lifestyles are a consequence of these different understandings and the question follows, what kind of forms and models of relations and partnerships should be the guiding vision in our Church.

[7] After looking at article 11 of our new church-constitution, I want to explain how we understand gender and gender justice. I describe indicators which follow the basic understanding. A biblical argument concerning why gender justice should be promoted in the Church is the next point. Then I explore how women and men benefit from gender justice. I describe the practice in Germany concretely. Finally I focus on the struggle over an orientation guide of the EKD concerning the family. It should illustrate the theological conflict, which people working in the field of gender justice very often face.

“One in Christ” – the constitution of communion between men and women in baptism

[8] Baptism is the basis for communion between men and women in the church. A central text is the early formula for baptism that the Apostle Paul uses in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:26-28):

[9]26For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

[10] The point of relation for every human being is Christ who showed us how to live in a just way. The gospels speak of an egalitarian lifestyle in contrast to the hierarchical and violent order of the Roman-Greek society in the time of Jesus. In the words of the gender-justice-policy of LWF: “Humankind, regardless of gender, biology or other conditions, is transformed in Jesus’ grace, forgiveness and new life.”

[11] The ‘equal participation in ministry, services and tasks’ is a sign of the communion of men and women in Christ. First, this means the legal opportunity of access to all levels of church life for everyone who is baptized. Secondly, it can be interpreted, that the quantitative and qualitative participation of women and men is an indication of just relations in Christ. To put it another way: Where there exists a large inequality between women and men in leading positions, services and working fields, there is no just communion and the body of Christ in the world is invisible, fragmented and weak.

[12] The third sentence of our article concerns the different ways of life of men and women. The differences should be respected. So it is recognized that the pure opportunity to have access to positions, services and tasks does not guarantee real participation. An integration of gender perspectives in Church work is evidently needed – gender justice is a cross-cutting principle for the whole Church.

[13] The article ends with a reference to work-life-balance. Family is central here. Working for equality has to establish structures which guarantee full participation on the one side of work and on the other of family and private life. This leads to consequences, especially for leading positions.

Gender as a basic social category

[14] Article 11 of the constitution of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Northern Germany proceeds on the assumption of two sexes, male and female. Therefore it affirms heteronormativity. The question of whether it understands man or woman as a social or biological category is not answered. When I am talking about gender in this article I always lean on the English term ‘gender’. Gender describes the social, cultural and religious connotations, which give different meanings to our natural bodies. Gender roles are created by social and individual practice (doing gender). Therefore changes in the patterns of meaning are possible. Gender roles depend on time and context. They are liquid, never standing still and always open to new clusters of meaning.

[15] In the horizon of Gal 3:26-28 and with the headline ‘Communion in Christ – just communion of women and men’, it is impossible not to be engaged in the work of changing the traditional gender stereotypes. Our present gender roles are still influenced by patriarchical thinking and norms. Men are still seen as rational and aggressive, women as emotional and nurturing. The Bible itself underlines such gender stereotypes: She should love him and obey him; he should love her and give his life for her (Ephesians 5).

[16] Gender roles are powerful. The heterosexual matrix and its system of symbols influence the whole reality and create gender arrangements that are hierarchical. We can see that when we look at the gender pay gap, the difference in income between women and men. In Germany the difference is 23% in 2013. In the contexts of our Church, the underrepresentation of women in leading positions is an indication of the power of gender stereotypes and roles. Leading structures and positions are still male-connotated and dominated so that it is harder for women to get to them.

[17] Change in the gender-hierarchical symbol system is one priority to realize gender justice. Work on consciousness and sensitivity for the open and hidden power of stereotypes are elemental tasks that have consequences for theology and Church tradition.

Gender justice and indicators for gender justice in the Church

[18] Gender justice is a constituting element of the Church. That results from what has been said about the communion of women and men. The text of Galatians 3:26-28 is connected with Genesis 1:27, which speaks about the creation of human beings in the image of God. Gender justice, that has respect for the duty of every human being, is a task given by God from the beginning. Klara Butting writes concerning Genesis 1:27:

[19] A revolutionary story is told. The title “image of God” is given to all human beings. The Bible recalls the attitude of a few to reign and gives the government to everybody. So no one should reign above another. This story of creation is the first … for the biblical engagement in equality and freedom.” (Unpublished draft, 2013)

[20] The mandate of stewardship for the whole creation constitutes human beings as co-workers of God in the world process. That includes the opportunity to shape policy which is connected with power. Equal participation and influence in changing something and power sharing are key points for gender justice. The gender-justice-policy of the LWF specifies order and states:

[21] “Gender justice is expressed through equality and balanced power relations between women and men and the elimination of the institutional, cultural and interpersonal systems of privilege and oppression that sustain discrimination.” (Draft, July 2013)

[22] Measurable quantitative and qualitative indicators for gender justice are:

  • Participation – How do men and women participate in the Church?
  • In leading positions (full-time, honorary)?
  • In services (ministry, pastoral care, teaching, counseling, diaconal services, ecumenical relations)?
  • In other spheres of activity (kindergarten, care, groups)?
  • Equality – How is the power shared between men and women?
  • Do they have the same possibilities to access ministries and leading positions independent of different life designs?
  • Does a culture of dialogue exist, that takes into account the differences (style of communication)?
  • Does a gender sensitive theological practice exist (acceptance of feminist theologies and critical male theologies)?
  • What kind of access to resources do men and women have?
  • How are they represented in different pay grades?
  • Does a culture of mutual estimation exist?

[23] From the reflections so far, it is evident that the responsibility for gender justice is a broad one. Everyone who is baptized is called to take part in the work of gender justice. People in leading positions in the Church should keep that in mind. The staff of the office for equality and gender are experts in this work area and its themes. They support and accompany executive boards and committees, processes, projects and activities of the administration.

The realization of gender justice and the benefit for women and men

[24] Everyone in the church is responsible for gender justice and is confronted with the tedious and tough work of trying to implement targeted measures to promote gender justice. Changes imply very often the loss of privileges on one side and a benefit of possibilities on the other. People who feel privileged don’t generate a lot of motivation for changing something. They even fear changes.

[25] We have to awake the longing for changes. People need positive experiences which can take away their fears. It is in order for the church, to open such spaces as she doesit in the communion service when sisters and brothers share in a just, egalitarian communion.

[26] “Paulus has experienced that in the succession of Christ cross-border communion arose. Free women and men shared their bread with slaves. Jews were accepted by Gentiles and gender differences do not cause life planning and life’s journey.” (Klara Butting)

[27] Gender justice is part of our Christian vision, which is closely tied with the concept of the Kingdom of God that has begun and can be experienced here and now. The point is that we remove the chains which enslave us.

[28] Dominating role stereotypes produce burdens that men are more and more unwilling to bear. Fathers want to take responsibility for the education of their children and want to have time with them. They want to take parental leave or work part-time. Such men support the changes for gender justice actively. Sometimes they take a vocational loss. But overall they benefit from the wider scope of possibilities and a new perception of men and a modified image of women in Germany.

[29] Also discontent increases among men concerning the traditional stereotype of them as sole earners. Time compression and acceleration of the working world and the instability of employment relationships as one result of the globalization process leads such men more frequently than ever into crisis. With a high sense of duty they sacrifice themselves for their families and their employer, risking health and happiness. They live in the image that is embodied by the text of Ephesians 5. They as well can benefit from fair gender-relations and extended masculine role-models.

[30] These may be enough to illustrate that gender justice is also a concern for men. For women gender equality has major relevance because of the obvious disadvantages (for example under-representation in supervisory councils), even if young well educated women in the majority don’t feel underprivileged. New studies show, that gender injustice begins later in life. It is still closely related to the birth of a child and the interruptions that follow in the work-biography.
Promotion of gender justice – practical implementation

[31] Based on the fact, that gender justice is a cross-cutting task, it is not possible to describe in detail how we promote gender justice at all levels of the Church, which are often very autonomous. Therefore I will focus on some aspects that deal with our work as an office for equality and gender in the ‘Northchurch’, plus a successful concept on the level of the EKD, that was adopted in a lot of regional Churches.

[32] Activities and tools to develop gender justice can be divided into two category groups: First the category of personal and organizational development (work on and in the structures) and secondly activities that can be categorized under the term awareness-raising or gender-sensitization. The following chart lists some concrete examples.

  • Personal and organizational development
  • Awareness-raising/gender-sensitization
  • Cooperation on the concept ‘age-appropriate personal development’
  • Study guide ‘To dare gender justice – an impulse for the work in parishes’
  • Cooperation on the concept ‘qualification of persons in leading positions’
  • Flyer of statistics: allocation of leading committees
  • Handling of documents for the governing body of the Church
  • Flyer to inform people about gender mainstreaming
  • Cooperation on a survey about the situation of pastors
  • Support and training of commissioners for gender and equality in church districts
  • Preparation of a mentoring program for future leading persons
  • Public relations
  • Working on a church law to realize gender justice

[33] Structurally our office for equality and gender is assigned to the leading department of our Church office. The president of the office has the supervision. In terms of their task the commissioners have instructions and freedom; there is no technical supervision. They have the opportunity to give petitions directly to church leadership, without pre-consultation in the college of the church office. This structure enables a critical accompaniment of entire church processes and allows for a discovery of gender-aspects where they are concerned.

[34] Cooperation and networking play a key role. There are a lot of networks inside and outside the Church. For instance we cooperate with the ‘network family’, the ‘alliance life-forms’ and the ‘council of women’s organizations’. Cooperation exists between and among the ‘women’s and men’s work of the church’, the ‘institutional counseling ministry;’ the ‘association of evangelical day care centers’ and other organizations.

[35] A few challenges over of the next several years can clearly be addressed today:

  • The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions
  • The (family-unfriendly) structure of leadership positions
  • The essential (inevitable) changes in the institutional church as a result of the drop in revenue
  • A massive lack of pastors
  • The consequences of the demographic development (superannuation of the population)

[36] Regarding the ‘underrepresentation of women in leadership positions’ it can be illustrated how we tried to encourage change. In 2010 we invited a variety of people to a conference in Hamburg under the theme ‘Leading with future’. About 100 multipliers took part in it. To expose the problem we developed a flyer which showed the number of women and men in the most important leading panels and leadership positions (church-synod, district-synods, church-council, bishops and others).

[37] No one could deny that there was an underrepresentation of women and a lot of people in the Church declared that they wanted to change it. So they indicated how important our work for gender justice was and is. But there remains no agreement on how to remedy the situation.

[38] The most effective means for alteration, the implementation of a quota-system which codifies a gender equal representation, was rejected by a majority of the decision makers. More positively were the reactions when we talked about the idea of organizing a mentoring program for future leaders. Mentoring programs take full effect in the longer term and have no binding consequences. In this respect they are less threatening.

[39] In the autumn of this year the church-law for realization of gender justice is on the agenda of our synod. The draft law includes the participation of the commissioners for equality and gender and the allocation of leading positions. This allows members of application-committees to approach women intentionally and to encourage them to apply. But it will still be difficult to find women and men as long as leading positions remain unattractive. An adequate work-life-balance has to be achieved for people in leadership positions. We also have to provide opportunities for part-time jobs.

[40] The ordination of women, the changing attitude of men fulfilling their responsibilities for the education of children and family care and the reality of the solo-family-breadwinner have raised the question of the segregation of private and professional spheres in church ministry. As a result the traditional image of ministry, which was determined by the Lutheran parsonage or its distorted picture of the good-middle-class family that was stamped in romantic times, is now under close scrutiny. We are intensively involved in the activities which deal with the future of ministry and with the future of our whole Church. In 2012 a survey was taken and later in the fall a study day took place. All pastors of our Church were invited. On the level of the EKD the ‘association of equality commissioners and the departments for women participated under the theme ‘diversity in parsonage’.

[41] 2017 is an extraordinary year for Lutheran Churches all over the world, because the jubilee of the reformation reappears for the 500th time. In a lot of Churches in Germany activities around this jubilee will be organized. From the perspective of gender and equality we are already observing the life and witness of Martin Luther, and that has been given priority. The decade is called ‘Luther-decade’ as well. By the themes of the single years some other Protestant Reformers and important men of the age of the Reformation came into view. The church historical approach as well as the public performance of the EKD concerning the decade of the Reformation (http://luther2017.de) are male dominated and miss a critical analysis of the patriarchal male constructions of former times.

[42] One project that was initiated by the ‘women’s study and education center’[2] endorses the unilateral male sight and approach. In 2011 in Marburg the first ‘women’s meal’ under the title ‘Women’s meal – speeches for the future of religion and church’ took place. The tradition in Luther’s parsonage of connecting a festive meal to speeches should be continued. The concept of women’s meal resulted in women’s meals being celebrated in a lot of places under different thematic foci. A movement has begun that brings the female perspective into the Reformation and its’ impulses for today into the center. The speeches are collected centrally and provided.[3]

[43] This example shows that it is important to consider gender justice as a cross-cutting-category related to ongoing processes. But where it does not happen enough it can be beneficial to develop special projects that add the normally male dominated mainstream in the Church.

[44] In terms of cooperation at many places in the institutionalized Church, even a constructive dialogue is sometimes tedious to have because theologians who represent a feminist or gender-sensitive theology and those who stand for a conservative or liberal one don’t find a commonly accepted hermeneutic base. Actual we can see it in the struggle about an orientation guide of the council of the EKD concerning family. It is worth taking a look at this conflict. Gender justice resonates here as well, because it deals with life designs and its values.

The orientation guide of the EKD ‘Between autonomy and dependence: To strengthen family as a reliable communion’ 2013

[45] The orientation guide specifies a paradigmatic change in the debates about marriage, family and life designs. It takes ethical values as a basis for a responsible Christian life and these values are set as criteria no matter the outer form of the community. Marriage is not narrowed because other forms of living together can be appreciated more than before if they fulfill the criteria of ‘responsibility and reliability. Marriage is not explicitly mentioned as a divine institution or a divine order of creation as it is common in church tradition. ‘A normative understanding of marriage as a divine institution that is derivative of traditional gender-roles does not correspondent to the wideness of the biblical witness.[4] That is the reason why the authors of the orientation guide are accused of devaluing marriage as a guiding light.

[46] A lot of critics of the orientation guide lack objectivity. The orientation guide adapts the ‘spirit of the times’, they declare. It shows disorientation and drops the guiding light of marriage and the family. The redefinition of the term ‘family’ leads to an equality of life forms, that does not fulfill the testimony of the Bible in which homosexuality is totally rejected. It is amazing how fast people uses biblical texts in debates without asking anew how they have to be translated or transmitted into actual contexts. That applies especially to Genesis 1:27 in which the term marriage does not appear. Even if it would be written there, we would have to ask, what did marriage mean when the text was written? Accordingly we would have to determine exactly against whom and for what kind of practice the biblical texts concerning homosexuality were written. Then we would have to explain why certain beliefs, values and norms could still be of importance. A lot of verses are less relevant today because for example we don’t have slaves in our western societies and we don’t need rules on how to treat them. I don’t have to explain it any further. The critics of the orientation guide are obvious: In conservative circles an essential point is the questioning of the guide’s view of life. As a result certainty about leading a “right life” can begin to totter. A marriage is no longer good because two people entered into the bond of marriage. Every partnership (family) despite its legal status has to be judged by the same ethical criteria. ‘Protestant theology encourages the guiding light of family that is based on justice in which members live responsibly and in reliable and binding partnerships.’[5]

[47] From the perspective of gender justice this is a very exciting statement, because justice comes into play. In middle-class marriages a man was the earner and the head of a family. A gender hierarchy existed. Until 1977, women in Germany who wanted to have a job had to seek approval from their husbands. It was in 1969 that a married woman was seen as legally competent. Women were held captive to dependent partnerships. We can ask if this was just. Now we have to think about what constitutes a family that is grounded in justice. How can this guiding light be realized in single-parent families, in patchwork families or in all other forms of family?

[48] The orientation guide is an important resource which sets in motion a new discussion about gender justice and living together. It illustrates vividly the complex reality in which families live today and does not hold people captive to a normative ideal to which everyone should conform. It will be possible to cast in a new light the variety of life forms that historically have always existed. We can affirm them without prejudice.

[49] Theologically we have an opportunity to think about biblical hermeneutics anew, about our church traditions and about our church practice concerning, for example, blessing ceremonies.

Trust in God’s future

[50] Gender justice is part of the broad Christian vision of an egalitarian and liberated world. It still remains as a task we are invited to work on. We do it with humility and with the self-confidence that is given to us by God, as people who are justified and fallible.

[51] Work on equality and gender in the Church occurs in the midst of social tensions as well as biblical and reforming traditions. A reformed anthropology can contribute to recognizing our human imperfection in the disp​