Urmas Nõmmik: Marriage referendum a danger to churches

Urmas Nõmmik.
Urmas Nõmmik. Source: Fred-Erik Kerner

The marriage referendum has failed even before it is held as it will create a lot of conflict and confusion. Churches and their representatives should be especially mindful in this situation as the already politically loaded referendum will take on a religious-political hue, Urmas Nõmmik writes.

Churches and their representative need to explain why they support certain positions. There has been a lot of talk about Christian tradition and values, while little has been said on their foundation.

Unlike active churchgoers, the secular media consumer does not know how the church's positions came about or what they are based on. This ignorance could be called religious illiteracy that has been described as a problem by the Estonian Council of Churches and emphasized many times by the archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK). However, we can also call it a failure of churches' missionary and educational efforts.

Taking a look at public media, one is left with the impression that the average Estonian knows volumes about a fourth-rate commandment in Mosaic Law, while they have never heard the word "gospel."

The Holy Bible seems to be limited to a few sections on sexual relations. In truth, there are a hundred other things that shape or seek to shape the everyday life of Christians. At their heart lies the gospel, the joyous message of redemption and love. This shortage of awareness is a stark fact that should make churches and their members take a look in the mirror. Has a Christian's primary mission of spreading the gospel truly been accomplished?

Christian everyday life is centered around love for one's fellow man strength for which is drawn from the Bible. Reading the Bible and reading it to the congregation are deeply self-critical exercises. Every meeting with another person is new and special. Standard situations for which instructions could be found in the Bible are extremely rare.

A Christian can never be fully satisfied with themselves and say that everything they have done has been done right. That is why a Christian needs redemption, gospel to give them strength for new meetings with the other.

It is difficult in this light to simply talk about Christian tradition or values. It is simpler to talk about how that tradition and values have changed. There is ample proof of this in history and it is perfectly reflected in how the Bible was used to tolerate slavery for centuries until it was finally realized that debasing one's fellow man in no way coincides with the principle of loving them.

Today, a theological and interpretational change is taking place as regards same-sex partners. This change stems from self-critical study of the Bible. God has created everything and those created are obligated to adopt the same attitude toward others that have been created. This change in mainstream interpretations of the Holy Bible cannot be diminished by talking about political and secular pressure. The spirit of this change has been there in the revelations of the gospel all along.

At the risk of exaggerating, I find that churches in Estonia are lacking when it comes to this self-critical work. I also admit my own modest contribution. To take the example of the Lutheran Church, I say that it is high time for Lutherans to recall Martin Luther's two kingdoms doctrine according to which marriage belongs squarely in the earthly sphere and not the spiritual.

As well as that every Lutheran is obligated to reevaluate their understanding of the Bible based on the gospel again and again. Or finally that the universal priesthood principle of all the faithful places responsibility on every single Christian, allowing and even obligating them to speak up where they see that something is lacking, even if it concerns high-ranking clerics.

Were there enough of such self-critical discourse inside the church, I'm sure it would shine outward. The public would gain much as it would gradually create an understanding of the force that drives Christians. It cannot be denied that at least as far as the Lutheran Church is concerned, it would bring about inner and public change or at least diversification sooner or later. The latter no doubt includes the matter of same-sex cohabitation or marriage.

What all of this has to do with the marriage referendum is this. Churches and their members but especially high-ranking representatives must justify and explain their positions in a language the general public can understand. Unpretentious references to Christian traditions and values remain hollow when no effort is made to populate them with meaning.

However, reasoning and explanations require a strong enough foundation inside the church. This can only happen if as many churchgoers as possible are involved in discussions that interpret the Bible self-critically. This kind of conduct is of fundamental significance, at least when it comes to the Lutheran Church.

By voicing only faintly justified and at times theologically doubtful theses, representatives of churches are only sending themselves into hot water. Whereas the setback will be especially grave if these positions are then used to meddle in politics.

The fact that we are no longer talking about the cohabitation of same-sex partners or the "implementing provisions" (of the Registered Partnership Act – ed.) but same-sex marriage serves as one example of this. Churches and their representatives, or at least the Lutheran Church, have played a role in public debate having become that much sharper.

In summary: It would benefit churches as institutions if the marriage referendum would not take place. The referendum would be political no matter what – more a matter of being for or against political parties and less about marriage. The marriage referendum turning into a religious-political vote for or against churches is downright dangerous.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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