A Pastoral Letter
From The Bishops of the ELCIC
Regarding Same Sex Marriages
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be
with you all. Amen.
On June 10, 2003 three justices of the Ontario Superior Court ruled in the case of "Halpen vs
Canada," that the current legal definition of "marriage" is discriminatory to gay and lesbian
couples, a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and therefore unconstitutional. In
their ruling, they ordered that the law be changed to include same sex marriages. There have
been similar rulings in British Columbia and in Quebec in 2002. The Federal Justice Department
and a House of Commons Committee had been studying possible options in the wake of these
previous rulings. This ruling has resulted in many civil same sex marriages proceeding. On June
17th, the Federal Cabinet agreed to change the law recognizing "marriage" as a committed
relationship between two adults. A "free vote" will be held when Parliament resumes.
The current situation has raised numerous questions about the implications of these changes
within the Lutheran community. Many people beyond the church have also been seeking the
views of church and religious leaders. To assist members in discussing this issue, this letter is
meant to offer a brief review of some historic Lutheran perspectives on marriage and to help
frame some of the questions posed by the Court’s decision.
A Lutheran View of Marriage
Lutherans understand marriage to be important to the life of people in communities. Human life
finds its essence in relationship to others and when lived for others. The Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Canada continues to understand that,
Christian faith affirms that marriage is a covenant of fidelity – a dynamic, lifelong
commitment of one man and one woman in a personal and sexual union . . . Marriage
is not simply a legal transaction which can be broken when the conditions under which
it was entered no longer exists . . . This union embodies God’s loving purpose to create
and enrich life. (Sex, Marriage and the Family, A Social Statement of the Lutheran
Church in America, 1970; affirmed by the ELCIC in 1991)
While this Social Statement was written in 1970 and while the context has been changing, it
remains instructive in guiding Lutheran views about marriage including its definition. In
essence, it tells us that God has given marriage and families to people so that all creation can
witness to the Creator’s love as experienced within community.
Lutherans recognize the complexity and diversity of relationships. While marriage is important,
so too, are other relationships. There are, for instance, single people who, in their life with
others, model the love of God. Both married and single people are often situated in a complex
web of relationships and communities which may embody divine love.
Lutherans have a realistic view of marriage. Given human imperfection and sinfulness, marriages,
like all human relationships, are not perfect. Relationships can be broken, they can become violent,
and they can sometimes come to an end. As such, Lutherans understand the pain that comes and
the forgiveness and healing that are needed, particularly in situations of divorce and separation.
Lutherans also have a very pragmatic view of marriage. Based upon the First Article of the Creed,
the Augsburg Confession assigns marriage to one of the "orders of creation." It is a social institution
created by God. It is not a sacrament that can convey "forgiveness of sins." Thus the Reformers
assigned marriage to the "civil realm" – a civil contract between a man and a woman for the good
order of society. When asked, Luther argued that marriage was a matter best left to the state,
stating that "marriage is outside the church, is a civil matter, and therefore should belong to the
government" (see Luther’s Works, Volume 54, Table Talk No. 4716, Fortress Press, 1967).
Marriage itself is not "Christian." Rather, marriage is an estate into which Christians may enter.
Different Interests between State and Church
The government and the church have different interests with regard to marriage. The state is
principally concerned with safeguarding the social order and ensuring justice for its citizens. In
essence the state views marriages as a contract: What are the responsibilities and mutual
obligations that are being assumed? How are they to be settled or concluded if or when they
come to an end? How will relationships be governed to avoid exploitation?
Governments have also applied the protections and obligations of marital status to those living
in "common law" relationships without necessarily signalling their endorsement of such
relationships. The state seeks to ensure that certain protections are assured and that personal
obligations are maintained in order to build public welfare and well-being.
The church’s interest, on the other hand, is to strengthen the ability of relationships to incarnate
and be a model of God’s love for others. To this end the church performs marriage rites for
Christians and provides the Christian community with an opportunity to invoke God’s blessing,
not as a form of social or divine approval, but rather, in the expectation that God will be present
in that relationship. Marriage may require a civil contract recognized by the state, but the
church seeks to go beyond this contract by strengthening relationships so they might provide a
public witness to the love of God for all creation.
The Superior Court recognized that the state and the church have different interests. While
marriage for Lutherans is not a religious institution per se, the Court did make the point that
there are separate interests and that churches would not be obligated to perform same sex
marriages. In their ruling they said,
Marriage is a legal institution, as well as a religious and social institution. This case
is solely about the legal institution of marriage. It is not about the religious validity
or invalidity of various forms of marriage. We do not view this case as, in any way,
dealing or interfering with the religious institution of marriage.
(Superior Court of Ontario, June 10, 2003)
The civil recognition of marriage does not mean that the churches endorse, nor that pastors will
be obliged to conduct any particular marriage.
The effect of this court ruling will be to ensure that there is a clear distinction about who is
doing what, when, and for what reason. It may be that the current practices whereby pastors act
on behalf of the state at weddings should come to an end. Lutherans may wish to take Luther’s
advice and advocate that the matter of marriage contracts be left to the government. People
would register their marriage with civic officials and those who are members of the Christian
community might seek a blessing in a separate religious ceremony.
In the Federal announcement the government was clear in stating that religious leaders will not be
compelled to perform same sex marriages. Regardless, the churches still face questions about the
blessing of such relationships. Since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has no official
policy authorizing clergy to bless same sex relationships, pastors are not permitted to perform such
rites and will be disciplined for doing so. For the sake of the unity and good order of the church, it
is important that any changes in this practice be authorized by this church acting together.
The bishops recognize your faithfulness to the ministry of this church and hope that this letter
helps to clarify some of the pastoral and ecclesiological implications of this present situation.
+Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop
+Michael Pryse, Eastern Synod
+Richard M. Smith, Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod
+Cynthia G. Halmarson, Saskatchewan Synod
+Stephen P. Kristenson, Synod of Alberta and the Territories
+Gerhard Preibisch, British Columbia Synod