USA – Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola has recently completed an American lecture tour during which he spoke on the criminal charges he faces in Finland for upholding historic Christian teaching on human sexuality.
Dr. Pohjola is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF). He, along with a Finnish Member of Parliament, Dr. Päivi Räsänen, has been charged with incitement against a group of people for the publication of a 2004 booklet which defends the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality.
“I wish I could tell you a great story about how we were courageous Christians who decided to stand against the cultural revolution and ungodly practices and ideologies by publishing a shocking pamphlet with huge media coverage,” Bishop Pohjola says wryly. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this is not what happened.”
The current situation had more innocuous beginnings. In the early 2000s, his church began publishing a series of catechetical booklets exploring Lutheran theology, with the first entries discussing such topics as worship, the Lord’s Supper, justification, and sanctification. “How radical and heroic does this sound?” Bishop Pohjola asks.
It was only in 2004, as Finland and the established church discussed the legalization of same-sex marriage, that the booklet series moved to discuss the subject of Christian teaching on sexuality. “Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity” was the 29th volume in the series. In that sense, the booklet’s publication in 2004 was not particularly remarkable, even if its author Dr. Räsänen—as a Member of Parliament—was better known. The booklet was distributed to church members as well as to Members of Parliament but drew little attention. Like the other theological booklets in the series, it was put online where it remained without comment for fifteen years.
In 2019, however, a local Finnish theologian complained to the police about the booklet. After an in-depth investigation, Helsinki police determined that no crime had been committed, and that the booklet’s text was protected under freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Despite this determination, Finland’s Prosecutor General decided to charge Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola for the booklet’s publication. If convicted, they could face thousands of dollars in fines or even up to two years in prison. The case goes to court on January 24, 2022.
For Bishop Pohjola, the primary concern in the legal matter is the right of Christians to publicly teach historic Christian doctrine. “God, creation, the fall, atonement, and the Christian way of life have all been the teaching of the Church throughout the ages,” he explains. “As a Lutheran bishop, it is my calling and duty to hold on to this truth and publicly teach it no matter what the cost is—not because we want to wage a cultural war in society but because we want to call people to repentance, that through faith in Christ they may receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is not primarily a legal issue; the Gospel of Christ is at stake!”
“I’m not personally afraid of the court case’s outcome,” Bishop Pohjola explains. “What makes me worried is the signal already sent and received by so many, even Christians: if they come after a Member of Parliament and a Lutheran pastor, they can come after you.”
The decision to charge the pair for the booklet—Dr. Räsänen faces two additional charges as well for other public statements—has drawn concern from many quarters. Earlier this year, the International Lutheran Council (ILC) issued a public letter signed by the presidents and bishops of dozens of Lutheran church bodies around the world condemning the actions of the Finnish state in prosecuting Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen.
A group of American legal scholars have also issued a public letter encouraging the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to investigate the situation and levy sanctions against Finland. More recently, a group of six American Congress members have also issued a public letter calling on USCIRF to investigate the situation and take action.
In November 2021, the International Lutheran Council invited Bishop Pohjola to share his story with an American audience. Bishop Pohjola spoke first in Washington, D.C. in a November 10 appearance at the offices of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The ADF is advising both the bishop and Dr. Rasanan in their upcoming trials. Shawn Nelson, who serves the ADF as legal counsel for issues touching on global religious freedom, also spoke at the Washington event. The second public lecture by Bishop Pohjola took place on November 13 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. St. Paul Lutheran Church served as the venue for the event, which was livestreamed online and followed by a choral service of matins. The final lecture by Bishop Pohjola took place on November 16 at First Lutheran Church in Boston, Massachusetts, and was likewise followed by a choral service of matins.
You can watch a video of Bishop Pohjola’s Fort Wayne presentation below. The text of the bishop’s presentation can also be downloaded as a pdf here.
Participants at all three events had the opportunity to pick up an English translation of the booklet for which Dr. Rasanan and Bishop Pohjola have been charged, and judge for themselves its innocuous nature.
During his lecture tour in the United States, Bishop Pohjola also preached during a chapel service at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and further addressed two separate gatherings of faculty and students at the school. He also preached for two services in Zionsville, Indiana, and further gave a number of media interviews.
“Many people have asked: ‘What can we do for you?’” Bishop Pohjola says. “The best thing for us is that you remain faithful in your own vocations and make a good confession of natural order and biblical truth.”
“Pray also for our country and for our Prosecutor General,” he continues. “Pray that this court case will be, in the hands of our Lord, a blessing for us and bring glory to our Lord’s name.”