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Which is more important for the family: marriage or Sunday-closing laws? The answer is clear for the Protestant church in Germany: Marriage is not to be considered a “presupposition” for family, but Sunday-closing laws are “indispensable” for families. Such are the conclusions of Between Autonomy and Dependence: Strengthening Family as a Reliable Community , a study released in June by the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, the federation of regional Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches that includes almost all German Protestants.

The initial idea would appear to have been a primarily social policy study of how the Church can help families respond to contemporary pressures on family life: more families where both parents must work to provide the desired income, a growing number of single-parent households, shrinking time for family life. The EKD is one of the largest social-service providers in Germany and does much work with families under stress.

The commission was chaired by the former family minister in the federal government, an engaged layperson. The academic experts came from law, social work, and sociology faculties, with the exception of one junior theology professor with an interest in social questions. The study describes itself as “an aid to orientation.” The precise status of the EKD is something of a mystery; its constitution says that it is “a communion of churches.” Church teaching and order, however, is a matter for the member churches.

Much of the text is the sort of policy-oriented study one would expect, rather wonkish in its details and with chapter titles such as “Constitutional Assumptions and Models of Marriage and Family in Contemporary Family Law.” The information and analysis are often to the point. The commission, however, thought it needed to do more. It sought to provide a theological account of what constitutes a family. And just there the train ran off the tracks, with disastrous and, one fears, all-too-revealing results.

Between Autonomy and Dependence understands the family functionally. Humanity is created with a need for an intimate, secure, dependable community that can be a framework for children and for the continuity of the generations. Families are ways of meeting these needs, but the family has “no fixed structure,” neither historically nor biblically, as the text repeatedly asserts. It is, as the chair of the EKD’s council put it upon presenting the report, “an inter-generational living space in which reliability should be developed in diversity, and commitment in responsibility, trust and the readiness to forgive, care and relational justice.”

The contemporary diversity of families”lifelong marriages with children, “patchwork families” that are the products of divorce and remarriage, single-parent households, same-sex couples with or without children”represents the variety of ways in which people meet the basic human need for intimate community. The recent dominance of the nuclear family has created an overly narrow understanding of family. We need an “expanded concept” of family to understand contemporary society.

The text explicitly denies that marriage should be seen as a normal presupposition of family. The issue here is not just childbirth outside marriage but also same-sex couples. In the background lies the distinctive German legal framework. The Basic Law of the Federal Republic, which functions as a constitution, lists the “special protection” of marriage and family as a duty of the state. Courts have interpreted this to include protection of the character of marriage as involving one man and one woman.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is thus difficult in Germany; same-sex “registered partnerships” have been the alternative. The EKD commission’s proposal is to redefine not marriage but family. Marriage is one form of family, deserving of no special privileges over other forms of family. (The questions of polygamy, polyandry, or polyamory are never discussed, but the argument of the text provides no basis for rejecting them.)

Different forms of family are to be judged by how well they meet basic human needs and whether they are just and equitable in their internal arrangements. As the commission chair put it, “The mode in which the family and partnership are lived out should not be decisive” in the Church’s affirmation of families . Like many such texts, the study combines a stern moralism on unfair divisions of labor within marriage with a complete silence on the duty of marital faithfulness and mild regret over the increase in divorce.

The study insists that accepting this broader concept of family is theologically justified, even required. The authors reject not only marriage as a sacrament but even the traditional Protestant understanding of marriage as a divine institution. They relentlessly stress the variation of family life within the Bible without any attempt to analyze the principles embodied in these variations. Marriage as divine institution is always linked with gender hierarchies and unjust divisions of labor.

The authors appeal for their theological grounding to Luther’s statement that marriage is a weltliches Ding , a worldly matter. He meant that marriage is established by God’s act of creation and is not directly a part of the redemptive order. As such, it is to be administered by the state, but the state is also a divine institution rooted in God’s creative act. When marriage as a divine institution with a determinate shape is subtracted from the notion of marriage as a “worldly thing,” what results is the functional understanding of marriage and family the text presents.

In a theological move that probably has Luther spinning in his grave, the text even underwrites its proposal by appealing to the freedom given by the gospel. The recognition of a wider understanding of family “is not to be understood simply as an accommodation to new realities of family life, but as a normative orientation. Against the background of the liberating message of the gospel, it is a matter of taking seriously the freedom and equality of all persons and realizing justice also within the family.”

The theology of the study amounts to little more than these simple assertions. The text contains no extensive discussion of Scripture or of contemporary ethical analyses of marriage and family; the commission probably did not have the expertise to produce such discussions. The only biblical reference in the text’s brief foreword confuses Genesis and Exodus (First Moses and Second Moses in their German Protestant titles), and the only contemporary theologian cited is Paul Tillich, not the theologian best appealed to in the context of marriage.

The release of the statement in June set off a flurry of discussion, some vehemently critical. Newspaper reports had headlines such as “Farewell to Marriage?” Some EKD leaders had not seen the text before it was released and were pressed for reactions before they could read it. Conservative groups started petition drives to have the statement retracted. One Lutheran bishop declared that the study had given up the institutional aspect of marriage “almost without a sound.”

The majority of EKD leaders who spoke up, however, defended the study with varying degrees of enthusiasm, some insisting that marriage is not being undercut but that the values of marriage extended to other forms of family; other leaders more aggressively defended its moral outlook (“Homosexuality is a part of creation” was the headline for an interview with one of the text’s drafters). Most granted that the study is theologically and biblically thin. The chair of the EKD council suggested that a supplement might be needed to fill out the study’s theology.

Catholic response has been sharp. The chair of the German bishops’ Committee on Family said the bishops were “very concerned” over the “relativizing” of marriage and described the text as another sign of the “ever greater divide” between the churches on ethical questions. A Catholic professor of ecumenical theology active in Catholic“Lutheran dialogue called it a new “burden for ecumenism.”

The controversy comes at a delicate time for Catholic“Protestant relations in Germany. June also saw the release of a text from the International Lutheran“Catholic Dialogue titled From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran“Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 . A common commemoration might avoid the triumphalism that so easily goes with such occasions and inspire a common sense of regret for Christian division. German plans for a common commemoration have gotten off to a difficult start, however. The new text on families will not help.

The EKD family study is itself a sign of the bad results of Christian division. The former chair of the EKD council, Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin, has argued for what he calls “profile ecumenism,” emphasizing the specific profile that distinguishes Protestant from Catholic. The study is an example of such an outlook. It never draws on the common understanding of family widely shared in the Christian tradition. Rather, its appeal is always to some specifically evangelisch , Protestant, understanding. The result, predictably, isn’t just not Catholic; it is not catholic. It is positively sectarian.

German Protestantism has fallen on hard times. This text shows that the problem is not just the absence of bottoms in pews but of thoughts in heads. A recent EKD “impulse paper” that explored new paths for the Church in the twenty-first century was entitled “Church of Freedom.” What is needed is an understanding of freedom that owes more to Luther and St. Paul and less to contemporary movements of social liberation.

Michael Root is professor of theology at the Catholic University of America.