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Bishop Juhana Pohjola

Prosecution appeals to Supreme Court in Finland’s Bible Trial

Bishop Juhana Pohjola (left) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen (right) at the appeal hearings in Helsinki in November 2023. Photo: ELMDF.

FINLAND – The prosecution of Finnish Member of Parliament, Dr. Päivi Räsänen, and Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) are not yet at an end. On January 12, the prosecution announced that it would appeal the decision exonerating the pair to Finland’s Supreme Court.

The two were charged in 2021 with hate speech for their articulation of historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. Charges centre around a 2004 booklet authored by Dr. Räsänen, as well as comments made by her during a radio interview and a tweet (which included a picture of a Bible verse). Bishop Pohjola was charged as the publisher of the 2004 booklet.

The decision to prosecute the pair has drawn widespread concern internationally over the state of freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Finland. The two were initially brought to trial at the Helsinki District Court in 2022, with the prosecution repeatedly questioning them on matters of faith and doctrine. They were eventually acquitted unanimously by a panel of three judges, who declared that “it is not the role of the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” The prosecution appealed that decision to the Helsinki Court of Appeals. In November 2023, that court also acquitted the pair unanimously on all charges.

Now Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen must wait to hear whether the Supreme Court will accept the case. In the meantime, the International Lutheran Council (ILC) is calling for continued prayer for the Finnish politician and bishop. “I encourage Christians around the world to continue to remember Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen in prayer,” said Rev. Dr. Klaus Detlev Schulz, General Secretary of the ILC. “They have already endured years of fear and uncertainty as a result of this unjust prosecution. May God give them courage to continue their faithful witness to Christ and His Word, and may He give them comfort in the midst of ongoing persecution.”

The ILC has strongly advocated on behalf of Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola over the past several years as they faced investigation and trial. That support includes a 2021 public letter of support for the two signed by the leaders of 45 Lutheran church bodies from around the world. The ILC’s 2022 World Conference in Kenya made a similar show of support when church leaders elected Bishop Pohjola to serve as Chairman of the ILC.

The International Lutheran Council is a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and grounded in the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

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Who Are You Bowing To?

The Adoration of the Magi: Stanisław Samoshootnik, c. 1535.

by Juhana Pohjola

The story of Jesus’ birth may appear to the reader of the Gospels as a beautiful but random event—something which took place a long time ago in the remote town of Bethlehem. But on closer inspection, we see how this story reveals that everyone—even the adversaries of Jesus, albeit unwittingly—has to serve this Child in the manger. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, through his Governor Quirinius, carries out the taxation of Judea which leads Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. King Herod announces in his palace to the Magi that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Even the movement of a star in space helps to serve the coming of the King by announcing the time and place of His birth.

But it is the Wise Men of the East—not the Emperor, not the Governor, not the King—who are the first to adopt a posture of worship before the Child of Christmas. They say: “We have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The word “worship” here literally means “to bow one’s face to the ground.” Bowing is an outward way of expressing respect or even divine worship. Ultimately, it indicates whom a person fears and loves—in whom one put his trust and hope.

This is a theme Matthew carries throughout his Gospel. First, Herod cleverly and murderously replies that he also intends to “bow down to” this newborn King (2:8)—even though in reality he bowed only to his own power and desires. Likewise, the devil offered Jesus the riches and pleasures of the world if He would only “fall down and worship me” (4:8). A synagogue ruler also “came and bowed down before [Jesus]” (9:18), not for Jesus’ own sake, but rather out of fear for his daughter who was ill and in danger of death. Many others bowed to Jesus for various reasons, but Matthew’s Gospel ends with a picture of the disciples, who had denied their Lord, now worshipping with fear and joy the Risen One: “And when they saw Him, they worshipped Him” (28:17)—that is, they bowed before Him.

Matthew’s repeated references to bowing reminds us: everyone bows down to something. Some do it consciously, others unknowingly. Some worship the living God, others idols. Who are you bowing to? This is the most important question of your Christmas. All other topics are trivial in the face of this one question, and its answer has eternal consequences. The Child in the manger asks you: Have you pinned your hopes on Me or on ideologies and idols that will soon disappear? Do you put your trust in My Holy Words or in human promises and opportunities? Will you join Me or the worshippers of the god of this world?

Who do you bow to? The question runs through the history of the whole world, every place, every time, and confronts every man. Do we join Sunday after Sunday the eschatological community of the company of heaven worshipping the Lamb on the throne (Revelation 4:10)? Or do we bow before the might and power of darkness (Revelation 13:4), which directs us to lust after the things of this world—“the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16)?

Who you bow to is not an abstract question but something that affects our everyday life. During the past number of years, I have been tempted from without by the pressures of the media and even by state prosecutors in courtrooms to bow down to the spirit of this age. I have been told: Give up your biblical confession! Give up your Christian understanding of humanity and marriage, and nod your head in acceptance to tolerance, equality, and progress! But even when we are not asked to deny biblical truth and the order of creation, there remains a great temptation to remain silent about the truth out of fear—to consent, effectively, to the lies. Who will speak boldly for life, goodness, and truth if we as the Christian Church remain mute?

There is also another temptation when we see the growing darkness around us. We can turn our back on the Lord from within, by bowing down to fear, despair, and bitterness. We curve in upon ourselves, and start counting how few and weak we are and all the wrongs done to us. We focus more on the darkness and ugliness of our time, and not on the light and hope we have in Christ.

Our hope in Christ lies not only in the fact this small Child in the manger has the power to give renewal to His Church and change the direction of our culture of death for the better. Nor is our hope in Christ something merely eschatological—the knowledge that in the end there will come a time when everything is in perfect order and whole, beautiful and pure. Our hope in Christ is that already now—in the midst of hostility and cultural pressure, apostasy and sufferings—He is graciously present among us. Our hope is not only for the future but is a blessed reality here and now. Our hope understands how He carries us in His Church, nurturing us by His Holy Spirit at the altar and the pulpit. Our hope sees with the eyes of faith how He does not abandon us but encourages us through brotherly love and shared life together. Our hope remembers that everything must ultimately bow down to His good will and plan for us. He can turn evil for the good of His disciples. That is why Christians remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Roman 12:12).

The Adoration of the Magi: Hans Thoman, c. 1520.

Today, more and more Christians in our post-Christian culture are paying a high price for not bowing down to lies. How could it be otherwise, since the servant is not greater than the Master (John 15:20)? But what is the price we might have to pay compared to the price which the Son of God was willing to pay for us? He who, as the King of Kings, asks you this question is also Christ crucified for our sins—the King who came not to be worshipped but to bow down to you in humiliation: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Before Him, we do not bow out of slavish fear nor merely for the sake of obedience. Neither do we bow down to Him in order to get something from Him, as payment for our adoration. The Christian Church bows down to the manger and the altar of her Lord out of love for Him who first loved us—Him who still loves us, bearing us up with His grace and filling us with His gifts. Our hope is not in our personal feeling of hope, but in Christ Jesus Himself and His promises! In Him is our hope and joy, and no one can take them away from us. We receive Him in His Words, in the water, in the wine and the bread, so that we rejoice and confess together with St. Paul: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)!

Therefore, on Christmas night, Christendom joins in the joyful hymn that echoes through the darkness of death, fear, and despair:

O come, all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold Him
Born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord! (LSB 379)

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Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).

This article was originally published by The Canadian Lutheran.

Finnish Bishop and Member of Parliament acquitted in “Bible Trial” appeal

Bishop Juhana Pohjola (left) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen (right) at the appeal hearings in Helsinki. Photo: ELMDF.

FINLAND – Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, Finnish Member of Parliament, have been acquitted on all charges in a unanimous decision by the Helsinki Court of Appeals. The two had been charged with hate crimes for their expression of historic Christian teaching on human sexuality.

“For me, this has been not only a legal but also a spiritual battle,” Bishop Pohjola said. “It is important for our church to be able to teach publicly what we understand to be the Word of God, the created order, and natural law. I have a calling as a Christian, as a pastor, to guard the faith and to teach it publicly—and then to carry the cross. Carrying the cross is the price we pay in this age to be witnesses for Christ.”

Bishop Pohjola speaks to supporters outside the Helsinki Court of Appeals. Photo: ELMDF.

“We were united all the time with Dr. Räsänen,” Bishop Pohjola continued. “There was no discussion that we step back but instead wholeheartedly stand together for the Word of God, for the Gospel of Christ.”

The charges stemmed from a 2004 booklet written by Dr. Räsänen and published by Bishop Pohjola which articulates the historic Christian understanding of sexuality. Dr. Räsänen was also charged for two other statements, one of which was a tweet with an image of a Bible verse. The decision to prosecute the prominent Finnish politician and a Lutheran cleric drew widespread international concern over the state of religious freedom and free speech in Finland.

“While I celebrate this victory wholeheartedly, I’m also saddened at the thought of the enormous state resources expended over the last four years to prosecute us for nothing more than the peaceful expression of our Christian faith,” said Dr. Räsänen. “The basic human right to free speech remains under serious threat in Finland and around the world. No one should be punished for peacefully expressing their beliefs, and we are grateful that the court has upheld this core freedom.”

Dr. Räsänen speaks to reporters during Finland’s “Bible Trial.” Image: Alliance Defending Freedom.

“There have been some difficult moments,” Dr. Räsänen continued, reflecting on the toll more than four years of investigation and prosecution have taken. But, she said, “I decided that whatever comes—whatever the consequences will be—I will not give up. Because I felt that this is not only my opinion, it is the Word of God.”

Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen initially faced trial in 2022, during which time the Prosecutor General repeatedly questioned their religious beliefs about Scripture, hermeneutics, and sin. A panel of three judges ultimately ruled that they be acquitted on all charges, stating that “it is not the role of the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” But the prosecution appealed, leading to hearings at the Helsinki Court of Appeals from August 31 to September 1, 2023.

The decision from the Helsinki Court of Appeals to uphold the district court’s decision may not be the end of the story either. The prosecution has indicated it may seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court of Finland.

“We give thanks to God for the news that Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen have been acquitted,” said Rev. Dr. Klaus Detlev Schulz, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). “Lutherans across the globe have watched the unfolding situation with grave concern since authorities first began investigating the pair in 2019. We are grateful for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen’s bold witness to Christ in the face of government pressure. May God continue to bless and strengthen them as they wait to see whether the prosecution will again appeal the decision to a higher court.”

The International Lutheran Council has expressed strong support for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen throughout the past four years as they endured investigation and trial. That support was notably seen in a 2021 public letter from the ILC signed by the leaders of 45 Lutheran church bodies from around the world. Representatives to the ILC’s 2022 World Conference in Kenya made another show of support for Bishop Pohjola when they elected him to serve as the new Chairman of the ILC.

The International Lutheran Council is a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and grounded in the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

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Appeal hearings in Finnish “Bible Trial” come to a close

Bishop Juhana Pohjola (left) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen (right) at the appeal hearings in Helsinki. Photo: ELMDF.

FINLAND – The latest round of hearings in Finland’s “Bible Trial” have now come to a close. Hearings were held August 31 to September 1 at the Helsinki Court of Appeals.

Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Finnish Member of Parliament, Dr.  Päivi Räsänen, have been charged with hate crimes for their articulation of historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. The statements objected to by the prosecution include a 2004 booklet authored by Dr. Räsänen and published by Bishop Pohjola, a radio discussion by Dr. Räsänen, and a tweet by Dr. Räsänen which included a picture of a Bible verse.

The trial has drawn international concern over the state of freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Finland. The International Lutheran Council is urging continued prayer for the defendants.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support and prayers pouring out from all over the world,” said Bishop Pohjola. “This is very encouraging for us in the ELMDF, and for Dr. Räsänen and me personally.”

Bishop Pohjola speaks to supporters outside the Helsinki Court of Appeals. Photo: ELMDF.

The two were first investigated in 2019, charged in 2021, and put on trial in 2022. They were ultimately acquitted by a three-judge panel who declared: “It is not the role of the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” The prosecution appealed the decision, however, leading to the new hearings in Helsinki.

“This has been a tiring process—already four years since its beginning—and in many ways the process itself is punitive,” noted Bishop Pohjola. “But it is also an opportunity for us to give good witness to biblical truth, to God’s created order, and to His grace in Christ Jesus.”

The appeal hearings did not see the prosecution present any substantial new evidence, instead arguing that the judges in the district court failed to apply the law appropriately. The appeal centered, as the initial trial did, on the religious beliefs of the defendants and the public expression of their faith.

“In the court today, although the prosecutor said that this is not about theological issues, the case nevertheless dealt with many basic questions of Christian doctrine: what is creation, what is the Bible, what is God’s love, what is sin,” Bishop Pohjola remarked. “That is what is shocking: the prosecution is arguing that such religious and biblical teachings should not be protected in and of themselves, and that restrictions should be put on our speech. But in a free society, there must be room for religious groups to publicly teach and confess their faith.”

A judgment from the Helsinki Court of Appeals is due by November 30.

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“Bible Trial” in Finland to resume at Court of Appeals

Bishop Juhana Pohjola and Dr. Päivi Räsänen speak before trial proceedings on February 14, 2022. (Photo: ELMDF).

FINLAND – From August 31 to September 1, Finland’s “Bible Trial” is scheduled to resume, this time at the Helsinki Court of Appeals.

In 2022, Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, Finnish Member of Parliament, were put on trial for their expression of historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. The charges stemmed from the 2004 publication of a booklet authored by Dr. Räsänen and published by Bishop Pohjola, as well as other public statements by Dr. Räsänen, including a tweet which featured an image of a Bible verse.

The decision to prosecute the two drew widespread international concern over what the case meant for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Finland. The International Lutheran Council (ILC) called for the charges to be dropped, publishing a letter of protest signed by 48 ecclesiastical leaders representing 45 Lutheran church bodies from across the world. “The actions of the Finnish State in prosecuting Christians for holding to the clear teaching of the very words of Jesus regarding marriage and sex (Matthew 19:4-6) are egregious,” the letter states. “And this particularly so since the accused clearly affirm the divinely given dignity, value, and human rights of all, including all who identify with the LGBTQ community.”

The trial—which took place in January and February of 2022—brought those concerns to a head, with observers expressing shock over the Finnish Prosecutor General’s attack on the defendants’ religious beliefs. While suggesting in her opening remarks that the trial would not be about the Bible, the Prosecutor General nevertheless repeatedly challenged Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen on religious doctrine, questioning them on the nature of Scripture, hermeneutics, and the Christian understanding of sin.

Ultimately, a three-judge panel at the District Court of Helsinki unanimously ruled that Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen should be acquitted on all charges. In their decision, they stressed that “it is not the role of the district court to interpret biblical concepts,” and further ordered the state to pay the legal costs of the defense.

The Prosecutor General subsequently appealed the decision. The Helsinki Court of Appeals will take up the matter on August 31 and September 1.

In July, the International Lutheran Council reaffirmed its support for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen in the leadup to the hearings at the Court of Appeals. “This represents nothing less than a years-long relentless attack against free speech, religious expression, personal moral integrity, and limited government’s proper sphere of jurisdiction,” the new letter says. “We call on all people of good will to condemn this unconscionable prosecution, to take a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of religion for all, and to pray for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen and their acquittal.”

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A Reaffirmation of the ILC’s 2021 letter protesting religious persecution in Finland

FINLAND – The International Lutheran Council (ILC) and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) have published a new letter reaffirming their support for Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, Finnish Member of Parliament. Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen are being prosecuted in Finland for their expression of historic Christian teaching.

“We call on all people of good will to condemn this unconscionable prosecution, to take a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of religion for all, and to pray for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen and their acquittal,” the letter states. “When we compromise on freedom for just one or two, we ultimately place freedom at risk for all.”

The new letter, which is signed by ILC General Secretary Timothy C.J. Quill, LCMS President Matthew C. Harrison, and LCMS Director of Church Relations Jonathan E. Shaw, reaffirms an earlier 2021 ILC statement entitled “A Protest and Call for Free Religious Speech in Finland: An International Lutheran Condemnation of the Unjust Criminal Prosecution of the Rev. Dr. Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, and a Call for All People of Good Will to Support the Freedom of Religious Expression in Finland.” That statement was signed by 48 ecclesial leaders and 45 church bodies and associations, representing hundreds of millions of Lutherans worldwide.

Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen were put on trial in 2022 for the publication of a 2004 pamphlet which had articulated historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. While the Helsinki District Court acquitted them unanimously in 2022, Finland’s Prosecutor General appealed the decision. Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen will face trial again at the Helsinki Court of Appeals from August 22-24, 2023.

The new letter condemns the continued prosecution, saying: “This represents nothing less than a years-long relentless attack against free speech, religious expression, personal moral integrity, and limited government’s proper sphere of jurisdiction as articulated in the Constitution of Finland, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Download the full letter here or read it below:






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Christmas and the Poverty of Christ

“Holy Night” by Fritz von Uhde, 1911.

by Juhana Pohjola

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9

St. Paul, in this single verse, lifts up for us a Christmas sermon on one aspect of our Lord Jesus Christ’s calling: His poverty. The Apostle reminds us of Christ Jesus’ lowliness. What did the maiden Mary from the village of Nazareth sing? “He has looked on the humble estate of His servant” (Luke 1:48). What sign did the angels give to the shepherds? “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). And where are His possessions and earthly goods if the ”Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58)? Truly, by humility and poverty is the birth of the King of Kings framed!

Poverty does not mean only a lack of material wellbeing; it also implies a certain powerlessness. How could this poor baby and family protect themselves against the wrath of the mighty king Herod and his army? Where could they look for help if they could not depend on their family and relatives but must instead escape alone to the foreign land of Egypt? Truly, by hostility, oppression, and refuge is the birth of the Prince of Peace surrounded.

Inset: Mary and the baby Jesus.

When we see, during Christmas time, the beautiful decorations and depictions of the Nativity and the Holy Family, we must keep both eyes open. If, on the one hand, we face financial problems, insecurity, loneliness, and oppression, we are reminded that our Lord has also experienced poverty in all its forms. We need not despair because He understands what we are going through, and He promises to abide with us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And again: “For He delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper” (Psalm 72:12).

If, on the other hand, if we have been blessed with material abundance, earthly goods, and spiritual resources, we should in thankfulness enjoy them but also share them in mercy and mission, remembering the words of St. Paul: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has distributed freely, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever’” (2 Corinthians 9:8-10).

The Apostle Paul, however, reveals an even deeper meaning to the poverty of our Lord. This poverty also includes a lowliness and humbleness in the way in which He has appeared to us. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Eternal Son of God—divine in glory and power—hid Himself in the weakness and fragility of a baby boy. The Triune God reveals Himself in the poverty of human flesh. To seek and find a gracious God, then, we do not look to high heavenly places and spiritual realms; instead, we look to the lowly and earthly—to the human flesh of Christ Jesus. St. Paul emphasizes that the Lord became poor for our sake. We humans can encounter the divine in Him. We, though unholy, can touch the Holy One in Him. We mortals can embrace the Eternal in Him. This is why Martin Luther was bold enough to say: “I do not know of any God except Him who was made flesh, nor do I want to have another. And there is no other God who could save us, besides the God Incarnate.”

“Christ on the Cross” by the Francken Family, c. 1630.

In truth, the poverty of the Lord is greater even than His willingness to come in the humility of human flesh. For He took upon Himself not only the poverty of our earthly and bodily needs, but also our deepest poverty—namely, our spiritual bankruptcy, our transgressions, and our lack of righteousness before God. So it is that the Apostle in the same epistle also preaches a paschal sermon in a single verse: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The manger and the cross, Christmas night and Good Friday are united in one divine plan—one act of salvation. For your sake, the Rich became poor. For your sake, the Sinless was made sin. He took all your poverty and all your sin upon Himself. Why? So that you, though poor, would become rich. So that you, though a sinner, would be forgiven and declared righteous, clean, and holy in the sight of God. All of the poverty of your life becomes His and all the richness of His grace and love becomes yours. What a blessed exchange of Christmas gifts!

We have seen during this year great devastation and enormous human tragedy. We face a world with poverty and famine, war and natural disasters, oppression and persecution of Christians. We have in many ways entered into an era of greater uncertainties. But in the midst of these trials we can cling to a greater reality and divine certainty, which all Christendom celebrates: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

We call people in their poverty of their lives to gather at the life-giving altars of our churches, in which we encounter the Incarnate God of the manger—the Crucified and Risen Lord, who declares to you: This is My body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins!

Who of us can truly be poor when through Christ we have all the riches of heaven? Who of us is truly powerless and helpless when the Mighty Saviour abides with us? Who of us, though dying and decaying mortals, could despair when we have life and salvation in Him?

What a joyful calling it is to sing, preach, and celebrate this good news in the many homes and sanctuaries of member churches of the International Lutheran Council, in numerous languages and on all five continents. Rejoice! For our sake the Lord Jesus Christ became poor that we would become rich in Him!

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Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).

The ILC’s 2022 World Conference in brief

Participants at the International Lutheran Council’s 2022 World Conference pose with the seminary community during a visit to Neema Lutheran College in Matongo, Kenya. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

KENYA – The 27th (12th) World Conference of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) took place September 13-16, 2022 in Kisumu, Kenya, during which time the council elected a new chairman: Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF).

A New Chairman for the ILC

Bishop Juhana Pohjola presents during the ILC’s 2022 World Conference.

Bishop Pohjola was acclaimed as the ILC’s new chairman without opposition. Bishop Pohjola was catapulted to worldwide media attention in 2021 after Finland’s Prosecutor General charged him and a Finnish M.P., Dr. Päivi Räsänen, with hate crimes for the 2004 publication of a booklet which articulates historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. While the two were subsequently acquitted in early 2022, Finland’s Prosecutor General has since appealed, meaning the case is not yet over.

Chairman Pohjola succeeds Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Bishop Voigt, who announced earlier in the World Conference that he would not be standing for reelection, served as ILC Chairman for twelve years from 2010-2022. Prior to that, he served the ILC as Vice Chairman and as Europe Region representative, for a total of 15 years of uninterrupted service on the board.

Elected to serve as ILC Secretary during the 2022 World Conference was Bishop John Donkoh of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana. Acclaimed to serve as World Region representatives were: Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya) for Africa; President Antonio del Rio Reyes (Lutheran Church in the Philippines) for Asia; Chairman George Samiec (Evangelical Lutheran Church of England) for Europe; President Alceu Alton Figur (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay) for Latin America; and President Timothy Teuscher (Lutheran Church–Canada) for North America.

The International Lutheran Council’s Board of Directors for the new triennium. Left to right: Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo (Kenya); President Antonio del Rio Reyes (Philippines); Chairman George Samiec (United Kingdom); Bishop John Donkoh (Ghana); Past President Robert Bugbee (Canada); Bishop Juhana Pohjola (Finland); President Timothy Teuscher (Canada); ILC General Secretary Timothy Quill; President Alceu Alton Figur (Paraguay); and President Matthew Harrison (USA). LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

The ILC’s board of directors also includes two other members who are appointed under other criteria. Past President Robert Bugbee of Lutheran Church–Canada and President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) remain on the board in this capacity.

ILC welcomes new members

ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt and General Secretary Timothy Quill welcome the newest members of the ILC. Left to right: Chairman Voigt, Archbishop Jānis Vanags of Latvia, President Limberth Fernandez Coronado of Bolivia, Pastor Patricio Mora Reyes of Panama, and General Secretary Quill.

The conference brought together church leaders representing 55 church bodies from around the world, including members and guests. Reflecting the ILC’s continued growth, the 2022 World Conference voted to accept two church bodies as full members and one as an associate member. The conference also formally welcomed ten new observer members accepted into the ILC since the last world conference.

The Christian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bolivia (previously accepted as an Associate Member in 2001) was welcomed as a full member. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (accepted as an observer in early 2022) was also accepted as a full member. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Panama, meanwhile, was newly accepted as an associate member.

Observer membership in the ILC can be granted by the Board of Directors without needing to wait until a world conference. In total, the board has accepted ten new observer members—all from Africa—since the last World Conference in 2018: the Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church in Burundi; the Lutheran Church in Africa – Burundi Synod; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Congo; the Evangelical Lutheran Conference and Ministerium of Kenya; the Lutheran Church in Africa – Côte d’Ivoire; the Confessional Lutheran Church – Malawi Synod; the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in Rwanda; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Sudan and Sudan. The Lake Tanganyika Diocese and the South East of Lake Victoria Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania make up the remaining two new observer members (accepted as “recognized organizations”).

Welcoming new observer members accepted into the ILC since the 2018 World Conference.

Liturgy and Ecumenical Relations

The theme for the ILC’s 2022 World Conference was “Liturgy and Culture: How Worship Shapes our Life Together and Why We Do What We Do.” Serving as essayists were Bishop Juhana Pohjola of Finland; Rev. Dr. Naomichi Masaki (Fort Wayne, USA); and Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov (Novosibirsk, Russia), with an additional presentation by Bishop Juan Pablo Lanterna of Chile.

Based on these presentations and ensuing discussion, the conference ultimately adopted a summary Statement on Liturgy and Culture. It further decided unanimously to produce a statement rejecting virtual communion.

Among other business, the World Conference also received a report on the results of the ILC’s recent ecumenical discussions with the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The Final Report on those discussions was published in 2021, and found significant convergences between the two traditions in a number of areas.

In light of this report, and taking into account the written recommendation of Cardinal Kurt Koch of the PCPCU and ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt, the ILC World Conference adopted a resolution calling for continued ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church in the leadup to the 500th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession in 2030.

Additional news on the ILC’s 2022 World Conference can be found here.

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2022 World Conference: Bishop Pohjola elected as ILC Chairman

Bishop Juhana Pohjola addresses the conference after being elected the ILC’s new chairman.

KENYA – During the afternoon of September 14, 2022, the International Lutheran Council (ILC) held elections for its board of directors, during which time the ILC acclaimed Bishop Juhana Pohjola without opposition as its new chairman.

In remarks after the decision, Chairman Elect Pohjola expressed thanks to the assembly as well as his prayer that the Holy Spirit would work through him despite his weakness. He further gave thanks for the example of Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, his predecessor in office, who announced earlier in the conference that he would not stand for reelection.

“I know that I have big shoes to fill because Bishop Voigt has been such an example,” Chairman Elect Pohjola said. “If I can imitate him in even some respects, I will be happy to do so.”

“Dear brothers, pray for me and for the ILC,” the Chairman Elect continued. “I look forward to working with you all very much.”

Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola has been Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) since 2021. He previously served as the ELMDF’s Diocesan Dean from 2013 until his election, and before that as dean of the Luther Foundation Finland from 2000-2001 and 2012 until his election. He has served as a pastor in Helsinki and as a visiting scholar at Canada’s Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario. He holds a Master of Theology from the University of Helsinki (1997), a Master of Sacred Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1998), and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Helsinki (2014). He was further awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne) in 2022 in part “for his calm and bold witness in the face of government persecution and pressure.”

Bishop Pohjola was catapulted to worldwide media attention in 2021 after Finland’s Prosecutor General charged him and a Finnish M.P., Dr. Päivi Räsänen, with hate crimes for the 2004 publication of a booklet which articulates historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. In response, the ILC issued “A Protest and Call” signed by the leaders of Lutheran church bodies around the world, expressing deep concern over Finland’s infringement on the freedoms of religion and speech. Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen were subsequently acquitted in early 2022 by a panel of judges who found they had committed no crimes, but Finland’s Prosecutor General has since appealed, meaning the case is not over.

Bishop Pohjola succeeds Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, who has headed Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church since 2006. He was elected to serve the ILC as Europe Region representative in 2007 and 2009, following which he was named Vice Chairman. When the Chairman’s seat became vacant in 2010 between World Conferences, he was automatically advanced to become interim Chairman. The 2012 World Conference elected him to continue serving as Chairman, and he was subsequently reelected to the position again in 2015 and 2018. In total, he served 12 years as ILC Chairman and 15 years in total on the board.

After Bishop Voigt announced he would not stand for reelection, attendees gave him a standing round of applause in gratitude for his long and faithful service.

Secretary and World Region Representatives

The ILC Board of Directors for the new triennium: LCP President Antonio del Rio Reyes (Asia); IELP President Alceu Alton Figur (Latin America); LCC President Timothy Teuscher (North America); ELCG Bishop John Shadrack Donkoh (ILC Secretary); ELCE Chairman George Samiec (Europe); ELMDF Bishop Juhana Pohjola (ILC Chairman); LCMS President Matthew Harrison (Founding Member); ELCK Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo (Africa); LCC Past President Robert Bugbee (Member-at-Large); and Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill (ILC General Secretary).

The September 14 afternoon session of the ILC’s 2022 World Conference also saw the election of Bishop John Shadrack Donkoh of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana (ELCG) to serve as Secretary of the ILC. Bishop Donkoh has been head of the ELCG since 2018. He succeeds President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB), who had served in the role since 2004.  The assembly recognized President van Hattem for his years of service with a round of applause.

During the afternoon, the ILC also acclaimed world region representatives to the board of directors for the new triennium. Serving as representative for Africa is Archbishop Joseph Ochola Omolo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK). Asia will be represented by President Antonio del Rio Reyes of the Lutheran Church in the Philippines (LCP). The European representative is Chairman George Samiec of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE). Latin America will be represented by President Alceu Alton Figur of the Lutheran Church of Paraguay. And North America will be represented by President Timothy Teuscher of Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC).

The ILC’s board of directors also includes two other members who are appointed under other criteria. Past President Robert Bugbee of Lutheran Church–Canada and President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) remain on the board in this capacity.

An installation service for the new triennium’s Board of Directors will take place on the conference’s final date.

Other business

Following the elections, President Matthew C. Harrison of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) reported on the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg, which is a joint project of the LCMS, Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK), and the ILC.

Regional meetings followed, after which four World Region reports were given. LCP President Reyes gave the report from Asia. ELCE Chairman Samiec reported on Europe. Finally, LCC President Teuscher, accompanied by LCMS President Harrison, reported on the North America region.

The conference then heard a brief report on Concordia Israel from Bishop Torkild Masvie of the Lutheran Church in Norway and Iceland. Following this, Rev. Roger James, the ILC’s Assistant to the General Secretary, then addressed the conference as well.

The day closed with a service of Vespers. President Geraldo Schüler of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (IELB) preached on the theology of the cross, tying in to the commemoration of Holy Cross Day, while conference chaplain Rev. Charles Froh served as liturgist.

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ILC Prepares for 2022 World Conference

KENYA -The International Lutheran Council (ILC) is preparing for its forthcoming 27th World Conference, which will take place in Kisumu, Kenya from September 13-16, 2022. During that time, leaders of confessional Lutheran church bodies across the globe will gather to worship together, to study Scripture, and to consider their mutual proclamation to the world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Liturgy and Culture: How Worship Shapes Our Life Together and Why We Do What We Do.”

The Liturgy serves and shapes the missionary task of the Church,” conference material explains. “It is in its very nature mission work in which people are brought out of one culture and integrated into another. The Liturgy teaches within the context of prayer. It shapes faith and life. It serves the common confession and fosters unity.”

“The ‘worship wars’ of recent generations continue,” the workbook explains, “while the Church is also experiencing an escalation in the more lethal ‘cultural wars.’ Churches are denied freedom of speech and access to the public square. Conference speakers will address a variety of topics in which liturgical theology and practice and church life are being challenged by external influences.”

ELMDF Bishop Juhana Pohjola

Serving as keynote speaker for the 2022 World Conference is Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF). Bishop Pohjola’s address is entitled: “Church and Culture: The Devastating Effects of the Progressive Socio-Political Ideology and Cultural Trends on the Church, with Special Attention to Recent Events in Finland.”

The conference will feature three other presentations on the subject of liturgy and culture given by: Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov, Rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia; Rev. Dr. Joseph Tom Omolo, Principal of Neema Lutheran College in Matongo, Kenya; and Rev. Dr. Naomichi Masaki, Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana (USA).

During the conference, the ILC will hold elections, hear reports, and conduct other business. Participants will also visit sites affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), the host church for this year’s conference, where they will learn about the ELCK’s works of mercy and human care as well as theological education, among other activities.

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