Lutheran Family Law

Lutheran Family Law and Gender Justice

“Made in God’s Image: the ELCJHL’s Gender Justice Journey”.

This is a story of the ELCJHL taking action to achieve gender justice. To understand the depth of this story, you must understand a little background about Family Law in Palestine.

The countries of the Middle East that came under Ottoman occupation have treated Christian churches as ethnic minorities (Mullah). This classification afforded Christian churches a degree of autonomy in regulating all family affairs of their members under the authority of the heads of the churches. This means that even now, each religious body has the absolute right to regulate the affairs of its spiritual subjects and to organize them for the practice of their religious rituals and observations, including marriage and family law. Each has a unique set of personal status laws and a court process through which such matters are governed. However, religious laws (personal status and family law) applied in Palestine and the Middle East are among the most challenging obstacles to the advancement of gender justice. Family laws are discriminative in all matters related to marriage, divorce, and child custody. These laws provide sufficient legal power for men to control the fate of their wives at home and in society.

About ten years ago, five women members of the ELCJHL approached the church with evidence of increased domestic violence in Palestinian society as a whole, as well as in Lutheran families, due to the increased stress from the ongoing occupation and political situation. The women’s committee was horrified that these women were unable to leave their abusive situations according to family law, and got to work.

After careful preparation and study, the women’s committee approached church leadership with an idea: Lutheran Family Law: laws that would ensure women are treated equally and equitably.

The bishop approved, and immediately set up a committee to start the long process of making this idea a reality. He began by holding extensive workshops with each of the ELCJHL pastors about gender justice, and why this is a necessary value for the church. Once each pastor was educated, a committee was created with the intent of drafting a set of Lutheran family laws.

This committee worked long days and nights examining international humanitarian statements, conferring with CEDAW (Council of Eliminating Discrimination Against Women), and church family laws around the world.

Also during this time, the ELCJHL was represented at LWF global meetings for drafting a gender justice policy. Members of our church offered the Palestinian perspective, and the result of these meetings became a part of the now-enforced gender justice policy of the LWF. ELCJHL Ecclesiastical Court judge Mrs. Scarlet Bishara says, 

“The LWF Gender Justice Policy helped us as a Church to understand the theological arguments in a focused manner and realize how the Bible and teachings of Jesus support gender equality. We examined the arguments from a Palestinian perspective to help us consider the guidance within our own context, focusing on equality between both men and women”.

Once finished, the laws were presented to the church council, a step necessary for finalization. The council denied this motion.

This did not stop the movement and the Women’s Committee, as they immediately got to work with workshops and gatherings to further explain the need for these laws, their context in the wider church and Lutheran theology, and what this would mean for the women of the church. The laws were put to a vote again, this time with approval.

Once the council approved, the laws were taken to President Mahmoud Abbas, who made them official under the State of Palestine.

The impact of these laws even in the mere 6 years since they’ve been enacted has been enormous. Members from our church, the Lutheran court, and community have come together to create a documentary about the effect this has had for women’s rights in Palestine and beyond. The documentary is linked above.

The results of this journey as a church is far wider and more meaningful than can be written here, but the tangible repercussions of this movement include:

  1. The marriage age being raised to a minimum of both parties being 18 years old.
  2. Spouses are entitled to joint and equal financial rights after marriage.
  3. If there is a defect in a marital relationship, each spouse has the right to terminate the marriage.
  4. Equal rights and duties between spouses in both financial support and custody of children in a terminated marriage, as decided by the Lutheran Court. 
  5. All children of a deceased parent are entitled to an equal inheritance.

The ELCJHL strives for the equality of the genders, and works everyday toward a future where there is complete gender justice.

As of fall of 2022, the first Ecclesiastical Court is headed by Reverend Ashraf Tannous, with Adv. Scarlet Bishara, Adv. Osama Odeh and Reverend Doctor Munther Isaac. The appeals court is headed by Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, with Adv. Nicole Awad, Reverend Saliba Rishmawi, and Reverend Fursan Zu’mot.

“So in Christ you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew now Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-27).