Wolfhart Panneberg on What Is and Isn’t a Church

The following is from Kairos Journal. I will be busy packing and organizing to get our house on the market, but here is an article worth reading and thinking about. Tomorrow I will try to post on the changes coming to the Schoenleber household. For today, here is revised post from September of 2014. 

Pannenberg“The Boundary of a Christian Church”—Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian who died September 5 [of 2014], was one of the 20th century’s formative theological thinkers. When he rose to prominence in the 1960s, many theologians believed Christianity could only be accepted by faith but not studied or defended using rational thought. Pannenberg defied this trend by arguing that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was an objective fact that could be demonstrated with evidence. He likewise insisted that Christian truth by and large was rational and objective.Pannenberg influenced many evangelical thinkers even though he did not believe all the miracle accounts in Scripture and dismissed the virgin birth as a myth. Despite his errors, he held the moral teaching of the Bible in high regard, and the results can be surprising to those who might associate his theological liberalism with ethical liberalism.

For instance, Pannenberg will long be appreciated by evangelicals for his defense of traditional sexual morality. He said a church that approves of homosexual acts ceases to be a true church. In 1997 he returned his Federal Order of Merit award to the German government after it bestowed the same honor on a lesbian activist.2 In this article, he argued that homosexuality is “a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God” and said heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate channel for sexual expression.3 Though Pannenberg appears to underestimate the sinfulness of homosexual inclinations (which dishonor God in themselves like all inclinations to sin), his overall emphasis is a timely caution to the Church.

The mere existence of homophile inclinations does not automatically lead to homosexual practice. Rather, these inclinations can be integrated into a life in which they are subordinated to the relationship with the opposite sex where, in fact, the subject of sexual activity should not be the all-determining center of human life and vocation. As the sociologist Helmut Schelsky has rightly pointed out, one of the primary achievements of marriage as an institution is its enrollment of human sexuality in the service of ulterior tasks and goals.
The reality of homophile inclinations, therefore, need not be denied and must not be condemned. The question, however, is how to handle such inclinations within the human task of responsibly directing our behavior. This is the real problem: and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife—in particular, adultery.
The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm.
Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.


  1. David Roach, “Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg Dies,” Baptist Press Website, September 8, 2014, http://www.bpnews.net/43317/theologian-wolfhart-pannenberg-dies (accessed September 15, 2014).
  2. Michael Root, “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg, First Things, March 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/03/the-achievement-of-wolfhart-pannenberg (accessed September 15, 2014).
  3. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg Says About this Debate in the Church,”Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/november11/6td035.html (accessed September 15, 2014).

4 thoughts on “Wolfhart Panneberg on What Is and Isn’t a Church

  1. A powerful statement that must govern all our dealings with sin within the Church, “The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance.”


      1. A quiet evening after a busy day. Betty is working on a jigsaw puzzle and I’m writing VT for next week. Oh, how I wish we could spend another evening together. Still buoyed by the joy of that evening last September.

        Liked by 1 person

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