Juhana Pohjola wouldn’t be cast to play his own part if Hollywood made a movie about a bishop put on trial for his faith. The Finnish pastor has inherited a place in the church of Martin Luther, but it appears none of Luther’s pugnacity or vitriol.
In person, Pohjola, 49, is forthright but unassuming, and gentle. Stereotypically, the Finn is thin and tall. He often pauses while speaking to carefully consider his next words. He listens attentively to others with far less impressive resumes.
In more than two decades as a pastor, Pohjola has ministered to congregations as small as 30. He has spent his life building a network of faithful churches across Finland, many of which started with a few people gathered for prayer, Bible study, hymn-singing—and communion, if they can get a pastor. In an in-person interview with The Federalist, Pohjola urged fellow Christian leaders to be willing to seek out “one lost sheep” instead of crowds and acclaim.
This is the man who appears to be the first in the post-Soviet Union West to be brought up on criminal charges for preaching the Christian message as it has been established for thousands of years. Also charged in the case that goes to trial on January 24 is Pohjola’s fellow Lutheran and a Finnish member of Parliament, Paivi Rasanen.
Rasanen’s alleged crimes in a country that claims to guarantee freedom of speech and religion include tweeting a picture of a Bible verse. Potential penalties if they are convicted include fines and up to two years in prison.
Finnish Authorities: The Bible Is Hate Speech
Rasanen and Pohjola are being charged with “hate speech” for respectively writing and publishing a 24-page 2004 booklet that explains basic Christian theology about sex and marriage, which reserves sex exclusively for within marriage, which can only consist of one man and one woman, for life. The Finnish prosecutor claims centuries-old Christian teachings about sex “incite hatred” and violate legal preferences for government-privileged identity groups.
Writer Rod Dreher pointed out the witch hunt nature of this prosecution: “Räsänen wrote that pamphlet seven years before LGBT was added to the national hate-speech law as a protected class. She was investigated once before for the pamphlet, and cleared — but now she’s going to undergo another interrogation.”
Rasanen and Pohjola both have adamantly affirmed “the divinely given dignity, value, and human rights of all, including all who identify with the LGBTQ community.” Christian theology teaches that all human beings are precious, as all are made in God’s image and offered eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In advance of the trial, Rasanen and Pohjola have been interrogated by police for hours about their theology. Pohjola told me in the interrogation police treated Christian beliefs as thought crimes. In a statement, Rasanen noted that the police publicly admitted their interpretation of Finland’s law would make publishing the Bible a hate crime.
“It is impossible for me to think that the classical Christian views and the doctrine of the majority of denominations would become illegal. The question here is about the core of Christian faith; how a person gets saved into unity with God and into everlasting life though the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. Therefore, it is crucial to also talk about the nature of sin,” Rasanen told Dreher. “As we are living in a democratic country, we must be able to disagree and express our disagreement. We have to be able to cope with speech that we feel insults our feelings. Many questions are so debatable and contradictory that we have to have the possibility of discussing. Otherwise the development is towards a totalitarian system, with only one correct view.”
Major International Implications
Humans rights lawyer Paul Coleman, who spoke to The Federalist from his Alliance Defending Freedom International office in Vienna, Austria, says Pohjola and Rasanen’s cases are a “canary in the coalmine” for freedom of speech across the West. ADF International is providing legal support for Pohjola and Rasanen’s cases.
“Although all European countries have these hate speech laws, and these hate speech laws are increasingly being used against citizens for things that they say, this is the first time we’ve really seen Christians face criminal prosecution for explaining their biblical views,” Coleman said. “…It’s unprecedented. We’ve not seen attacks on free speech on this level in Europe, and that’s why they are extremely important cases, not just for the people of Finland and Paivi Rasanen and the bishop themselves, but for all of Europe. If this is upheld in one jurisdiction, we will no doubt see it in other jurisdictions as well.”
Such “hate speech” laws exist in every European country and Western countries such as Canada and Australia, and descend from Soviet influence. Coleman called them “sleeper laws,” saying that in other countries “they could be used any time just like they are in Finland. People need to mobilize against these laws and overturn them.”
Legally privileging certain sexual behavior has thus broken western countries’ promises of equality before the law for all citizens, as well as enabling government discrimination against citizens who exercise their free speech and religious liberty, as in the Baronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips cases in the United States.
“Establishing standards of identity” also lets government meddle in theological controversies that are none of its business, said the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Shaw, who directs church relations for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and has known Pohjola for decades. Pohjola’s church is an international partner of the LCMS.
From a natural law and historic Western perspective, “the government isn’t supposed to get into people’s brains and tell them what’s right and wrong to believe and say,” Shaw noted in a phone interview. “That’s not their realm. Their realm is in externals, things like protect people in their bodies, go to war when necessary, and punish criminals… This is really what’s at stake [in the Pohjola case]. Government has lost its moorings and doesn’t know its purpose.”
From Part-Time Pastor to Bishop
After theological study in Finland and the United States, Pohjola’s first congregation in Helsinki started with about 30 members, he says. It was only able to support him part-time at first. He remembered his wife accompanying the congregation’s hymn-singing on a piano while their firstborn daughter, a baby at the time, laid on a blanket on the floor nearby.
Finland’s state church began openly disobeying Christian theology concerning sex differences amid the global sexual revolution of the 1960s. So Christians alienated by the state church’s embrace of anti-Christian cultural demands sought faithful pastors like Pohjola, who are known as “confessional” for adhering to historic Christian confessions.
The resulting growth of his tiny congregation gradually led to establishing a seminary, then dozens of mission churches, which grew as the theologically unfaithful state church shrank. In 2013, 25 of these new confessional congregations formed the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Finland. Today, that diocese oversees 45 congregations and missions and is training 64 pastors.
That growth has been accompanied by suffering, including persecution first from Pohjola’s own church.
First Persecuted By His Own Church
In 2009, Pohjola was awarded the theological journal Gottesdienst’s Sabre of Boldness Award, which is granted “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity on behalf of the Holy Church of Christ, while engaged in the confession of His Pure Gospel in the face of hostile forces, and at the greatest personal risk.” The award honored Pohjola, with other faithful Finnish pastors, for standing firm as Finland’s state church sought civil charges against them for refusing to disobey the Bible’s commands that only men be sent to lead spiritual warfare as pastors.
Like Luther before him, Pohjola was expelled by his own church body in 2014 for adhering to God’s word on this matter. The notice of his discharge declared Pohjola was “obviously unfit to be a pastor.” At the time, he responded with grief but also by saying that he must obey God rather than men, lamenting: “Instead of the Church being purged with God’s Word, she is being purged from God’s Word.”
In the interview last week, Pohjola said being defrocked from “his baptismal church” grieves him to this day. On his mother’s side, Pohjola said, his family includes Lutheran pastors in that church going back to the 17th century Reformation. But he could not disobey God’s commands to retain his social status or employment.
Division or Unity? Yes
Pohjola’s separation from Finland’s state church also had the consequence of uniting him and his flock with other confessional Christians across the globe. The International Lutheran Council is a global network of theologically unified churches, and like the confessional churches in Finland, that network is growing.
Mathew Block, the ILC’s communications manager, noted that the heightened contradictions between increasingly unnatural pagan practices and historic Christian teachings are causing a global “confessional realignment.” It’s forcing people to make a real decision about where they stand rather than allowing them to inhabit the increasingly nonexistent, indecisive middle.
This is affecting churches all over the world. While it means divisions in some areas, it also is leading to unity in others. For example, despite other important theological differences, all the world’s largest Christian bodies agree with the doctrines for which the Finnish government is persecuting Pohjola. That allows them to speak in chorus to government leaders.
Already many dozens of top religious leaders across the world have formally raised their concerns with Rasanen and Pohjola’s prosecution to the Finnish government and the United Nations. Several U.S. members of Congress have also asked U.S. agencies to take action against Finland for these human rights abuses.
“I encourage Roman Catholic ecclesiastical leaders and all those who care for souls to speak up and join hands and lock arms with us as we talk about the absolute necessity of our historic Christian values of one man, one woman marriage, and the freedom to be able to believe it, to say it, to publish books about it, and find practical ways through hospitality, education, and other social engagement to make society strong that way,” Shaw said. “All churches—one could even say all religions but in particular the Roman Catholic faith—this reflects their historic commitments as well.”
The Shepherd Faces Wolf Attacks for the Sheep
In August 2021, the international Lutheran church recognized Pohjola’s steadfast leadership amid persecution by supporting his election to bishop of Finland’s confessional diocese. The ILC hosted Pohjola’s November 2021 speaking tour in the United States, and is raising funds across the world to raise awareness of his case.
“Our mission has been that, if the shepherd sees that one sheep is missing, he knows,” Pohjola said of the churches he oversees. He noted that many people coming to faithful Finnish churches are seeking love and connection from a church family as the secular world becomes increasingly isolated and family-less, in no small part because of pagan sexual behavior and beliefs.
“People don’t go to church for social capital now. This is a serious life and they want to be serious with God. So churches have to build communities that stand on solid Lutheran, biblical doctrine,” Pohjola says.
While he may not share Luther’s temperament, Pohjola’s response to his own persecution by church and civil authorities does mirror Luther’s simplicity four centuries ago: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He adds a pastoral message to Christians watching governments turn on them today.
“We have to learn from the past, Christians who have suffered under persecution, and be prepared,” Pohjola said. “But it’s not something to be worried about, because Christ remains faithful to His church and wherever he is leading us, He will come with us. He will provide everything that is needed for the future of His Christians and His church.”