Schism in Lutheran church raises scriptural, financial concerns

06/02/2011 19:17


For the Elderton Lutheran Parish, the national church's 2009 vote to permit some gay clergy appeared to be a final sign that the denomination had pulled up its biblical roots. Last winter it left the 4.5 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for a new Lutheran body, as have seven other congregations from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod. Another four are in the process of voting to leave.

"There is no hostility toward the ELCA. Yes, it was difficult, but it was a matter of understanding who we are as children of God," said the Rev. Joyce Dix-Weiers, pastor of the two linked congregations in such a remote part of unincorporated Armstrong County that the mailing address is Shelocta, Indiana County.

"The ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people was the tip of the iceberg. The question of how the church understands scriptural authority was the crux of the problem."

Most of America's mainline Protestant churches have been divided for 30 years over whether sexual relationships between people of the same gender are always sinful. Theological conservatives cite Bible verses condemning such acts, while their opponents argue that the passages were conditioned by ancient cultural biases. The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ, all had significant splits as they moved to accept openly gay clergy.

The fracturing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been quiet because there has been no property litigation. The denomination has provisions that permit departing parishes to keep their property if they follow certain procedures.

Most departing congregations have joined either the new North American Lutheran Church or the 10-year-old Lutheran Congregations In Mission for Christ. Both are theologically conservative, but the latter is less hierarchical. All congregations that recently left the Southwestern Pennsylvania synod joined the North American Lutheran Church.

To date, the North American Lutheran Church has nearly 250 parishes with 100,000 members. The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ has about 675 churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says that 444 parishes voted to leave after the gay ordination decision, but that it has started more than 300 new churches. Its parish count remains at about 10,000. The Southwestern Pennsylvania synod has 193 parishes.

The Elderton parish has 250 members. When it became clear that the majority wanted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Dix-Weiers presented several options, including the 2.3 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which doesn't ordain women.

"I gave them that option knowing that they would have to call a different pastor. But we wanted to be more centrist in our theology," she said.

The North American Lutheran Church felt like a more biblically-focused version of the church they had known, she said.

"This has been good for us, it has rejuvenated us," she said. "By no means do we feel any animosity toward our brothers and sisters in Christ in the ELCA. We continue to be in communication with them."

Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America encourages the cordiality, but asks why the churches couldn't have remained together. No parish that believes gay ordination is wrong can be forced to call a gay pastor and Lutherans have long lived with differences over this and other issues, he said.

Yet his own former congregation, St. Paul Lutheran Church in the Trauger section of Mount Pleasant, is among those that has achieved a two-thirds majority in the first of two votes required in order to leave with property.

He believes that advocates for the split have exaggerated theological problems. They may describe certain pastors who won't use the masculine "Father" and "Son" for persons of the Trinity, but claim that the denomination itself dropped the biblical terms, he said.

"That's an example of the kind of panic that folks are led into that has no basis in truth," he said.

But when it comes to ongoing relationships with those who have left, he said, "we have committed ourselves in my office, to collegiality, to respect, to treating those who are living out their convictions with honor and grace."

He is somewhat encouraged, he said, that many departing parishes have said they want to continue to support Lutheran social service and mission projects. The synod itself is cutting back support for financial reasons only partly related to the loss of the eight congregations.

Most of those parishes had previously cut support of the denomination and synod, so the financial loss "largely pre-dated the leaving of the congregations," Bishop Kusserow said. The recession has had an impact. And the longstanding loss of the Southwestern Pennsylvania population to death and the Sun Belt has meant a steady decrease in income as fixed expenses rose, Bishop Kusserow said.

"Those lines crossed before 2009. So we were already facing the need to cut back some programming and grants to our agencies and missions. But the plummeting of the nation's economy and our churchwide decisions have accelerated that process. We are having to address the shortfall much more quickly than we would have imagined."

The view from the North American Lutheran Church is far more optimistic. Its leader is Bishop Paull Spring, who had previously retired as bishop of the Erie synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He will retire again in August, when the new denomination meets in Ohio to formally adopt its constitution and elect a new bishop.

He believes that by then his church will have 300 congregations and that it will continue to grow. "Some congregations are waiting to see if there is permanence and stability in the NALC" before they join, he said.

He also says that gay ordination is a secondary issue for those who left. "The broader issue is whether the Bible has anything to say about human behavior at all," he said.

To explore those broader issues, the Rev. Eric Riesen, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Brentwood and dean of the North American Lutheran Church clergy in the Pittsburgh region, hosted a May 22 theological conference. The speakers came from the conservative wing of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Anglican Church in North America. About 125 people attended.

"They represented three different views, but there was a common consensus that what is happening in some of the mainline churches is a misstep," Rev. Riesen said.

"They didn't focus exclusively on sexuality, but on what is at stake and on what it means to say that we believe in the authority of scripture. They explained that you can hold this view without adopting a literalist or fundamentalist interpretation. We wanted people to understand that you can believe in the authority of scripture and in evolution."



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