When local Lutherans split

This week the Colorado Springs Gazette had a report about a trio of churches that have left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over their departure from traditional Lutheran teaching. Here's the lede:

The ordination of gay clergy continues to create tension within Christian denominations in America.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the American Baptist Church USA have experienced tremendous internal discord over the issue.

Some of these denominations have, indeed, faced tension over their debates involving adherence to Scripture on issues of sexual morality.

But what in the world is my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doing in this list? "Tremendous internal discord"?

In a word: No. It's not just that we don't ordain clergy who self-identify as gay, there is literally no movement within the church body to change our doctrine on this. This is just not an issue of conflict in our church body.

This factual error in this story needs to be corrected. Among all Lutheran church groups, the ELCA is the only one that has really had any drama over this issue.

The story itself is about something that has gotten relatively little coverage, so it's nice to see an update:

The ELCA has about 10,000 U.S. churches, and since early 2009, 291 have left to align with other Lutheran denominations, according to ELCA records.

While the number is relatively small, ELCA defectors have moved faster than any other dissenting group to re-organize.

It took former Episcopalians six years to create the conservative Anglican Church in North America after outcry over the election of a gay Episcopal bishop in 2003. Yet conservative Lutherans launched the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in August, one year after the ELCA's General Assembly vote that allowed sexually active gays to become clergy.

The NALC is growing fast. At its inception it had 18 churches aboard, including St. Luke's. It now has 70, with 17 in the process of joining, NALC treasurer Ryan Schwarz said.

How quickly a newly reorganized group gets together is one measure, I guess. It's so hard to compare these things considering how different every denomination's polity is. But I just find the raw number of congregations leaving to be interesting. As I noted back in August when "only" 200 congregations had left, this is far more than the reported number of congregations that left the Episcopal Church during its recent unpleasantness. Now it's up to almost 300 but still the Episcopal split received more coverage. It's also interesting what's considered "small" in terms of a split. My church body has about 6,000 congregations, I think. And if we lost 175 congregations in a year, it would be a big deal. A huge deal, actually.

Anyway, the story gets at another reason, perhaps, for the decreased coverage. That's because the splits are more amicable:

The bitterness that marked the Episcopal Church split is mostly held in check among Lutherans. One reason is that, unlike in the Episcopal Church, property ownership is generally not an issue for defectors. As long as a former ELCA church aligns with a Lutheran denomination, it keeps its property.

A second reason is the sensibility within the Lutheran faith.

"We don't call this a schism," said David Wendel, pastor of St. Luke's and one of 17 regional deans for the NALC. "Lutheranism has a flexibility that allows for this realignment."

TMatt looked at some of the reasons for why the Episcopal Church receives a disproportionate amount of media coverage ... back in 1994. But it is also certainly true that a polity like that shared by the ELCA is just not going to elicit the same type of media coverage as you'll find elsewhere. If a congregation wants to leave, it does. Kind of hard to juice that for sensational media coverage.

Anyway, the rest of the story tries to get at some of the underlying doctrinal issues:

ELCA spokesman John Brooks said the national body has also striven to be an "inclusive church" by reaching out to minorities and gays.

But to defectors, the ELCA has watered down God"s word and has forgotten the meaning of sin, especially regarding homosexuality. "The ELCA interprets Scripture for the mood of the times, aligning with the fads of the day," said Paull Spring, bishop for 14 years of the ELCA's Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod before quitting to become leader of the NALC.

The issue that generates the most emotion for defectors is the August 2009 ELCA General Assembly vote to allow non-celibate gays to become clergy.

During the assembly, 54 percent of the some 1,000 delegates voted to allow sexually active gays to become clergy. Prior to that, only celibate gays could be ELCA pastors.

Well, not exactly. It is true that people who were same-sex attracted and celibate could be ELCA pastors prior to the vote. But technically the vote doesn't change the standard to "sexually active" gays but, rather, people in "life-long, monogamous" relationships. TMatt noted then that "monogamy" isn't as simply defined as you might have thought. But it's worth noting that the new standard is not "sexually active" which suggests something else altogether.

Still, nice to see some local coverage of a couple of the 300 congregations that have left the ELCA in the last year.

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