A controversial decision last summer by the largest Lutheran church group in America to ordain gays and lesbians is causing churches to exit the organization nationwide, including some in Washington state.
On Aug. 21, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted at its national convention in Minneapolis to ordain gay ministers who are in a “committed relationship.”
Since then, traditional-minded Lutheran organizations say they’ve grown rapidly.
“I wouldn’t even begin to tell you how many thousands (of calls) I’ve gotten,” said Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE, a national coalition of Lutheran churches whose goal is to “preserve within the Lutheran churches in North America the authority of the Word of God according to the Lutheran confessions,” according to its website.
William Sullivan, service coordinator at Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an association of congregations that, like Lutheran CORE, believes the ELCA has been moving away from accepting the Bible as its final source of authority in decision-making, said his group has doubled in size in the U.S. since the ELCA vote last summer.
To formally leave the ELCA, a church body must conduct two votes at least 90 days apart, with both votes attaining a two-thirds supermajority.
The ELCA disputes the effect of the gay-ordination vote, saying the number of departures is small. “Only 2 percent of the church’s 10,000 plus congregations have voted to leave,” said John Brooks, director of the ELCA News Service. “And one-third of those votes failed.”
But parishioners at Christ Lutheran Church in Odessa, Wash., took the step, exiting the ELCA last month.
“For people here it was a matter of biblical authority and interpretation of the Bible as God’s word,” said the Rev. Tim Hauge.
“This is a conservative town culturally as well as theologically,” Hauge said. The growing liberalism in the ELCA is ultimately “a deal breaker,” he said.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla overwhelmingly voted to leave the ELCA in November.
“The decision to go against the teaching of the Bible regarding homosexual behavior was the final straw,” said the Rev. Mark Koonz.
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer’s congregation in Chimacum, Wash., south of Port Townsend, will take its second vote to leave the ELCA today, and it’s expected to pass, said the Rev. Don Pieper.
But critics of the departing Lutherans say they are not following Jesus’ example of being tolerant toward different kinds of Christians.
“I think there’s an underlying authority of Scripture, to me, that says God is gracious and is embracing and loving and accepting of people,” said the Rev. Alex Schmidt, of Faith Lutheran Church in Leavenworth, Wash.
He said Christians often use “Scripture as a big hammer to promote their point of view.”
The Rev. Erik Samuelson, of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Spokane, said he was a convention delegate last summer and voted in favor of the ELCA statement on human sexuality because it was intended to promote a range of issues.
“What it’s done for us is to validate a whole range of understandings of sexuality that exists in our congregation,” Samuelson said.
“This is not going to be a church-dividing issue for us,” he said. “Our unity comes more from our relationship with Christ than it does from all agreeing on any controversial issue.”
The Rev. Chris Berry, of Campus Ministry at Western Washington University in Bellingham, said in his experience, “gay and lesbian inclusion is not an issue for a majority of our college students. They wish we would just move on.”
Diversity is the key for proponents of the ELCA’s decision.
But one Seattle pastor who knows about the struggles of diversity believes it was the wrong move.
“The leadership is determined to establish the ELCA as a diverse church, where essentially almost anything goes,” said the Rev. Victor C. Langford III, of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Seattle.
Langford, a retired Army chaplain, was the first African-American to attain the rank of brigadier general in the Washington National Guard. He began his ministry in 1965, the year the National Voting Rights Act was signed.
He said his church is multiracial and culturally diverse but of one mind on matters of traditional Lutheran theology. And thus the congregation is preparing to leave the ELCA over its “disregarding the authority of the Word of God.”
Some pastors shepherding their churches out of the ELCA say they’ve experienced retaliation by ELCA officials, such as being blocked from working in the pulpit or fired from their posts for their open opposition.
“I was without call (work) for six months,” said one pastor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of ELCA reprisal.
“If you try to leave, and especially if you try to leave with a large congregation, they are going to make it very difficult for you,” he said.
One pastor claims her affiliation with a group advocating traditional church teachings was behind what she called an “unjust termination” after 8 1/2 years of service at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in north Spokane.
The Rev. Jaynan Clark, president of WordAlone Network, a national organization of more than 200 churches that helped spark Lutheran CORE’s formation, has been an ELCA minister since 1985.
She charges that the ELCA “used my family situation to come in and remove me from office,” referring to her divorce from the co-pastor at the church.
Bishop Martin Wells, of the ELCA’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod, denies this and any involvement with Clark’s firing or hindering her employment.
“Pastor Clark and I have a difficult relationship,” Wells said.
Because of her “family commitments,” Wells said, “there have not been any open calls for which I thought about her.”
Clark said the official response obscures the true motive: retaliation for openly denouncing the ELCA’s growing liberal theology.
Langford, the Seattle pastor, who has been with the ELCA since 1988, predicted the organization’s decision would result in the decline of the largest Lutheran body in the world.
“I don’t see it recovering from the decisions that were made,” he said. “So much promise, it had so much going for it.”