With two congregations voting to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America this past weekend, the denomination is beginning to suffer the consequences for its August decision to allow practicing homosexual clergy on its leadership rosters. But while the gay clergy vote is finally pushing these churches out of the ELCA, the rifts go much deeper and farther back.
On Sunday, a little over 70 percent of the congregation at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roanoke, Va., voted to leave the ELCA, which was followed by a second vote to affiliate instead with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). Gerald McDermott, teaching pastor at St. John, said that the church already had disagreements with the ELCA and had been holding meetings to discuss its concerns long before the ELCA voted to allow clergy who are in "lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous" homosexual relationships.
A week earlier, St. John held a forum to discuss the decision-a meeting McDermott described as "very contentious, very emotional, full of a lot of pain and anger" and showing theological differences that went beyond positions on homosexuality. James Mauney, bishop of the Virginia synod, visited and pled with the church not to break from the denomination. When 500 people showed up for the vote on Sunday, the mood was somber as leaders asked the congregation to refrain from clapping or cheering when the results came.
Mauney said that the denomination has a deep regard for the St. John church and its mission. "They have taken the step of beginning a consultation process about leaving and we don't want them to leave," he said. "We pray for all of them and their pastors. In these coming months I will continue to pray for them and their discernment.
The bishop will visit the church again in October to make a final plea on behalf of the ELCA, and then the congregation must take another vote in January to completely break ties.
Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz.,-the 10th largest church in the denomination-also voted unanimously on Sunday to make its final break with the ELCA. In June, the church voted 174 to 11 to break with the ELCA, with 98 percent voting to affiliate with the LCMC instead.
CCOJ broke ties not just because of the ELCA's stance on homosexuality but also its stance on Scripture. A CCOJ document quotes the Lutheran Study Bible commentary making unorthodox statements like "Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him." CCOJ gave over $200,000 to the ELCA and other benevolence organizations in 2008. Therefore, the absence of congregations like CCOJ will be a blow to ELCA's national budget, which has already shrank from $81 million in 2005 to $67 million in 2008.
Lutheran CORE, a group opposing the ELCA's decision to allow gay clergy, also held a convocation this weekend in Indiana, deciding to change its name from Coalition for Reform to Coalition for Renewal. This symbolizes its shift from reforming the ELCA-efforts that Lutheran CORE director Mark Chavez said have fallen on "don't have ears to hear"-to working "for the renewal of the Lutheran presence in North America."
Lutheran CORE will become a "free-standing synod" and "alternate church fellowship" that welcomes churches who have left the ELCA or churches who are still in the ELCA-developing theological and educational resources, calling pastors, planting mission congregations, and supporting missionaries. Chavez said it has not ruled out the possibility of creating a new denomination: "A year from now we may end up making a recommendation for a new denomination, but we don't want to prejudge the outcome at this point."
McDermott added, "The underlying issue is really the authority of Scripture. [Rejecting Scripture means] you have to come up with a different God, a different Jesus, a different gospel and a different salvation," he said. "Homosexuality is simply the surface manifestation right now of that basic rejection. It will be different in the future."