Monday, August 31, 2009

New rift may shift Lutherans

A controversial decision about homosexual clergy by the country's largest Lutheran denomination had some of the church's conservatives knocking on the door of the Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod last week.

Missouri Synod officials fielded dozens of calls and e-mails from pastors and lay members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America after its biennial meeting in Minneapolis, when delegates voted 559-451 to allow gay clergy in committed relationships to serve as pastors.

That decision disappointed conservatives in the theologically liberal denomination. Callers after the ELCA's Aug. 21 vote wanted to know about the Missouri Synod's teaching and application process, according to the church's first vice president, the Rev. William Diekelman.

But that surge in interest could put the Missouri Synod in an awkward position. Although new members would be welcome, church leaders would like to avoid the charge of sheep-stealing.

At the same time, pastors from both denominations say homosexuality is just one of the issues that differentiates them, and it would be a theological challenge for some individual ELCA members, and especially entire congregations, to move to the Missouri Synod.

Like all mainline Protestant denominations, the Missouri Synod is losing members faster than it can attract them, so new faces in the pews would be a joyful sight for pastors.

"There are people in the ELCA that agree with us that one man and one woman should live together in marriage as husband and wife," said the Rev. Matt Clark, associate pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod church in Waterloo. "If they have disagreements with their church body, we invite them to our church to examine Scripture with us."

But Missouri Synod leaders don't want to seem to be benefiting from discord in a sister denomination. The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, Missouri Synod president, attempted last week to tread the line between offering pastoral care and seizing an opportunity.

"We recognize that many brothers and sisters within the ELCA ... strongly oppose these actions," Kieschnick said of the vote. "To them we offer our assurance of loving encouragement together with our willingness to provide appropriate support in their efforts to remain faithful to the Word of God and the historic teachings of the Lutheran church ... ."

Kieschnick was out of town last week and unavailable for comment, but Diekelman denied there was an organized effort to bring disgruntled ELCA members, or entire congregations, into the Missouri Synod fold.

"I've not been part of any conversation where anyone suggested strategically doing that," Diekelman said.

But being faithful to the historic teachings of the Lutheran church, as Kieschnick put it, would mean a theological adjustment for Lutherans moving over from the more liberal denomination. The Missouri Synod doesn't ordain women or homosexuals, and its members believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

Missouri Synod members believe in the Reformation-era doctrine of sola scriptura, which says Scripture is the only inerrant Christian authority. In the 16th century, Martin Luther rejected the Catholic church's hierarchical structure and founded a reform movement within the Christian church based on the authority of the Bible.

Missouri Synod members see their Lutheran brothers and sisters in the ELCA as more willing to interpret Scripture loosely to fit modern cultural norms.

So, for instance, ELCA members who have grown up in a church in which the ordination of women is normal, may have a difficult time adjusting to life in the Missouri Synod, where women cannot be ordained.

The Rev. Richard Mueller is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Florissant, the largest ELCA congregation with 1,700 members. Mueller was brought up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and disagreed with the ELCA vote. He said he fielded calls from distressed members of his congregation last week.

Despite the concern, "I don't see a lot of folks leaving ELCA churches for Missouri Synod churches," Mueller said. "This isn't the only issue that distinguishes us."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will become the third mainline Protestant church to ordain noncelibate gay clergy, after the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. And indeed, there is fear among ELCA leaders that the church may be at the same crossroads in the debate over homosexuality that is threatening to tear apart the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, and its bishops sparked a fire storm in 2003 when they voted to consecrate an openly gay bishop. In July, the Episcopal Church ended a moratorium on electing gay bishops and approved blessings for same-sex couples.

Other large mainline Christian denominations — the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church — recently voted down similar policy changes. The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls homosexual acts "acts of grave depravity" and "intrinsically disordered."

Similarly, the Missouri Synod believes that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior as "intrinsically sinful."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod isn't the only option for ELCA members who decide their church's decision to ordain non-celibate gays is incompatible with their beliefs. Such souls may find comfort in so-called post-denominational Lutheran organizations such as the Association of American Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ was formed in 2001 and is organized as a loose federation of 226 congregations around the world. The organization represents a compromise between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod. It allows for the ordination of women, but it believes that any "genital sexual expression" should be between a married man and woman and that "any other sexual relationship is contrary to Scripture." The organization says about 90 percent of its 175 U.S. congregations are former members of the ELCA.

"In the three months before the vote, I got calls from 150 congregations interested in talking to us if the vote went the way it did," said Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ's Rev. William Sullivan. "Since (the vote), I've talked to 30 congregations a day." Sullivan said that the group had grown 20 percent this year and that he expected it to double in size in the next 18 months.

Anticipating a potential exodus from his pews, Bishop Mark Hanson, the Evangelical Church in America's presiding bishop, pleaded with members unhappy with the vote not to rush into the arms of another church.

"Take time with your decision," Hanson said after the vote in Minneapolis. "Step back and understand the magnitude of the decision if you choose to leave, because we will be diminished by your absence."

Bishop Warren Freiheit, who leads the ELCA's Central/Southern Illinois synod, echoed Hanson's call for patience. "It's my continued counsel to wait and see what filters out of this," Freiheit said.

Some Missouri Synod leaders say that even if their denomination benefits from some who leave the ELCA, the ordination decision hurt the reputation of American Lutheranism.

"Even if people from the ELCA came over in droves, this vote was in no sense good news for the (Missouri Synod)," said Will Schumacher, dean of theological research and publications for Concordia Seminary. "This drives a wedge between American Lutherans and the worldwide church that was not there before."

Missouri Synod president Kieschnick addressed his sister denomination's assembly after the August 21 vote, telling delegates that their decision would "negatively affect" the relationship of the two church bodies.

And yet some Missouri Synod pastors say they will continue to encourage their flocks to look to the true purpose of the church.

"We forget sometimes that denominations and synods are a means to an end — a means to carry out the commission Christ gave us," said the Rev. Paul Schult, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Weldon Spring.

"It's a big decision — which church body to be a part of. But it's a bigger deal to know that Christ has called you to be part of this kingdom."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They ARE a shifty lot, you know.

Jim McCrea