Lutherans on the brink

hissocks_3001Last month the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to roster partnered gay people as clergy. Not everyone in the denomination is happy about this doctrinal change in how the church now treats sex outside of the lifelong union of one man and one woman in matrimony. Among those is a group called Coalition for Reform. Terry noted some funny business in how the Associated Press handled the news of an upcoming meeting of this group and how the same news was handled better at the Washington Times.

To add to the coverage, the Washington Post had a big piece that tied together local perspective, the upcoming meeting and the larger membership trends suffered by the ELCA. Here’s how it begins:

St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Annapolis is a house of worship on the brink. It recently voted to explore leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because of the denomination’s decision last month to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

St. Martin’s pastor, the Rev. Gerald Miller, said he isn’t sure whether his church will leave the 4.6 million-member ELCA to join another Lutheran denomination.

“We are struggling,” said Miller, who wrote a heartfelt letter to his 1,000-member congregation about the issue of gay clergy last month. “We are really struggling.”

On Friday, he and 1,200 other conservative Lutherans from across the country will gather gather in an Indianapolis suburb, and many will be considering whether to walk away from the ELCA.

I want to highlight the piece, even though I don’t really have any criticism of it, because it’s worth showing how much can be packed into one story. We get accurate history about the previous policy on gay clergy (allowed, but had to remain celibate), what the group will actually be considering (not walking away so much as forming a new synod within the church, and how the larger issue has roiled other mainline Protestants. One of the problems facing the conservative Lutherans is that some congregations who oppose the policy will want to leave the ELCA and some will want to remain with the denomination.

And after laying all that out, we learn of ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson’s letter in which he somewhat ironically discourages separation from the mother church. That’s how you do it, AP! Before you get the response to the planned gathering, you have to explain what the gathering is!

Anyway, reporter Jacqueline Salmon gets some good local flavor in there, including a local meeting earlier this month where conservatives explained why they opposed the change. And there’s this key bit of information:

Conservatives who oppose the policy predict that it will hasten the downward membership spiral plaguing the ELCA and most other mainline denominations. In the ELCA, the number of baptized members has decreased 11 percent in the past 20 years.

Since 2001, the percentage of mainline Protestants in the U.S. population has shrunk from about 17 percent to 13 percent, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

“It’s just going to accelerate the trend” in the ELCA, said the Rev. Mark Chavez, executive director of CORE. “Anybody with their eyes open can see that it’s going to be trouble.”

It’s nice to see some follow-up coverage of the fall-out over this recent decision. I imagine the repercussions — both those favorable to the denomination and those less favorable — might not materialize for months or years. Hopefully reporters will let us know how this story continues to play out in the years to come.

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  • Dave

    Conservatives who cited recent membership erosion in ELCA and American Protestantism generally, don’t make any case that this is due to increasing BGLT tolerance. The reporter should have pressed them to make that connection credibly.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Kudos to Salmon for an excellent, balanced article, and for leading with this as the primary reason why some “conservatives” are considering leaving the denomination:

    the decision represented a breakdown in the Scriptural underpinnings of their Lutheran faith

  • Rev. Olson

    Here is a ‘teaser’ from a blog post by Rev. David Ramirez that gives a critique of what is happening amongst the ‘American’ Lutherans. To access the rest, go to:

    What is Going on at Fishers? And a Few Predictions

    This Friday and Saturday, September 25-26, 2009, Lutheran CORE is holding a convocation in Fishers, Indiana, to discuss how to proceed in the aftermath of this summer’s ELCA Assembly. Lutheran CORE is the organization through which the vast majority of “traditionalists” in the ELCA have attempted to fight the ELCA’s slide into liberal Protestantism. There is no doubt that this meeting will prove to be an “I was there” event. One could draw parallels between this meeting and the withdrawal of the Pennsylvania Ministerium from the General Synod in 1864. However, this is not to imply that a new Lutheran body will emerge this weekend. There seems to be a complicated plan (or argument) concerning the relationship of Lutheran CORE to the ELCA. Will Lutheran CORE fight from within, leave as swiftly as possible, or limp along double-mindedly? Regardless of the specific fate of Lutheran CORE, I believe it is clear that this meeting signals the emergence of a large “moderate” Lutheran synod in America. We must remember that the General Council was not formed until 1867. Likewise, Fishers will not be the final break, but rather mark the beginning of the end of the ELCA as we know it now. The strongest parallel to this situation may be with the recent history of the Missouri Synod. Perhaps we could liken Lutheran CORE to ELIM, and the future “moderate” Lutheran body, which shall surely emerge, to the AELC, which was not constituted until the very end of 1976, almost 3 years after the Walkout in 1974.

  • Davis

    Obviously, the WaPo wanted to tell the story of the dissent organizers. But if the thesis of the story is unity is jeopardized, wouldn’t it make sense to actually talk to people who are working for it? Who is challenging the statistics, contextualizing the arguments, questioning the assumptions? No one.

    It’s not enough to have toss away quotes from ELCA spokespeople. I wonder if journalists aren’t caught in a “this is just like the Episcopalians” mindset, even though it is dramatically different. But readers of the WaPo and WT wouldn’t know that.

  • tmatt


    You are caught going in a bit of a circle here.

    It is GetReligion that argues that these divisions and fights inside mainline churches are not only about sexual morality. Right?

    So if there has been a collapse in oldline Protestantism, that would have to be linked to a wider set of doctrinal issues and other social changes. Right?

    Yes! This era of change is not about sexuality alone (although Bill Keller of the NYTs argued that it is in his famous “Is the Pope Catholic” column).

    It’s about DOCTRINE in general, usually CREEDAL issues, such as … Well, go read the tmatt trio. In fact, somebody ask the ELCA leaders and the rebels on the other side the three tmatt trio questions. That could be interesting.

    Here they are again:

    (1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

    (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

    (3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

  • Dave


    I’ve watched you use the tmatt trio as a litmus for the better part of a year, and it occurs to me that other tests may be more appropriate for the ELCA and TEC turmoils. One question, in particular.

    (1) Who is my neighbor?

    Is the homosexual my neighbor? The woman having an abortion? The doctor performing it?

    It would be interesting to see if the answers, particularly the supportive details, were different across these ecclesiastical fractures.

  • Jerry


    The issue is approximately the same, but the structure of the two churches is very different so I think you both have valid points, albeit from a different frame-of-reference.

    Terry, I have to take issue with your #3, sex outside marriage. If a gay couple is legally married then the question could and would be answered by some that gay sex in that situation is not a sin. I suspect you would want to amend or reword that point unless your beliefs are different than I think they are.

    There are endless variations on #3 that I think are more apropos such as “do you accept that there are seven deadly sins”? Unless I’m fundamentally wrong, there’s no rank order in scripture that says one deadly sin is worse than another. Or, from a positive side, “Do you accept Jesus’ statements of the two fundamental commandments?”

  • Mollie


    The problem with your question is that everyone would answer that the homosexual, the woman having an abortion and the doctor performing it, etc. are all neighbors. The difference is with how one views his vocation in relation to that neighbor. Do you tell the abortion doctor that he’s doing the Lord’s work? Or do you tell the abortion doctor that he should not kill unborn children? Or do you tell him something else? They’re your neighbor either way but the way you answer the NEXT question differs.

  • Mollie


    I think you might have to update the trio as well. If same-sex marriage or other non-traditional arrangements are being made, there are problems. Perhaps you could refer to the traditional Christian view of marriage as a heterosexual, lifelong coupling . . .

  • tmatt

    At the moment, Sacrament with a large S will do — meaning marriage as defined in ancient churches.

    Does the ELCA consider marriage a Sacrament?

    Anyway, I elected to use that word as a way of placing the definition of marriage in a particular, doctrinal framework.

    The key is to define it in terms of DOCTRINE, not law. The trio is about religious doctrine, not political battles.

    Plus, the goal is to hear how people answer the question. I am seeking INFORMATION, not a set of answers. It is a set of journalistic questions for people covering the doctrinal wars in modern churches.

    I have an agenda — a journalistic agenda to ask questions that provide crucial information. These three questions have always worked for me, as A REPORTER.

  • Dave


    I agree that a simple yes or no answer would not be especially informative, but that is not the answer I would expect to get.

    I would expect the liberals’ answers to take the form of “Yes, and…” and the conservatives’ to take the form of “Yes, but…” Your elaborations suggest what I would expect to hear after the “and” or “but.”

  • Mollie


    Well, I think it would be an absolutely fascinating question. It definitely gets at some of the differences between confessional and mainline Lutherans. Maybe ask it as, “How should we treat our neighbor who is an abortion doctor?” etc.

  • Davis

    I’m not sure the trio even works in the situation. Lutherans had their division over the trio, assuming it is even an appropriate analaysis. The ELCA is a young denomination, created after various Lutheran divisions and the crisis in the LCMS. The ELCA struggle is a battle over who is moderate. Lutherans already had the chance to decide whether they are literalists/traditionalists and those who were went the way of the WELS or LCMS. The ELCA was created out of the moderate wing, that rejected the isolationism and “traditionalism” of the WELS and LCMS.

    Ultimately, the ELCA moment may be more about sexuality than some who agree with Terry’s analysis would like to admit. These are people who already rejected the LCMS option. They had their moment of truth, and they decided to create the ELCA. They parted ways with the LCMS over women. They parted ways with the LCMS over open communion. They parted ways over the meaning of Luther’s Two Kingdoms. They parted ways over literalism.

    So I’m not sure the trio applies here, assuming it ever really applies.

  • dalea

    Some demographic data would help clarify the situation. I notice that most of the clergy being quoted lives in Eastern Time. My understanding is that the majority of ELCA members are in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Are the CORE members from rural churches? There are lots of Lutheran churches in rural areas. Or is this the typical Lutheran divide between Germans and Scandanavians? The coverage is not very helpful.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Davis, I grew up in ELC and LCA churches that joined the ELCA, and my experience bears no resemblance to your “history” of the formation of the ELCA. No ELC or LCA church that I encountered had the slightest interest in joining the LCMS. In fact, we were taught that LCMS folks were terribly misguided and shouldn’t even call themselves Lutherans.

    The ELCA struggle is a battle over who is moderate.

    Define “moderate” and give three examples.

    The TMatt trio would baffle most ELCAers I know.

  • Davis

    The TMatt trio would baffle most ELCAers I know.

    On both sides of the sexuality divide–assuming you are correct, which I don’t–which is why it is a fight over who is the moderate Mainline protestant. It’s just not at all comparable to the Episcopal battles.

  • carl

    What is now called the ELCA was formed as a merger of the LCA (the church of my youth), the ELC, and a small synod called AELC – an offshoot of the LCMS crisis in the mid 70′s. ELCA (and its constituent churches before it) have been moving in a liberal direction for a long time. But like all liberal Christian churches, the leadership masks itself in orthodox language so as not to kill the host before its time.


  • Jerry

    The key is to define it in terms of DOCTRINE, not law. The trio is about religious doctrine, not political battles.

    Wouldn’t the fundamental question be whether or not the organization or person subscribed to the Nicene Creed? Or perhaps the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed”?

    Anyway, I elected to use that word as a way of placing the definition of marriage in a particular, doctrinal framework.

    There is certainly a distinction between those who have a traditional doctrinal framework and those that don’t.

    As a “consumer” of news, I’m interested in two things: does an organization or person adhere to the most fundamental statement of what it means to be a Christian. Secondly, do they have a traditional or non-traditional viewpoint on a number of areas.

    Maybe I’m a member of a small minority, but putting both of those into a single list is less helpful than having them as two separate questions.

  • Jerry

    Conservatives who oppose the policy predict that it will hasten the downward membership spiral plaguing the ELCA and most other mainline denominations. In the ELCA, the number of baptized members has decreased 11 percent in the past 20 years.

    I just read something that relates to this. Conservatives assume that this trend is due to moving away from traditional values. But there is a recent study that was headlined on the Pew Forum web site: “One in 5 Americans may be secular by 2030″. So I think the root cause of those moving away from traditional churches is not as simply explainable as conservatives would like to believe.

  • Chuck

    I did not “Grow up Lutheran” and don’t even have a cool pair of “Here I Stand” socks! I can however deeply empathize with the believers in the ELCA who often feel they “have nowhere to go”.

    I am thankful for the Lutheran theologians who have informed my own “Reformed” faith. And I’m grateful for those Reformed and Evangelical pastors who chose to work together for the Gospel in a past age.

    I pray these believers will find their place and move forward. I’m sure it’s heartwrenching for them.