When Lutherans split

hissocks_300The Episcopal Church has less than half the membership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But the former gets much more media coverage than the ELCA. But both are experiencing division under similar circumstances. Both churches have lost significant numbers of members in recent years, with congregations occasionally deciding to leave as a unit. And the problems in both churches deal with how the denomination interprets Scripture. The big fissures have been sparked by dramatic changes in church doctrine on sexuality.

The Episcopal Church’s split has been covered extensively by the media. When the ELCA voted to ordain homosexuals in committed, monogamous, lifelong relationships this past August, it resulted in the departure of more congregations. Other congregations decided to simply withhold funds to the national church body while they decided whether to leave a church body that has changed its doctrine.

Here’s a sampling of headlines from the last couple of months: “Lutheran church in Roanoke County votes to split from association,” “Large ELCA Congregation Votes to Leave the Denomination,” and “Minneapolis Lutheran church will leave ELCA.” We see these stories being covered throughout the country, usually in the local press.

When Lutheran CORE — a group that opposes the doctrinal changes that have been made in recent years — met in Indianapolis to discuss how to respond to the August vote for gay clergy in relationships, that resulted in more national coverage. And now we’re seeing national coverage again as Lutheran CORE steps up its efforts. The Associated Press had a great report that clearly and concisely laid out the facts of the situation. It explained how many congregations had left, how many had initiated the process, and discussed the national church body’s financial woes caused, in part, by a drop in funds from less-than-pleased congregations:

The split over gay clergy within the country’s largest Lutheran denomination has prompted a conservative faction to begin forming a new Lutheran church body separate from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Leaders of Lutheran CORE said Wednesday that a working group would immediately begin drafting a constitution and taking other steps to form the denomination, with hopes to have it off the ground by next August.

”There are many people within the ELCA who are very unhappy with what has happened,” said the Rev. Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran CORE and a retired ELCA bishop from State College, Pa.

The main question I had after reading the report dealt with the property. The truth of the matter is that property disputes tend to be more heated than doctrinal disputes. Denominational corporations are usually willing to spend quite a bit of money and energy to keep property when congregations or dioceses leave a church body. We’ve seen a lot of coverage of this aspect of the Episcopal Church’s woes (they’re winning some battles and losing others) as well as in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But what about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?

Julia Duin is on the case at the Washington Times. After laying out the cause of the schism, she looks at the finances of the denomination, why Lutheran CORE is not joining with any other Lutheran group and whether there will be property disputes:

“This news from Lutheran CORE was expected,” [ELCA spokesman John Brooks] said. “We know it takes hard work to organize a new church body. . . . There has always been a place in the ELCA for all people despite our differences on various issues.”

The ELCA will not sue a departing congregation, he added, as long as it joins another Lutheran church body.

Despite the fact that the ELCA is significantly larger than the Episcopal Church, the media have shown less interest in the denomination’s doctrinal battles. Both the Associated Press and Washington Times picked up on the significance of the cause of both church body’s plights. Hopefully we will see continued good coverage of the matter.

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  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is that the ELCA defines itself as “a union of congregations” and that each congregation owns its own property. Given that, I wonder what grounds the ELCA could have for suing any congregation which does not join another Lutheran Church body.

  • http://travismamone.blogspot.com Travis Mamone

    I want some socks like that!

  • will47

    I was glad to see Julia Duin answered a question I had about why CORE wouldn’t simply merge with the LCMC — they want a more centralized organization. As a member of an ELCA church, my sense is that there hasn’t been much support for lawsuits against departing churches within the ELCA, regardless of whether such a suit would be likely to succeed (which itself probably varies in accordance with state law and specific language in church charters and deeds to real property). It’s viewed as a waste of time and money and a distraction from matters deemed more important.

  • Chris Bolinger

    If those are ELCA socks, then they have been moving pretty fast in recent years. (Cue rim shot!)

  • dalea

    Overlooked news that bears on Lutheran coverage. The Church of Sweden has installed a Lesbian, who is in a relationship, as Bishop of Stockholm. The press consistently ignores the fact that Lutheranism is a world religion, just like Anglicanism.


    with picture:



    In addition to some bishops from the Churches of England and Ireland, the churches of Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the World Lutheran Federation have also elected to skip the ordination, although without providing any specific reason.

    According to Wejryd, the international invitees who have declined to come include “many who generally never come”.

    On the other hand, representatives from the churches of South Africa, the Philippines, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Germany have indicated they plan to attend Sunday’s ordination.

  • http://www.southernconnections.com/roller George Frink

    Have we done a survey, lately, of how many media outlet owners are Lutheran, and of how many are Episcopalian?

  • Wrigley Peterborough

    I think the reason the ELCA is not covered like ECUSA is because of the massive cultural influence that the Anglicans have had since the founding of our country. To be sure, there have been significant Lutherans, like Muhlenberg, first Speaker of the House of Representatives. But even the Muhlenbergs eventually got all uppity and became Anglicans.

  • Dave

    “We are not leaving the ELCA. The ELCA has left us,”

    Ah, where have we seen that formulation reported before?

    The truth of the matter is that property disputes tend to be more heated than doctrinal disputes.

    Also true among Unitarian Universalists.

    You may be consoled, Mollie, in that the MSM is not completely ignoring the ELCA.

  • dalea

    I suspect that part of the issue here is that Lutherans tend not to very visible in the major media markets: LA, NYC, DC. Something like 10% of ELCA members are in the Minneapolis-St Paul metro area, which will get local coverage but not make it nationally. This map shows the percentage of Lutherans by county in the US:


    This one ELCA:


    And for Mollie, the LCMS:


    And finally, one that shows where the various bodies are dominant:


    The picture this gives is of a church that is not found much in major media markets. And of a church that has a lot of rural and small town members. Who like to live in places with long cold winters. ELCA members tend to predominate in places where the railroads went through Chicago. LCMS where they went through St Louis.

  • dalea

    The maps are from:


    which also has them for other denominations. Very interesting tool for seeing where believers are.

  • Michaelv

    At the end of the Times article we read someone quoted as saying “Many of us have spent years now struggling to call the ELCA to remain faithful to the Orthodox Christianity of the last 2,000 years.” Shouldn’t that be a lowercase O?

  • Michaelv

    Oh, and with Will (#3) about being glad to learn why CORE wouldn’t just merge with another Lutheran group – that was an obvious question for outsiders to ask. I’d like to hear more about how other Lutheran synods are viewing this. Will there be some kind of outreach? Does synod-hopping happen pretty commonly anyway? If I’m a Lutheran of one group and I’m on vacation in a town where only the other synod has a church, am I likely to go there?

  • Dan

    The ELCA is much more congregational than the Episcopal church. The denomination makes no claim on congregational property. Therefore, it is much easier for Lutheran congregations to leave than it is for Episcopal.

  • dalea

    Just how conservative are the churches that are leaving? There is no coverage that shows they are against woman clergy, just GLBT ones. Which is very unlike the ECUSA. In what other ways are these churches ‘conservative’?

    I also wonder if any of the churches thinking about leaving are rural. So far, the ones refered to appear to be suburban, as in the ECUSA. Of the three, two are in areas where there are not a whole lot of Lutherans and one appears to be suburban. I wonder if there are many rural churches in the Lutheran corridor which extends from Lakes Michigan and Superior to the Pacific that are reconciled to GL clergy. Sure looks that way.

  • Allen

    Traditionally, Lutheran churches are autonomous congregations which own their own properties. But when the ELCA was formed through a merger of liberal Lutherans, it followed the typical liberal trend of having making all churches lose their property to the home church body in the event the church wants to leave the denomination. Others that follow this trend are the United Methodists (UMC), the Presbyterians (PC-USA), and the Epicopalians. Of course this is also true of the Roman Catholic Church where the bishop holds local church property “in trust” for the local churches. Due to complaints, the ELCA later lifted the practice provided the departing church joined another Lutheran synod.

    One can only imagine that the practice is a ploy to make it almost impossible for a congregation to leave, even if it is scriptural reasons.

  • Julia

    ELCA members tend to predominate in places where the railroads went through Chicago. LCMS where they went through St Louis.

    I’m from the St Louis area and wonder if that might influence other matters as well. Interesting.

  • str

    “One can only imagine that the practice is a ploy to make it almost impossible for a congregation to leave, even if it is scriptural reasons.”

    I never knew schism was a scripturally sanctioned practice. I can feel for those congegrations who suffer from the deviations of their leadership – and it is in accordance with Protestant tradition to split off in such a case – but one can hardly fault anyone for not providing for regulations that ease splits.

    Things also logically depends on what level the basic constituing element of church exists. With the ECUSA and the RCC it is clear: these are episcopal structures and hence parishes are only outlets of a church headed by the bishop.

    What’s the situation with the ECLA or others?

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    Like Terry Mattingly I’ve wondered why the Episcopalians get inordinate coverage. ELCA’s much bigger so this should be bigger news.

    1. The Episcopalians recently lost not just parishes but whole dioceses. Four of them. That’s historic. Newsworthy.

    2. Lutheranism is not a world religion so sorry, nobody outside of Sweden cares what the Church of Sweden does. The difference: Britain succeeded at empire in the 1600s-1700s and Sweden didn’t (it was a world power for about 15 minutes). (I’m writing this from an ex-Swedish turned British colony.) If history had been different then yes, the world would follow Swedish Lutheranism’s news, this conversation would be in Swedish and to quote somebody, imagine what the bicycle trails through the Rockies would have been like. Very clean and well-maintained, I’m sure. The Church of England would be this little liberal high church in a Germanic country that speaks a language nobody else knows. There wouldn’t be Episcopalians.

    (But English seems so much more adaptable than Swedish; a language you can build an empire with.)

    3. All the reasons Mattingly has mentioned: the spite-Rome angle, or liberal journos agree with the Episcopalians and see them as how they’d like to change the church they care about/are mad at. (‘Shut up about my sex life and just give me a pretty wedding like Princess Di.’)

    4. Pageantry and lots of stories about sex! The mainstream doesn’t care about theology any more. Sex is a perennial seller. (Ungh. Hot lady in picture next to car. Make me want car.) I’ve said that if the mainline all merged tomorrow (‘Reformed Presbo-Lutheranism’) or if Rome and Orthodoxy got back together the press would yawn and keep covering gay bishops and ex-RC priests getting married.

    P.S. I’m a journo, an exception.

  • Ed

    Sorry, Young Fogey, Lutheranism is a world-wide religion. As a “jurno”, you would have been well advised to do some research on that fact before making such a statement. It’s not too late to start.
    And Lutherans, at least, do care about what happens in the Church of Sweden, partiularly those in the Global South, as is true of Episcopalians as well.
    But you’re right in one respect: the MSM doesn’t care about theology (much less understand it.)
    An old fogey

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    But does having a small following outside one’s homeland make one a world religion? For example there are a few Lutherans in Africa but that doesn’t make it a world religion like Roman Catholicism. To be fair I can say the same of Orthodoxy. It has an immigrant following and a convert boomlet in America but is still limited to Eastern Europe really despite Russian Orthodoxy being a huge church. Lutheranism is ethnic too.

    (Episcopalianism is ethnic, diversity PR and token Latin-American missions notwithstanding, but Anglicanism overall much less than it used to be and people still think, thanks to the British Empire: Africa.)

    I imagine practising Lutherans might follow those stories as historically they’re very theologically minded (as reflected in the cute ‘Cheers’ episode where Woody and Kelly almost break up because they belong to different Lutheran denominations/synods). But how many practising Lutherans are there?

    Non-Episcopalians cover the Episcopal Church to death. I don’t think non-Lutherans cover Lutheranism much.

  • dalea

    The largest Lutheran church in the world is in Sweden, followed by Ethiopia and ELCA. There are 4,869,157 Lutherans in Ethiopia. There are over 8M in Asia. Source:


    Looks like a world religion to me.

    Interestingly, the Lesbian bishop did not set off protests from the churches in the South. Quite a contrast to the Anglicans. Her installation was widely covered in the GL press, the feminist press and nowhere else that I can find.

  • str

    World religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism.

    Lutheranism is not actually a religion, much less a world religion. Given the numbers of Lutherans, such talk is ridiculous.

    Having said that, Anglicanism is much less a world religion.

    Young Fogey, what do you mean by Lutheranism’s “home country”?

  • Jon in the Nati

    …if the mainline all merged tomorrow (‘Reformed Presbo-Lutheranism’)

    Young Fogey, someone has to give you props for the Simpsons reference. Good one.

    Props to you. Much, much props.

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    Young Fogey, what do you mean by Lutheranism’s “home country”?

    What most people mean: Germany and the Nordic countries.

  • http://www.getreligion.org MarkAA

    By any accounting, the Lutheran collection of denominations is a pretty large group, and even taken separately, the separate denominations within Lutheran”ism” are pretty big, in the multiple millions.

    As an LCMS Lutheran, I’m interested in why the breakaway folks from ELCA aren’t interested in joining the LCMS. I have heard general comments from some ELCA folks I know personally, usually involving stereotypes of the LCMS they don’t want to join. But I’m curious why it’s so important to create a new, tiny, slightly-more-traditionalist denomination rather than join up with one that has 2 million members, a large pension plan, hundreds of congregations, existing seminaries, and a massive school system. Is it the stance on women pastors?

    As for journalism, it would be an interesting topic for coverage for the millions of Lutherans involved.

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    I understand the reasons for ex-ELCAites moving from liberal Protestantism to slightly less liberal Protestantism and not to the LCMS are they are for women pastors and see the LCMS as fundamentalist (biblical inerrancy). Much like the recent ex-Episcopalians not joining the cluster of little Continuing churches (besides wanting to remain Anglicans: being invited to Lambeth and possibly replacing the Episcopalians in that, which IMO won’t happen… the Continuers wanted the same thing 30 years ago): many of the recent defectors are not Anglo-Catholics and are for women priests. They want 1988 Episcopalianism not 1975 Episcopalianism or 1950s biretta-belt Anglo-Catholicism.

  • http://www.ericcshafer.blogspot.com Eric Shafer

    Lutheranism not a world religion? Well, there are some 65 million Lutherans in the world and around 60 million belong to the Lutheran World Federation – http://www.lutheranworld.org.

    Congregations of the ELCA can leave the church body. They are required to take two votes to leave, each needing a 2/3 vote. There must be consultation with the synod bishop. Those congregations which are former members of the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (two of the three churches which united to form the ELCA in 1988) can then leave. Congregations which are former members of the Lutheran Church in America or which were formed since the ELCA was founded in 1988 need one more step, the approval of their synod council. It would be possible for a synod council NOT to let a former LCA or newer ELCA congregation leave the denomination which could set up a conflict over the congregation’s property, but that has not happened, to my knowledge, in the 20+ years of the ELCA.

    Recent ELCA news releases indicate that only five congregations have finished the leaving process outlined above since the ELCA assembly actions.

  • str

    Lutheranism is not a religion – it is a denomination.

    And 65 million isn’t really that much in a world of over 6 billion* human beings.

    (*US billions, that is.)