Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Lutheran Does Hatchet Job

Misquoting Mark Chavez, it appears they thought that they could lump WordAlone and Lutherans Concerned together and portray them as fringe groups. It closes with a Lowell Almen snow job. After this, I'd say I have more respect for Lutherans Concerend than I do for the magazine or Almen--LCNC might be dead wrong when it comes to interpreting the Bible, but at least they speak the truth they know.

It’s about Scripture
Reform-minded groups argue authority

In the ELCA, the face of organized disagreement with denominational policies and perceptions of the church includes groups that describe themselves and their congregations as holding to the authority of Scripture and, well ... those that say the same but from the opposite end of the theological spectrum.

Leaders of such movements as the WordAlone Network and Lutherans Concerned/North America describe themselves as agreeing with Martin Luther that Scripture is the cradle that holds the Christ child. Yet while the former wants the ELCA to hold to tradition, the latter calls for change. In both groups some stay and some leave the ELCA, whether by choice or a decision of the larger church body. Who are these groups? Why do some stay and some leave?

Tim White (left), a pastor of Trinity Lutheran, Columbus, Neb., said the congregation left the ELCA because of a variety of concerns, not “any one issue.” White is pictured here with (front row, left) Kay Ferris, Pastor Doug Zurek, Sue Zurek; (back row, left) Cindy White, Jennifer Uhlig and Mike Drinnin. All are staff except Drinnin, who was council president at the time of the vote.
In 2005, Trinity Lutheran Church, Columbus, Neb., took two separate votes and consulted the Nebraska Synod bishop before leaving the ELCA. Since then, the 2,000-
member congregation hasn’t looked back, two of its leaders say. A small group of members who wanted to stay in the ELCA formed Hope Lutheran Church, a new mission in Columbus. (Their story is coming in August.)

Trinity had already joined Lutheran Congregations in Mission in Christ in 2002. Formed by leaders of the church reform movement WordAlone Network, LCMC provides an alternative church body for some congregations unhappy with the ELCA.

Of the 20 congregations with 14,116 members who withdrew from the ELCA in 2005, 11 are affiliated with LCMC, said ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen. Other congregations joined the Association of Free Lutheran Churches, Fellowship of Confessing Lutheran Churches, American Association of Lutheran Churches and Alliance of Renewal Churches.

“For a period of years, our leadership was aware of an undercurrent of controversial issues within the ELCA,” said Tim White, a pastor of Trinity who also left the ELCA clergy roster. He attributed the departure to several issues, including: Called to Common Mission, the full communion agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church; the sexuality studies; and the ELCA’s advocacy work.

White called CCM “a waste of the church’s time ... not critical to church unity,” and dismissed the bylaw that allows some exceptions to the historic episcopate as “a Band-Aid.” (The historic episcopate is a succession of bishops as a sign of unity back to the earliest days of the Christian church.)

Wayne Nestor, called six years ago as Trinity’s “minister of renewal,” is an Assembly of God pastor. He said “leaving [the ELCA] was a process [involving] lots of conversation.”

White said Evangelical Free Church members “prayed for us in the other room while we were meeting [for the second vote to leave the ELCA]. If you want to know why we left, I told my congregation many times it wasn’t any one issue. The issues were just symptoms of what I consider to be a profound spiritual illness in the ELCA having to do with the authority of Scripture.”

Mark Chavez, an ELCA pastor and executive director of WordAlone, said, “I’m disappointed when churches leave the ELCA. ... It’s for the sake of the gospel and the crucified one that I stay [in the denomination].”

Chavez said the majority of WordAlone’s 232 congregations are still among the ELCA’s 10,585 congregations. More than one-fourth of LCMC’s 80 congregations are also on the ELCA roster, he added.

LCMC was formed in 2001 for about 50 WordAlone congregations that had “given up” on remaining in the ELCA but wouldn’t join a Lutheran denomination that didn’t ordain women, he said. Central to their leaving was opposition to CCM, he said, adding, “There was no way of knowing then [about bylaw exceptions related to CCM], and there was concern that some seminary graduates would need a Lutheran church body in which to serve.”

Chavez said “WordAlone works for change within the ELCA—that’s part of our institutional culture.” It’s also a member of Lutheran CORE, an association of ELCA members concerned about “the overall drift from the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions,” he said. WordAlone is developing a hymnal and a theological house of studies, he said.

“[ELCA theologian and WordAlone member] Jim Nestingen once said that one of the mistakes we made after the ELCA merger was that we never took the time to really get to know one another,” Chavez said. “If we hadn’t been in such a rush to make statements and reach agreements, if we’d taken our time, some of these misunderstandings would have been avoided.”

WordAlone is also concerned about “a decline of the proper mission” within the ELCA and reduced numbers of missionaries, “compromise on fundamental Lutheran doctrine in ecumenical agreements,” “avoiding masculine pronouns for God,” and “[ELCA] leaders who say Lutherans can agree to disagree on sexual morality and ethics,” Chavez said, adding: “Both the Old and New Testament prohibit [homosexuality].”

Jane Ralph and 100 other protesters from Goodsoil faced the 2005 Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Fla., in a silent protest after the assembly voted not to allow pastors in same-sex relationships. Ralph left the ELCA clergy roster in 1998, and is now rostered with the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, an independent Lutheran ministry roster formed in 1993 for gays and lesbians.

Selectively literal?

More to the point, said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, a movement with 330 “Reconciling in Christ” congregations (welcoming of lesbians and gays), is that “Jesus says nothing about same-gender relationships but espouses a continuous ethic of love.”

“When we interpret Scripture from the Old Testament and the epistles we use the lens of the gospel and the witness of Jesus to assist our interpretation,” she said. “Our experience with those who claim a literal interpretation of Scripture is that they are selectively literal, picking and choosing which Scriptures will be interpreted literally.”

Eastwood said everyone interprets Scripture through tradition, what they’re taught and life experience. “The question becomes whether God still speaks to us about issues of justice and morality when our experience and engagement of [gay-
lesbian-bisexual-transgendered] believers would stand in contrast to some biblical passages,” she said.

“[LC/NA] isn’t afraid of dissent to the point of ecclesial disobedience. We see policies of exclusion as being inconsistent with the witness of Jesus,” she said. “The purpose of ecclesial disobedience is to shine a light on the injustice of discrimination ... knowing full well that censure or sanction may follow.”

Erik Christensen sees himself as both a dissenter and more than that. He’s a candidate for the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, an independent Lutheran ministry roster formed in 1993 for gays and lesbians that isn’t recognized by the ELCA. Denominational policy requires clergy to remain celibate outside of heterosexual marriage. The project’s roster has 34 clergy, five approved ordination candidates and six seminarians. Some of its clergy were once ELCA pastors before being removed for noncompliance with policy.

“ECP’s candidacy panels are made up of pastors, seminary professors and other leaders,” Christensen said, adding that its standards are as strict as the ELCA candidacy
process—except for the requirement for gays and lesbians to stay unpartnered and celibate. “It’s done as a way to stay in community with the ELCA, not [as] a process for congregations no longer interested in being part of the ELCA,” he said.


Almen believes many misunderstandings have been created by those within “reforming movements.”

“Some of the misinformation and lies spread in these congregations about the work of the ELCA are absolutely appalling,” he said. The ELCA secretary cited rumors that the queen of England would appoint ELCA bishops, that CCM meant synod bishops—not pastors—would carry out confirmation, that the ELCA is no longer committed to overseas evangelism, or that it preaches universal salvation. “Lies and falsehoods,” Almen said.

He said one-fourth of ELCA funding “is devoted to global mission, and one-half of each dollar for churchwide ministries goes to theological education, vocation, church planting and to raise up leadership. I don’t see this being expressed by these groups.”

Parishioners would do well to question those promoting a congregation’s departure, he said, as well as ask a synod or churchwide leader for another viewpoint. In his time in office, Almen said he and his staff have received scant calls from departing congregations, usually just questions about how to proceed with a vote to leave the ELCA.

By the time a synod bishop or staff member is approached by a congregation seeking to withdraw, “it’s usually too late,” Almen said.

“If the congregation makes a well-informed, conscientious decision, that’s one thing. But I grieve for the way some members have been misled,” he said.

“Movements require an issue to generate enthusiasm, engagement and funding,” he said. “And one of the things that tends to happen with splinter groups is they splinter again.”

Congregational withdrawals and reforming movements aren’t anything new, he said, adding that in the American Lutheran Church withdrawals occurred with greater frequency than in the Lutheran Church in America.

“Some of it is probably a distinctly American phenomenon, related to our sense of independence,” Almen said. In the ALC, an ELCA predecessor with about 4,800 congregations, some congregations typically withdrew each year—93 withdrew from 1974 to 1987. In the ELCA, with 10,585 congregations, 129 withdrew over a similar period, from 1992 to 2005.

“What I hope we can see is a deeper understanding among members of this church about the work that we share [and] the way we, together, share the gospel,” he said. “In some ways a more serious issue for congregations is worship participation and inactivity of members, [leading] many to drop from the rolls.”

© 2006 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. The Lutheran is the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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