Lutheran church latest to split over ordination of gays

December 10, 2010
photo - John Witkop, pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010.    Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE
John Witkop, pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE 

The ordination of gay clergy continues to create tension within Christian denominations in America.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and the American Baptist Church USA have experienced tremendous internal discord over the issue.

But perhaps the most dynamic schism today involving gay ordination is within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Last month, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs publicly announced it had left the ELCA. Bethel Lutheran and Faith Lutheran have also quit the denomination.

“The ELCA was going in a different direction,” Bethel Lutheran pastor John Witkop said. “The ordination of gay clergy got us talking (about leaving).”

The ELCA has about 10,000 U.S. churches, and since early 2009, 291 have left to align with other Lutheran denominations, according to ELCA records.

While the number is relatively small, ELCA defectors have moved faster than any other dissenting group to re-organize.

It took former Episcopalians six years to create the conservative Anglican Church in North America after outcry over the election of a gay Episcopal bishop in 2003. Yet conservative Lutherans launched the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in August, one year after the ELCA’s General Assembly vote that allowed sexually active gays to become clergy.

The NALC is growing fast. At its inception it had 18 churches aboard, including St. Luke’s. It now has 70, with 17 in the process of joining, NALC treasurer Ryan Schwarz said.

The bitterness that marked the Episcopal Church split is mostly held in check among Lutherans. One reason is that, unlike in the Episcopal Church, property ownership is generally not an issue for defectors. As long as a former ELCA church aligns with a Lutheran denomination, it keeps its property.

A second reason is the sensibility within the Lutheran faith.

“We don’t call this a schism,” said David Wendel, pastor of St. Luke’s and one of 17 regional deans for the NALC. “Lutheranism has a flexibility that allows for this realignment.”


Reasons for ELCA split

For years the ELCA has diverged from the letter of Scripture, interpreting some parts symbolically that conservatives consider literal truth, and dismissing other parts as no longer relevant.

ELCA spokesman John Brooks said the national body has also striven to be an “inclusive church” by reaching out to minorities and gays.

But to defectors, the ELCA has watered down God’s word and has forgotten the meaning of sin, especially regarding homosexuality. “The ELCA interprets Scripture for the mood of the times, aligning with the fads of the day,” said Paull Spring, bishop for 14 years of the ELCA’s Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod before quitting to become leader of the NALC.

The issue that generates the most emotion for defectors is the August 2009 ELCA General Assembly vote to allow non-celibate gays to become clergy.

During the assembly, 54 percent of the some 1,000 delegates voted to allow sexually active gays to become clergy. Prior to that, only celibate gays could be ELCA pastors.

Conservatives accused the General Assembly of changing the rules by allowing a majority vote rather than the normal two-thirds vote. But Brooks says that since November 2008, a majority vote is all that’s required on a policy matter.

In an influential essay published in a Lutheran journal soon after the vote, Lutheran leader Robert Benne wrote, “The acceptance of homosexual conduct has become the ‘line in the sand’ separating revisionist from orthodox Christian. Not only does the church now accept homosexual conduct among its members and pastors, its statements on other issues of sexual morality are equally disturbing.”

Now four months old, the NALC remains a work in progress, with no U.S. central location. All NALC positions are provisional till next August.

Bishop Spring, who leads the new denomination from his home town of State College, Pa., says he will not run for re-election.

“It’s been a very stressful time, personally,” Spring said. “There is sorrow over a lost relationship. But what are you supposed to do when the parent body goes against Holy Scripture?


Churches feeling the strain

The break has also been stressful on individual churches.

Of the Colorado Springs churches that have departed, Bethel Lutheran and Faith Lutheran opted to affiliate with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), an association of congregations that appeals to those seeking less bureaucracy than that in other Lutheran denominations.

Bethel Lutheran has lost 6 percent of its congregation since quitting the ELCA last January, Witkop said. Weekly attendance now hovers around 425.

But for Witkop, the turmoil and loss of revenue due to membership decline has been worth it.

“When we looked at everything, it was the right thing to do,” he said.

For an in-depth look at the denominational break, go to Barna’s blog, The Pulpit, at

STORY CORRECTION: The Lutheran Missouri Synod was listed as a group experiencing internal discord over gay ordination. There is no discord on this subject within the group.

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