The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America responded to plans for a rival church body, urging fellow Lutherans to avoid slander.
"We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, as he recited words from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Hanson made the statement in a pastoral letter Tuesday, days before hundreds of dissenting Lutherans are scheduled to constitute a separate denomination called the North American Lutheran Church.
The NALC is intended to provide a home for Lutherans discontent with the ELCA's "ongoing movement away from the authority and teaching of the Bible."
Dozens of congregations have taken votes to sever ties with the ELCA over the past year since the ELCA's highest legislative body voted to allow gays and lesbians in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" to serve as clergy.
"It was not our choice to leave the ELCA, but the ELCA has chosen to reject 'the faith once delivered to the saints,' so now we are acting to maintain our position within the consensus of the Church catholic," explained Ryan Schwarz of Washington, D.C., chair of Lutheran CORE's Vision and Planning Working Group.
Lutheran CORE is aiding the formation of the new Lutheran body.
In response to the NALC, Hanson alluded to a possible future relationship between the ELCA and the new body but added a cautionary note.
"[W]e must ask how this separation in the body of Christ will serve the ministry and message of reconciliation entrusted to us by God," he stated.
"The ELCA has and will continue reaching out to others for the sake of the gospel and serving our neighbor. Standing together, we are known as a church that rolls up its sleeves and solves problems, the church that is catalyst, convener and bridge builder. Our strong ecumenical relationships and global partnerships testify to that commitment.
"Yet before the ELCA can undertake any such efforts with a new Lutheran church body, I believe we must commit to obey the commandment against bearing false witness and commit to live its meaning in every setting, both private and public."
Amid the debates and disagreements, Hanson made clear to members of the ELCA that there is room for divergent views on sexuality within the denomination. While calling for dialogue, he urged restraint against judgments.
"We live in a world that is plagued by incivility, willful misunderstanding and hurtful caricatures of those with whom one disagrees. Let us declare that such behaviors will stop with us," he stated. "There is room in this church for vigorous dialogue that witnesses to faith without rushing to judgment and closing off discussion."
The NALC convocation is scheduled to begin on Friday in Grove City, Ohio, with more than 1,000 participants, including representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus – two of the largest Lutheran churches in the world.