ELCA Censures S.D. Pastor, Congregations

A Lutheran pastor and four congregations in South Dakota were recently censured by their bishop for affiliating with another Lutheran body.

The Rev. Frezil Westerlund of Philip, S.D., received a letter last week from the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America informing her that she was in violation of church law.

The four churches she serves had voted to join the more "centrist" Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and redirect funds away from the synod. At the same time, they did not vote to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The votes were made after the highest legislative body in the ELCA approved a resolution last August that opened the door to noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy.

Though Westerlund, 63, did not join the LCMC, she was also deemed an "outlaw," as she described it, according to Lutheran CORE, a renewal group.

"This act of censure belies the promise that orthodox Christians will have a place within the ELCA," she said. "We did not withdraw from the ELCA because we believed that the course of the church could still be righted. Now who knows what will happen."

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson has emphasized that the denomination has a place for both gay-affirming members and traditionalists who oppose homosexual behavior. The denomination, he stressed earlier, provides a way for those who recognize partnered gays to ordain them but it also recognizes congregations who hold a traditional view of homosexuality.

But the recent letter of admonition has Westerlund thinking otherwise.

Since the controversial vote last year to allow partnered homosexuals on the ELCA clergy roster, hundreds of congregations have taken steps to sever ties with the 4.6 million-member denomination. Nearly 200 have joined the LCMC, which opposes the ELCA's pro-gay actions.

"This is not an issue about human partnerships. Our issue is Biblical authority," said Westerlund. "We can't just take scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible we don't like. That lacks integrity."

With the recent exodus of churches, the ELCA has taken a tougher stance against dual affiliation. ELCA Secretary David D. Swartling sent synod bishops a memo in January, informing them that affiliating with other Lutheran bodies while remaining in the ELCA is impermissible.

South Dakota Bishop David Zellmer recently announced that he would discipline congregations for dual affiliation. Notably, Zellmer is discontent with the ELCA's actions but said he doesn't feel leaving the ELCA is the answer.