Lutherans Nationwide Wrestle with Staying in, Leaving ELCA

The South Dakota bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said he has no plans of leading his synod out of the denomination over last year's pro-gay actions.

That's not to say he's content with the national body.

"This is not the first time I have been upset with the church," the Rev. David Zellmer told local Lutherans Thursday at First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, according to the Argus Leader.

Since last week, Zellmer has been hosting "conversations" at several Lutheran congregations to reflect on the actions of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly and their implications. Thursday's meeting was the last of five conversations with Zellmer.

Last August, the ELCA's chief legislative body voted to allow noncelibate gays and lesbians to be ordained. The vote has splintered the 4.6 million-member denomination, with a number of congregations severing ties and a group of renewal Lutherans working on an alternate North American Lutheran body.

Zellmer emphasized on Thursday that no congregation in the South Dakota synod will be forced to accept a gay or lesbian rostered leader. He also assured local believers that the synod still does not recognize same-sex marriage.

Already, about half a dozen South Dakota congregations have vowed to disaffiliate from the ELCA and there might be more, Zellmer said. The bishop has also been asked to lead the synod out of the denomination, as reported by the Argus Leader.

But the South Dakota bishop made clear that despite any misgivings he has about the Assembly's decision, he has no intention of leaving the national body.

"I don't jump ship just because we have an issue," he told Lutherans, according to the local newspaper. "We've been through lots of ups and downs. We've had lots of issues."

He also added that in the last two centuries, "not one breakoff ... has been successful."

Since the controversial vote in August, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson has urged congregations not to make any hasty moves and to instead engage in conversation. He indicated in an online town forum last month that there's room for those on both sides of the debate – those who are pro-gay and those who hold homosexuality as unbiblical – in the denomination.

The passed resolution, Hanson explained, not only opens the way for congregations to ordain gays and lesbians in "life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships" but also recognizes that congregations with a traditional view of homosexuality have the right to teach and order their ministries accordingly.

Conversations have been taking place in Lutheran churches nationwide. While some Lutheran leaders have encouraged congregations to stay, others have expressed concerns that the 2009 Assembly action went too far.

"Through the years we have experienced some actions of the church with which we disagreed but with which we could still live faithfully and loyally. This one goes deeper," said Dr. James R. Crumley, Jr., former national Bishop of the Lutheran Church in America, at the Jan. 9 meeting of Orthodox Lutherans of South Carolina.

"It denies what we have confessed and adopted as the guiding principles of the church's constitution," he continued. "The ELCA is simply not the same church as it was before the assembly."

Crumley further rejected Bishop Hanson's recent statement that "the understanding we have of homosexuality does not seem to be reflected at all in the context of Biblical writers."

"To dismiss the passages of the Bible concerning homosexuality as irrelevant is beyond my understanding and appears to me to negate the authority of the Scriptures," the former LCA bishop asserted.

Like many in the denomination, Crumley noted that it is painful for him to express such negative views about the ELCA, considering he was always an advocate for it. And like many, he cannot see yet what God has planned for his church.

"I am deeply disappointed and distressed as I know many of you are."

The ELCA is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and the fourth largest Protestant body.

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