Response to Osama bin Laden's Death Tops IRD's List of 2011 News Stories

When Osama bin Laden's death was reported in May, some church leaders rejoiced while others denounced his killing and the celebration that followed by many Americans. Christian leaders were torn about the news, which is why it is first on The Institute on Religion and Democracy's list of top church news stories in 2011.

After President Barack Obama announced that the al-Qaida leader had been killed in a firefight, church leaders like those from the National Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said they didn't agree with the president's assertion that “justice has been done.” Popular Christian leaders like Brian McLaren were critical of Americans who celebrated the killing after it was announced.

But not everyone agreed. Some leaders, like Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., celebrated bin Laden's death.

"I DO mourn death=The widespread death that Bin Laden's life created,” Furtick tweeted following Obama's announcement. “Today we MUST celebrate the sacrifice & victory of our troops.”

Below are the other top church news stories according to IRD, along with examples.

2. Church Battles on Human Sexuality, Scriptural Authority Escalate

In June of this year a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Amy DeLong, was convicted of defying the church's Book of Discipline by marrying a lesbian couple. She was suspended from her church duties as a result in what turned out to be a high-profile case in the debate over homosexuality in the church.

Continuing disputes over the authority and interpretation of the Bible have led to decreased numbers in mainline churches. Membership in the Episcopal Church, for example, dipped below 2 million people in 2011.

3. Joy and Tears in the Sudan

Millions of Christians in Sudan celebrated the creation of a new nation, South Sudan, in 2011, but violence remains a threat in the region today.

4. Presbyterians in Disarray

In 2011, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) repealed its former constitutional requirement that clergy must live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The repeal opened the door for the ordination of partnered gay ministers, elders and deacons, and led the more conservative individuals who are part of the 2.3 million member denomination to reconsider their place in it.

5. Christians Battle over Budget, Spending

Christian groups spoke their minds and exerted their influence on government spending in 2011. Jim Wallis, for example, led the “Circle of Protection” coalition of Christians who argue, according to the coalition's website, that “the nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of hungry and poor people.”

In contrast, coalitions like “Christians for a Sustainable Economy,” which IRD is a part of, argued that the U.S. government has enough debt, and should do more to help the people who are dependent on government programs to become independent.

6. Persecution of Christian Churches

On Christmas Day, church services in Nigeria were bombed, resulting in the death of at least 39 people. Radical Islamic anti-blasphemy laws have led to the increased persecution of Christians in Pakistan this year, and Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani remains in Iranian prison and may face the death penalty for converting to Christianity.

The IRD is a Washington D.C.-based alliance of Christians in the U.S. who are “working to reform their churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, and to contribute to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.”

Many of the top stories on IRD's list seem to indicate an increasing amount of conflict within the church, but Jeff Walton, communications manager for IRD, said it may be simply that “the nature of conflict within the church has changed.”

In the past, he noted, denominations often felt pitted against one another. Today, however, the conflict has morphed into a difference of theologies between liberal and conservative Christians within each denomination, who argue over the authority and interpretation of Scripture.

“Whereas previously liberal and conservative groups existed within the same church, these disagreements have now risen to the level where large pluralities of these groups no longer feel they can faithfully continue together,” he said.

“They are either making official statements or structural changes to distance themselves from the other camp, or they are outright departing the denominations themselves.”