What Caused the Lutheran Church to Split?

All Lutheran churches trace their roots to German reformer Martin Luther.
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In 2009 a new Lutheran organization, the North American Lutheran Church, left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. The chief reason for the split was the ELCA's shift in policy toward homosexual members and clergy. The NALC regarded the shift as being unbiblical and symptomatic of growing liberalism of ELCA.

1 Same-Gender Relationships in the ELCA

The 10th social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," was ratified by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August 2009. It recognizes that Lutherans have differing convictions regarding homosexuality, and calls on Lutherans to respect differing points of view. It acknowledges that in medicine, social science and public policy, attitudes toward same-gender relationships have "evolved" throughout history. It also calls on ELCA congregations "to welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples and their families, and to advocate for their legal protection."

2 Gay Clergy

ELCA also allows gay men and women to be ordained in the ministry. The 2010 "Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Candidacy Manual" calls on the denomination to "make provision in its policies to eliminate the prohibition of rostered service by members who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” In other words, if a gay person is in a lifelong, exclusive gay relationship, that relationship is no longer a barrier to ordination in ELCA. The Candidacy Manual says that such a person is to be treated like any other candidate with their acceptance or rejection to be based exclusively on their qualifications for ordination. ELCA also requires that the partners of gay clergy receive the same job benefits as the opposite-sex spouses of clergy in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

3 NALC Position

By contrast, the NALC position is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. It opposes ordination of gay clergy. It also opposes any action, either on the part of a denomination or a secular government, to dictate to an individual congregation how it should treat gay members. In January 2012, the Rev. John F. Bradosky, bishop of the North American Lutheran Church, signed the open letter "Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together." In it Bradosky declares that same-sex relationships must not be treated as though they were marriages. He also supported the right of religious organizations to forbid same-sex sexual conduct among their members.

4 The Split

As of August 2013, ELCA has lost 573,000 members, about 3.5 percent of its membership each year since the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. Roughly 400 congregations have joined the NALC. Others have joined the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. ELCA leaves it to the individual congregation to decide how it recognizes same-sex couples. Many conservative congregations don't recognize same-sex relationships, nor will they accept a gay pastor. Inside ELCA, opinions about same-sex marriage remain split.

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.