GROVE CITY, Ohio — Critics of the country’s largest Lutheran denomination and its more open stance toward gay clergy formed a new Lutheran church Friday at a meeting of a conservative activist group.
The overwhelming voice vote by members of the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal created the North American Lutheran Church, a tiny denomination of churches formerly affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, headquartered in Chicago.
As of early August, 199 congregations had cleared the hurdles to leave the ELCA for good, while 136 awaited the second vote needed to make it official. In all, there are 10,239 ELCA churches with about 4.5 million members, making it by far the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.
The vote followed the ELCA’s decision to move gay pastors into its fold, becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow noncelibate gays into its ranks.
The move came during Lutheran CORE’s annual meeting, held this year in a Church of the Nazarene megachurch in Grove City, just south of Columbus.
The gay pastor issue was the tipping point for many Lutherans, but it followed serious concerns about the ELCA’s movement away from holy scriptures as the final authority for church beliefs, said Paull Spring, of State College, Pa., the new denomination’s first bishop.
He gave as an example the ELCA’s use of inclusive language that strips male references to God — such as “Father” and “Son” — replacing them with words like “Creator” and “Savior.”
“The issue that really presented itself was the issue of sexuality, but back of that was the broader issue: Which is the authoritative voice of the church today?” Spring said.
“Is it holy scripture, which Lutherans have always confessed, scripture alone, or is supposed to be some combination, that as well as some mood of the times?” he said.
The ELCA has lost more than half a million members over the past 20 years, a decline faced by many mainline congregations struggling to keep congregants. But that decline is balanced by individual congregations that flourish, many of which hold the same views as the North American Lutheran Church, said Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., director of Lutheran CORE.
“The average person out there who’s interested in a Christian church wants the real thing,” Chavez said. “They want Jesus. They want the gospel. They don’t want something else.”