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.
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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."
The ELCA regrets the decision of some congregations to leave for the new denomination, said ELCA spokesman John Brooks.
"One of the hallmarks of the ELCA is that we reach out to other Christians in the spirit of understanding, reconciliation and unity," he said. "We pray for the unity of the whole church and its members, and we pray for those who will be leaving to join the North American Lutheran Church."
St. John Lutheran in Bridgewater, Mich., has taken the first vote toward joining the new denomination, and pastor Kathleen Meyers supports the decision. But Meyers, attending the meeting in suburban Columbus, also acknowledges it's a tough choice.
"I have friends who are gay - for me, it's a very personal issue," she said Friday. "But I can't set aside the authority of scripture just because I have friends that I love."
Bruce Winkler of suburban Tampa, Fla., attends Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation that he says will not be joining the new denomination. But Winkler, 72, a retired chemistry professor, said he supports the new group out of a concern over the loss of scriptural authority.
For too many Lutherans today, "it's the gospel of acceptance, rather than the gospel of redemption - love conquers all kind of thing," he said.
"You don't have to worry about obedience, or sanctification, or any of those issues - you just love everybody and that'll be fine," Winkler said.