By Robert Benne
On February 11 the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Makane Yesus released a letter which formally announced its break with the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The EECMY is the fastest-growing Lutheran church in the world, this year adding hundreds of thousands as it moves toward the 6 million member mark. Its website lists it at 5 million, roughly the size the ELCA once was before its shrinking acts. As the EECMY moves upward to six million the ELCA spirals downward to four million.
The precipitating factors in the split were the Church of Sweden’s and the ELCA’s decisions to bless gay marriages and to allow open gays to serve as ordained pastors in their respective churches. The EECMY had expressed consternation about these developments earlier, but to no avail. After the fateful moves it had asked the churches to re-consider their decisions, also to no avail.
The parting seemed exceptionally harsh: The Assembly called on “all Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus departments and institutions (at every level) to implement this decision.” “Representatives of these churches at the national level or leaders at every level would not be invited to preach or speak at the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus congegations or other gatherings. They should not be invited for any spiritual ministries of this church.” Even more painfully: members of the church “will not receive Holy Communion from the leadership and pastors of the (ELCA and the Church of Sweden). The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus will not distribute communion to these churches.”
Such decisive actions should come as no surprise. In 2009 the ELCA took unilateral action to cross a bright red line drawn by the EECMY and by many of its own members. It did not consult with other churches nor show any concern for the effects of its actions on its own members. “This church,” as the ELCA is fond of calling itself, proceeded headlong without any compelling biblical or theological rationale for such dramatic changes in practices. Indeed, it admitted it had neither those compelling reasons nor a consensus on these matters. It essentially had no teachings on these issues even though it legitimated practices that soon resulted in a de facto change in teaching. Blessing of unions has now become marriage, as it has in the larger culture. Shockingly, “this church” (the ELCA) has broken from “the Church’s” ancient consensus on the meaning of marriage. No wonder the Ethiopians, pressed hard by Muslims on these sexuality issues, reacted with such vigor.
This decision to break ties was bold and courageous. A good deal of financial and personnel support goes to the Ethiopian church from the ELCA and the Church of Sweden, which now will be forfeited. Moreover, the long histories of missionary work in Ethiopia by both the Swedish and American Lutheran churches will now come to an end. The response of the ELCA’s director of Global Mission, Rafael Padilla, to this closure was appropriately both sad and hopeful. Sad in the sense that 50 years of partnership are coming to an end but hopeful in that he assured the Ethiopians that the door was always open from the ELCA side. But it is unlikely the open door will be reciprocated by the Ethiopians, especially since they have established cordial relations with the rival North American Lutheran Church. (see below)
The decisions on sexual ethics were really the “last straw” that capped a series of bad decisions by the ELCA, placing it ever more in the trajectory of liberal Protestantism. In the mid-90s the ELCA began moving toward an agreement with Episcopalians that would require new Lutheran pastors to be ordained by bishops in the historic episcopate. The ensuing controversy led to the 2001 founding of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a break-away association of Lutheran churches of about 700 congregations.
In 1999 the ELCA decided that it would avoid “cultural imperialism” by no longer sending missionaries to those who had never heard the Gospel (pioneer missionary work). Instead, it would concentrate on “accompaniment,” which meant helping churches that had already been established. Though nothing is wrong with “accompaniment” in itself, the new strategy seemed to deny the Great Commission. It orphaned a number of Lutheran missionary organizations that only recently have found a home among LCMC congregations or in the new North American Lutheran Church. The new ELCA strategy seemed to turn its back on generations of missionaries who had spent their lives in pioneer missionary work. It also has led to the likelihood that its seminaries would be more prone to encourage dialogue with other religions than to evangelize among them. This creeping tendency toward “religious pluralism” also aligns the ELCA with liberal Protestant propensities.
Meanwhile, other irritants mounted up. The ELCA never advocated for any “pro-life” policies even though its social statement on the matter provided a theological rationale for such witness. Rather, its advocacy always seemed to legitimate the policy preferences of the Democratic Party. The language of worship—even the language of the Bible—was altered by the feminist language police to snip away masculine language pertaining to God. The bureaucracy in Chicago relentlessly pushed the LGBT agenda every chance it got. The ELCA’s quota system guaranteed that its bureaucracy and every legislative assembly would be tipped in the revisionist direction.
So the decisions of 2009 were the last straw for many. In addition to the LCMC, a more classic Lutheran denomination—the North American Lutheran Church—began in 2010 and has grown to around 400 congregations. Now the reverberations are beginning to be felt from abroad. In all this, the Lutherans seem to be a few steps behind the Anglicans, whose African churches long ago broke with the American Episcopalians and who threaten to bolt from the worldwide Anglican Communion to establish an Anglican Communion of their own. Perhaps the actions of the Ethiopians are firing the first salvo in a larger battle within world Lutheranism.
Robert Benne, Research Associate at Roanoke College, Salem, VA Professor at the Christ School of Theology of the Institute of Lutheran Theology