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Church considers breaking from ELCA

AUSTIN — Grace Lutheran Church this Sunday will let the congregation decide a momentous question: Do we stay or go?

At a special meeting after its 10:30 a.m. service, the entire congregation will vote on whether the church should leave its presiding body since 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The vote will be the first of two steps required for the church to separate from the ELCA.

“It was decided after much deliberation to have the vote,” said the Rev. Jeff Forbes of Grace Lutheran.

Part of the reason supporters of the split have for leaving surrounds concerns that the ELCA believes itself to hold a higher authority than the Bible.

“In our nearly 500 years of the Lutheran church we have held the Bible — the word of God — to be the sole authority for what we believe,” said former church council members Gene and Jean White in a letter to members of the church. “In good conscience we cannot support or be part of a church which denies the Bible.”

Lavona Johnson, a member of the church for the last 51 years, agreed. She said there is a trend among churches across the nation leaving the ELCA, as part of a “tremendous movement to get back to the Bible.”

“We truly believe in the preaching and teachings of Martin Luther,” she added.

In addition to the question of authority, supporters of the upcoming vote expressed concern about the ELCA’s allowance of non-celibate homosexual pastors, which the organization voted to allow in 2009. While Grace Church itself has not had a homosexual pastor between then and now, some of its members disapprove that the ELCA adopted that policy.

“We have long held that celibate homosexual persons can be pastors,” the Whites’ letter said. The controversy, it said, was over actively homosexual pastors. “How can a practicing homosexual hold to a higher standard and be an example to the men, women and children of the congregation?”

Johnson agreed.

“We have to decide: are we going to preach, teach and practice the word of God … or our culture?” she said.

“The Bible is very clear that homosexual sex is a sin,” the Whites’ letter said. “It is called an abomination by God.”

Forbes, as a pastor, said he is a neutral party in the vote.

“I don’t want to take sides at all,” he said. “Anything I say will be misconstrued.”


The voting process

According to Grace Church’s constitution, the vote must pass on a two-thirds majority for it to move on to a second vote at least three months later. If the church fails to pass the first vote, the resolution to leave the ELCA will get tabled for at least one year, said church Council Member Bill Young in a March newsletter.

If instead the church passes both the first and second vote on a two-thirds majority, Grace Church will have officially left the ELCA. The synod will use the time between the votes to talk with Grace Church and see if any issues can fixed.

If Grace Church does leave the ELCA, it will immediately consider whether to join the Lutheran Congregation in Mission for Christ. Johnson said she thought it was a “99-percent likelihood” that the LC-MC would be chosen if the votes pass.

The Rev. Harold Usgaard, synod bishop, came to address members of the church on Feb. 26. According to the March newsletter, Usgaard said what happens to the church building and property depend on where Grace Church goes after it leaves the ELCA. If it goes to a non-Lutheran denomination, the ELCA will confiscate its building and property.

If the church goes to a different Lutheran church body, the building and property will belong to the majority. The minority can choose to stay or to leave.

Approximately 220 people attend the two regularly-scheduled weekly services that will take place before the vote on Sunday, Johnson said. It’s hard to tell what portion will vote in favor of the resolution, and some are on the fence or ambivalent, she said.

“They don’t care because they don’t know,” she said. “They don’t listen to the reasons why we want to leave the ELCA.”

In order to vote at Sunday’s meeting, a person must be a confirmed member of Grace Lutheran and have both communed and given to the church in the previous 12 months. Members need to ensure they fulfill these requirements before April 22. They do not need to be 18 years old.

Johnson said she encourages all members of the congregation to cast a vote.

“I’m praying that everyone will come and cast a vote to leave the ELCA and join the LC-MC,” Johnson said.

Forbes said he hopes the vote will have a good turnout.

“They’re taking it seriously, which they should,” he said.