MINNEAPOLIS – Even though the Rev. Mark Chavez believes the leaders of his church made a decision in direct contradiction of the Bible by lifting a ban on sexually active, monogamous gays and lesbians as clergy, he's staying with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
"I'm not leaving," Chavez said Friday night, promising an effort to keep the church from moving even further toward what he sees as an embrace of behavior condemned by Scripture.
Chavez, of Landisville, Pennsylvania, is director of Lutheran CORE, a conservative group within the ELCA that fought the gay clergy policy. The group will hold a convention in Indianapolis in September to review its next steps, but Chavez said he thinks some ELCA clergy, congregations and individual members will walk away from the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.
Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals in committed monogamous relationships as clergy. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.
The change to gay clergy policy passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA's national assembly. It makes the group, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance.
"I have seen these same-gender relationships function in the same way as heterosexual relationships — bringing joy and blessings as well as trials and hardships," the Rev. Leslie Williamson, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, said during the hours of debate. "The same-gender couples I know live in love and faithfulness and are called to proclaim the word of God as are all of us."
But the change may be too much for some Lutherans. Conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy, but opponents nevertheless warned there could be spiritual consequences for a church that strays from Scripture.
"This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns," said the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, West Virginia. "Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted."
Mahan said he believed a majority of his congregation would want to now break away from the ELCA.
Other leaders indicated they might leave as well. The Rev. Tim Housholder, pastor of St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, described himself during the debate as a rostered ELCA pastor "at least for a few more hours." The Rev. Marshall Hahn, pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Parish in Dubuque, Iowa, said he'd need to talk to his bishop "to discuss what this means for my future with this church."
Other Christian denominations in the United States have struggled to remain united in the face of such debates. In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, a move that alienated American Episcopalians from its worldwide parent church, the Anglican Communion. The divide has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.
But ELCA supporters of its denomination's change said failure to ratify it ran just as great a risk of alienating large portions of the membership, particularly younger ones.
The Rev. Katrina Foster, pastor at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in The Bronx, a borough of New York City, said Lutherans heard similar warnings about flouting Scripture when they made past changes that are now seen as successful — chiefly, the ordination of women.
"We can learn not to define ourselves by negation," said Foster, a lesbian. "By not only saying what we are against, which always seems to be the same — against gay people. We should be against poverty. I wish we were as zealous about that."
Under the new policy, heterosexual clergy and professional lay workers must still abstain from sex outside marriage. The proposed change would cover those in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said after the vote that he would commit himself to keeping opponents of the new policy within the ELCA fold.
"For those that did not prevail tonight, are you willing to stay engaged in the conversation?" Hanson said. He added, "I'm pleading with people to stay in there with us in this conversation."