NEW YORK – The latest casualty of the long-running Protestant conflicts over the Bible and homosexuality is a massive network of social service agencies that work in areas ranging from adoption to disaster relief.
The theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod announced this week that direct work with its larger and more liberal counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has become "difficult if not impossible," because of doctrinal differences, including the 2009 decision by liberal Lutherans to lift barriers for ordaining gays and lesbians.
Neither denomination would discuss the potential financial impact Wednesday. Many Lutheran-affiliated agencies receive substantial state and federal money through contracts and grants that would not be directly affected by any split. However, similar to Catholic Charities, Lutheran agencies are some of the biggest service providers in their communities and have been struggling to meet increased demand for help during the recession.
Just one of the joint Lutheran agencies, Lutheran Services in America, said on its website that it encompasses more than 300 health and human services organizations with a combined annual budget of more than $16 billion.
"We recognize that this is a difficult issue. It's complicated," said the Rev. Herb Mueller, first vice president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis. "We're trying to take a nuanced and caring approach to all of these situations that's also faithful to what the Bible teaches on these issues."
The Rev. Donald McCoid, an ecumenical officer for the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, "we are deeply concerned about the ministries of care that may be challenged by the recent action of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod."
The Lutherans are among several church groups facing fallout over recent steps toward accepting same-sex relationships. The Episcopal Church caused an uproar among fellow Anglicans worldwide in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Just this month, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally lifted the celibacy requirement for unmarried clergy, striking down an obstacle to gay and lesbian ordination.
The situation for Lutherans differed in that decades of splits and mergers had already largely divided the religious community along theological lines. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with about 4.5 million members, was formed from church bodies with Danish, Finnish, German and Swedish backgrounds. The merger that led to its latest incarnation occurred in 1988.
Yet, even with separate denominations, Lutherans continued to work together in a wide range of joint ministries such as Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran World Relief. Among the cooperative agencies are organizations that offer health care to senior citizens, support for the disabled, job training, tutoring and housing, along with finding homes for foster children. Mueller said in an interview that 81 of the 120 recognized service organizations of the Missouri Synod cooperate in some way with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Twenty-two of the agencies offer adoption services or foster care, he said.
The 2.3 million-member Missouri Synod has been studying the issue for more than a year through its Committee on Theology and Church Relations. This week, the panel issued a 15-page document of guidelines for churches, congregants and ministries on how they should decide whether to continue direct joint work with the Chicago-based Lutherans.
The only immediate announced break was for the Missouri Synod to stop its practice of training military chaplains with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The president of the Missouri Synod, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, said in a statement that the decision, effective next year, was based on the ELCA decision on gay ordination, and on the military's plan to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell," policy. The two denominations had trained military chaplains together for decades, but
However, the guidelines for evaluating the joint relationships made it clear that cooperative work in many of the agencies is likely to end.
The Missouri Synod theology committee said members of its denomination should examine whether joint cooperative agencies:
— Adopt operational principles "alien or contrary" to Scripture.
— Hire staff or a leader "whose lifestyle is scandalous or openly and unrepentantly sinful."
— Have board members overseeing an agency who "become conflicted because of differing beliefs."
— Have leaders or staff who advocate policies "contrary to the Christian faith."
The committee used its most direct language to discuss the future of its corps of chaplains who work outside of the military, in nursing homes and hospitals, and on college campuses, among other assignments.
"The ELCA's current theological course presents serious theological challenges to any continued cooperation in endorsement procedures," according to the Missouri-Synod report.
Mueller said church officials will not "go and investigate" staff or leaders of organizations that involve direct cooperative work.
"It has to be something that is open and known. And it's one piece of a whole constellation of things," Mueller said.
He said each agency will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in a process that could take months.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: http://www.elca.org/
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: http://www.lcms.org/