2016-07-27
WASHINGTON (RNS)--The congregation at Washington's First Trinity Lutheran Church didn't want to choose.

Due to a complex history of formations and alignments of various Lutheran bodies over the years, the inner-city congregation had for years been a member of both the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the more theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

But in 1998, the Missouri Synod decided that six congregations like First Trinity and nearly a dozen retired pastors and church workers who held dual membership had to resign from the ELCA by January 2000 or forfeit membership in the LCMS. The deadline has come and gone, but several are still smarting from the way the situation was resolved.

First Trinity's congregation voted unanimously to affirm its status as a congregation of the ELCA and the Missouri Synod. The ELCA supported the congregation's decision, but the LCMS' Southeastern District president recently removed it from Missouri Synod membership.

"Members are very discouraged and feel that they have done nothing wrong in the sight of God," said Tom Knoll, associate pastor of First Trinity. The clergy at First Trinity find themselves counseling angry members.

"Institutions like the Missouri Synod and the ELCA are institutions created by people and they have their faults and are not perfect," Knoll said. "So we can't live or die by what an institution's rules and regulations are. We just have to go on and be faithful to what we think is right."

Missouri Synod Secretary Raymond Hartwig said he believes there are two reasons the issue had to come to the take-it-or-leave-it decision.

"The technical answer is that we have a Commission on Constitutional Matters in our church body to rule on bylaw issues," he said. "They ruled that (dual membership) was contrary to our church bylaws."

That meant action had to be taken. The second reason has less to do with rules and more to do with feelings.

"There's a continuing, increasing division between the LCMS and the ELCA and people were thinking maybe it was time to resolve these situations because we do have some pretty different points of view on key issues," Hartwig said.

Women's ordination, abortion issues, and with whom church fellowship can be practiced divide the two bodies.

"We (Missouri Synod pastors) are not allowed to participate in other services with other denominations," said the Rev. George Liebenow, who is retired and living in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I've been doing that for years," he said. "I've been a bad boy."

Liebenow is one of the pastors who had dual membership but was removed from the Missouri Synod clergy roster. He remains a good friend with his district president, he said, adding that when the president asked him what he should tell Synod officials, he responded: "Tell them I'm praying for them."

Though obviously frustrated with the LCMS, Liebenow said he didn't want to leave the denomination. "I was born into the Missouri Synod and I have so many good friends," he said. He would have preferred to be included in a "grandfather" clause that might have permitted those dually aligned before a certain date to retain both memberships, but no such clause existed.

The Rev. Fred Klopfer, a retired pastor living in Winchester, Ohio, said his decision was easy. He resigned from the ELCA and maintained his LCMS membership. He agreed it was important to clean up the membership roster and do away with questions of dual membership.

"When you belong to an organization, that's where your theology is," he said. "There's no doubt that the two have different attitudes toward theology. You're either a Democrat or a Republican, you know," he added.

The Rev. Lowell Almen, secretary of the ELCA, said the whole situation makes him sad.

His office worked with the LCMS, at its request, to help identify the dual members. "We have sought to close no doors in our relationship with the LCMS. Where those doors have been closed toward us, that has been painful," he said.

Almen said he believes this chapter in the history of the two sometimes friendly, sometime feuding Lutheran denominations represents one more closed door. And Hartwig said it is a sign that the division between the church bodies is widening.

"I think that the division has created a situation where people are taking a stronger stand on things than they did otherwise," he said.

As for the other pastors and ministers, district presidents removed a total of seven names from the LCMS roster. Two others were classified as paperwork errors and corrected and one pastor died.

St. James Lutheran Church in St. James, N.Y., resigned from the ELCA

and retained its LCMS membership, but the United Lutheran Church of Manteca, Calif., resigned from both bodies and joined the splinter American Association of Lutheran Churches.

The three remaining churches are in still in Lutheran limbo.

Palisades Lutheran Church of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and the Lutheran Church of Arcata in Arcata, Calif., are each made up of two separately incorporated congregations, one Missouri Synod and one ELCA. At both churches the two congregations share the pastor and property.

The Missouri Synod's constitutional committee ruled these churches do not hold dual membership.

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Twentynine Palms, Calif., says it's in the same situation as Pacific Palisades and Arcata. It is waiting for a ruling.

more from beliefnet and our partners