Dennis Nelson spent 40 years as a Lutheran pastor. Since his retirement in 2014, he has provided support to members and congregations within the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America who desire to stay true to Biblical orthodoxy. His work keeps getting harder.
Conservative Lutherans “are the disfavored group,” Nelson said. While the ELCA actively supports groups that promote LGBT ideology, allowing them to have table displays at churchwide assemblies, the denomination in recent years denied requests for a booth from Nelson’s more conservative group. And the ELCA’s move away from Biblical sexuality has only become clearer in recent weeks.
The largest Lutheran denomination in the United States on June 14 promoted a handbook on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression on its social media platforms. The publication, published in 2015 by the independent Lutheran organization ReconcilingWorks, instructs ELCA members to put “people over definitions” and “just avoid using gendered terms.” It defines gender as “a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as a man, woman, or another gender,” adding that gender “can be experienced on a continuum, creating a nearly infinite combination of identities.”
“Each of us is a beloved child of God, perfectly and wonderfully made, just as we are,” the ELCA said in its social media post.
The denomination has steadily departed from the gospel and Biblical teaching about God’s design for sexuality and marriage. As the ELCA grows more radical in its embrace of LGBT ideology and lifestyles, more pastors and congregants are leaving, contributing to declining membership.
“Many ask me why I’m still here,” said Nelson, 72, who is president of the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal. The group provides resources and information to Lutherans and alerts them about ELCA actions that go against orthodox Christian doctrine. “People need to be warned about what is happening,” he said.
The ELCA ordained its first transgender minister back in 2006. Three years later, the denomination changed its policy to allow homosexuals in committed, monogamous relationships to serve as clergy. It elected its first openly gay bishop in 2013. In 2018, the denomination invited an 11-year-old who identified as transgender to speak at its youth conference. ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber led 30,000 youth attendees in a chant to renounce “that queerness is anything other than beauty.”
“The glaring departure from classic Christian teaching is so stunning it is scarcely believable,” Robert Benne, a philosophy and religion professor emeritus at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., wrote two years ago in First Things.
In 2010, a group of ELCA church leaders left the denomination and formed the National American Lutheran Church, citing a desire to honor Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. The group started with 17 churches and now has nearly 450 in Canada and the United States, according to Mark Chavez, general secretary for the denomination.
While the NALC grows, the ELCA’s membership keeps shrinking. The denomination has lost congregants every year since it started in 1988 following a Lutheran schism over the authority of Scripture, which led to the ordination of female pastors. It has dropped from 5 million baptized members to 3.4 million, and the ELCA’s Office of Research and Evaluation predicts that by 2041, it will dwindle to 67,000 members.
In light of recent events, some Lutheran pastors and individuals are calling for an exodus.
“Leave the ELCA,” Hans Fiene, a pastor in the theologically conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, tweeted after the ELCA posted a prayer to “Mother God” on its social media accounts in April.
“On the one hand, there’s still a lot of good faithful people,” Chavez said. “But that is not where the leadership is at. It’s not … the direction denomination is headed.”
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this article to clarify the root of the schism in the Lutheran church prior to 1988 and the denominational affiliation of pastor Hans Fiene.