February 15, 2013

Ethiopian Lutherans Break with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Ethiopian Christian

(Photo credit: Blogspot)

By Robert Benne

On February 11 the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Makane Yesus released a letter which formally announced its break with the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The EECMY is the fastest-growing Lutheran church in the world, this year adding hundreds of thousands as it moves toward the 6 million member mark.  Its website lists it at 5 million, roughly the size the ELCA once was before its shrinking acts.  As the EECMY moves upward to six million the ELCA spirals downward to four million.

The precipitating factors in the split were the Church of Sweden’s and the ELCA’s decisions to bless gay marriages and to allow open gays to serve as ordained pastors in their respective churches.  The EECMY had expressed consternation about these  developments earlier, but to no avail.  After the fateful moves it had asked the churches to re-consider their decisions, also to no avail.

The parting seemed exceptionally harsh:  The Assembly called on “all Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus departments and institutions (at every level) to implement this decision.”  “Representatives of these churches at the national level or leaders at every level would not be invited to preach or speak at the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus congegations or other gatherings.  They should not be invited for any spiritual ministries of this church.”  Even more painfully:  members of the church “will not receive Holy Communion from the leadership and pastors of the (ELCA and the Church of Sweden). The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus will not distribute communion to these churches.”

Such decisive actions should come as no surprise.  In 2009 the ELCA took unilateral action to cross a bright red line drawn by the EECMY and by many of its own members.  It did not consult with other churches nor show any concern for the effects of its actions on its own members.  “This church,” as the ELCA is fond of calling itself, proceeded headlong without any compelling biblical or theological rationale for such dramatic changes in practices.  Indeed, it admitted it had neither those compelling reasons nor a consensus on these matters.  It essentially had no teachings on these issues even though it legitimated practices that soon resulted in a de facto change in teaching.  Blessing of unions has now become marriage, as it has in the larger culture. Shockingly, “this church” (the ELCA)  has broken from “the Church’s” ancient consensus on the meaning of marriage.  No wonder the Ethiopians, pressed hard by Muslims on these sexuality issues, reacted with such vigor.

This decision to break ties was bold and courageous.  A good deal of financial and personnel support goes to the Ethiopian church from the ELCA and the Church of Sweden, which now will be forfeited.  Moreover, the long histories of missionary work in Ethiopia by both the Swedish and American Lutheran churches  will now come to an end.  The response of the ELCA’s director of Global Mission, Rafael Padilla, to this closure was appropriately both sad and hopeful.  Sad in the sense that 50 years of partnership are coming to an end but hopeful in that he assured the Ethiopians that the door was always open from the ELCA side.  But it is unlikely the open door will be reciprocated by the Ethiopians, especially since they have established cordial relations with the rival North American Lutheran Church. (see below)

The decisions on sexual ethics were really the “last straw” that capped a series of bad decisions by the ELCA, placing it ever more in the trajectory of liberal Protestantism.  In the mid-90s the ELCA began moving toward an agreement with Episcopalians that would require new Lutheran pastors to be ordained by bishops in the historic episcopate.  The ensuing controversy led to the 2001 founding of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a break-away association of Lutheran churches of about 700 congregations.

In 1999 the ELCA decided that it would avoid “cultural imperialism” by no longer sending missionaries to those who had never heard the Gospel (pioneer missionary work).  Instead, it would concentrate on “accompaniment,” which meant helping churches that had already been established.  Though nothing is wrong with “accompaniment” in itself, the new strategy seemed to deny the Great Commission.  It orphaned a number of Lutheran missionary organizations that only recently have found a home among LCMC congregations or in the new North American Lutheran Church.  The new ELCA strategy seemed to turn its back on generations of missionaries who had spent their lives in pioneer missionary work.  It also has led to the likelihood that its seminaries would be more prone to encourage dialogue with other religions than to evangelize among them.  This creeping tendency toward “religious pluralism” also aligns the ELCA with liberal Protestant propensities.

Meanwhile, other irritants mounted up.  The ELCA never advocated for any “pro-life” policies even though its social statement on the matter provided a theological rationale for such witness.   Rather, its advocacy always seemed to legitimate the policy preferences of the Democratic Party.  The language of worship—even the language of the Bible—was altered by the feminist language police to snip away  masculine language pertaining to God.   The bureaucracy in Chicago relentlessly pushed the LGBT agenda every chance it got.  The ELCA’s quota system  guaranteed that its bureaucracy and every legislative assembly would be tipped in the revisionist direction.

So the decisions of 2009 were the last straw for many.  In addition to the LCMC,  a more classic Lutheran denomination—the North American Lutheran Church—began in 2010 and has grown to around 400 congregations.  Now the reverberations are beginning to be felt from abroad.  In all this, the Lutherans seem to be a few steps behind the Anglicans, whose African churches long ago broke with the American Episcopalians and who threaten to bolt from the worldwide Anglican Communion to establish an Anglican Communion of their own.  Perhaps the actions of the Ethiopians are firing the first salvo in a larger battle within world Lutheranism.

Robert Benne, Research Associate at Roanoke College, Salem, VA Professor at the Christ School of Theology of the Institute of Lutheran Theology

11 Responses to Ethiopian Lutherans Break with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

  1. J S Lang says:

    Jesus gives the mandate “Go and make disciples,” and the ELCA calls this “cultural imperialism.” Did they miss the irony that the “E” in their name means “Evangelical,” and that an “evangel” (“good news”) by its very nature has to be preached to the world? It isn’t “cultural imperialism” to teach people to do the Heimlich maneuver, since it can save lives, and it isn’t cultural imperialism to preach the good news of salvation either. When a religion is ashamed of itself, it’s doomed to die.

    On the bright side, thumbs up to the Ethiopian Lutherans for daring to think that a church needs to be guided by the clear ethical teaching of the Bible.

  2. Johannes Oesch says:

    The picture above seems Ethiopian – but is it from the EECMY?

    • Archpriest John W. Morris says:

      To Eric Lytle

      I do not know what goes on in Greece. But I know that in this country there is no tolerance for sexual immorality among the clergy of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Last summer our Archbishop in California visited a parish and was told that the priest had sexually abused some youth in the parish. He confronted the priest who confessed. He suspended him immediately and called the police who arrested him. That is how our Antiochian Orthodox Bishops deal with this sort of problem here.

  3. Fr. John W. Morris says:

    Upon seeing the title of this article, I wonder what the Lutherans are doing trying to take people from the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces itself back to St. Matthew. Why don’t bring the Gospel to a completely non-Christian culture than to try to steal sheep from a an ancient Orthodox Church.
    The Scandinavian Lutheran State Churches have long been spiritually dead as is the ELCA. The Lutherans and all Mainline Protestant sects have allowed Bible denying liberal theology to undermine their commitment to the authority of the New Testament. As a result they have ceased to be Christian organizations, and the countries that they dominate have entered a post-Christian era.

    • Eric Lytle says:

      Speaking as a free-church Protestant, the notion of “stealing sheep” from another church is foreign to us. No denomination has a “right” to the souls of human beings, and “the Church” may well exist in the mind of Almighty God, but it is not to be identified with any church here on earth. If the Ethiopian Orthodox were meeting the spiritual needs of people, they wouldn’t be gravitating to the Lutherans, would they – just as Americans in the ELCA wouldn’t be leaving if they were being fed, right? I’m thankful for the wonderful tradition of dissent in America – no state church, open market. Imagine how different history would’ve been without this horrid (and unbiblical) notion of a territorial church that brooks no competition. I don’t mind being called a member of a “sect,” since the most vital groups always began that way – including that sect called “Christians.”

      Btw, I hope you don’t assume Orthodox churches are all, well, orthodox. I know that tradition well, it has its pockets of liberalism or dead ritualism, or both. (Lots of priest-boy issues also.) Evangelism hasn’t exactly been their strong suit, as evidenced by being beaten out by Lutherans, also sluggards in the evangelism department. I’m amazed that the bells-n-smells types even engage in evangelism or missions.

      • Archpriest John W. Morris says:

        No Orthodox Church has surrendered to secular culture the way that the mainline American denominations and Scandinavian state have. Had they remained faithful to traditional Christian morality, America and northern Europe would not be in such moral decline. Ethiopia and other countries where the Orthodox Churches have suffered from savage Communist persecution have been flooded by well financed Protestant missionaries who have taken advantage of the weakness of Orthodoxy following to take people from the Orthodox Churches . As far as priest-boy issues, you have us mixed up with the Catholics.

      • Eric Lytle says:

        The RCs don’t have a monopoly on pedophilia. I have friends who grew up in Greece and have told me lots about the typical school where the boys were taught and molested by priests or monks. It happens in all denominations, the RCs get the most press because they are the largest. Clergy and youth workers in all denominations fall into this temptation. The devil is fully ecumenical.

        We seem to be rubbing each other the wrong way, but allow me to say that I read your Amazon comments on that travesty called the Queen James Bible, and you defended the orthodox (small “o”) position very well.

        • Simon says:

          Orthodox clergy are allowed to marry. This has meant that the sort of issues the RC Church has faced have not been experienced in Orthodoxy. However, in every Church institution there have been abuses and moral failings. The evangelical churches are not immune to these scandals.

  4. Rather than “break away” in effect becoming yet another denomination amidst the 44,000+ Oxford University says exist, when your Church is in error, you need to go backwards. Find a church older than your original church. The Church as “he pillar and bulwark of the truth” from 1 Tim 3:15 and the “church” Jesus said to take your disagreements to in Mat 18:17 must exist now and must have always existed since Christ founded it. You can find it. http://www.conglomination.com

  5. Al says:

    Well done, Ethiopian Lutheran Churches: you have stand for God the word of God. He will stand for you.
    When I was Ethiopia I used to go to Lutheran Church, Kazanchis, priest Gutema, Hannas father was my priest, pastor. I love that church because I used to learn a lot from the word of God. I understand now the church was not kidding when it was instructing us to live godly life.

    Well done!

  6. jemal mitore says:

    I am a member of Ethiopian evangelical church mekaneyesus
    south central synod shashogo parish Doesha congregation
    our parish need your helping hand in holistic approach
    I can provide more information about the if our need is accepted
    God bless you !

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