The North American Lutheran Church’s (NALC) application to join the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has not been approved. In a May letter announcing the decision, the LWF’s General Secretary Martin Junge judged the NALC’s application lacking in a number of ways. He questioned the way the NALC describes the LWF to its members, subsequently calling into question the ratification process by which the church voted to join the LWF. General Secretary Junge further declared “a prevailing fundamental problem in the fact that while applying for membership into the LWF, the NALC is not prepared to be in communion with all member churches, particularly those of the North American region.” This must be rectified, he writes, “as a necessary first step . . . in view of the NALC’s desire to become a member of the LWF.”

In other words, because the NALC is not in communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)—churches they broke away from over significant theological differences regarding the nature of Scriptural authority—the LWF is rejecting the NALC’s application. Or, perhaps more accurately, the LWF has simply refused to decide on the NALC’s application, relegating it to an ill-defined “pending” status. 

The NALC officially formed in 2010 from congregations, laypeople, and clergy that broke away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (and of Canada) over issues of scriptural authority. The crisis point came following the ELCA’s 2009 decision to bless same-sex relationships and allow noncelibate homosexual people to be ordained. That decision has had a significant impact on the ELCA’s membership, resulting in a loss of nearly half a million members in 2010 and 2011 alone. In 2012 (the year most recently reported), the numbers continued to fall, as the ELCA lost another 105 congregations and saw a membership drop of 2.68% over the year previous—bringing the ELCA to under 4 million members for the first time ever. In total, then, from 2010-2012 the ELCA lost 13.2% of its total membership (compared to 2009 figures). Meanwhile, the North American Lutheran Church has grown to more than 140,000 members, with more than 370 congregations throughout the United States and Canada.

Bishop John F. Bradosky, head of the NALC, responded to General Secretary Junge’s decision in a letter last week requesting clarification. In it, he asks what exactly the LWF means when it says the NALC’s application is pending. “Does that indicate there will be further action, or that you will be waiting further response from us?” he writes. “Does ‘pending’ mean that you intend further action, or does it indicate our application is not approved and the process is at an end?”

Bishop Bradosky further questions General Secretary Junge’s characterization of the NALC as misrepresenting the LWF to its congregations. “We have made every effort to clarify [the LWF’s self-understanding] to the NALC as a whole, and have indicated that to you. Our members have read the LWF constitution, debated these issues and are well-informed regarding LWF as ‘communion.’ They voted in convocation to affirm the constitutional understandings, and two-thirds of our congregations ratified these actions.”

He goes on to ask why “interaction and relations with LWF member churches in North America” is necessary before the NALC’s membership in the LWF can be considered. “This has never been presented to use as ‘a necessary first step,’” he notes.

Indeed, while the LWF considers itself a communion, a number of member churches have broken fellowship with other member churches in recent years. For example, last year the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus—one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world with over six million members—ended fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Church of Sweden over issues of sexuality. If such a large church can continue membership in the LWF unopposed while declaring itself out of fellowship with others in the LWF, why can’t NALC do the same?

But perhaps the most significant question Bishop Bradosky raises is whether LWF General Secretary Junge has ignored standard protocol in relegating NALC’s application to “pending” status. “Our understanding from the start has been that at some point, a recommendation would be made to the LWF Membership Committee, who would decide whether or not to bring our application to the LWF Council,” Bishop Bradosky writes. “Instead, it appears you have made the decision not to approve our application, circumventing the Membership Committee and Council.”

The Membership Committee is composed of 48 persons, and includes a number of members from the Global South who might be expected to sympathize with the NALC. Indeed, one of the reasons behind the NALC’s decision to apply for membership in the LWF was because “Lutheran brothers and sisters in Africa, especially in Ethiopia and Tanzania” directly asked the NALC to join, in order to provide them with “an orthodox, confessional North American partner within LWF.”

Read both General Secretary Junge’s letter and Bishop Bradosky’s response in the July issue of NALC News (pages 10-11).

Articles by Mathew Block

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