Church leaves the fold: Lutheran beliefs stray, pastor says

Fargo's Atonement Lutheran Church is leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. By a vote of 211 to 14, Atonement's congregation confirmed on Sunday an earlier decision to secede from the 17-year-old Lutheran organization. The 1,500-member congregation has been distancing itself from the ELCA for years, because it is becoming more hierarchical in structure and less traditional in beliefs than members prefer, said the Rev. Dale Wolf, a pastor at Atonement. The change also means the church will be able to avoid messy upcoming debates in the ELCA about topics like ordaining non-celibate gay clergy, Wolf said. "Instead of focusing on the battles within the ELCA, we will be able to focus on God's ministry here at Atonement," he said. No other church in the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod has taken such a vote before. "There is some disappointment with that (Atonement's leaving), but on the other hand, they have the right to do that," said Rev. Randall Schlecht, associate with the synod's bishop, who attended the meeting. Sunday's decision follows a January vote during which 85 percent of those casting ballots favored leaving the organization. To pass, the resolution needed two votes receiving a two-thirds majority 90 days apart. Only one person spoke during the open debate portion of the meeting. John Carlson said he had known for 10 years he wanted to leave the ELCA, which he said no longer reflects the church he grew up attending. "It doesn't change anything today – I'm still going to be a Lutheran," Carlson said to applause. Church members should see few day-to-day differences with the change, Wolf said. Already, the church has joined another association – Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ – which fits better with church members' beliefs, Wolf said. Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ is a "looser" organization, where decision-making authority lies with each church, he said. By contrast, the ELCA has entered into "full communion" with the Episcopal Church USA, which emphasizes the authority of bishops, Wolf said. The debate about homosexuality, though one example of how the ELCA is becoming more liberal, is not a "driving force" behind the split, he said. Readers can reach Forum reporter Joy Anderson at (701) 241-5556.

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