By Adriane Dorr
One of the largest Lutheran church bodies in the world, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), announced Feb. 5 that it had broken fellowship with “those churches who have openly accepted same-sex marriage,” namely, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Church of Sweden.
With more than 6 million members, the EECMY recognized that the “challenges and changes that we encounter in our contexts are forcing us to make decisions which are consistent with our belief about God and our biblical, theological and ethical understandings,” explained the Rev. Dr. Wakseyoum Idosa, president of the EECMY.
At the request of the EECMY, LCMS church leaders traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to take part in the EECMY’s Committee of Mutual Christian Responsibility (CMCR). During this Feb. 4-6 meeting, ELCA officials asked for clarification regarding the EECMY’s decision on human sexuality. Director of Church Relations Dr. Albert B. Collver III; the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, executive director of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations; and Dr. Michael Rodewald, regional director for Africa, took part on behalf of the LCMS.
Watching the church bodies part ways was “deeply sobering,” said Lehenbauer. “This was clearly a sad and painful moment in this history of the relationship between these two churches. But the EECMY acted in accordance with their long-held and patiently expressed biblical conviction on this issue, rooted in their conscience-bound view that Scripture alone is and must be our only authority for deciding such matters — matters that go to the heart of the Gospel itself.”
“The ELCA is very saddened by this decision,” said the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for ELCA Global Mission, in a press release issued by the ELCA. “The ELCA and its predecessor church bodies have been walking with the people of Ethiopia for more than 50 years, and our sister church, the Church of Sweden, for more than 150 years. In this journey, we have learned from one another, we have deepened and extended the bonds of fellowship and partnership in the Gospel.”
Undergoing a realignment
“At this moment in history, world Lutheranism, particularly in Africa, is undergoing a realignment,” Collver noted. “African Lutheran churches, full of gratitude for receiving the Gospel from their partners, are confronted with the reality that some of their partners have departed from that faith once delivered to them.”
In this instance, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted in 2009 to allow gay and lesbian pastors to serve in the ministry. But after its own General Assembly meeting in 2010, the EECMY sent a letter to Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA, rejecting “the decision of the ELCA that allows gays and lesbians to become clergy and engage in the church’s ministry.” The letter encouraged the ELCA to repent and return to the “eternal holy and inspired Word of God,” noting the EECMY’s “serious concern,” “deep sadness” and “dismay” over the position taken by the ELCA on human sexuality.
“The fundamental position of the EECMY on any ethical issue including homosexual practice rests on her belief in the eternal truth of teaching of the Holy Scripture and not on human decision,” the EECMY’s letter stated. But in July 2012, after years of waiting for a response from the ELCA and receiving none, the EECMY’s General Assembly finally voted, and fellowship between the churches was over.
Official minutes from the 2012 meeting make clear that EECMY members will no longer “receive Holy Communion from the leadership and pastors of the [ELCA and the Church of Sweden]” and, in turn, that “the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus will not distribute communion to these churches.”
“We appreciate the strong stand taken by African Lutheran Christians toward a biblical understanding of those social issues that challenge us together as Christians,” Rodewald noted. “Their courage in taking such a stand is encouraging to us in a time when some Lutheran church bodies are looking to other means than Scripture for guidance.” “These African Lutheran churches remaining faithful to the Holy Scriptures also see it as their duty to call Western churches to repentance for departing from the historic Christian faith,” added Collver.
“These churches will seek partners in Africa and around the world who share the same convictions as they do about the Holy Scriptures. The EECMY is an encouragement to churches around the world for being a faithful witness. We as the LCMS need to lift the EECMY up in prayer, so that we can be like Aaron holding up Moses’ hands.”
LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison acknowledged the weightiness of the situation, saying, “The LCMS is sensitive to the difficulty the EECMY faced in making a decision of this magnitude, and we appreciate the bold and courageous action of EECMY General Assembly. Our church stands ready to talk with the EECMY if or when they are ready, and we invite them for further discussions on how we can together serve the Lord and His people.”
Adriane Dorr is managing editor of The Lutheran Witness.
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