Not just gay issues: Why hundreds of congregations made final break with mainline denominations

In 2005, two congregations left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 2006, three churches departed.

But the floodgates have lifted since then as decades-old tensions between liberals and conservatives have reached breaking points.

After a 2011 decision allowing gay ordinations, 270 congregations left in 2012 and 2013. And church analysts estimate upwards of another 100 churches may leave by the end of the year as presbyteries vote on a proposal to rewrite the church’s constitution to refer to marriage as being between “two people” instead of the union of “a man and a woman.”

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some 600 congregations left in 2010 and 2011 following the denomination’s 2009 decision allowing the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships.

That the denominations’ changing stances on gay ordinations and same-sex marriages were a key factor in the exodus is without question. But new research into why congregations decided to leave reveal differences on sexuality issues were only part of a much larger divide.

Among the broader, longstanding concerns that convinced departing congregations that they no longer had a home in their denominations that Carthage College researchers found were:

• “Bullying” tactics by denominational leaders.
• A perceived abandonment of foundational principles of Scripture and tradition.
• The devaluation of personal faith.

“The ones that left said reform was not possible,” said Carthage sociologist Wayne Thompson, study leader.

The Final Conflict

Each side suffered losses in the congregational exodus, according to researchers taking an in-depth look at the process at the recent annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association.

The congregations that left were larger than the typical congregation, with some having more than 1,000 members. The losses for denominations already hemorrhaging members at historic rates have been significant.

For example, the more than 70,000 members in congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2012 and 2013 accounted for more than a third of the denomination’ s 192,000 net membership loss for those years, researchers Joelle Kopacz, Jack Marcum and Ida Smith reported.

In turn, many of the congregations that left faced bitter battles over church properties. And a majority in the Carthage study reported at least some members left rather than switch.

So why did the congregations break away?

Leaders of churches departing from the ELCA said along with the policy on gay ordinations that the denomination was no longer a good fit for their churches and it was important for them to disassociate with the reputation of their former governing body.

More specific reasons included claims that some ELCA leaders were “dictatorial” and that the denomination was undermining the authority of scripture and was more interested in social justice work than traditional ministry, Carthage researchers John Augustine and Brian Hansen reported.

Departing Presbyterian leaders also characterized the policy on gay ordinations as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” but far from the sole reason.

Their concerns included claims that the denomination was overly politicized and weakening biblical authority and traditional teaching on the divinity of Jesus.

“The situation in the PC (U.S.A.) was hopeless as I see it,” said one Presbyterian pastor who left with his congregation to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

“Our new presbytery is … trying to help us be successful without being bullied by a denomination that has turned its back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

New homes

It was not as if these congregations chose the most theologically conservative new homes.

The great majority of congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) chose to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Few chose to join the larger Presbyterian Church in America, which does not permit women clergy.

Similarly, congregations leaving the ELCA overwhelmingly bypassed the more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod denominations for the new Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the North American Lutheran Church.

Still, the future does not look bright for reconciliation, analysts noted.

“There is an exhaustion factor of having fought for decades,” Thompson said.

Among some denominational leaders, he said, there is a sense, “The bad guys have left.”

And leaders of congregations departing their former mainline Protestant denominations told Carthage researchers they were happy to be in a new place.

When the church leaders were asked if they had any regrets about their decision to leave, “The only thing they’d ever say is we should have left sooner.”

2 Responses to “Not just gay issues: Why hundreds of congregations made final break with mainline denominations”

  1. Somehow the Carthage researchers missed talking with our congregation! Our six years of litigation changed law! But then, we don’t exist. The ELCA says so.

    Our congregation (Redeemer, Philadelphia) asked to leave the ELCA in 2008 as is constitutionally allowed. The request is supposed to trigger a 90-day period of negotiation, which we welcomed. Instead, we received a fax from the denomination. You cannot leave. You are terminated. You no longer have any rights in the ELCA.

    In the ensuing six years of litigation, we found there is NO advantage for small churches to be part of ANY denomination. We are fish in a barrel.

    When larger churches choose to leave and are able to do so with their property (the ELCA Lutheran way—at least on paper), they create problems for the smaller churches. They leave their denominations in desperate financial straits. Where can they turn? Congregations are their only source of income.

    The denomination could work to help build congregations, but they have no faith that this is really possible even if it is their mission.

    The denomination becomes unbelievably dictatorial as it combs the small churches, looking for reasons to justify taking control of property and endowment funds to fund their alarming deficits. They bet that smaller churches won’t put up a fight. They no longer perform their function of serving congregations. They are desperate. Congregations are expendable.

    Denominations turn to the law and find new authority in their protected (First Amendment) status. They are no longer bound by their constitutions or any promises to the congregations. Who can stop them? The law is the authority not the Word of God. And the law is hands off when it comes to legal questions in the Church. It is an ideal environment for bullies!

    The Gospel has been abandoned in the struggle for survival.

    Our ministry is now online:

  2. Julian Sardor says:

    I’m an Elder in a church that left the PCA about a decade ago and joined the EPC. Ironically, we left because a small group of theological purists felt that we were not Presbyterian enough. The strife they fomented was not God-honoring.

    As the article notes, a lot of churches have left the PC(USA) to join the EPC. In talking with a these brothers and sisters, and their pastors, the reason for the move had nothing to do with Gay issues per se and everything to do with PC(USA)’s abandonment of biblical teaching. And as these churches raised concerns about the direction of the PC(USA), they were shunned. They have been amazed – ofter to the point of tears – by the EPC’s deep commitment to prayer and Christian love. Many had to abandon the churches they raised money for an built, and they felt this was a small sacrifice to pay for the opportunity to be in strife-free fellowship with believers whose primary focus is to seek Jesus.

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