The head of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America laments an Ethiopian Lutheran church body’s decision to sever ties with the ELCA and other churches over the same-sex marriage issue.
Bishop James Arends’ sorrow arises from the fact that the La Crosse synod has a companion synod in Ethiopia that it has supported for 22 years and where it routinely sends teaching pastors.
“Many in our synod are experiencing grief over the possibility of losing friends and ministries and are concerned about projects we have been supporting,” Arends said.
The La Crosse synod, which has 38,000 members in 74 congregations in a 10-county area, is a companion to the Central Synod of the 5 million-member Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus. The Ethiopian church’s General Assembly recently cut off such relationships with the 4.2-million member ELCA and the Church of Sweden, among others.
At issue is a sexuality statement the ELCA passed in 2009 giving its 10,000-plus congregations leeway on their stances on same-sex marriages and gay pastors, Arends said.
Congregational views can range from declaring homosexuality wrong to “recognizing publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships,” he said.
The Ethiopian church leaders “officially said they believe we are stepping outside of biblical guidance,” Arends said.
The La Crosse synod’s projects in Ethiopia include being the primary supporter of the library at a Christian college, donating thousands of books to the library and student pastors; backing two clinics; and helping care for children orphaned because their parents had AIDS, Arends said.
As a companion synod, he said, “Our goal is to walk together in ways we find to share ministry.”
Acknowledging the Ethiopian church’s stance against homosexuality, “We don’t send gay members on delegations, and we don’t send gay pastors as teaching pastors,” Arends said.
Arends has traveled to Ethiopia three times as part of La Crosse synod delegations, including a 2011 trip marking the 50th anniversary of the Ethiopian church. He was scheduled to be leading a delegation there now, but the trip was canceled because of the split.
The Ethiopian General Assembly said ELCA leaders “should not be invited for any spiritual ministries of this church,” and vice versa.
The Rev. Wakseyoum Idossa, president of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, lived in the La Crosse synod in 2003-04 as part of his work for a doctorate in pastoral care, Arends said. Fekadu Benga, who directs the Ethiopian church’s university ministries department, taught in congregations here in 2008.
Of the severed ties, Arends said, “I hope this isn’t final, but it’s not going to be a quick turnaround.”
The Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of the ELCA’s Global Mission, also expressed hope that the split can be resolved.
While the Ethiopian assembly is “closing the door to this partnership, (the ELCA and the Church of Sweden) are not locking the doors from our side,” Malpica Padilla said. “It is my hope that, in the near future, we will again walk together in Christian love. We will do this not because of doctrinal agreements or consensus, but because the Gospel compels us to do so.”