From the Senior Pastor on September 26, 2021
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
“10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
The Church at Corinth was divided already in the middle of the 1st century. Reading through other New Testament epistles, one glimpses that the unity of Christ’s Church has been shattered by sin repeatedly. The whole Church on earth has experienced major schism every 500 years. Lord, have mercy upon us.
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Wilmington NC, a 129-year-old congregation, made two major decisions on September 26, 2021, at a special congregation meeting. We decided by 92% of voting members present (154 of 168) to terminate our relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and by 52% (86 of 164) to join the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. There were 74 votes (45%) in favor of joining the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). Because we were previously affiliated with the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) prior to the 1988 merger of three Lutheran denominations that formed the ELCA, our constitution requires that the synod council of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA approve our release from the ELCA. We will not know how they will decide until their next meeting in December. Despite both votes, we remain a congregation of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA and under our present constitution until such time as we may receive a peaceful release from the ELCA. If we were denied release, we would remain an ELCA congregation. I continue to be on the ELCA clergy roster.
What does this mean for us? In terms of day-to-day operations, nothing changes. We carry on in our congregational life together as we have previously. As I have also said previously, the primary benefit of affiliation with a particular Lutheran denomination is that we have a vetted pool from which to acquire new pastors for St. Matthew’s. Of course, that is far from the only reason we belong to a particular church body, but we do need to know that the candidates we consider for a pastoral call have been trained in a Lutheran understanding of the Bible, know how properly to distinguish Law and Gospel in preaching and teaching, and are trained rightly to administer the Sacraments. It was the ELCA decision in 2009 about who may serve as ELCA pastors that led to the two decisions we made on September 26.
Voting to terminate our relationship with the ELCA was gut-wrenching for many of us. We have continued to be faithful to the ELCA Confession of Faith in our teaching, preaching, and practice. Furthermore, since the merger that formed the ELCA in 1988, St. Matthew’s contributed (not adjusted for inflation) $1,648,602 in mission support and $76,779 in designated ELCA giving. Our members also made significant gifts to camping ministry and Trinity Grove campaigns including a lead gift of $750,000 to Trinity Grove and the several million dollar Bost Endowment Fund invested in the ELCA Foundation.
We know that pastors are essential to congregational life, and so it matters whom we call, how they have been trained, and how they will preach, teach, and live. The Bible as the Church’s metanarrative (grand overarching story) has a particular understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be male and female, and what it means to be married. When voting members at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly chose to diverge from the consensus understanding of these questions across 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice, it created disunity like that in the Church at Corinth by attributing to the Holy Spirit such a schismatic action. Was this decision made from ignorance of the whole Church?
While we await the decision of the North Carolina Synod Council, we press forward to make disciples of all ethnic groups by baptizing and, then, teaching. We strive to pray daily, worship weekly, read the Bible, serve at and beyond St. Matthew’s, be in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others, and give of our time, talent, and resources. Regardless of which Lutheran affiliation, we are, and will remain, the same St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church of Wilmington NC. I hope you will faithfully hear and learn the Word of God and receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar at the Lord’s altar in this house of God. In the aftermath of decisions made, I hope you will not give place or any energy to quarreling factions like those at Corinth but rather will continue to walk together as the Body of Christ that meets at 612 S. College Road. We have no control over the behavior of others beyond us, but we can, with God’s help, attend to how we respond in love to those who choose schism over unity in the Church catholic.
I remind you that nothing has changed despite both votes. The worst outcome would be to give in to anxiety about the future and to act in immature ways that do not reflect Whose church this is and Whose will matters. And, I trust you know it is not your will or mine that we pray to be done ultimately.
I love you,
Pastor Sam Zumwalt+