Bud Veis and Paul Johnson are lifelong Lutherans who wouldn't dream of leaving their faith.

Veis, 63, and Johnson, 72, grew up in the church, married their wives and raised their children there. Both men have served on church councils, taught Sunday school and Bible studies.

But over time they have seen the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - the denomination they belong to - move in a direction they can no longer support.

So they have left the Billings church they attended - Johnson for 28 years and Veis for five - to start a new one that isn't affiliated with the ELCA.

What pushed them was a decision made last August during the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. Delegates voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions and to permit gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to serve congregations.

Previously, gays and lesbians who desired to be pastors were required to remain celibate.

The choice of whether to accept either or both of the new policies is up to individual congregations. But for Johnson and Veis, the disagreement runs deeper; it goes to the heart of scriptural authority.

"We don't feel that delegates voting at a church assembly can change the meaning of the inspired word of God," Veis said.

It's a little like Tevye, in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," who in a moment of quiet despair explains why he can't support the action of one of his daughters: "If I try to bend that far, I will break."

Both Veis and Johnson worry that in taking a stand, they will be accused of being homophobic. They believe the Bible labels homosexuality a sin, and that is what they oppose.

"If they were all of a sudden to say adultery is not a sin, we would have the same kind of problem, or stealing or whatever," Johnson said. "We don't regard the sin of homosexuality as a greater sin than any other sin."

The two men aren't the only ones leaving the denomination. Since last August, 419 congregations out of the more than 10,000 in the U.S. have taken a first vote to leave the ELCA - two votes are required, at least 90 days apart. Out of that, 140 congregations have dissociated from the denomination.


In the Montana Synod, 12 churches have left and another six are considering it. The 12 churches range in average attendance from 340 at Christ Lutheran in Whitefish to 13 at Peerless Lutheran.

Altogether, the synod consists of 133 churches, including five in northern Wyoming. The number leaving the synod is the highest in the United States.

Another seven congregations that took a first or second vote did not achieve the two-thirds vote of the congregation required to leave.

In the interim between the two votes, the head of the synod, the bishop, consults with the congregation. Bishop Jessica Crist, of the Montana Synod, has met with each of the congregations that have taken at least one vote to leave.

"Homosexuality has been in every conversation," Crist said. "It has been almost everybody's top reason. They express it in different ways. Some are sad, some are angry, some are polite."

The August vote may have been the last straw for some congregations, Crist said. But it isn't the only time members have been unhappy over actions taken at the national level.

Some were displeased with the 1999 vote that established full communion with the Episcopal Church USA. Those Lutherans felt the church made too big a concession over a tenet in the Episcopal Church, called the historic episcopate, which traces the succession of bishops back to the early church.

Even earlier, Crist said, some congregations struggled in 1988 when three separate denominations, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches merged to form the ELCA.

There was a sense of loss, a struggle with change. Or for some, there was a belief that how scripture was viewed had begun to change.

Now, Crist said some of the smaller congregations, especially along Montana's Hi-Line, are grappling with the loss of schools and jobs, and another change in the ELCA's thinking, Crist said. That may all have contributed toward their decision to leave.

"My message is, change is hard, but God is faithful and that we are an inclusive church," Crist said. "People choosing to leave is a loss to us. We're sorry to see it, and we wish them well. But they're choosing to leave. They're not being thrown out, and the ministry of the church goes on."

Crist has said she received a variety of responses from churches she oversees when the churchwide vote was taken last August.

"Some congregations' response to the August vote was ‘thanks be to God,' " she said. "Some wrote a letter to me to say they don't wish to call a gay pastor. I said thank you and we will honor your request."

The Rev. Paul Landeraaen, pastor of Scobey Lutheran Church, said his church fell into the third category that decided it could not stay. But the August vote wasn't the only reason.

"For us, it was just one more thing on a long list," Landeraaen said. The main issue had to do with how the ELCA is handling the Bible.

"We were told for years that there's room for several different major interpretations," Landeraaen said. "At some point, people just couldn't buy that."

A second point of disagreement came over the way the denomination votes on issues. Both at the state and national levels, delegates chosen to attend the meetings vote their conscience, rather than representing their church's views.

That's different from the workings of the former American Lutheran Church, which Scobey Lutheran came out of, where every congregation was represented.

"So people have sensed a loss of how directly they had a voice in the overall national church body," Landeraaen said.

Scobey Lutheran took its first vote to leave the denomination in the fall. Members met with Crist in November, and then took a second vote on Jan. 10.

Both votes were nearly unanimous, Landeraaen said.

For Veis and Johnson, and a third organizer, Harold Wahl, the challenge is to start a church from scratch. They have started meeting with other like-minded people on Sundays.

Already 35 people are showing up at the Sunday meetings for the group that calls itself Lutherans for New Beginnings. And Johnson thinks more will come once the group has a permanent place to meet.

As difficult as it is to start a church, Johnson said it's much more painful to leave one.

"This is probably one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said. "It's something that we had to pray about, think about and talk to others about. It's very difficult, not only from the mechanics of doing it but from the emotional side."

But as tough as that parting has been, both men say, the issue is bigger than leaving a church.

"We don't feel like we're leaving Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd," Veis said. "We're leaving the ELCA."

"Another way of saying it is the ELCA left us," Johnson said.

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