PAXTON — The First Lutheran Church in Paxton has joined more than 500 other congregations nationwide in leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) denomination.

The Rev. Jeff Cottingham said the congregation voted 79-3 on June 26 to end its affiliation with the ELCA, which it had been affiliated with since  1988. One congregation member abstained.

In doing so, the congregation decided to join the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) synod, a denomination that has been in existence for about 11 months and has already gained 250 congregations, most which left the ELCA, Cottingham said.

The trigger point was a vote almost a year ago, at the ELCA’s biennial national meeting, to open its clergy roster to gay and lesbian ministers who are in committed, same-gender relationships. Previously, homosexual clergy had to remain celibate to keep their jobs.

Cottingham said that issue was not the only reason for his congregation voting as it did. He noted that the “problems with the ELCA began clear back in 1987,” when it was founded, prior to the First Lutheran Church joining the ELCA on Jan. 1, 1988.

“Unfortunately, that all too often has made the issue, and that’s not the issue,” Cottingham said. “I mean, there have been homosexual pastors in the ELCA from Day 1, and by and large, it’s never been a problem.

“It really comes down to the authority of the Bible and how the doctrines of the law and gospel really apply to our lives. .. It really comes down to a lack of direction and a lack of uniformity when it came to the authority of the Bible. ... The primary issue is the authority of scripture: Does the Bible have authority for the life of a Christian or not? And if it does, then we have to actually practice what we preach.”

Traditional versus progressive ministry viewpoints have been at odds for years. Lutherans have been debating gradual changes that include things like more liberal interpretation of scripture and a revision of the hymnal that made it more gender-neutral.

Cottingham explained that the “fundamental issue” for his church leaving the ELCA is the ELCA trying to make changes so that “the Bible’s authority for members and for congregations has really been watered-down, to where it really becomes something that is open to a great deal of interpretation, is interpreted in a lot of wrong ways, to say things that it has never said. And as a result, the ELCA has become increasingly irrelevant when it comes to the Christian faith, because there are too many leaders and too many people who make proclamations about things that are not part of the faith.”

Lutherans have a history of splitting off, coming together and starting new groups, or synods. As of last year, they had more than 50 denominations and planned to start even more.

One problem with the ELCA, Cottingham said, is that it instituted a quota system when it was founded to allow “matters of profound theological importance” to be voted on by “people who don’t have a clue what it’s about, what the issue’s about — nd that’s been going on since Day 1.

“That really became the issue for this church, because this congregation has a rich history. It was founded as a Lutheran congregation; it was founded in a synod that took the Bible’s authority very seriously.”

Within an hour’s drive of Paxton, Cottingham said, there are “eight or nine” other congregations that have left the ELCA within the last year.

Those include Lutheran churches in Rantoul, Flatville and Royal, which also joined the NALC synod.

“With the North American Lutheran Church, we have recaptured that sense in the faith of the church that we are  now a part of,” Cottingham said.

The NALC is one of two denominations that has been gaining congregations as a result of those leaving the ELCA over the past 10 years, Cottingham said.

The other is the Lutheran Churches Mission for Christ, which has more than 500 congregations.

The NALC was started by a reform group within the ELCA called Lutheran CORE, said Cottingham.

“They began about five years ago, and when it became apparent that the direction was going to continue unabated, then what happened was Lutheran CORE established the NALC as a new denomination to, as they put it, ‘reconfigure North American Lutheranism.’”

The ELCA at one point had more than 5.3 million members but is now down to about 4.5 million, Cottingham said. However, there are about 10,000 congregations still in the ELCA, which remains the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.

The procedure required to leave the denomination requires two votes of two-thirds of members at a congregational meeting. The votes are separated by a minimum of 90 days, with a consultation of the bishop in between. The rules were set up when three denominations merged to form the ELCA in 1988.

First Lutheran Church in Paxton took its first vote on March 27, voting to begin the process to terminate its voluntary relationship with the ELCA