West Baltimore’s Bethany Lutheran Church and its pastor, Rev. Elias Abite Kao, have taken their leave of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS). Bethany plans to reconstitute as an independent non-denominational church following a direct revelation from God to Pastor Kao.
Reasons for Leaving
Pastor Kao spoke with me via telephone in late May, and was gracious with his time for a long interview. He confirmed to me the details of the Pentecost Sunday voters meeting where it was agreed to exit the LCMS. At this time, Kao remains on the Synod roster, and the church also remains listed.
He explained that the Elders of Bethany had, over the course of the last five years, spoken of disbanding the congregation. “The church got meager and small, and could not support a pastor as members declined,” Kao told me.
“As pastor, I encouraged them to believe and allow the Holy Spirit to grow the church. They have been battling to close the doors. They had no hope! They were only focusing on the material and not the spiritual”.
Kao added that he had not asked for a salary increase even though he was being underpaid. “I was willing to stop taking payment until the final close. I didn’t want to walk away.”
Apparently, that did not satisfy the Board of Elders who asked him to give a date when he wanted to be released. Kao accuses the Board of Elders of not telling members of the plan to close. “People were shocked and crying when they found out. They said they would follow me. People are so innocent,” he added.
According to Kao, the Elders presented four options to the congregation:
- Find a new pastor – still unaffordable.
- Share a pastor – there are already a number of churches in the area without pastors.
- Disband and liquidate the assets.
- Give the people, service, and place to a new ministry to allow Pastor Kao to continue.
Kao said the congregation voted for option four 30-2. He was unable to explain how the change of ownership would change the financial condition of the church beyond saying that he was now free to grow it.
Direct Revelation and the Problem With Missouri
Amidst the stress of the impending closure, Kao said that he sought the Lord who, “Audibly spoke to me with a detailed plan that I wrote down.”
“The Lord gave me a new vision to start a new church. It will be a non-denominational independent church,” Kao said.
Kao says that he is open to preaching with “anyone who believes in the Holy Spirit”, but prefers to remain an independent church rather than joining with any other denomination. The Cellar-Door blog says that Kao “regularly preached at a Pentecostal church in Washington D.C.”, but he did not confirm or deny this in his discussion with me. However, Bethany’s video sermons indicate that syncretism has been a problem for some time.
He was happy to expound on his reasons for departing rather than seeking another call within the Synod.
“The LCMS is the major problem. Mainstream churches have no vision for the 21st century. They are not open to working with other congregations. There is too much repetition in the services – the order of service is not appealing to the young people. [The LCMS] is not open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit from operating in the church. The are just worried about colors and distribution [of the Lord’s Supper]. These are technical things; just outward appearances.”.
I asked Pastor Kao how he reconciled his revelation and theology with being called and ordained within the LCMS, which is cessationist.
“I come from Mekane Yesus (The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus) where the Holy Spirit is allowed to work in the church. We have many Coptic and Muslim converts because of this,” he explained, adding, “the LCMS does not have an open door for the charismatic gifts.”
Kao maintains a YouTube channel where he has a six-part series that teaches people how to speak in five types of tongues.
Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology and a Victorious Life
Kao was certified for ministry in 2008 after being trained at the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
He says that he and his fellow students at EIIT often discussed the charismatic gifts, and that most of them came from backgrounds that employed the gifts. “We allow God to work in any manner, and we have apostles, prophets and evangelists,” said Kao.
Asked about the reaction of his supervisors and instructors at CSL to this charismatism, Kao said that they “only preached on errors in pentecostal churches. They did not say it was wrong.”.
He is adamant that he upholds his ordination vows, including a full subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, “but [the LCMS] is stuck on being saved by grace through faith.”
Requested to clarify that statement, Kao said, “Our walk is not up to our salvation, but beyond it. We must grow and mature. There is power to overcome sin in the world, but we just lead people through confession. It is just a routine, and people are not living a victorious life – they are just living.”
Kao continued, “I am so tired of people coming back every Sunday exhausted and looking for help. I want them to be exuberant and bubbling. They must claim the grace of God and victory; immediately! There is more than just confessing. There is walking in the light; victorious!”.
“Even at the winkel meetings they just pray the same prayer as we do with the congregation,” he added.
Kao was asked whether perfect sanctification was achievable in this life. He responded hesitantly, before saying, “My point is, there has to be a point in future where what God is saying about me is true. In the LCMS people are the older son in the parable of the prodigal – they don’t know the love of the father.”
According to Kao, the Southeastern District (SED) has been supportive, if not necessarily helpful. He described Southeastern District President John Denninger as an “amazing man of God” with whom he had a short conversation before the final voters’ meeting. “There was no effort to stop us,” he said.
Denninger, declined to comment, “Out of respect for the confidentiality of the parties involved and the process they are working through”. Likewise, Kao’s Circuit Visitor, Rev. Martin Schultheis, declined to comment without permission from Denninger.
Denninger’s use of the present tense, and the retention of Bethany’s roster information, may suggest that the congregation is being kept on board. However, there is actually little that can be done once a congregation opts to divorce the Synod.
Kao and his flock are out of the LCMS, and the congregation’s assets belong to Kao’s new ministry. One might reasonably say that this has been the case with Bethany for many years.