The Lutheran Difference: Q & A — The Different Lutherans

We’ve got another question this week, this time coming from Jeffrey Reynolds:

Hoo boy. I haven’t touched on the differences between the various Lutheran synods at all in this series. As a matter of fact, I’ve tried to keep my comments as generic as possible. I probably haven’t succeeded. I do come from a very specific tradition within Lutheranism and it’s not easy to divorce my writing from that mindset. So, if there have been any Lutherans from other synods reading these posts and you’ve wondered where I got my information, that’s where.

Before I start answering this question, I’m going to share a few caveats:

  1. I am a member of one of these synods, and that’s going to color the way I view things. My worldview and understanding of other Lutheran synods is shaped by the theological traditions I was raised in and studied under. As such, I have definite opinions about the other synods I’m going to write about. That’s inevitable. But I’m going to try to keep those opinions to myself. As a matter of fact…
  2. I’m going to try to keep this as factual as possible. I’m not going to pass judgment on what makes these synods differently. This is going to just be a discussion about the differences, not which synod is right or wrong on the various issues.
  3. I’m going to be painting with a very broad brush. I know full well that not every congregation in the different synods agree with each other on issues. Pastors disagree with other pastors, and parishioners may disagree with all of it. But there are certain trends within each synod that can be described. Please, don’t use what I say here as a definitive explanation of what individual Lutherans believe about certain subjects. They may disagree with what I say here.

All that said, we also have a problem in terms of sample size. There a dozens, if not hundreds, of Lutheran synods scattered throughout the world. For example, the Lutheran World Federation has 145 different denominations that are members of their organization, but that’s not even an accurate number because not all Lutheran synods are members. Even if we narrow it down to just the Lutheran synods within the United States, there are at least a dozen that I can think of. So out of all of those, who do we talk about?

I figure we should narrow it down to the top four in the United States, going from largest to smallest. So let’s get started with them:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is by far the largest of Lutheran denominations in the United States. And, to put it bluntly, they’re also the most progressive in terms of their theology and practice. They ordain women, they are becoming more and more accepting of homosexuality (including homosexual clergy) and gay marriage. In terms of theology, the ELCA is more ecumenically minded, reaching out to and striking agreements with a number of non-Lutheran church bodies. They are also more open in who they allow to attend communion. And when it comes to their understanding of Scripture, they take a lower view of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

Again, I am painting with an extremely broad brush here. I know that there a number of ELCA congregations and pastors who do not agree with the direction that their synod has gone in in recent years. As a matter of fact, many of the smallest and newest of Lutheran synods and congregational organizations are splinters of the ELCA, breaking away primarily because of the ELCA’s evolving understanding of homosexuality.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. This is my synod and, as odd as it may be for me to put it this way, we’re probably the most “moderate” of the synods. I’m using sarcastic quotes here because when push comes to shove, we are still very conservative in terms of theology and practice. We don’t mess around with the inspiration of Scripture or stuff like that. But we do have a wide spectrum of opinions and resulting tension/conflict over three specific issues: wine, women, and song (as one of my colleagues put it).

“Wine” refers to who should be allowed to take communion during one of our worship services. We all agree that a communicant should have a Lutheran understanding of what communion is and how it works (in other words, we hope that those who come to our altars for the sacrament will understand that Jesus’ body and blood is present in, with, and under the bread and wine). But some LCMS Lutherans will welcome those from other synods to the table while others will require that communicants be members of another LCMS congregation.

“Women” refers to what roles women are allowed to have within our congregations. The LCMS does not ordain women and we don’t allow them to serve as elders. But past that, there’s a wide variety of practices. Some congregations allow women to serve in every other role. Other congregations not only don’t allow women to be leaders, they don’t allow them to even vote in voters’ meetings.

And “song” refers to what kind of worship services are allowed. Some congregations have full-blown “contemporary” services while others are extremely traditional. And there’s a wide range of opinions on whether or not that variety is okay. Some are okay with that, while others think that all of us should worship with one specific style.

I could keep going, but you get the idea.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (or WELS). WELS is smaller than the LCMS and they are also more conservative than us to boot. We have a lot in common with them theologically, but there are some significant differences. In WELS, women aren’t allowed to vote at all on a synod-wide level. And WELS is even more closed in their understanding of who can commune at their services. I was taught that WELS Lutherans are even taught that they’re not supposed to even pray with non-WELS Christians. I don’t know how many WELS Lutherans follow this mandate.

WELS and the LCMS used to work more closely together, but due to a controversy in the late 19th century, we kind of split apart.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod. These guys are the smallest of the big four. We call them the “Little Norweigians,” mostly because there was once a “Big Norweigian” synod that these guys split from. As near as I can tell, they are very similar to WELS and are definitely more conservative than the LCMS in most matters.

So let’s talk about two more issues:

What’s with the “evangelicals?” You may have noticed that three of these Synods have the word “evangelical” in their title. Technically, the LCMS would have that word in our name too (or, at least, we used to). So do Lutherans consider themselves Evangelicals, as in the group that’s often courted by Republican politicians?

Not really, no. That’s a separate concept and entity that Lutherans usually don’t align themselves with. Instead, we understand ourselves as being little-e “evangelicals,” as people who see the Gospel as being central to everything we do. I understand that most Christians would see themselves as little-e evangelicals, but it’s a quirk of Lutheranism that we see that as “our word,” so to speak.

What’s with all the state names? So why does the LCMS and WELS have state names in our names? It’s a holdover from the 19th century and how things used to work in Germany. Back in Germany, where Church and State are a bit more entangled, congregations used to organize and ally themselves within certain provinces and regions. When the Germans immigrated to the United States, they continued the practice by organizing themselves within the different states. At one time, there were synods that named themselves after Iowa and Minnesota and Ohio and so on. As time went on, more and more of those state synods consolidated into larger groups. Eventually, they became nationwide organizations but kept the names of the most “prominent” state in the group.

So there we go. I think I covered this, right? If not, let me know in the comments below.

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One Comment:

  1. John, thank you very much for answering my question. As I mentioned I’m not very familiar with Lutheranism. I knew a little about the LCMS because they were mentioned in “The Battle For The Bible” by Harold Lindsell, which was one of my textbooks. So this was insightful.

    I do know from reading a biography of one of my heroes in church history – Phillip Melanchthon – that the Reformers were known as evangelicals in that day. A little over a year ago, I read a book titled “The Spectrum of Evangelicalism: Four Views”, and it alluded to the historical reference and that Lutherans have Evangelical in their name.

    Thanks again.

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