"A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
--Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian
Lutheranism is one of the largest Protestant denominations today. According to the Lutheran World Federation, there are nearly 66 million Lutherans worldwide. Of these, 36 million live in Europe, 13 million in Africa, 8.4 million in North America, 7.3 million in Asia, and 1.1 million in Latin America. 1
Lutheranism was founded by Martin Luther, a German monk and professor who has been called the "Father of the Reformation." In 1517, he famously protested against the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences. In his sermons and writings, Luther stressed the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the authority of scripture alone.
Lutheranism quickly spread throughout Germany and Scandanavia, and the Protestant movement in various forms could soon be found throughout Europe.
The Lutheran denomination is the oldest Protestant denomination. It was founded (not deliberately at first) by Martin Luther, the German monk and professor who famously posted 95 Theses against the practice of indulgences in 1517. Luther saw contradictions between the Bible and current church practice as well as corruption and abuses within the (Catholic) church, and initially hoped for reform, not schism. When that proved impossible, he continued to spread his teachings despite excommunication and threats to his life.
Martin Luther taught that salvation comes by the grace of God and faith in Christ alone, and the many rituals and works prescribed by the church were not only unnecessary, but a stumbling block to salvation. He rejected such traditions as the intermediary role of priests, priestly celibacy, the Latin Bible and liturgy, purgatory, and transubstantiation, and advocated for the scriptures to be available to the laity in their own language.
Despite his rejection of many aspects of medieval Catholicism, Luther did accept any aspects of church practice that did not contradict the scriptures. Some other Protestant groups, by contrast, rejected any Catholic tradition not explicitly commanded in the Bible. For this reason, Lutheran churches tend to have more of a Catholic "look and feel" than their more austere Presbyterian counterparts.
Those who followed Luther's teachings were called "Lutherans" by their opponents, and they accepted the name for themselves. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and into Scandanavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark). Today, Germany remains predominantly Lutheran, and Lutheranism is the official state church of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. Eighty-one percent of Finland's citizens are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
In the 17th century, Lutherans from these countries began to migrate to the United States, bringing their language, culture, and Lutheran faith with them. As the number of Lutheran congregations grew, some began to join together to form "synods," or church bodies.
On January 1, 1988, three American synods, the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America, merged to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
In August 1997, the ELCA declared full communion with the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church-USA. 2 The ELCA also decided that the differences between it and the Roman Catholic Church in matters of salvation had essentially been resolved.
Lutheran beliefs are expressed in numerous historical Lutheran confessions, most of which were penned by Luther himself or early Lutheran leaders. These confessions have been collected into the Book of Concord, which is regarded as an authority for doctrine and practice by all Lutherans.
ELCA Lutherans view the Book of Concord as an important expression of the Lutheran faith, but not necessarily binding in its entirety for all modern Lutherans. LCMS Lutherans, on the other hand, "regard their doctrinal content as a true and binding exposition of Holy Scripture and as authoritative for all pastors, congregations and other rostered church workers." 3
The Book of Concord contains the following Lutheran texts:
- The Three Ecumenical Creeds
- The Augsburg Confession
- The Defense of the Augsburg Confession
- The Large Catechism
- The Small Catechism
- The Smalcald Articles
- Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope
- The Epitome of the Formula of Concord
- The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
The official statement of faith of the ELCA is as follows:
- This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe
- Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
- The proclamation of God's message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God's Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God's revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God's Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
- This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
- This church accepts the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.
- This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it In faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
- This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.
- This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God's mission in the world.
For more information on ELCA beliefs, see "What do ELCA Lutherans believe?" on the official ELCA website.
For an official statement of LCMS beliefs, see "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles" (PDF).
Lutherans practice infant baptism and the baptism of believing adults. In the Lutheran perspective, baptism is a sacrament that is commanded by God and "cleanses from sin, snatches us from the power of Satan, and gives us everlasting life." 4
Some Lutheran churches ordain women to the ministry, while others do not. The LCMS does not, and offers a full explanation of this decision in its online document "What About the Ordination of Women?"
Lutheran churches vary in their perspective on homosexuality and their response to homosexuals in the church. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) "believes that the Bible teaches that homosexual behavior is contrary to God's Word and will, and seeks to minister to those who are struggling with homosexual inclinations." 5
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has not defined its position officially, but has been conducting a study of the issue in recent years. Its current policy is to welcome homosexual persons to participate fully in its congregations and to encourage open conversations about the issue. The ELCA ordains homosexuals to church positions, with the understanding that they will remain celibate outside of marriage like all ministers.10 The ELCA does not currently bless same-sex marriages.
The two largest Lutheran church bodies in America are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with about 5 million members in 2003, and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), which had about 2.5 million members in 2003. 6 Other large Lutheran churches include the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) (413,839 members), the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (36,400), and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS; 24,000). 7
The ELCA meets in assembly every two years, and elects a bishop to a six-year term. In 2001, the ELCA elected the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, who may be reelected in 2007. "In addition to fulfilling such roles as preacher, teacher and administrator of the sacraments, which traditionally belong to the office of bishop, the presiding bishop of this church serves as president and chief executive officer of the corporation and oversees the staff, budget, and overall administration of the church." 8
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA allows for the possibility of errors and cultural limitations in the Bible and interprets it using the methods of historical criticism. The ELCA ordains women and is tends to be open to the acceptance of homosexuality and abortion among its members. Similarly, although all Lutherans are guided by the 16th-century Lutheran confessions set out in the Book of Concord, the ELCA does not require its members to accept them in their entirety as normative standards for modern life. LCMS members, on the other hand, "accept without reservation all the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God, normative also for the church today." 9
Another important difference between the LCMS and the ELCA is in the area of ecumenism. The ELCA is a member of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches, and has entered into full fellowship with non-Lutheran churches. This means that the ELCA accepts sacraments, such as ordination and communion, performed by churches other than the ELCA as valid. The LCMS, on the other hand, "believes that the Bible requires full agreement in doctrine before it is possible to join in altar and pulpit fellowship with other churches (Rom. 16:17)." The practical difference for a Lutheran churchgoer is that LCMS members and certain other Protestants may take communion in an ELCA congregation, but one must be an LCMS member to take communion in an LCMS congregation.
- "The Difference Between the ELCA and the LCMS," Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod Official Site.
- Beliefs: "Lutheran Confessions," Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod Official Site.
- Practices: "What About Baptism?" LCMS website.
- FAQ: Homosexuality, LCMS website.
- ELCA/LCMS: The Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
- LWF 2003 Membership Details
- ELCA Office of the Bishop
- "The Difference Betweenthe ELCA and the LCMS," LCMS website
- Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers - ELCA website
- The Lutheran World Federation
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
- Augsburg Fortress Publishers - The publishing house of the ELCA.
- Beta Sigma Psi - A national fraternity of Lutheran men.
- Concordia Publishing House - The publishing house of the LCMS.
- ELCA Colleges and Universities - 28 colleges and universities associated with the ELCA.
- Journal of Lutheran Ethics - An online journal of associated with the ELCA.
- Lutheran Film Associates - Missouri-based agency that produces Lutheran films and television programs.
- Lutherans for Life - Lutheran pro-life organization.
- The Lutheran Magazine - The magazine of the ELCA.
- Lutheran World Relief - Lutheran humanitarian organization.
- What are the differences between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)?
Short description of the differences between the two largest Lutheran church bodies in America from the ELCA's perspective.
- The Difference Between the ELCA and LCMS
A two-page pamphlet by Dr. A.L. Barry, President of LCMS.
- An Introduction to the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
January 13, 2004 article by Dr. Samuel Nafzger providing information on the history and doctrines of the Lutheran church in general and the LCMS in particular.
- Project Wittenberg
"Home to works by and about Martin Luther and other Lutherans."