Christian Disunity and Lutheran “Alphabet Soup”
Q1: I worship at an LCMS church in Minnesota. Here, the ELCA “branch” of the Lutheran Church is dominant. My understanding is that many of their positions are unbiblical, including, their support for abortion in their employees’ health insurance coverage as well as other areas. My question to you is, what caused the creation of the different synods in Lutheranism? I know of LCMS, ELCA, WELS, and ALS. Why all the different “confessions” and how did they come about?
Q2: I am from Nebraska and was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran. As an adult, I look back and still struggle to understand the Lutheran “war” that occur during the 1970s.
A: Your questions illustrate peculiarities of American Lutheranism and also reflect much of Christian history. However, before answering, allow me to define for others terms you both use.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) came together as the result of a merger of Lutheran churches in 1988. The largest body in the United States calling itself Lutheran, it’s in most ways the most liberal in its interpretation of Scripture and its fidelity to the Church’s Confessions. Articles mentioning Lutherans supporting female or homosexual clergy, blessing of same-sex unions, or “reproductive freedom” (abortion rights) are usually talking about the ELCA.
Also, the ELCA is in pulpit and altar fellowship with a number of non-Lutheran bodies. This means that their pastors can preach in each others’ churches and members may commune in any of the affiliated congregations. Some of these churches flatly deny teachings that Lutherans have always confessed. Even though previous Lutherans thought that some of these differences were worth facing emigration, imprisonment, or even death rather than changing, the ELCA seems to have no problem embracing their adherents in the name of unity.
My body, The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) ranks second in size. It was founded in the 1840s in response to some of the more liberal theology many immigrants found in the United States among other German Lutherans. Through much of its history, it has intentionally and forthrightly confessed and practiced our foundational teachings. When it hasn’t, intra-church struggles have broken out, as the second question notes.
During its history, other, smaller Lutheran churches merged with the LCMS. These included English, Slovak, and Norwegian bodies. For much of its history, the LCMS was in full fellowship with the next two largest groups, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS). Our “old hymnal” from 1941 was a product of these synods’ cooperation through the auspices of the Synodical Conference.
Among Lutherans, as among other Christians, questions continue as to what makes each group distinct and whether or not these distinctions are extreme enough to cause formal separation. As the first major group to split from the Roman Catholic Church, we’ve a long history of being separated — although not necessarily by choice. For example, until the pope excommunicated him, Luther was working for reconciliation with the Vatican. However, he wanted a reconciliation based upon theological agreement and moral housecleaning, since he held that Rome taught contrary to Scripture and that many of its officials were morally bereft. Catholicism would later address and implement moral reform but never budged from the basic theological differences.
Doctrinal disagreements, whether among Lutherans or, more broadly, among all Christians, have begotten the most severe quarrels and the deepest divides. The first recorded major differences appear in the Book of Acts not long after Jesus’ ascension. They involved whether or not Gentiles should be bound to the full Law in matters of diet, dress, and the like. Peaceful resolution came when the Apostolic Church agreed not to impose Jewish practices upon Gentile converts.
At other points of its history, Christianity faced more than simple disagreement — it needed to confront outright heresy. At its best, it did so peacefully, citing Scripture and composing formal confessions of belief in order to justify and hold firm its teachings. By and large, such was the case when we faced the Arian heresy, a severe false teaching about Jesus’ divine nature. Those Arians who couldn’t be restored to Biblical Christianity were banished and the statement we call the Nicene Creed was formed in order to clearly define Scriptural teaching about God.
Doctrine, however, was never the only dividing factor. Often, geography, language, and national borders kept separate those who believed, taught, and confessed as one. This likely happened in some areas during the Church’s first few centuries. Differences became more acute as the Roman Empire fell and a unifying language began to be lost. It only accelerated during the late Renaissance, as nationalism became a powerful force for change.
Division among those claiming to be Christian is always sad and often shameful. It runs counter to Psalm 133:1, which many of us heard, said, or sang in the introit for the Third Sunday of Easter: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” As had happened elsewhere, disunity in doctrine also begat such sadness in the LCMS.
Whenever you interpret anything, you begin with certain assumptions. With the Bible, Lutherans started with the central tenet that sinners are justified solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Accepting Him by faith as our true Savior and God, we therefore taught that all parts of Scripture are God’s true, inspired Word, since He tells us, “They ... bear witness about me (John 5:39)”
Various modernist teachings crept into many Christian Churches during the 20th Century and the LCMS was not left alone. Somewhat quietly, many teachers on the college and seminary level began challenging Biblical teachings, promoting evolution instead of a literal creation. The historicity of Jonah, the Exodus, and other events cataloged in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, were questioned and many clear doctrines of Scripture were “updated” to fit modern thinking. The LCMS was on the brink of succumbing when people started waking up and paying attention to the doctrinal decay.
Their reaction included the election of J. A. O. Preus II as the synod’s president in 1969. Preus, through his suspension of its president, precipitated a walkout by a majority of the faculty and students from the Saint Louis seminary. Many congregations backed the “rebels.” When Preus and the Synod stood firm and didn’t invite their return without repentance, some joined existing Lutheran bodies while others formed still another group, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The AELC remained independent until merging into the ELCA in 1988.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #544