Know your Lutherans

elcaYesterday we received a note in our story suggestion box from a pastor of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod:

Titles like this drive me crazy!

The title — or headline, rather — at the Argus Leader reads:

Lutherans consider gay clergy

Now, it’s true that the nation’s largest Lutheran branch, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is considering expanding the clergy roster to non-celibate homosexuals.

It’s also true that reporters frequently fail to note that nearly all of the other Lutheran branches in America aren’t.

The two largest Lutheran churches in America are the ELCA with about 4.7 million members and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod with about 2.4 million members. Other Lutheran churches include the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. And judging from the mail we get, we have readers in every Lutheran church body — including the Laestadians! Most of the non-ELCA synods and associations are more theologically conservative — or less likely to change doctrine or teaching on various matters — than the ELCA. The other church bodies are more likely to believe the Bible is the actual Word of God and treat the Scripture as the final standard by which everything must be believed and taught. The ELCA, on the other hand, encourages methods of interpretation that allow for the possibility that Scripture contains error or is unclear about various doctrinal matters. These different approaches to Scripture explain some of the more newsworthy differences over, say, abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women.

So while the ELCA and more confessional Lutheran church bodies share the name Lutheran, they have many significant and substantive differences (we didn’t even get into confessional subscription or ecumenical fellowships!). And yet most mainstream media stories fail to put the ELCA decisions on homosexuality, abortion or other hot-button social issues in the context of all Lutherans in America. It’s very frustrating for pastors and laypeople in other Lutheran church bodies who are frequently confused with the ELCA. Particularly since the ELCA only seems to receive news coverage when embroiled in fights over hot-button political topics.

That Argus Leader story, by the way, is not much better than the headline. It’s lengthy and includes tons of quotes but manages to say almost nothing about what’s going on in the ELCA.

A much better story about what the ELCA is doing with regard to gay clergy was sent out by the Associated Press. Here’s how it begins:

America’s largest Lutheran denomination will consider allowing individual congregations to choose whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, an attempt to avoid the sort of infighting that has threatened to tear other churches apart.

A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended that course Thursday in a long-awaited report on ministry standards. The panel, however, said the church needs to clarify a number of questions before overhauling its gay clergy policy.

The story does a great job of explaining the four-part process suggested by the task force. We get perspective from people who think the suggestions reject Scripture as well as an advocate of gay clergy who says some elements of the proposal take a step backward because they provide some local autonomy.

But while the lede stipulated that the ELCA was the largest Lutheran denomination, it didn’t really explain how the church fits into the larger Lutheran community. To that end, check out how Manya Brachear and Margaret Ramirez handled it with their report, which was published in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times:

The nearly 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is based in Chicago, is the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod are separate denominations that accept a more literal interpretation of the Bible and do not ordain gays.

25963195I don’t know if “more literal” is how I’d describe the difference in Biblical interpretation but I so appreciate the specific mention. No pastor who believes that the Bible should be taken literally word-for-word would be ordained in my church body, the LCMS. In seminary they are trained extensively in hermeneutics and taught to understand that different parts of Scripture are written as history, poetry, direct prophecy, or illustrative vision. And they should be taken in the context of what they are. On the other hand, we do believe that the literal meaning of a word is to be assumed unless we are given sufficient reason to believe that it should be taken figuratively. That hermeneutical approach is probably “more literal” than the one taken by the ELCA. Anyway, notice that it doesn’t take that many words to put the ELCA in context.

The Brachear/Ramirez story is also very thorough and does a great job of explaining what’s going on in the ELCA, the process of the task force, but it doesn’t get any reaction from the ELCA community. It also has this sentence that I found somewhat odd:

Drawing from Martin Luther’s spoken words that spawned the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, the task force called on its members to respect each other’s views about same-gender relationships as grounded in conscience.

We’re not told which words that spawned the Reformation were used with regard to same-sex relationships. There are many statements and reports, there were a few mentions of Luther’s words. One citation is from “The Freedom of the Christian,” but that’s written rather than spoken. Fans — and non-fans — of Luther would be interested in which words we’re talking about. Seems silly not to mention which ones.

Print Friendly

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Thanks so much for this post. Folks who are interested in reading what Lutheranism is all about, and learning what it is that historic Lutheranism believes, teaches and confesses can read about it here:

  • Martha

    “Drawing from Martin Luther’s spoken words that spawned the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, the task force called on its members to respect each other’s views about same-gender relationships as grounded in conscience.”

    That made me go “Huh?” as well. I imagine that it’s the one and only Luther quote everyone knows, which is “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

    Somehow, though, I can’t see Marty cheering on the gay clergy :-)

  • Rev. Olson

    The President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has released a memorandum in response to the ELCA statement on human sexuality.

    The Executive Director of World Relief and Human Care of the LC-MS has also written a very thoughtful and loving critique.

    A blessed Lenten Season,

    Rev. Olson

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi Mollie,

    We’ve been talking this very issue in our newsroom. Our story on the ECLA decision, was a 15 inch 1A story, clearly defined this as an issue for that group. The story did not mention the LCMS. That bothered local LCMS pastors, as you might guess.

    Making a clear distinction between the two is important to LCMS folks. Is it vital to the general reader? I’m not so sure, especially in a relatively brief story. Your post on this topic is almost twice the length of the story that ran in our paper.

    It’s a real challenge when rival groups claim the same denominational title. In Nashville, Southern Baptists are the 800 lb gorilla, but we’ve got National Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptist, Independent Baptists, Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, and the list goes on. When the SBC does something controversial, it’s not feasible to add all those other groups.

  • Andy

    All too often, people use the word “literal” when they mean “inerrant.”

    “Inerrant” means precisely that. That as given by God, the Bible is without error.

    “Literal” suggests that everything in the Bible is to be interpreted, well, literally. Parables, poetry, prophecy and all. I’m not sure if there’s anyone that affirms that.

  • FrGregACCA

    This also raises another issue for me: the exact meaning of “denomination”. Are the ELCA and LC-MS, for example, separate denominations? Or are they separate juridictions which embrace Lutheranism, the latter being a denomination, as opposed to, say, Methodism (which, of course, is also divided into different corporate entities)? Does the AP Stylebook address this?

    Also, is denomination a specifically Christian term, or can one refer to the various branches of Judaism as denominations?

  • dalea

    Or to put it another way, ELCA is in communion with the historic Lutheran Churches in Europe. The LCMS is not. Part of what drives this issue is the practices of the European Churches which have openly gay clergy and perform gay marriages. Wonder when some same sex couple will go to Norway, get married in the ancestral church and come back to their local Lutheran Church with a Church of Norway marriage certificate. That would be interesting.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Pardon my cynicism about the MSM–BUT– Much of the MSM has not been shy about its advocacy of gay life styles and gay marriage. What better propaganda to move the gay agenda forward than to convince Americans that ALL Lutherans are wanting gay clergy and their same-sex partners in the church rectory.

  • dalea

    Two more churches to add to your list: The Evangelical Covenant and the Evangelical Free Church. Both began as Pietistic movements within the Scandanavian State Lutheran Churches. Imigrants brought them to the US and set them up as churches apart from immigrant Scandanavian Lutheranism though they used to have Lutheran in their names. How would they fit into the Lutheran family?

  • Mollie


    I’m unsure the best way to handle this. I think a brief mention to put the ELCA in context of other church bodies is best — although it doesn’t do much to assuage the non-ELCA folks.

    More than anything, though, I think it’s imperative for reporters covering stories about the ELCA to just know where the church body is in relation to other Lutherans. It helps them in writing their stories.

    As for the Baptist comparison, I think the same standard applies. Also, though, both the ELCA and the LCMS are fairly large. In the tens of thousands of church bodies in America, those two are in the top dozen or so. I think that makes a difference.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Bob’s reply is very interesting.

    I doubt he means it this way, but this is how it came across to me:

    “Because we didn’t have a lot of time, and because it’s not that important of a story, we felt there was no need to be accurate or fair.”

    That’s likely unfair to Bob, but he should consider how it will appear to non-news types. His post reads more like an excuse rather than a good reason.

    And to answer his question “Is it vital to the general reader?” As a general reader, I would say: YES!

    There’s no need to spend paragraphs detailing all the different Lutherans, but Bob presents a false dichotomy: Either detail every possible denomination, or else treat them all as if they are the same. There are other options.

  • Chris Bolinger

    dalea, as far as I know, the Evangelical Covenant Church never had “Lutheran” in its name. It was founded by Swedish immigrants to the U.S. who were Lutherans in Sweden (because it was the state church), but those folks sought to establish their own church, not to continue as Lutherans. Read more at the denomination’s Web site. I think that the E-Free denomination has a similar story.

  • Dan Berger

    What Mr. Wolfe said.

    How hard is it to add an extra word or two: rather than “Lutherans,” “ELCA Lutherans” or “Missouri Synod Lutherans.” Rather than “Baptists,” “Free Will Baptists.”

    Word count is tight, certainly, but you can cut an adjective or two later, like “welcoming” or “homophobic.”

  • Bob Smietana


    Thanks for your reply. What I was trying to convey are the space constraints we’ve got to balance when covering a story like this. For example, the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Missionary Baptist Convention, and the
    Progressive National Baptist Convention–all who have congregations in Nashville, and all are bigger than the LCMS. Yet we don’t mention then every time we write about the SBC. It’s a reality of the space we have to work with.

    Since we operate under space constraints, we’ve got to judge what’s more important. Is it more important, for example, to add comments from the local ECLA bishop, or to mention that the LCMS and other Lutheran churches disagree. Since both were competing for space in the story, the ECLA bishop was deemed more important in this case, so it made the story.

    Bob S

  • FrGregACCA

    Bob (#14), I think that analogy is somewhat flawed, and here’s why. All of the other Baptist organizations you mention are primarily African-American, are they not? Now, while you may not mention them every time you write about SBC, my bet is that you would seek reaction from those quarters any time something happens with the SBC which impacts Black Baptists as, for example, when the SBC, a few years back, apologized for its racist past. Given this, while it may not be necessary to mention the LCMS or the Wisconsin Synod every time the ELCA makes news, does it not make sense that when the ELCA does something with which other Lutheran bodies (or at least those of a certain size) strongly disagree, that their reaction, stance, or whatever, at least be mentioned?

    Let’s look at this another way: my suspicion is that any time you, or any other MSM outlet, cover Fred Phelps and company, you get reaction from other Baptist quarters, allowing them, quite rightly, to dissociate themselves from Phelps’ brand of the Baptist faith. Am I right?

  • dalea

    Chris, when I was a kid I passed an ECC everyday on my way to school. The cornerstone was carved with Svensk Evangelsk Luthersk Missionforsamling Kyrka. In English: Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Covenant Church. A forruner of the ECC was the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Synod. Source:

    The Evangelical Free Church has the same background:

    Congregations are typically found in places where there are lots of Lutherans. And from family, I know there is a lot of traffic between them.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Hey, dalea, thanks for the info. I’ve been an ECC member for 14 of the last 18 years and never heard the Lutheran bit in the heritage. Good stuff, especially considering that I grew up in the ELCA and its forerunners…where we were taught to fear the LCMS, by the way. :-)

  • Ivan Wolfe

    #14 Bob:

    While I appreciate that there was clear and careful thought behind your decision, it still appears your entire reasoning is based on a false dichotomy: Either talk about them all or act as though they’re all the same. A clear third option exists that doesn’t require much extra effort (and Mollie describes that third option pretty well in her initial post).

  • Chaplain Dave Reedy

    I have to agree that in an article covering action this important, it is irresponsible to lump all Lutherans into the same label, especially if the author is cognizant that substantial differences exist. This action is one that will help define the public image of the label “Lutheran”, especially to the “general reader” who may not understand that differences exist. It certainly impacts my ministry when people I serve (and serve with) ask me why we are doing something like this. Given how easy it would be simply to say the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rather than “Lutherans” or even shorten to ELCA, to not do so is disrespectful, and for myself leads me to question the credibility and/or agenda of a news article that lumps all Lutherans together, especially on an issue of such importance. When one selects labels for expression one is expressing purpose and value. A great wordsmith anticipates how a label will be received and works to shape the meaning that is attached to that label to accomplish his/her purpose. To just throw a label out there to save space leaves too much to interpretation, unless of course that is part of the technique to accomplish one’s purpose. So once again I am left wondering by the broad use of “Lutheran” was the purpose sloppy or intended?

  • dalea

    Chris says: ‘…where we were taught to fear the LCMS, by the way.’

    So was I. This seems to go back to the US Military, which used to not distinguish between the various branches of Lutherans. My uncles said that when they were assigned to a chaplain, if he were LCMS he would refuse any pastoral services to non-LCMS Lutherans. And complaints went nowhere. This seems to have happened during WW1 & 2.

    Sometimes distinguishing between varieties of Lutherans is tricky. The difference between a Latvian LC and a Latvian English LC is very clear to me. But most people would not get it.