The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is a denomination to the theological right of the Missouri Synod, which, in turn, is to the right of the ELCA. WELS has come under some scrutiny of late, after Michele Bachmann and her family withdrew their membership at a WELS church in Stillwater, MN last month.
Conflicting reports have emerged about what prompted the withdrawal. It seems that the Bachmanns had quit attending that church several years ago and were recently prompted by the WELS pastor to make it official, which they did, coincidentally, on the eve of her presidential campaign launch.
That’s led to all sorts of media speculation, and some digging around about what, exactly, WELS churches believe. Among their articles of faith is a quite brazen claim that the pope is the anti-christ. Unlike most Lutherans, WELS has not tempered the language of the fiery founder of Lutheranism in the five centuries since he lived. Luther was known for preaching grace, but he was also known for being virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.
Now that the media has turned their eyes upon them, however briefly, the leadership of WELS has sought to clarify their stance on the pope and Catholicism. And, I must say, their press release is one tortured document.
First, there’s this:
WELS holds to the historic Lutheran position that the Roman Catholic papacy fits the biblical characteristics of the Antichrist. We do this without reservation and without apology. We believe that our doctrines cannot be tempered by political correctness or modified to align with changing culture or public opinion.
But then, there’s this:
While our church continues to see the characteristics of the Antichrist in the papacy, it is wrong and dishonest to portray this belief as stemming from anti-Catholic bigotry. Yes, we have strong convictions and we identify what we believe are teachings that depart from the Word of God. But we hold no animosity toward Christians of the Catholic faith, and we respect the right of people to hold beliefs different from ours even as we point out the error.
The final line of the release reads,
To accuse [Michele Bachmann] — or her former church — of being anti-Catholic is patently unfair and wrong.
To summarize their position, “We think that the pope is the anti-christ and the Catholic church is a false teacher, but that doesn’t make us anti-Catholic!”
Let’s try this with another historical position. In his 1543 press release, On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther writes that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” They are full of the “devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine.”
But, he protests, accusing me of being anti-Jewish is patently unfair and wrong!
OK, I made that last part up.
Of course it’s fair to call Luther anti-Jewish, because he was. And of course it’s appropriate, and Lutheran, to revise your theological positions and language over time. You can even be critical of the founder of your denomination — it shows that you’ve got a mind of your own.