Because I pastor a Lutheran Church in Arkansas, and because many people who come to our church and join it aren’t originally Lutheran, one of the most common questions I get asked is,
What does it mean to be a Lutheran?
I often have some discomfort answering this question because I don’t want to individually or single handedly define an entire tradition.
I can’t and shouldn’t.
Lutheranism is really big, its global. There are many people who are Lutheran. And there are a lot of diverse perspectives on what it means to be a Lutheran. There are many Lutheran-isms. In fact, there are even multiple kinds of feminist Lutheranisms, international Lutheranisms, etc.
So What I could do, one way to answer the question would be to simply refuse to answer the question, to divest myself of any responsibility from needing to make a claim of what Lutheranism is.
And sometimes I do that.
I say something like, “I’ve been a Lutheran my whole life. And now I no longer know what it is to be a Lutheran.” Or I’ll say, “Oh, this is how it’s made sense to me over time, to be born and raised and trained as a Lutheran.” I just tell the story. That’s another option.
Or I’ll say, “Here are various ways that a variety of people, theologians, thinkers, think about being Lutheran.”
Lutheranism Is Confessional
The broader issue is that Lutheranism is in fact a confessional tradition. It’s not like some less defined systems, like nondenominational Christianity or movements like that. Some Christians are anti-confessional, anti-creedal (no creed but Christ). They claim not to have a center other than Scripture itself.
Lutheranism on the other hand has a confession. It’s a confessional church. It was founded in a sense with the publishing of the Augsburg Confession. And so if I were to be more clear on what it means to be a Lutheran, I probably should start by saying that if you’re a Lutheran, you subscribe to in some way the Augsburg Confession.
Many churches around the world actually don’t call themselves Lutheran churches. They call themselves churches of the Augsburg Confession.
They do this because they don’t want to name the church or their denomination after a person. This actually made Luther himself uncomfortable to have the church named after him.
Such naming makes things a little clearer. We’re a church that has this as its confession. It’s also more focused because it focuses on one particular confessional document.
There Are Many Confessions
There are, in our tradition, many confessional documents that are collected in our big book of confessions, the Book of Concord. The one that’s the most famous and the most studied is the Small Catechism (see for example this amazing Luther’s Small Catechism With African Descent Reflections) that Luther wrote for households to use in the home.
Slightly less famous but also important is a larger catechism that Luther wrote for clergy in Germany. And then there are a couple of other confessional documents that are of interest but are less read.
For example, there’s a document on the power and primacy of the Pope. There’s a later document that kind of defined late Lutheranism, the Formula of Concord. And there’s another one, one of my favorites, the Smalcald articles, which are a kind of shorter form of the Augsburg Confession authored by Luther rather than Melanchthon.
You can read all of these texts online, admittedly in a slightly antiquated translation (because older translations become public domain).
Lutherans Are Developing In Dialogue
And So you could say Lutherans are the people that use these texts as dialogue partners in the way that they think about Christianity, and the Christian faith. They use the confessions as a text to help them think more clearly about the practice of Christian faith, and especially Christian faith in light of the texts shared by a majority of Christians, the creeds and the scriptures.
The other reason I have trouble stating super clearly what it means to be Lutheran has to do with the fact that I believe the kind of Christianity that I practice, or the kind of church that I’m part of, is as influenced by more contemporary developments in Christianity as it is influenced by these confessional documents itself.
For example, our church is something like a social gospel church. So the social gospel movement of the 20th century, Rauschenbusch and some other theologians, shapes a lot of how we think about what it means to be a Christian.
Similarly, a lot of liberation theology influences my thinking and my preaching and my practice.
I was raised after the Luther Renaissance, a period when Martin Luther himself reemerged as more central to Lutheranism. And I cut my theological teeth in a kind of the radical confessional camp of Lutheranism.
So some of the way that I think about Western theology is shaped by 20th century Lutheranism in North America.
And we’re still sorting out what it means to be the kind of Christians we are in the 21st century. I might call this movement progressive or inclusive Christians, a title which focuses on a lot of the social values we center.
Such naming also signifies we define ourselves at least in part by what we’re not. We’re not dominant Christianity in America, we’re not conservative Christianity, we’re not evangelical Christianity.
So that’s probably where some of my discomfort around defining Lutheranism stems from as well. Because when I want to articulate who we are, if there’s any part of historic Lutheranism that I think looks like evangelicalism, or conservative Christianity, then I want to distance myself from that. And I do.
All of this is to say that it is complicated to try to articulate what it is and who we are.
I could be really simple and just say, “I believe in the Bible, and community gathered around it loving neighbors.”
Lots of Christians would agree to that.
But then, of course, depending on what branch of Christianity you come from, you mean different things when you say you believe in the Bible, and you have different definitions of what it means to love your neighbor.
All of that is interpretation, and hermeneutics, and that’s the stuff that either holds the church together or splits it apart.
Picking Up the Question Again
Going back to the question that I’m asked by people who are new to our church…
I think it’s a really authentic question.
They want to know, on some level, what they’re joining.
And I could say to them, well, what you see is what you get.
That’d be one way to approach it. And that’s really true, like, the faith of a church is what it does on a daily basis and how it lives and kind of inhabits the world.
But I think it’s also fair for them to want to know what a Lutheran is.
And so some of what I’ve articulated here in this post helps get at that. And then I would just add one more thing. Maybe another way to define it without going into thick theological detail: in addition to us being a confessional church, influenced by our confessions, and an inclusive church influenced by social gospel and liberation theology. we’re also a church that’s part of a larger network.
We’re part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And although you can’t completely say what that means in terms of Lutheranism, by saying that we’re ELCA, you could do a lot worse than just go to the ELCA website, and read what the ELCA does, and is committed to. And it would tell you a lot about what it means to be a Lutheran.
Okay, finally, I do kind of want to say what I think Lutheran is, if I get to name one piece, just from my perspective.
I think Lutheranism is about freedom. It’s about a radical kind of freedom. It’s the kind of freedom that sets you free, because you’re not worried about accomplishing something before God, or accomplishing something in terms of your final salvation, to really radically be free for your neighbor.
So if you were going to ask me, what’s the one theological commitment that’s unique to us that sets us apart? I’d probably go for that one (Luther wrote a whole book on it).
I like that our kind of Lutheran gets along and plays well with other mainline churches and I love quite a bit of the theology that I find in the confessions. But in the end it really is about freedom. And that freedom is illustrated in everything I’ve said above because it means I’m free to step outside of what has formed me and what defines me, and regularly consider again what it means to be who we are.
Free even to confess new struggles as they arise, like naming racism, in order to discover even greater freedom.