Not every denomination bearing the name “Lutheran” is actually Lutheran. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the largest church body in North America with Lutheran in its name. As such, many people consider the ELCA a representative example of Lutheran doctrine and teaching. Do its teachings bear this out?
The ELCA formed in 1988 from three Lutheran church bodies: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America. Since the ELCA’s history is one of merger and union, its history precedes 1988.
The American Lutheran Church formed in 1960 by the merger of three other church bodies, which were the result of the merger of yet other Lutheran church bodies in America. The same is true of the Lutheran Church in America, which formed in 1962. The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, however, formed in 1976 not by virtue of merger, but by congregations leaving The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) as a consequence of theological disagreement and the subsequent political fallout.
In the years since its founding, the ELCA has declared full fellowship with numerous church bodies despite fundamental doctrinal differences. In 1997, the ELCA entered into full fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ. In 1999, the ELCA declared fellowship with The Episcopal Church and The Moravian Church, and in 2009 with the United Methodist Church.
In 2009, when the ELCA decided to allow clergy in committed samesex relationships to serve in the church body, a group of ELCA congregations and clergy left the church body and formed the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). While the NALC does not allow homosexual clergy, they still ordain women into the pastoral office.
The ELCA accepts the Bible, the Ecumenical Creeds and the Book of Concord as the foundation of its teaching; it does so, however, on a different basis than the LCMS. The ELCA both avoids saying that Scripture is inerrant and emphasizes the historical nature of the Lutheran Confessions. That is, it only holds to those parts of the Lutheran Confessions it finds to be in agreement with Scripture.
- Church fellowship is of paramount importance, reflecting the ELCA’s background as a church body resulting from mergers. For full fellowship, the ELCA only requires agreement in the Gospel (narrowly defined) and the administration of the Sacraments. What agreement means is uncertain, since the ELCA practices fellowship with those who deny Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper.
- Women, along with practicing homosexual and transgender people, can be ordained into the Office of the Ministry.
- Lutheran doctrine is simply one perspective among many. Other teachings — even contradictory to the ELCA — are equally valid teachings of the church.
- Diversity and inclusion initiatives allow a wide range of teaching and practice within the church body, as seen in Her Church (originally, Ebenezer), an ELCA congregation based in San Francisco. The congregation openly practices witchcraft and worships the “feminine” aspects of God, referring to God as “the goddess.”
The members of the LCMS confess that the Scriptures are breathed out by God and are, therefore, inerrant (without error or contradiction).
The LCMS also holds to the teaching of the Book of Concord because it is a faithful exposition of Scripture. All LCMS pastors and church workers promise to teach and preach in accord with these confessions.
The Scriptures describe fellowship as full agreement in all that the Bible teaches. The LCMS, therefore, only recognizes fellowship with church bodies who teach in accord with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
The Scriptures teach Christians to mark false teaching not only to avoid falling into temptation (Gal. 6:1), but also to avoid those who cause divisions so that they do not deceive the naive or weak in faith (Rom. 16:17–18).
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness, which provided a survey of 12 Christian denominations and the Lutheran response to their teachings.