A Lutheran Perspective on the ELCA

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.

Confessional Documents

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.

Key Beliefs

  • 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.”

We Confess

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.

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40 thoughts on “A Lutheran Perspective on the ELCA”

  1. So wonderful to know we are not alone and as a member of an awesome LCMS Church in CA I am forever grateful for our Pastor who boldly preaches Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins each week!

    “So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34-35

    Imagine Peter (or Paul, Luke, John etc) seeing some churches today approving of sexual immorality, killing unborn babies, and women teaching men in the synagogues! Blasphemy for sure! We are called to preach the Good News, not some made up, cherry picked god we fashioned together with only scriptures that make us feel good. That’s called idolatry.

    Thank you to all my Christian brothers and sisters who bravely posted the truth here! May God richly bless you and keep you in His love, grace, and truth.

  2. Great brief commentaries. I now know that my leaving the ELCA was not a mistake. I now also know that I made a great decision in not going to the LCMS. But, I love listening to Bryan Wolfmueller.

  3. Sasha W Kwapinski

    Since I am not Lutheran myself, I am something of an”outside observer” to the situation and trends in the ELCA. I attended California Lutheran College (now CLU) in the mid to late ’60s, partly because I lived near there and could attend there while living at home. I graduated from there in 1969. While there, I saw something of the emerging liberal-relativist trends in the ELCA (ALC and LCA at that time) . I was alienated at that time, and pretty well turned away from religious faith altogether, coming to consider myself a conservative agnostic. Several years later, I did return to religious faith in a different denomination/tradition Had that not happened, I would likely still be a secular, nonreligious conservative.

  4. Ordination of women and homosexuals converts the organization from church (lower case “c”) into a religious feel good club.

    That’s the appeal. Make you feel good in the absence of real Salvation. Cotton Candy religion where you get your mouthful of sweet that instantly disappears.

  5. You are wrong to say the the ELCA bases it’s teachings on scripture. They used to but have gone so far off course that universal salivation is accepted and as I understand even promiscuous sexual activity is not sin. The subject of gay pastors and gay marriage gets the most attention but they are far from the worst problems with the ELCA.
    Does LCMS actively reach out to members of the ELCA, inviting them to join a Christ centered Lutheran Church.
    In many rural areas there are only ELCA, catholic and a few methodist or prebs churches and those last too are sort as lost as the elca.

    1. patricia henneman

      the rc is not lost. most rc including the pope preach christ chose us. we are saved by grace alone thru faith alone. my faith response is only a gift from the calling of the holy spirit as well. i am nothing without christs actions towards me. christ crucified victorious. the catholic faith is pro life. we are not into gay marriage. we are conservative. the liturgy and eucharist have christs presence… be happy we exist. the gospel is proclaimed from the 4 gospels and st paul.. the church fathers as well and tradition . liturgy and advent and lent.. this has disappeared from the earth . rock n roll not to be seen. mega preachers not to be seen

  6. I wanted to add, That seeing a Woman in the pupit preaching makes me wonder how she got there..

    Bible does not allow Women to Preach, So I question The authority of it.

  7. Women are not allowed to be Pastors, From reasons being: God called men to be Pastors,
    Men are the head of the House, Women were made in the image of man, Men were made in the image of God. now women can serve in the ministry,such as teachers and minstering servants.

    I dont mean to be ignorant or bias towards The
    Women… The Elca have become very Liberated towards issues of Homosexuality and Abortion.
    Ive been in a Elca church, Its not like being in a Lcms,completely different services and pratice.

  8. John J. Flanagan

    It is disconcerting how the ELCA slipped so far away from Biblical Christianity, embracing cultural norms and sinful sexual relationships, as well as social activism.
    In order for any church to fall into apostasy and heresy, it is necessary to deconstruct and subvert the word of God first. Essentially, it is necessary to call God a liar, and dismiss the inerrancy of scripture. It is demonic, Satanic, and the word of God predicts this happens to churches, and so the ELCA, with its tainted doctrines and practices, will take many unwary souls to their own destruction as well.

  9. “Women, along with practicing homosexual and transgender people, can be ordained into the Office of the Ministry.”

    Surely, this could be worded better, as you include women in the same category as “sinners”… hardly Christ-like, and it reveals the LCMS as a very misogynist denomination.
    I can only imagine what was written behind the paywall about the other religions you reviewed.

    SHRUTI KULKARNI’s comment is very appropriate.

    1. Rev. Dan Carlson

      I think you’re mischaracterizing the sentence in order to assert an ideological conviction. It isn’t proper to label the LCMS “misogynist” when the teaching regarding women’s ordination isn’t some opinion of the LCMS but is the plain teaching of the Scripture that women are not to hold the pastoral office. This is the orthodox teaching, historic teaching, apostolic teaching, and I could go on. So please, don’t misrepresent yourself here as being a person who doesn’t care what the Scripture teaches. If you care what God says, then believe what He says.

    2. Everyone is a sinner except Christ. Sexual sins are just one category of sin. And the context here is that those who are wilfully living contrary to Scripture ought not ordained as pastors either. Also, Scripture does not permit a woman to be a pastor.

    1. I do not avoid people for their beliefs. I know we can’t always agree, but if they believe Christ Jesus, God’s Son, died for our sins and rose from the dead. They will also rise with all who know this by faith. We are to love them, and spread this good news.

      1. Rev. Daniel Carlson

        So essentially, we shouldn’t care that people in the ELCA hold to heterodox and even heretical beliefs? Confessing Christ as Lord means a whole lot more than confessing that Jesus really existed historically. One is also called to believe what He teaches — and He teaches everything from Genesis to Revelation because He is God, and the Scripture is His Word. It is not helping a person and the person’s faith to be affirming of wrong beliefs! Read 2 Timothy 3 and 4. What does St. Paul say regarding the Scripture?

  10. Thank you for this bold and clear statement. I was in the first graduating class (’64) at California Lutheran University. Since then they have become something I do not recognize. I am blessed to belong to an AALC church which left the ELCA before I began attending.

  11. I am a LCMS member and have been since leaving ELCA in the early 90’s. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. My heart sings to the LCMS doctrine and teachings. Have 2 daughters. One is devout Catholic and one is trying to decide where she belongs. Both raised LCMS. Go figure!

    1. patricia henneman

      of course a lcms would become rc. the gospel and yes we do believe in faith alone.. maybe not the catechism says that. plus church fathers and liturgy. since lcms is catholic lite she should have more. more monastic faith. most rcs also read the works of luther and lcms dont… both believe int he real presence. rome is more serious in liturgy and prayer and monasteries and the rosary and matins and vespers . communion every single day. bless her

      1. Patricia,

        The Lutheran Church is not “catholic lite.” Rather, as we affirmed in an entire issue of The Lutheran Witness and as the Book of Concord regularly attests, the Lutheran confession of faith is the teaching of Scripture and therefore the teaching of the church of every age. The Roman Catholic church has deviated from this teaching and refused to be reformed when God called the church to repentance through Martin Luther in the 1500s.

  12. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5, ESV)

    Perhaps, rather than applaud themselves for how confessional they think they are relative to their fellow sinners in another church body, the good people of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod ought to consider where their own church body falls short, repent of their own sins, then work to become what Christ calls them to be.

    1. An an ex-LCMS member currently in WELS, I think I can say that despite it’s faults the LCMS is pretty introspective and most agree on the fact that it’s an imperfect church body. I feel bad for ELCA because some of the constituent parts that made up the 1988 merger were once !argely confessional. ELCA’s position on homosexuality was probably the most heretical view taken by a Lutheran church body in 500 years.and frankly intellectually dishonest by anyone with any theological training at all. Evidently a lot of ELCA members agreed since you lost 600 congregations over it.

    2. The denial of Scripture and fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith is not a “speck.” Scripture tells us to watch our life and doctrine closely to save us. To justify. unchecked disregard of doctrine with the passage of the speck in the eye is taking the passage fully out of context.

    3. Rev. Daniel Carlson

      This passage from Matthew 7 is so horribly abused and used as a “don’t correct the sinner” passage. This is NOT the point of our Lord’s words.

  13. I had to leave the ELCA but it took time and education (enter faithful, confessional programming from Issues, ETC. and Fighting for the Faith) to convince me I needed to belong to a liturgical, confessional Lutheran church. I could no longer stomach the ELCA’s blatant disregard of both Scripture and the Confessions. I thank God for bringing me to repentance where I looked over the apostasy and for bringing me to a confessional,liturgical LCMS church where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are given. Praise God and thank him for KFUO, Issues Etc. and for every Confessional Lutheran Pastor who remains faithful. It matters. Eternally!

    1. God blessed you by opening your eyes to scripture and the truth that it speaks. I have been LCMS since birth. Have tried other churches but none have filled my heart like LCMS.

    2. Our ELCA church in Pennsylvania was at the time was conservative. When the ELCA began to be in communion with the reform groups, I questioned the pastor about this, I couldn’t get an good answer. We never had a woman pastor. When we relocated out of state, we immediately looked for an Missouri Synod church that was confessional and never looked back.

  14. The sun continues to sink lower in the West for Protestant denominations in the US. Aging demographics, internal sniping and division, and battling through the culture wars have all taken a toll. The large Lutheran denominations are led nationally from the edges of the cultural wars. The great majority of the attending members, those in worship on a Sunday morning, are by any measure huddled in the middle.

    What God’s people desire and deserve is clear preaching and teaching of Christ from Scripture. What they desire and deserve is daily baptismal refreshment and renewal among a communion of saints that receives the forgiveness of sins. What they desire across all boundaries of race, class and clan is a church carried by grace alone to claim a destiny that is eternal. What they desire and deserve is to be challenged by their church and their church body to engage the world with the Gospel of hope in word and deed.

  15. Raised Missouri Synod, but joined the ELCA here in Western PA because it was the only “Lutheran” church in the area. We are very disappointed with the liberalization of the church, particularly with their stand on abortion. They SAY they don’t support it, but donate to the World Council of Churches, which does. We have considered joining the recently formed Northern Synod, but at this point in our lives (75), we’re hanging in there. Our contribution goes ONLY to current expenses. Not one cent is to go elsewhere. I would say 98% of our little congregation feel the same as we do, but we soldier on.

    1. Eileen, by chance have you or your pastor ever considered the entire congregation leaving ELCA for LCMS or another Biblical synod? I know ELCA makes it difficult to leave with their episcopal polity, but it is possible. My former congregation broke away.

      1. They should have comfort that if their ELCA Church Building was not funded by the ELCA (and previous synods) … that the law would be on their side. Not a Lawyer, but l wrote the Bishop of my ELCA Family Church (that has left the ELCA for NALC now) that if they tried to seize assets (buildings) that my family would have standing in a court of law as we had donated the land, and help build the buildings…never heard a peep back!

  16. Matthew 7:21-23 NKJV
    21“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

    No “gray area” here. The Holy Bible is either the complete, unerring Word of God or it isn’t. No “cherry picking “ which verses and teachings you will believe and follow. No changing of the Word to fit “modern thinking” and “standards”. It is we who must change and conform, not Christ, who changes not.

    Thank You Lord for your unchanging steadfastness and always Holy Word. Amen

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