The Lutheran Difference, Part 3

So, in previous posts (one and two), I have attempted to answer what makes Lutherans different, and why I am a Lutheran. This is the last (intended) post on this topic, and it is actually the answer to the original question that started it all, from a reader who asked what the difference was between kinds of Lutherans. Because, believe it or not, there are even denominations within the denomination that is Lutheranism.

In fact, there are over 40 Lutheran denominations in North America! But the three largest by far are the:

  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA): 3.4 million members (5th largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.)
  • The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS): 2 million members (8th largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.)
  • The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS): 350,000 members.

So, sticking to the “big” three, what separates them? To begin with, the LCMS and the WELS have far more in common with each other than they do with the ELCA, so let’s start there.

There are three primary theological areas from which the LCMS and the WELS differ from the ELCA:

  1. Doctrine and authority of Scripture. Both the LCMS and the WELS believe that the Bible is without error in all that it says. The ELCA avoids making such statements, holding that Scripture is not necessarily always accurate on such matters as history and science. This view, then, leads to many more differences between the LCMS/WELS and the ELCA. The LCMS/WELS view many issues as being universally dictated by Scripture, while the ELCA views those same issues as being specific to culture and thus open to reinterpretation. Differences on issues include but are not limited to:
    • Women’s ordination: The LCMS/WELS believe that there are many offices (positions of responsibility) which may be granted to those who are qualified and which are in some cases limited to men or women. Ordination in particular is limited to certain men who meet certain biblical qualifications. The ELCA believes that all offices are open equally to men or women.
      • Note: people understandably feel very strongly one way or another on this issue, in particular. I have here simplified it as much as possible, but keep in mind that both sides are approaching the issue from entirely different perspectives. For the LCMS/WELS, it is an issue of Scriptural authority; for the ELCA it is a matter of social equality.
      • Second Note: It is important to note that neither the LCMS nor the WELS would argue that this issue in any way reflects a higher value or importance on men, nor any deficiency in women, as Scripture is clear that both men and women are created in God’s image and entirely equal in value, importance and salvation.
      • Third Note: Everything in creation is ordered by God, and biblical positions of authority are about responsibility, not power or value. When someone in a position of authority, including a pastor, uses his position to make others feel devalued or less important, it is in fact a misuse and an abuse – and that person is no longer walking faithfully within his calling.
    • Evolution: The ELCA believes that the biblical account of creation may be accepted as myth in light of evolutionary science. The LCMS/WELS believe that the biblical account of a six-day creation is fully compatible with science, and that science is by its very nature never settled.
    • Homosexuality: The LCMS/WELS believe that homosexual activity is a sin according to biblical teaching, while also teaching that all sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ. The ELCA believes that biblical admonitions against homosexuality are cultural and thus open to reinterpretation.
    • Abortion: The LCMS/WELS are pro-life and thus believe that abortion is the willful destruction of human life and thus equated with the sin of murder, as is active euthanasia (assisted suicide). The ELCA believes that an individual has the right to choose their own stance on abortion, as well as when to end his or her own life.
    • For more information on what each church body believes on these and other issues, visit these helpful LCMS, WELS and ELCA pages.
  2. Commitment to Lutheran confessional writings. The ELCA, while affirming its commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as witnessed to in the Lutheran Confessions, also tends to emphasize the historical character of these writings and to maintain the possibility of dissent to confessional positions that do not deal directly with the Gospel itself understood in a narrow sense. Both the LCMS and the WELS hold that the Lutheran confessions are a faithful exposition of Scripture.
  3. Level of agreement necessary to join together in one church body. While the LCMS and the WELS differ on the level of church fellowship allowed (see point #1 below), both believe that the Bible requires agreement in all that the Bible teaches in order to have full church fellowship, while the ELCA holds that disagreement in some matters of doctrine do not prohibit church fellowship on any level.

Although they hold much in common, there are three theological areas from which the LCMS and the WELS differ from each other:

  1. Biblical understanding of fellowship. The WELS holds to what is called the “unit concept” of fellowship, which places virtually all joint expressions of the Christian faith on the same level, requiring full doctrinal agreement in all cases. The LCMS, however, has historically not understood or practiced church fellowship in this way, and makes a distinction between altar and pulpit fellowship (for which full doctrinal agreement is required) and other manifestations of Christian fellowship (such as prayer or Bible study), which do not necessarily require full doctrinal agreement. This means, for example, that if a community prayer vigil was held, an LCMS Lutheran would have the freedom to participate where a WELS Lutheran would not.
  2. Doctrine of the ministry. The WELS believes that there are many different forms of one, divinely established Ministry. These include pastor, teacher and others. The LCMS teaches that only the pastoral office is divinely established, while all other church offices are human institutions.
  3. Role of women in the church. While both the LCMS and the WELS oppose the ordination of women to the pastoral office on Scriptural grounds, the WELS teaches that women’s suffrage in the church (voting on church matters) is contrary to Scripture, while the LCMS supports it.

I belong to the LCMS. I read what the Bible says, I believe it, and I seek through prayer and study to understand and apply it within modern culture without compromising its timeless Truth. Is it perfect? Far from it. But I believe the LCMS to be the most faithful denomination in terms of its approach to Scripture and its doctrine (teaching), and so I feel at home there.

I hope this helps, but I suspect it will create more questions – which is great! In the meantime and as always, look around, ask questions, and find a church home.

~Ever, RevErik

3 thoughts on “The Lutheran Difference, Part 3

  1. Can you define women’s suffrage as you’re using it here? And provide scripture references to support it? And any Scripture references used to refute it?


  2. “Women’s suffrage in the church” refers specifically to women being able to take part in congregational voters meetings. Yes for LCMS, no for WELS. Several Scriptures indicate that women should have no teaching authority over men in the church (especially 1 Timothy 2:11-12, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:33-35). Contextually, these passages refer to the worship service itself, and are primary texts for not allowing women’s ordination. The difference is that the LCMS sees no correlation with voters meetings or certain elected congregational offices, while the WELS does.


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