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Our readers asked:

What are some of the theological differences between the various Lutheran Synods?

Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:

The Missouri Synod’s website identifies three main areas of difference between the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA):

1.The doctrine and authority of Scripture — The LCMS believes 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. Differences between the LCMS and the ELCA on the authority of Scripture also help to explain why the LCMS does not ordain women (based on 1 Corinthians 14:33-36, 1 Timothy 2:11-14), sees homosexual behavior as contrary to God’s will (Romans 1:18-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9), and does not allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

2.The 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 maintain the possibility of dissent to confessional positions that do not deal directly with the Gospel itself understood in a narrow sense. All LCMS pastors, on the other hand, are required to affirm that the Lutheran confessions are a correct explanation of the teachings of Scripture.

3.The level of agreement necessary to join together in one church body — While the LCMS believes that the Bible requires agreement in all that the Bible teaches, the ELCA holds that disagreement in some matters of doctrine, such as the mode of Christ’s presence in Holy Communion, do not prohibit church fellowship.

And with regard to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the Missouri Synod identifies these differences from its perspective:

1.The biblical understanding of fellowship — The WELS has what it calls a “unit concept” of fellowship, which covers every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of a common faith. The LCMS sees church fellowship as possible on different levels, e.g. prayer fellowship (which does not require full doctrinal agreement) is possible even when altar and pulpit fellowship (which requires full doctrinal agreement) may not be possible.

2. The doctrine of the ministry — For the LCMS, the office of the public ministry (the pastoral office) according to Scripture is the one divinely
established office in the church, while the church possesses the freedom to create other offices, by human institution, from time to time to assist in the carrying out of the functions of the pastoral ministry. The WELS’ “Theses on Church and Ministry,” however, expressly deny that the pastoral ministry is specifically instituted by the Lord in contrast to other forms of public ministry.

3. The role of women in the church — While both the LCMS and the WELS strongly oppose the ordination of women to the pastoral office on scriptural grounds, the LCMS has concluded that the Scriptures do not forbid woman suffrage in the church. The WELS opposes woman suffrage in the church as contrary to Scripture.

The Author : Thomas Ryan, CSP
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.
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