August 26, 2003
A question for my Lutheran readers

Or for anybody else who knows this ... I'm trying to figure out the differences between the Lutheran synods. I gather that the Missouri Synod is more conservative and the Evangelical more liberal, but where does the Wisconsin Evangelical one fit into this? And how do the different synods get along with each other?

Posted by Camassia at August 26, 2003 01:38 PM | TrackBack

Do you want the long answer or the short one? Lutherans are divided by both ethnicity and theology. As they came to this country, Swedes formed Swedish churches, Norwegians formed theirs, and the Germans theirs. Especially among the German Lutherans, there were theological divisions over how to respond to modernity and to other Protestants. The elements that formed the Missouri and Wisconsin synods were conservative Germans.

Efforts to combine church bodies began in the 19th century and culminated in the 60's and 70's. Missouri was "in fellowship" with Wisconsin and the "little Norwegian" synods. At one point, a liberalizing Missouri entered altar and pulpit fellowship with the ALC, an amalgamation of moderate Scandinavian Lutherans. That occasioned a disruption of fellowship with the very conservative Wisconsin. Even though conservatives regained control of Missouri and broke fellowship with the ALC, Missouri and Wisconsin remain out of fellowship.

In the 80's, the ALC and LCA combined to form the ELCA, the largest and most ethnically diverse Lutheran body. (When I say ethnically diverse, I mean Germans AND Scandinavians.) The ELCA accepts critical approaches to the Bible, ordains women and has fairly liberal social and political positions. Missouri and Wisconsin are "no" on all three.

One other bit of history. Missouri is a very German church body. Only German was spoken at its conventions until anti-German feeling during the First World War forced some changes. The famous First Amendment case, Meyer vs. Nebraska, involved the prosecution of a LCMS schoolteacher for teaching German. (The LCMS has the second largest system of parochial schools in the country.)

Believe it or not, that was the short answer.

Posted by: Allen Brill on August 26, 2003 06:07 PM

Hi, Camassia,

"Erudition" Brill gets it right. To re-phrase some of what he said: the ELCA is more liberal, and a bigger denomination, while the LCMS is smaller, more conservative, and much more clannish and insular. One of the key doctrines of the LCMS is Biblical inerrancy, which they're pretty committed to; the ELCA is more flexible. The Wisconsin Synod, as far as I know, is even more conservative than Missouri, although I'm not sure what the pertinent theological differences are.

The two denominations (ELCA and LCMS) sort of have the uneasy relationship you'd expect. I don't know anything about the relationship between the PCUSA and the PCA, but I'd imagine it might be similar. In my part of the country (NYC), a lot of ELCA ministers are former LCMS-ers who jumped ship for a variety of reasons.


Posted by: Cap'n on August 27, 2003 08:26 AM

Thanks guys, I figured you'd know that! There are churches of all three synods in my neighborhood, so I was trying to figure which would be best to start with. The Lutherans caught my attention because they have this big social-service corporation in SoCal, which appears to be affiliated with the ECLA and LCMS but not with WELS. Sounds like ECLA would be more my speed but of course a lot depends on the character of the particular church.

Posted by: Camassia on August 27, 2003 09:13 AM

Explains a lot about the news from Lake Wobegon, doesn't it?

Posted by: Jessamyn on August 27, 2003 07:54 PM

One detail that Allen left out in his very nice nutshell was that there was a third synod that merged with the ALC and the LCA to form the current ELCA. This little synod was called AELC, and it was a splinter group from the Missouri that wanted, among other things, to ordain women. (They had a charming nickname for the seminary they formed: "Seminex," short for "Seminary in Exile." Gotta love that German gumption!)

Here's a link to the Region 3 archives of the ELCA, (housed at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN) where they have several flow charts or "family trees" showing the different Lutheran synods that kept merging over time. I like these documents because they show that (most) Lutherans have embraced a long tradition of reconciliation, unity and ecumenism:

Posted by: Dash on August 28, 2003 04:51 PM
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