In many ways, Lutherans occupy an unusual space in world Christendom—too “Catholic” for their Baptist friends and too “Baptist” for Roman Catholics. The hallmarks of what we consider Protestant Evangelicalism are all there: salvation through Christ alone, received by grace alone through faith alone; and beliefs grounded in the ultimate authority of Scripture alone. Yet Lutherans at their most authentic have a decidedly “catholic” aura about them. They recognize the tradition of the church, though not infallible, as providing a guide that norms our interpretation of Scripture. They practice a sacramental piety, recognizing baptism, communion, and absolution as means by which God bestows unearned grace and forgiveness on sinful humanity. And they worship in a way that is foreign to many other Evangelicals, commonly choosing traditional liturgy over more contemporary forms of worship.
The result can strike some other Christians as odd, a mishmash of approaches. But for Lutherans, it all makes perfect sense. They are, after all, the Christians who first self-described as Evangelical. Yet even at the height of their reforms, they could also argue in the Augsburg Confession that “the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith.”
Five hundred years since these Evangelical Catholics first began their reform, with Martin Luther nailing (or mailing) his Ninety-Five Theses, Lutherans are still at work proclaiming the Gospel. That Gospel seed has taken root, and if recent events are anything to go by, we may be about to see it burst forth in riotous bloom.
Before turning to current events, we must consider what it means to be Lutheran. We must confess that in our current era, many who adopt the name have departed in significant ways from the faith as expressed by the early Lutheran reformers. Those divisions are not always apparent to outsiders.
So what does it mean to be a Lutheran? Some people think that it means to follow Martin Luther. But Lutherans do not blindly bind themselves to Luther’s opinions: The reformer wrote and did many things, some good and some bad. His late writings on the Jews are one example of his work that contemporary Lutherans rightly reject.
Instead, Lutherans are defined by their subscription to the Book of Concord—or, at the very least, the Augsburg Confession. The Book of Concord, published in 1580, collects several texts that Lutherans consider authoritative in the life of the church: the three ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian); works by Philip Melanchthon (the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope); works by Martin Luther (the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Smalcald Articles); and the Formula of Concord (written primarily by Jakob Andreä and Martin Chemnitz).
Lutherans accept these books as authoritative because they understand them to be faithful witnesses to the teachings of Scripture. In other words, the Bible is the highest authority in shaping the teachings of the Church; but Lutheran confessional documents are also authoritative, in that they correctly summarize the teachings of Scripture.
That’s what it means to be a Lutheran. Or rather, that’s how it was supposed to work. In the centuries since the Book of Concord was adopted, some claiming the name Lutheran have diminished the importance of the Lutheran Confessions. They say they subscribe to the Book of Concord not because (quia) they are faithful to Scripture, but only insofar as (quatenus) they are faithful to Scripture. In this way, the authority of the Confessions in these churches has been diminished. And as time has gone on, some have even abandoned all but lip-service to the authority of the Scriptures themselves.
How did things get this way?
In many ways, confessional Lutheranism began in North America as a result of persecution. In 1817, King Frederick William III of Prussia issued an edict calling for the merger of the Reformed and Lutheran churches. The Lutherans protested, arguing that there were insurmountable differences between the two traditions, especially on the question of what happens in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. These “Old Lutherans,” as they were called, refused to use the new orders of service—which were all Reformed in theology—and continued using historic Lutheran liturgies.
The pastors were subsequently imprisoned, church buildings were seized, and confessional Lutherans were forced to worship in secret. Some of these Old Lutherans would stay in Germany and go on to form the predecessor bodies of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) and other confessional Lutheran synods. But many would leave for other shores: to Australia and Brazil, but especially to the United States of America.
There they would go on to form what is today the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The LCMS—national in scope, not regional as its name might suggest—today stands as the largest confessional Lutheran church body in North America, with just under 2.1 million members. Their confessional stance is complemented in part by smaller daughter churches such as Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), and partner churches such as the American Association of Lutheran Churches. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (369,221 members) and its partners likewise retain a strong confessional Lutheran presence in North American life.
The teachings of these churches contrast strongly with those of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its Canadian counterpart, which grew out of the European state Lutheran churches. Whereas confessional Lutherans defend the historic Christian position of the church on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage, the ELCA and its partners have embraced the secular world’s positions on these issues. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that the vast majority of ELCA pastors do not subscribe to the inerrancy of Scripture. As in the Anglican Communion, the resulting consternation in the church has led many members of the ELCA to leave the church body. Prominent among these break-away movements is the North American Lutheran Church, which counts a growing membership of more than 141,000 members. The ELCA, meanwhile, has suffered a dramatic drop in membership, losing more than a million members since its 2009 vote to approve same-sex marriage and ordain pastors in same-sex relationships. Today it sits at just under 3.6 million members.
Of course, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has suffered its own membership losses in recent years, experiencing a membership decline about half that of the ELCA over the same time period (down 12 percent, compared to the ELCA’s 23-percent drop). That decline has been resisted in part by the LCMS’s strong emphasis on evangelism. Recent demographic studies find that the LCMS’s success rate at creating converts is equal to or higher than that of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In 2008, the ratio of new baptized members to existing members in the SBC was one for every 47; in the LCMS, the ratio of new confirmed members to existing members was one for every 42. Still, the slow decline in the LCMS will likely continue for many years before plateauing.
Had history worked out differently, it is possible that the LCMS would have followed the ELCA into a more precipitous decline. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the LCMS drew closer to more theologically liberal Lutheran bodies in the United States. Faculty at Concordia Lutheran Seminary began to adopt the historical-critical method approach to Scripture, which downplays or denies the doctrine of inerrancy. Things came to a head in 1969, with the election of J.A.O. Preuss II as president of the LCMS. Concordia Lutheran Seminary’s president was suspended, and much of the faculty walked out in protest. Then, the LCMS began the painstaking work of reaffirming its historic confessional, biblical theology.
Though the LCMS never ceased its missionary activity overseas, it became less vocal on the national front following this crisis, as it considered its own affairs. That inward turn has sometimes sparked accusations of isolationism—charges which have not always been entirely unfair. In recent years, however, confessional Lutherans in North America have reentered the wider ecumenical scene with remarkable vigor.
The LCMS (and, later, LCC as well) entered into dialogue in 2011 with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA)—a church formed in protest against the increasingly liberal theology of the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada. Six years of dialogue resulted last year in a report highlighting significant doctrinal agreement between the Lutherans and ACNA. It even expressed hope that God would lead them “in a time and manner of His choosing” years from now into altar and pulpit fellowship with one another. For confessional Lutherans to declare such a hope, however far off, speaks to the remarkable progress enjoyed by the dialogue. The memory of the false union enforced by King Frederick William III in Prussia, after all, is still very real for confessional Lutherans.
There has also been positive dialogue in recent years between the LCMS and other conservative Lutherans. LCC and the LCMS participate in regular dialogue with the young North American Lutheran Church, with the three church bodies issuing a joint statement on Scripture in 2016. The LCMS has also been in dialogue with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, helping to heal decades-old divisions.
Confessional Lutherans in North America have even been on better terms recently with Roman Catholics. Lutheran Church–Canada has participated in direct dialogue with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops since 2013, and Lutheran leaders in Canada and the United States have joined Roman Catholic bishops in speaking out against such issues as physician-assisted suicide or forced provision of abortifacients in employee health coverage.
That closer relationship with Roman Catholics is complemented on the international level. A few years ago, the Vatican began an informal dialogue with the International Lutheran Council (ILC), in addition to its longstanding dialogues with the more mainline Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The ILC is an association of confessional Lutheran churches around the world, with the LCMS and LCC among its members. And like confessional Lutherans in North America, the ILC has begun to expand its public presence.
Though small on paper, with perhaps 3.5 million members, the ILC is growing. As mainline Lutheranism in Europe continues to diverge from historic Christian teaching, pockets of conservative Lutherans in the state churches have begun to secede—and many are looking to the ILC for support. The Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese in Norway, and the Mission Province in Sweden, for example, all began discussions in 2016 about joining the ILC.
These movements in mainline Lutheran church bodies in the West are flickers of resurgent confessional Lutheranism. But it is in the Global South that we see most clearly the churches that are fanning those flickers back into flame.
If you think the largest Lutheran church body in the world is in Europe, think again. The title actually goes to the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), which is experiencing explosive growth. In 2016, it reported a membership of 8.6 million—up 1.4 million from the previous year. For comparison, in 1959 the church counted about 25,000 members.
The EECMY is not notable only for its size, however. It has also drawn headlines for its defense of the authority of the Scriptures. In 2013, the church broke fellowship with the ELCA and the Church of Sweden over the blessing of same-sex marriage and the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships. The EECMY had issued a letter to the ELCA in 2010, calling it to repent of its doctrinal deviations from Scripture. Having received no response, the EECMY moved to end altar fellowship. This move was not made lightly: The church had historic ties to the ELCA dating back more than fifty years, and to the Church of Sweden dating back more than 150 years.
Today, the EECMY remains a member church of the Lutheran World Federation (the global Lutheran body that includes the Church of Sweden and the ELCA). But in recent years the Ethiopian church has grown increasingly close to the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the International Lutheran Council. A particularly fruitful partnership has been the EECMY’s request to the LCMS to assist the Ethiopian church in theological education and training. The EECMY had also requested copies of the Book of Concord in Amharic for their 3,000-plus pastors—a request answered through the LCMS-affiliated Lutheran Heritage Foundation. The reasoning seems clear: The Western Lutheran churches that have embraced the Book of Concord are the churches that continue to defend the authority of Scripture.
Similarly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania—a member of the LWF and another massive Lutheran church body, with more than 6.5 million members—has likewise taken steps to foster relations with the LCMS and the ILC. In particular, the South-East Lake of Victoria Diocese has developed strong relations with the LCMS, requesting the American church to assist with theological education in the region among other projects.
The trend is spreading throughout Africa: In November 2016, the Malagasy Lutheran Church (FLM) elected a new president, Rev. David Rakotonirina. The FLM is a member of the LWF. It is also one of the fastest-growing Lutheran church bodies in the world; in 2016, they counted about 4 million members, and they are opening a new congregation every week. Only days after the election of Rakotonirina, the FLM’s Executive Committee for the General Synod issued a proclamation stating its intention to seek partnerships with the LCMS and the ILC.
Similar stories could be told about other countries. The revitalizing influence of new Lutherans from the Global South is being felt in Europe, too. In Germany, the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) is growing as a result of conversions by Iranian and Afghan refugees. One congregation in Berlin-Steglitz is baptizing, on average, forty to fifty converts per month, following instruction in the Christian faith. These new members—hundreds of them over several years—have arrested a multi-year decline in the SELK, with the church body growing in 2015 for the first time in years.
These events are all signals that mainline Lutheranism, with its lower view of the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, is not the natural endpoint of the Lutheran tradition. Confessional Lutheranism is not dead. It is very much alive, and it is growing.
The confessional Lutheran church today may be poor. It may be weak. It may not always be beautiful. And yet, it stands as the true heir of the Reformation. “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works,” Philip Melanchthon wrote in the Augsburg Confession. “People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight.”
That is still the ultimate message of the Lutheran faith, five hundred years after the Reformation began. It is proclaimed in word and deed, in Scripture and in sacrament, the world over. It is the Gospel—and it is a treasure that Lutherans have brought to every corner of the earth in the last centuries.
God willing, it is a work they shall continue for many years to come. And we shall see the little rose of Luther’s reformation emerge once again in beautiful flower.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada.