WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ELCA AND LCMS?
Every point of doctrinal divergence between the ELCA and the LCMS has to do in one way or another with how the Bible is understood.
Rev. Matthew W. Rueger, Author
Jan. 1, 2020
On the surface one might notice certain similarities between the ELCA and LCMS before one notices differences. Both churches do have the name “Lutheran” on their front signs, after all. The services used in both church bodies are very similar. The hymnody sung in both churches is very similar. The robes of the pastor, the colors on the altar, and the layout of the churches all might be much the same in ELCA and LCMS congregations.
With a little closer look, one might see a few apparent differences. For instance, one might notice that ELCA congregations have women pastors, whereas LCMS churches do not. One might also see members of Methodist, Presbyterian, the United Church of Christ, or Episcopal churches going to communion at ELCA altars, where one wouldn’t see that in the LCMS. For that matter, it would even be possible to see pastors from these other denominations officiating at ELCA services where one would never see a non-Lutheran pastor serving an LCMS congregation.
A little deeper look uncovers yet more differences. If one examined the teachings of the ELCA in regard to homosexuality and compared those to the Missouri Synod, they would see that the ELCA allows for practicing homosexuality even among its clergy and does not condemn homosexuality as sin. The Missouri Synod says that homosexuality is a sin. If an LCMS clergyman is found to be a practicing homosexual, he is removed from office.
Other points of difference one might notice include the LCMS' very strong statements condemning abortion as a sin against the 5th commandment. The ELCA does not take a stand against abortion as sin and allows for it as a viable option in various situations. The LCMS believes that the Lord’s Supper is the actual body and blood of Christ and says that those who deny the real presence of Christ are holding views contrary to Scripture. The ELCA, while saying the Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ, also grants other views as valid which deny the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament.
The root issues
The differences beg the question, "Why are there such disagreements?” There is actually a basic rooted issue that drives all these differences. That issue has to do with the Scripture itself. The real truth most don’t know is the ELCA and the LCMS have very different understandings of what the Bible is and what our relationship to it should be.
What is the Bible? On the surface, the explanations of what the Bible is sound very similar between the two churches.
"This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life." Art. 2.03 of the Constitution of the ELCA
"The Synod, and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation: 1. The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice." Art. II of the Constitution of the LCMS
Comparing the two statements above shows little difference between them. The real difference comes behind the outward public statements. The way pastors are taught to read, understand, and interpret the Bible is very different between the two. ELCA seminaries promote the use of numerous critical approaches to holy Scripture. Pastors are taught to question whether the various parts of the Bible are in fact God’s Word or whether they are statements conditioned by the prejudices, opinions and biases of the authors. The authors of the various books of the Bible are themselves held suspect and credit for the text of Holy Scripture is given to the “community of faith” which was trying to explain and understand Christ many years after he died. The miracles of Jesus and other supernatural events recorded in Scripture are held to be myths, not historical facts.
In contrast, LCMS seminaries, while teaching its pastors about critical approaches, reject those approaches as valid ways to interpret Scripture. While God did use the unique styles of individual writers of the texts, he did not allow their biases, prejudices or sinful opinions to corrupt His Words. The LCMS does not believe that the various books of Scripture were written by various “communities of believers” who wrote under the pseudonyms of the apostles and prophets. It believes that those books of the Bible which claim apostolic or prophet authorship were written by author they claim. So, the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew. Luke wrote Luke. St. Paul wrote the epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians and so on.
Critical approaches to biblical understanding diminish the Bible to nothing more than a human book about God. The historic teachings of the Christian Church themselves fall suspect and nothing can be known for certain.
Evidence for above claims
The often cited Christian Dogmatics is a two volume text used in ELCA seminaries to teach doctrine to pastors. It represents the foundation and systematic approach to Scripture taught to ELCA pastors (and then held by those pastors and taught by them to congregations).
“Today it is impossible to assume the historicity of the things recorded. What the biblical authors report is not accepted as a literal transcript of the factual events. Therefore, critical scholars inquire behind the text and attempt to reconstruct the real history that took place.” (Christian Dogmatics vol. 1, pg 76.; Braaten, Jensen, Forde; 1984)
"It is finally for the sake of Christ alone that the church continues to regard the Bible as a book without equal in the history of human literature. For this reason the churches that claim the heritage of Lutheran and the Reformation still affirm the Bible as the Word of God. This is not meant in the fundamentalistic sense that everything in the Bible stands directly as the Word of God." (Ibid.)
"The role of the Bible in constructive theology is radically qualified today by historical consciousness. Luther believed that the literal meaning of Scripture is identical with its historical content; things happened exactly as they were written down. Today it is impossible to assume the literal historicity of all things recorded. What the biblical authors report is not accepted as a literal transcript of the factual course of events. Therefore critical scholars inquire behind the text and attempt to reconstruct the real history that took place." (Ibid., p. 76-77)
"The highly developed skills of historical research provide us with the best tools we have to ascertain what really happened in the past." (Ibid., p. 477)
"The primary interest of dogmatics is to interpret the virgin birth as a symbol and not as a freakish intervention in the course of nature." (Ibid., p. 546)
"Jesus himself, though he might have and quite possibly did reckon with a violent death at the hands of his adversaries, seems not to have understood or interpreted his own death as a sacrifice for others or ransom for sin. Such interpretation apparently came as the result of later reflection." (Ibid., vol. 2, p. 13) [ed. This “later reflection” is the idea that generations of Christians after Christ wrote the story about him to explain their faith in him. It is a denial that the text was actually written by the apostle]
"The overall result of Gospel criticism was shocking to those whose faith was dependent on the utter reliability of every word of Scripture, for the words and deeds of Jesus which the Gospels report were found to be intermingled with and modified by the beliefs of the early church. The question of who Jesus of Nazareth really was and what he accomplished became a matter of research and therefore in principle an open question always subject to continuing investigation. This research affect the christological dogma because it placed in question the traditional assertion of the divinity of Christ and the notion that a person’s relation to God is determined by what is believed about Jesus of Nazareth." (Ibid., vol. 1 p. 71)
"We must concede the possibility that miracles may have been attributed to people simply to enhance their status, that is, their special relationship to the gods. Each claim to truth must be carefully analyzed, and it should not be excluded a priori that some of the miracles attributed to Jesus may have no historical basis and serve only to emphasize his exceptional status." (Ibid., vol. 2 p 283)
The relationship to the Confessions
Another matter that is directly tied to the interpretation of Scripture has to do with the Lutheran Confessions. The Lutheran Confessions are statements of faith drawn from God’s Word that were agreed upon as defining documents for Lutherans during the time of the Reformation. Those documents are contained in the Book of Concord and include: the three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, the Large Catechism of Luther, the Small Catechism of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.
Every LCMS pastor takes an oath during his ordination called a “Qui” subscription to the Confessions. That oath means they promise to uphold and follow the doctrines (teachings) as defined by the Confessions because they are a correct explanation of Scripture. Every ELCA pastor takes an oath at his or her ordination known as a “Quatenus” subscription to the Confessions. That oath means they promise to uphold the doctrines espoused in the Confessions in so far as they correctly reflect the Scriptures.
The Confessions are a sort of insurance policy for both congregations and pastors. LCMS congregations can be certain that their pastor will not teach or preach doctrines contrary to those always held to be true by Lutheranism because he has promised to abide by the teachings of the Confessions. If a pastor strays from the historic understanding of God’s Word taught in the Confessions, any lay person can go to the Confessions and say, “This is the teaching you promised to uphold – not your own individual interpretation of God’s Word.” If that pastor refuses to abide by his oath to follow the teachings of the Confessions, he can and should be removed from office by his congregation. Similarly, if a congregation insists its pastor should teach things contrary to the Scriptures, the pastor can go the Confessions and say, "This is the confession of faith you promised to follow."
ELCA congregations have less of an assurance that their pastors will abide by the historic teaching of the Lutheran Church. Because those pastors have promised to uphold the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions in so far as they agree with Scripture, they can always claim parts of the Confessions don’t agree with how they view them. The ELCA confessional subscription opens the door for individual pastors to stray from the faith historically taught by Lutheranism without consequences, because that pastor never promised to follow all the doctrines of the Confessions. He or she only promised to follow the Confessions in so far as they believe they correctly represent the Scripture.
The result of this difference in Confessional subscription (the oaths of the pastors) is that ELCA pastors have much more freedom to teach and preach doctrines that are different than those of historic Lutheranism. LCMS pastors are bound to preach and teach only those doctrines consistent with the historic Lutheran confessions.
From the source all things flow
We could fill a great deal of space discussing all the various doctrinal differences that exist between the ELCA and the LCMS. Some of these differences were noted in the opening paragraphs of this article. The one issue that is most in the public eye and has caused the greatest controversy within the ELCA is the issue of ordaining openly practicing homosexuals into the pastoral office. Needless to say, the LCMS doesn’t do that.
More important that just noting the fact that there are differences in how the two churches do things, is understanding why these differences exist. The LCMS has a different approach to Holy Scripture than the ELCA. That is the foundational difference that affects all the other individual doctrinal differences.
The reason why the LCMS doesn’t ordain practicing homosexuals is because we believe the Bible speaks truth from God when in Romans 1:24ff. His Word says that homosexuality is a sin and “shameful.” If these verses are God’s actual words as the LCMS believes, then there is only one stance one can take with regard to homosexuality. Namely, that is is sinful and opposed to God. If, however, these words are merely the biases of the apostle (or the community of faith) that penned them, then they can be “reinterpreted,” ignored, or dismissed as culturally-biased and no longer applicable to our age and culture. This is the conclusion reached by ELCA theologians because of their critical interpretation of Scripture.
Every point of doctrinal divergence between the ELCA and the LCMS has to do in one way or another with how the Bible is understood. Once the Bible is no longer seen as actually being God’s Word throughout, then any and every doctrinal error will be able to infiltrate the church without any foundation for resistance.
If a person is looking for a comprehensive and graphic description of just how far the ELCA interpretation of God's Word has taken it away from historic Christianity, then please read the book, What's Going on Among Lutherans? by Patsy Leppien and J. Kincaid Smith, (1992).