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Summary of Evangelical Lutheranism

Evangelical Lutheran

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a mainline Protestant denomination that is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. It was formed in 1988 by the merging of three churches and currently has about 4.70 million baptized members. It is the largest of all the Lutheran denominations in the United States and also the fourth-largest Protestant denomination. The next two largest denominations are the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod ( approximately 2.41 million members) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (approximately 390,000 members). There are also many smaller Lutheran church bodies in the United States.

The ELCA is one of the largest Christian churches in the United States. There are also congregations in the Caribbean region (Bahamas, Bermuda, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and one congregation in Windsor, Ontario, a member of the Slovak Zion Synod. Before 1986, some congregations that form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada were part of it's predecessor churches. As of the acceptance of the document Called to Common Mission (CCM) in the year 2000, it is the only American Lutheran denomination in that is in full communion with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.

You can learn more about Christian Churches by taking a Bible quiz.

Ordination of women as pastors ( the ministers of Word and Sacrament) predates the ELCA and began in 1970, in the former Lutheran Church in America. Lutheran ministerial clergy are referred to as pastors or priests and similar sacramental and leadership functions to their Roman Catholic counterparts, modified by the Reformation conviction that ministry must be carried out by all members.

Presiding Bishops

To date, three pastors have been elected to the position of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. Herbert W. Chilstrom served first presiding from 1988 to 1995. He was followed by H. George Anderson (1995-2001), previously the President of Luther College. The presiding bishop currently is Mark S. Hanson, who also serves as president of the Lutheran World Federation. Starting in 2001, he was re-elected in August 2007 for a second term.

Lutheran Church Building

Beliefs and Practice

The ELCA is currently a member church of the Lutheran World Federation, a group of Lutheran Churches throughout the world. Lutheranism is associated with the German reformer Martin Luther, with its confessional writings found in the Book of Concord. The ELCA accepts the unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, also acknowledging that as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of that document.

  • Theological Position: The ELCA is a little less conservative than the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the second and third largest Lutheran bodies in the United States respectively. Although having a good sized conservative minority, practically all moderate-to-liberal Lutherans in the U.S. belong to the ELCA; all other Lutheran bodies in the U.S. espouse some type of doctrinaire confessionalism or pietism, or an admixture of the two.
  • Interpretation of Scripture: ELCA clergy are less likely to take the Bible literally, in concord with most liberal Protestant bodies and in sharp contrast to the LCMS or WELS. ELCA seminaries and colleges generally teach a form of historical-critical method of biblical analysis, an approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to understand the scriptures and the process of canon formation with reference to historical and social context. For a brief description, see The Bible on the ELCA website. Because of its use of the historic confessions, its ideological basis in Luther's catechism and its tradition of retaining many Roman Catholic traditions, such as vestments, feast days, the sign of the cross, incense and the usage of a church-wide liturgy, there are many aspects of the typical ELCA synod church that are very Catholic and traditional in nature. The ELCA is a very broad organization, however, and there are large segments of the denomination that are evangelical catholic composed of socially conservative and socially liberal factions both centering on liturgical renewal, confessional, charismatic/renewal, moderate, and liberal activist, or even combinations of these. Each of these groups tends to see and use the Bible differently. This tolerant and young church body (1988) has generally perceived such diversity as an asset, instead of a liability or threat, as earlier generations likely would have.
  • Sacraments: Like other Lutheran church bodies, the ELCA confesses at least two Sacraments, Communion (or the Eucharist) and Holy Baptism (including infant baptism). Confession and forgiveness is often included in the sacrament count; however, confession is a return to the baptismal waters and so the number may remain at two. The ELCA holds to the doctrine of the Sacramental Union, in other words, the belief that Christ is truly present – body, soul, humanity and divinity – "in, with and under" (Augsburg Confession) the Bread and Wine, so that communicants receive both, the elements and Christ himself. Other denominations, mainly of the Reformed persuasion, sometimes erroneously perceive this as a belief in consubstantiation. The ELCA, however, rejects the belief of consubstantiation and regards attempts to explain in terms of philosophical metaphysics how the Eucharist "works" as disrespectful of, if not blasphemous against, the Sacrament's miraculous and mysterious character. In effect, the ELCA belief in the "mysterious" character of the consecrated elements is more in line (along with most other Lutheran Church bodies) with the traditional Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican belief - this being of a real, though unexplainable, partaking of the body and blood of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation, while many other Protestant church bodies doubt or openly deny the Real Presence in the elements of communion. Unlike practically all other American Lutheran church bodies, the ELCA practices open communion, inviting all persons baptized in the name of the trinity with water to receive communion. Some assemblies also commune baptized infants similarly to Orthodox practice. In its quest to return to many of the traditional catholic (universal) practices, the leadership of the ELCA encourages its churches to practice the Eucharist at all services, although some churches still retain non-communion services that alternate with the full liturgy of the Eucharist. In addition to the two sacraments, the ELCA also retains the other five sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church - not as sacraments, but as acts that are sacramental in nature, or sacramentals. These include confirmation, holy orders, extreme unction, confession, and marriage. Their practice and their view as "minor sacraments" varies between churches of a "high" and "low" church nature.
  • Ministerial training and ordination: Pastors are trained at one of eight ELCA seminaries located throughout the United States. They generally hold a Bachelor of Arts degree or equivalent, as well as a master's degree in divinity, and are required to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek. Pastors are ordained by bishops under terms of Called to Common Mission (CCM), the full-communion agreement between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church, a phased embrace of the historic episcopate. Since the passage of CCM, a small number of pastors have received special dispensation under extraordinary circumstances for presbyter ordination rather than episcopal ordination, under a bylaw exception passed by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly. Pastors who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) have been prevented from serving as ordained ministers unless they agree to celibacy, though around forty pastors who are in principled non-compliance to this policy continue serve as pastors in ELCA churches by joining the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. At its 2007 churchwide assembly in Chicago 83 ELCA pastors and seminarians came out as GLBT, many serve in the ELCA without any discipline from their synodical bishop. Many bishops, however, still discipline GLBT pastors and pastors who might celebrate GLBT unions, either implicitly or explicitly, in accordance with stated ELCA practice..
  • Worship styles: The ELCA is undergoing a process of renewing its worship life. It recently released Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a main resource for congregations. It is the first in a constellation of resources to be released in the next few years. Many ELCA congregations are liturgical churches where local customs flourish. Their worship life is rich and diverse, and is rooted in the Western liturgical tradition, though Lutheran-Orthodox dialog has some minimal influence on Lutheran liturgy. Visitors to Lutheran churches may find some people who will make the "sign of the cross" on their body and others who do not. Many Lutheran Churches use traditional vestments (alb, cincture, stole, chasuble, cope, etc.) and liturgical colors: white, red, green, and purple – although in recent years, blue is worn for Advent, scarlet for Holy Week, and gold for Easter Sunday only. Much of the dialog of the liturgy has its roots in the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, and in fact, since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, most major parts of the ELCA's liturgy are worded exactly like the English Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. There has always been a minority of Lutherans who are less liturgical or even non-liturgical. Some ELCA congregations have a non-liturgical contemporary service, either in addition to traditional service or exclusively. Wide variety in worship is, however, assured by Article VII of the Augsburg Confession where unnecessary uniformity is discouraged. One important compromise that has developed is that many Lutheran congregations have two or more worship services each week, with different degrees of formality in each.
  • Musical Heritage: Springing from its revered heritage in the Lutheran Chorale, the musical life of ELCA congregations is just as diverse as its worship. Johann Sebastian Bach and African songs are part of the heritage and breadth of Lutheran church music. The Lutheran liturgy is music filled with five to seven hymns per service including metrical psalter, metrical responses and hymns. The new Evangelical Lutheran Worship has ten settings of Holy Communion, for example. They range from plainsong chant, to Gospel, to Latin-style music. Congregations worship in many languages, many of which are represented in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and upcoming worship resources. Other books often found in ELCA churches include the Lutheran Book of Worship, With One Voice, This Far by Faith, and Libro de Liturgia y Cántico.

The ELCA professes belief in the "priesthood of all believers", or that all baptized persons have an equal access to God and are called to use their gifts to serve the body of Christ. Some people are called to the "rostered ministry", or vocations of church leadership and service. After formation, theological training, and approval by local synods these people are "set aside, but not above" through the ordination or commissioning/consecration. Currently, the ELCA has four types of rostered ministers:

  • Pastor (Priest): An ordained minister called to the "office of public ministry" of "Word and sacrament" and considered a "steward of the mysteries" of the Church (i.e. given the "Office of the Keys" to proclaim absolution.) Pastors traditionally serve congregations, but this role has been expanded to include other forms of ministry as well (i.e.chaplains).
  • Deaconess: A lay woman, married or single, who serves the Church in a variety of ways. Traditionally, deaconesses served in the caring professions as nurses, social workers, or teachers.
  • Associate in Ministry: Serves local congregations, synods or other ministries in a variety of roles as parish administrators, parish musicians, youth ministry leaders, or other positions.
  • Diaconal minister (Deacon): A minister of Word and Service who may serve as a chaplain, youth minister, or in some aspect of social justice or advocacy work. This is the newest category established by the ELCA. A Diaconal minister is similar to the role performed by permanent deacons in the Episcopal Church.

Ecumenical Relations

The ELCA is also a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and Christian Churches Together and is a "partner in mission and dialog" with the Churches Uniting in Christ.

The Church maintains associations with member churches of the Lutheran World Federation (which is a communion of 140 autonomous national/regional Lutheran church bodies in 78 countries around the world, representing nearly 66 million Christians), the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. In 2005, the ELCA approved a provisional agreement with the United Methodist Church that was called "A Proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing", which is the first step toward reaching full communion with that denomination. The General Conference of the United Methodist church approved having full communion with the ELCA on April 28, 2008.

On October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation – which the ELCA is a member of– signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholic Church. The is an attempt to narrow the theological divide between the two faiths. I also states that the mutual condemnations between 16th century Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church no longer apply.

Social Issues

In general, the ELCA is a very broad, inclusive organization with a majority of leadership tending to be liberal, emphasizing social justice among its core values. However, there is a great deal of diversity of opinion among its congregations, therefore, the ELCA has been the arena for a number of tussles over social and doctrinal issues during the years since it came into existence in 1988. This is, in part, due to the fact that the ELCA assimilated three different Lutheran church bodies, each having its own factions and divisions, and inheriting old intra-group conflicts while creating new inter-group ones. In general, the ELCA has avoided major schisms, partly by engaging in long periods of study and interactive deliberation before adopting any new stances. Differences on issues are usually a reflection of geographic differences among so-called "Red States" and "Blue States" in the U.S. generally, although historic demographic splits (e.g., urban liberalism over against rural or suburban conservatism) often are perceptible as contexts.

The ELCA's views on social issues are outlined in its Social Statements and Messages. These include:

  • Role of Women
  • Sexuality
  • Abortion

Role of Women

The ELCA will ordain women as pastors, a practice that all three of its predecessor churches adopted in the 1970s. Some have become synod bishops since the formation of the ELCA, with around 10% of the synods led by female bishops currently.


The ELCA does not have a statement on human sexuality, but may adopt one in the near future at its Churchwide Assembly. At present, a Church Council Message adopted in 1996 does provide information about what members of the ELCA should have in common on the subject and states that "marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse."

The ELCA welcomes all into worship and full membership in its congregations. Presently, the document "Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministry in the ELCA" states, "Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful. Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." At the August 11, 2007 vote at the Churchwide Assembly in Chicago, the ELCA urged its bishops and synods to "exercise restraint" in disciplinary action against gay and lesbian ministers who violate the celibacy rule who are in "faithful committed same-gender relationships". The resolution was passed by a vote of 538–431.


The issue of abortion also has been a contentious one within the ELCA. The church, in 1991, set out its position on the matter as follows. "The ELCA describes itself as 'a community supportive of life,' and encourages women to explore alternatives to abortion such as adoption. However, the church states that there are certain circumstances under which a decision to end a pregnancy can be "morally responsible." These include cases where the pregnancy "presents a clear threat to the physical life of the woman," situations where "the pregnancy occurs when both parties do not participate willingly in sexual intercourse," and "circumstances of extreme fetal abnormality, which will result in severe suffering and very early death of an infant." Regardless of the reason, the ELCA opposes abortion when "a fetus is developed enough to live outside a uterus with the aid of reasonable and necessary technology." THE ELCA opposes "laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions," and "laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion." The statement emphasizes the prevention of circumstances leading to abortion, specifically encouraging "appropriate forms of sex education in schools, community pregnancy prevention programs, and parenting preparation classes." The ELCA Board of Pensions, part of the ELCA corporate structure, covers elective abortions, including late-term and partial birth abortions."

The Lutheran Women's Caucus is a supporter of abortion rights, and is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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