Recently in the news, Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann came under fire for the beliefs of her (apparently former) church body in regards to the Pope. You see, that church body officially confesses and teaches that the Pope occupies, in his Office, the Office of Antichrist. Woah! What? Which church body is that? The Lutherans, that’s who!
But which Lutherans? As many Lutherans have experienced, there are many different denominations in the United States alone that have Lutheran in their name. How do we keep them straight? In the case of Mrs. Bachmann, she was formerly a member of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) congregation. They as a church body subscribe (as in, adopt as their own confession) to the Book of Concord (otherwise known as the Lutheran Confessions). So, too, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS). We, along with the WELS, believe, teach, and confess that the Pope occupies the Office of Antichrist, because of the official teachings of the Roman Catholic church that obscure the Gospel of Christ. (You can read parts of the Smalcald Articles or the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope in the Book of Concord for clarification, or come chat with me anytime.)
This is both a great example of how so often we Christians, no matter what church body we are in, don’t know all that our church body believes, teaches, and confesses. When we encounter a fellow Lutheran, how often do we ask what sort of Lutheran they are? Are we satisfied that they’re just like us if they simply identify themselves as “Lutheran”?
How can we tell the difference? Is there a difference? To the second question, the answer is undoubtedly “yes”. There are drastic differences between Lutheran church bodies in the United States (and worldwide). Some of these differences are only of adiaphora (things neither commanded nor forbidden). In other words, differences which don’t affect the clear proclamation of the Gospel. But with some of the differences we find a chasm, between a teaching of the true Gospel of Christ and a terribly false one.
Perhaps the best example currently in the U.S. is the difference in teaching between the LCMS and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Two summers ago, the ELCA voted to allow the ordination into the Ministry of unrepentant homosexuals involved in open and active relationships. This was another step on a road that has led the ELCA precipitously close to teaching outside of the Christian Faith. Other examples of false teaching in the ELCA involve matters such as the inerrancy of the Bible (a good summary of the ELCA teaching is that the Bible contains God’s Word, not is).
Because of this differing view on the authority of God’s Word, the ELCA takes anti-biblical views on a whole host of issues: women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, church fellowship issues such as communion and who can preach from an ELCA pulpit, and the list goes on and on. And due to the open interpretation of God’s Word, more and more differences will inevitably appear.
In fact, our two church bodies are so far apart now in what we believe, teach, and confess that the LCMS has had to make the difficult decision of beginning to sever ties with the ELCA in some of our historically shared ministry tasks. Perhaps the most prominent of these has been joint training for LCMS and ELCA military chaplains. Pastor Matt Harrison, President of the LCMS, sent out a Letter to the Church on July 18, 2011 indicating that beginning in 2012 the LCMS will no longer participate with the ELCA in chaplaincy matters. He writes:
“Today, like two ships at sea sailing apart on different compass headings, the ELCA and the LCMS have lost sight of each other…The doctrinal differences and tensions have been exacerbated by the position of the ELCA on same-sex unions and the imminent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In addition, the ELCA has made its direction clear by the mutual decision between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) to hold joint denominational training conferences together beginning in 2012.
“In garrison or in the field, Lutheran chaplains will continue to minister to all Lutherans in uniform and exercise proper pastoral discretion on a case-by-case basis in the administration of Word and Sacrament ministry, taking into account the individual circumstances of each case. Our chaplains will continue to follow the Military Chaplain guidelines as approved by the Synod. While we recognize the service of ELCA personnel, we can no longer commend our LCMS military personnel to ELCA chaplains without increasing and grave reservations.”
If you are interested in more information on some questions surrounding the LCMS, WELS, and ELCA, there’s a fine document available from the LCMS. It can be accessed here and is also a PDF. Again, if you’d like to chat about anything in these documents, please let me know.
In this day and age we as Lutheran Christians are going to find ourselves standing against the prevailing winds of the culture more and more. What a great tragedy it is when a church body falls away from believing, teaching, and confessing the Truth and instead succumbs to the falsehoods of the devil, the world, and sin. Let us pray for those Christians still present in the ELCA, that they might be preserved by our Lord and, God willing, be confessors from within for the Truth. Let us pray that the ELCA might repent and come back to the true Gospel of Christ. And let us pray that God would preserve us and the LCMS from going down that same dark road.