WELS and Other Lutherans

What are the differences between WELS and other Lutheran churches?

With about 400,000 members, WELS lies at the numerical center of American Lutheran church bodies. Two much larger Lutheran church bodies number in the millions–the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are about 20 much smaller Lutheran church bodies in the United States, each of which has only a few hundred or a few thousand members.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS)

For nearly 100 years (1872-1961) the LCMS and WELS were in doctrinal fellowship in the Synodical Conference. They cooperated in mission work and education. What led to the end of this fellowship?

Formerly, the LCMS and WELS agreed that agreement in all doctrines of the Bible is necessary for church fellowship, and that all forms of worship, including joint prayer, are expressions of church fellowship. In the 1930s the LCMS began fellowship talks with the American Lutheran Church (ALC) even though the ALC did not believe that complete doctrinal agreement was necessary for fellowship. The LCMS also changed its position on prayer fellowship to allow joint prayer with the leaders of other churches with whom the LCMS was not in doctrinal agreement. Efforts to resolve these differences were unsuccessful, and WELS broke fellowship with the LCMS in 1961.

Although disagreement about fellowship and the practice of fellowship in such groups as the Scouts and the military chaplaincy was the immediate cause of the break between WELS and the LCMS, other divisive issues that arose included the introduction of historical-critical methods of Scripture study into the LCMS seminary at St. Louis during the 1960s, differences concerning the doctrine of church and ministry, and disagreement about the role of women in governing bodies of the church.

WELS has also been disturbed by a seeming lack of corrective action against lax fellowship practices, such as open communion and ecumenical services, in some LCMS congregations.

Although the LCMS has made progress at rolling back the influence of historical-critical methods of Scripture study in its midst, published remarks by recent presidents of the LCMS show that the disagreement concerning fellowship practices still remains unresolved.

Summaries of the relations of WELS and the LCMS from a WELS perspective can be found in the books WELS and Other Lutherans and Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth, both available from Northwestern Publishing House.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Since the ELCA accepts a great deal of doctrinal diversity in its midst, the accepted public teaching of the ELCA departs with Scripture in almost every doctrine. Most of the differences stem from the fact that the ELCA rejects the inerrancy of Scripture and believes that unity in doctrine is not necessary in the church. At the time it was established, the ELCA deliberately excluded a confession of the inerrancy of Scripture from its statement of faith, in spite of the objections of some congregations.

Among the doctrines that are publicly denied in the ELCA are belief in all the miracles in Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, and the truth that salvation is only through faith in Christ.

The ELCA is pursuing fellowship relations with the Roman Catholic Church and with various Reformed churches in spite of a lack of doctrinal agreement with them. WELS practices “close communion,” that is, we believe that only members of churches that are in doctrinal agreement should commune together. The ELCA believes people can commune together without doctrinal agreement. In August, it gave official approval to join in full communion with three major Reformed church bodies that are not in agreement with the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

The ELCA ordains women as pastors. WELS does not believe that women can be ordained as pastors of the church because of the prohibition of woman exercising authority over men in the church in such passages as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12.

WELS teaches that homosexuality and sex outside of marriage are sins, condemned by God’s law. There is forgiveness for those who have repented of these sins and are struggling against them, but the church must speak against such sinful lifestyles and practice Christian discipline against those who cling to them. There is still much controversy in the ELCA about the exact position it will take on these issues, but there is considerable public support among the leaders of the ELCA for the position that such lifestyles are not necessarily sinful.

The differences between WELS and the ELCA are summarized in the book WELS and Other Lutherans, available from Northwestern Publishing House.

Other Lutheran bodies

Here are only a few of the other Lutheran churches in the United States:

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS): WELS is in doctrinal agreement and church fellowship with the ELS.

Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC): This church was formed by people who left WELS and ELS because they believed that these synods delayed too long in breaking with the LCMS. The CLC maintains that a difference in the doctrine of fellowship exists between the CLC and WELS and ELS.
Lutheran Confessional Synod (LCS): This small synod was briefly in fellowship with WELS and ELS but abruptly terminated fellowship because of differences concerning the doctrine of church and ministry.

Most of the other small Lutheran churches in the United States originated either as break-off groups from the LCMS or from the ALC and its antecedent bodies (now in the ELCA). These churches are separated from WELS by specific viewpoints they have on church fellowship, church and ministry, charismatic gifts, or personal piety.

The specific viewpoints of these groups are briefly summarized in the book WELS and Other Lutherans, available from Northwestern Publishing House.

– John F. Brug is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon.