Jonathan Naumann challenges some of the misconceptions about Lutherans and their attitude to the Catholic faith and sketches the particular witness of the Missouri Synod

If you don’t know that much about Lutherans or Lutheranism, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lutheranism is a ‘liberalizing’ influence in Christendom today. If you were ignorant of its history, you might think of the Lutheran movement as the result of a rebellious monk being followed by even more rebellious modern counterparts. As a Lutheran pastor in Britain in the Eighties and Nineties, I remember fielding comments from people who had heard that the Lutheran church in Denmark was pioneering homosexual marriage long before it was making headlines in the English-speaking world. And didn’t Lutheran state churches in Scandinavia pioneer women priests and other things now associated with ‘progressive’ Christianity?

Now that I serve in a culture that knows a lot about Lutherans (Pennsylvania), I still have to explain myself when I say that I am a Lutheran who complies with traditional Christian doctrine and practice. I compare the situation to that of a dysfunctional family.

In a dysfunctional family, you can easily picture the children divided between compliant children and rebellious children. In the Lutheran family, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) are the compliant children. We do not go our own way. We are interested in conserving the heritage of historic belief that has come down to us through our Fathers in the faith. We are loyal to what is Catholic and ancient with an aversion to novelties in religion. We are compliant to the Scriptures, however unfashionable the apostolic word may sound to modern ears.

Origins and history

Part of the romantic trend in the nineteenth century, that included the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism, the Confessional Lutheran movement also sought to revive the venerable theology of the past. C.EW Walther and others revived the almost forgotten formularies and writings of the original Lutherans of the Reformation era. The founders of the LCMS fled Dresden Germany for St Louis specifically in order to practice freely the orthodox Lutheranism that was being persecuted by more progressive forces back in the German lands in the 1840s.

Even in the sixteenth century, the Lutheran Church was far more conservative than any of the new churches that sprang up in Europe. Like Luther himself, the Lutheran movement was not radically reformed. The argument of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 was that Lutheran churches were faithful to the Catholic faith, even though they disagreed with the administration of the Pope at the time, Leo X, who had excommunicated them for their disapproval of his ‘indulgence sales’ campaign.

Unlike radical Protestants, Lutherans did not go about smashing images, demolishing cathedrals, churches and monasteries. Nor did Lutherans give the sacraments a diminished role in their spirituality. Lutherans always upheld baptismal regeneration and the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Lutheran catechism encourages private confession and absolution. Episcopal polity was difficult to maintain without the approval of the Roman hierarchy, but an ordained ministry served Lutherans through an unbroken succession of clergy, if not bishops.

Expansion and achievements

Today the LCMS is the largest of the Confessional Lutheran churches in the world. Originally German-speaking, most Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches use English, but some offer worship services in other languages. The Synod’s website highlights the churches’ long history of reaching out to others. LCMS World Mission trains, sends and supports called career missionaries and appointed volunteer missionaries throughout the USA and in other countries. Ministry to African-Americans has been a solid part of the Synod for more than 100 years. In addition, our Library for the Blind produces sermons and devotional literature, and of the approximately 90 deaf congregations maintained by all religious denominations, more than 50 are members of the LCMS.

Well known for its emphasis on biblical doctrine and faithfulness to the historic Lutheran Confessions, the Synod also seeks new ways of proclaiming the Gospel. Concordia Publishing House is the nation’s fourth-largest Protestant publisher. The Synod operates the world’s oldest religious radio station, KFUO. Its programme, The Lutheran Hour, produced by the Synod’s International Lutheran Laymen’s League (LLL), has been aired in North America since 1930. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML), founded in 1942, serves as the Synod’s auxiliary for women and has been a leader in supporting missionary outreach in many areas.

Unlike many other churches, the LCMS has never been involved in a major merger. It is a member of the International Lutheran Council, but it does not belong to the Lutheran World Federation, to the National Council of Churches or to the World Council of Churches. The LCMS is in Altar and Pulpit Fellowship with more than 25 Partner Churches.

Sharing the faith

The Synod has always had a great emphasis on education. In fact, its earliest congregations built schools before they built churches. In the LCMS there are ten colleges, two seminaries, 91 high schools and the nation’s second-largest parochial elementary school system. The LCMS has congregations in all sections of the USA, but the heaviest concentration of its membership continues to lie in the Midwest.

The Synod has built and maintains a large network of Lutheran hospitals, nursing homes, human care and adoption agencies to serve the sick, the elderly, victims of abuse, those struggling with addictions, and many others coping with difficult situations and transitions in life.

LCMS dioceses, called ‘districts’, assist its congregations in developing and fostering vibrant ministries to bring the saving, life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ to people today. The district in which I serve is the non-geographical ‘English District’ – an unintentional tribute to my background in the Lutheran church in England, one of the LCMS’s sister churches in which I was ordained 25 years ago.

As with many compliant children in dysfunctional families, orthodox Lutherans deserve more credit than they get. But that is a cross we bear, whether as Lutherans or Anglicans, in a hostile world carrying out a common mission to share the life-giving Catholic faith from the past into the years ahead.