September 18, 2006

Baylor: Finally Someone Understands Us Lutherans

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:52 pm

I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for a while. It seems most people outside Lutherandom don’t really understand the Lutheran denominational landscape. But now my sense of being misunderstood is a bit assuaged by the Baylor University relgion survey, because they “get” us. But before I explain how Baylor got it right, let me bring up an egregious example of someone who got it horribly wrong.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCenturyIn Kevin Phillips’ book American Theocracy, he paints all American Lutherans with one very broad, conservative brush (p.214).

[T]he two major Lutheran denominations also tap a tradition of accommodating state power. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, arch-conservative and “corporatist”, regarded theirs as the one true church, followed the word of the Bible, upheld male authority, kept the German language as long as they could, and separated themselves from other faiths through parochial schools and church-related organizations. The evangelical Lutherans, as we have seen, came together in several stages from the multiplicity of German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lutheran churches of the upper Midwest, many of which were offshoots of state churches in the old country.

Pillips’ first error is a misunderstanding of the word “evangelical”. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Lutherans were calling their church “evangelical” long before the word was ever used to connote conservative biblical literalists. Luther didn’t name his new church “Lutheran” 500 years ago, he called it the “Evangelical” church, a term that has only recently been appropriated by conservative American Christians. In German, there are two distinct words, evangelikal and evangelisch, to differentiate between these two usages. Phillips seems to understand the word “evangelical” in the name of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in its recent meaning, not its historical one.

Phillips describes the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod accurately. I was raised in a very liberal LCMS church, by their standards, but as an adult in the ELCA, I look back on it as being fairly conservative. No women pastors, the NIV Bible instead of the NRSV, prohibitions against LCMS pastors praying in public with non-LCMS clergy, and no discussion of gay marriage whatsoever. Many in the LCMS don’t consider us in the ELCA as real Lutherans, and barely Christian.

Somehow Phillips lumps the LCMS and ELCA together because ELCA churches were offshoots of state churches in Europe, and because we have the word “evangelical” in our name, so like the LCMS we must be theocrats waiting to mount a Christian coup de etat. And of course, Sweden is on the verge of imposing Biblical law as we speak because as we all know the state Evangelical Lutheran church in Sweden is so horribly conservative. (</sarcasm>)

Phillips had a point to make, that the country is turning into a theocracy, and he makes his data fit his conclusion. Now the country may be heading towards a theocracy (although I doubt it), but it’s not going the be Lutherans, and especially not ELCA Lutherans, leading the way.

Thank God for Baylor University. In the detailed report on the Baylor Religion Survey, we find this description of how they categorized Christians into “evangelical” vs. “mainline” protestant (p. 11):

Evangelical Protestant: Protestant groups that emphasize the authority of the Bible, salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, personal piety, and the need the share the “Good News” of Jesus Christ with others (i.e., to evangelize). A long list of theologically conservative denominations define this tradition, such as Anabaptist, Assemblies of God, Bible Church, […] Church of the Nazarene, Free Methodist, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian Church in America, Seventh-day Adventist, and Southern Baptist.

Mainline Protestant: Historical Protestant denominations that are more accommodating of mainstream culture, including American Baptist, Congegational, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal/Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran Church [in America], Presbyterian Church USA, Quaker, Reformed Church of America, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ.

This is exactly right (although the first sentence of their description of evangelicals describes me as well.) Baylor correctly classifies the LCMS as not only a different denomination, but a different branch of Protestantism, than the ELCA. And it’s not just Lutherans divided across evangelical and mainline, but Presbyterians and Methodists as well, and Episcopalians may be following suit.

The historical roots of mainline denominations matter less and less, and their underlying theological worldview matters more and more. If the ELCA disappeared tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t even consider an LCMS church, but would find myself very comfortable in most Episcopalian, United Methodist, UCC or PCUSA churches. In fact, these denominations are notable for their ecumenical bridge-building across the various mainline churches. More and more, “mainline” denotes a common Christian theology and worldview which is celebrated within many different traditions.

So Lutheran churches and denominational entities, like Lutherans themselves, can be found all across the conservative-to-liberal spectrum. To really pin down where they sit, we have to know what kind of Lutheran they are. If they are ELCA, they are truly mainline.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I feel much better, thank you.


  1. My experience is that there is, especially among evangelical protestants in the United States, an almost complete mystery about the nature of Lutheran Christianity. Are we “Catholic-light”?, are we “Bible-believing”, do we believe in the necessity of knowing Jesus as our personal savior?

    So I am not surprised in the least that a Baylor study would peg us wrong. Very wrong.

    I once read an article about Billy Graham, written by an evangelical, that lamented the fact that Lutherans seemed to distance themselves from the evangelical movement in the United States. There was a certain degree of puzzlement as to why in the world we would do such a thing. (I like Billy Graham, by the way).

    I have concluded that this misunderstanding comes from an underdeveloped ecclesiology among evangelicals, where the “church” is simply a meeting place for Christians, or a general descriptor for all Christians.
    Lutherans categorize ourselves as part of the “Church catholic”, and thus in the succession of asostolic teaching. Ask an evangelical what that means to them, and I suspect that you’ll get a slighly strange look, and then a question as to what Scripture verse you are referring to.

    My point is this – Lutheran Christianity is best viewed in terms of the whole church, which includes its history, traditional teachings, and concept of a corporate relationship with Christ, through which we develop our personal relationships. This type of thought is foreign to those churches whose roots lie in 19th century America, and who view church history as largely irrelevant, because all we need to do is read the Bible.

    Hence the gap in understanding.

    Comment by Buckeye Bob — September 20, 2006 @ 9:13 am

  2. Being a Lutheran for a very long time, but worshipping with many denominations because of
    my 20 years in the Air Force, I have come to appreciate the meaning of evangelical. I am a
    Bee-Bop Lutheran that will spread the word, open the door, welcome the stranger, and oppose
    people who try to make the church exclusive.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t talk about Jesus. I will admit that I’m genltal with them and
    don’t threaten them with hell or anything. I do invite them to heaven or church or just
    our Wednesday evening dinner. I let people know I believe that Jesus is my Savior and I
    follow the guidance of Peter and Paul

    Comment by Thea — October 7, 2006 @ 4:07 am

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