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Q: “Can you explain the differences in the different Lutheran synods? What are the major differences between us (ELS) and the ALC, the LCA, the Missouri Synod (LC-MS) and the Wisconsin Synod (WELS)?”
A: Many who are not acquainted with the Lutheran denomination are frequently shocked to find out that there are at least 20 different “synods” in the United States alone that go by that name. It is, of course, wrong to assume that these synods had their origins simply in historical and nationality roots. The fact that a large majority of these 20 synods are not in fellowship with each other indicated that doctrine, and the practice of doctrine, is generally what keeps them functioning separately.
“How can there be doctrinal differences between the synods when they subscribe to the same Lutheran Confessions?” This is the obvious question. But not all the synods subscribe to the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions, nor do they all have unconditional subscriptions. The ALC and LCA, for example, practice only a conditional subscription, meaning that their pastors, teachers, and professors agree with the Lutheran Confessions on “in so far as” they agree with Scripture. This may sound good, but it naturally opens the door to almost any kind of teaching—even when it blatantly opposes confessional Lutheranism. For, what does it mean to say “in so far as”? Surely, a person of any doctrinal persuasion—for that matter, even a Mormon or a Jehovah Witness—could say the same thing: “I agree with the Confessions as long as they say what we feel Scripture says.”
But our synod’s position is that we subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions because we are convinced they are a correct exposition of Scripture itself. This is what it means to be confessional. Sad to say, much of American “Lutheranism” wants nothing to do with firm doctrinal statements, since this is perceived as abrasive and anti-ecumenical. Recently, one “Lutheran” writer took issue with the unaltered Augsburg Confession (the most popular of the Lutheran Confessions): “Hasn’t the time come to stop condemning those who do not agree with us? … In short, let’s have the articles only, shorn of their present condemnatory or argumentative extensions” (Lutheran Standard, January 24, 1986, p. 18).
A merger of the ALC and the LCA (as well as the AELC—the former Missouri Synod “Seminex” group) is scheduled for January 1, 1988. These synods share the very liberal approach to what it means to be “Lutheran,” and thus have no formidable barriers to overcome in bringing about their organizational unity. “We are in position to take doctrinal differences and fellowship prohibitive,” says ALC president, David Preus. The reason he said this is because he perceives Lutherans as recognizing, “agreement in the gospel as sufficient for expressing unity, even when disagreement persists on other matters of he Christian faith.”
Probably the most serious issue dividing us from the LCA and the ALC is the higher critical method of interpreting the Bible, a method used in their seminaries. This is the view that the 66 books of the Bible we have in our possession today contain a number of substantive errors due to a lengthy process of oral transmittal over thousands of years. For this reason the new constitution for the 1988 merger conveniently leaves out the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible.
Our ELS has maintained solid altar and pulpit fellowship with the WELS from the days of the Synodical Conference. We rejoice over this unity. At the same time, we are saddened that certain issues (women’s suffrage, church fellowship, synodical discipline, etc.) keep us separated from the LC-MS, once the catalyst of the Synodical Conference.
It is our sincere hope and prayer that God will grant true unity only on the basis of his Word of truth and nothing less.