Saturday, January 19, 2013

What is a Lutheran anyway?

Some questions should be easy to answer but aren't. For example, many new people have been coming to our church lately, and they frequently come to us from other religious traditions (or no tradition at all). So they're curious, "What is a Lutheran, anyway?"

Similarly, many long-time members of Lutheran churches, although immersed in Lutheran culture and community since birth, struggle to articulate what makes Lutherans distinctive or unique, so one of the questions I hear frequently from Lutheran-since-baptism members is also, "What is a Lutheran, anyway?" -or- "What does it mean to be a Lutheran?"

Well, that's an excellent question, and it deserves an excellent answer. Yet the answer is more elusive than one might think. And it is elusive because before I can respond adequately, I would need to know whether you wanted:

The Historical Answer This one is pretty simple. A Lutheran is someone who participates in a church tradition that arose out of the Lutheran Reformation. There are lots of Protestant churches, and they all have their unique origins. The Reformed trace their roots to Geneva. Anglicans to England. Pentecostals to the Azusa Street Revival. Churches of Christ from the early 19th century Stone-Cambell Restorationist Movement. And so on. In each case, you tell the story of who you are at least in part from where you have come from.

The answer to the question from this perspective is simply to narrate the history. Lutheranism started in Northern Germany, centered out of Wittenberg, led especially by Luther and Melanchthon and Bugenhagen, and spread to many places in northern Europe. Those Europeans migrated to many places in North America, where they maintained their Lutheran heritage, often tightly tied to ethnic heritage, and today those various ethnic Lutheran churches have merged to form some denominational structures that still hold to the teachings and confessions of the original Lutherans. Many of those original ethnic communities have since seen their people move by way of secondary migration to form Lutheran communities even in places that weren't originally settled by Lutherans. Ours is one such place.

More could be told, including stories of global Lutheran missions. But I'm trying here to tell it simply, narrating how we got from there to here, here being Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The Confessional Answer Lutherans are Christians who subscribe, in addition to Scripture, to the Lutheran Confessions as a source and norm of their faith. You can read the Lutheran confessional documents on-line. Or you can purchase a really great collection of the confessional documents, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which includes a lot of great critical tools and essays that will tell you even more about what it means to be a Christian who has a specific confession.

For more on what it means to be a confessional Lutheran, you might also check out my essay, Why I'm a Confessional Lutheran.

The Theological Answer Most of us don't carry the constitution of our church around in our pockets. Nevertheless, the model constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our denomination, includes a Confession of Faith that I reproduce here. To read the whole constitution, visit the ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations:

*C2.01. This congregation confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
*C2.02. This congregation confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
    a. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
    b. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
    c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
*C2.03. This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
*C2.04. This congregation accepts the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this congregation.
*C2.05. This congregation accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
*C2.06. This congregation accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.
*C2.07. This congregation confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scripture and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.

The Denominational Answer Just visit the denominational web site, and browse around. It does a spectacular job of interpreting what it means to be a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can also visit the great Lutheran blog clearing house, Living Lutheran, for even greater insight into what daily Lutheran life looks like across the country.

The "I Want to Read Some Books" Answer This one isn't for everyone, but many people really do want to have a few good recommendations on what it means to be Lutheran, or how to get introduced to Lutheranism. Here are my top five (I already linked to The Book of Concord above). The first is kind of the "classic" from a theological perspective, the second is the three greatest essays of Luther himself, the third is a novel about the development of Lutheranism in Sweden over three generations, and is a powerful narrative of the development of Lutheranism, the fourth is Lutheranism in contemporary feminist perspective, and the fifth is an amazing recent and exhaustive book on the history of the Reformation:

Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings

The Lutheran Swagger Answer You can read my blog post, 11 Reasons Why I'm Proud to Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It's been read thousands of times, and summarizes a lot of additional resources to learn more about being Lutheran today.


  1. The only thing about Lutherans that REALLY matters is the theology. The rest is nice -- but not really necessary.

  2. Perhaps, but I tend to find that people really are interested in many of the other questions. And the theological answer is one we share ecumenically with many other denominations, it is not our exclusive domain.

    I also think many people operate from the congregational answer--not so much why Lutheranism, but why this specific congregation. And that is also an important consideration.

  3. Thank you for this. I just had several friends ask me What is a Lutheran/Why Are You Lutheran this past week. I will share this with them.

  4. Clint, you are right in pointing out that "...the theological answer is one we share ecumenically with many other denominations, it is not our exclusive domain." I acknowledge your perspective Clint. You are asking, "What makes Lutherans special today?" However, from my perspective, the influence of Lutheran theology on the rest of Christianity IS what makes the Lutheran tradition special today. Every Protestant church is related to the Lutheran tradition in terms of Lutheran theology -- which is why the Lutheran tradition continues to be relevant in a divergent nation like ours and in extremely diverse neighborhoods like mine. Lutherans are the standard bearers for Reformation theology. One would hope that it's in our DNA... so who better than Lutherans to help form, critique, and bear witness to the coming reform of main-line protestantism? After all, Lutherans are most intimately connected group of Christians to the Reformation tradition. Church cultures change and evolve. Often they are married to ethnic tradition as much as Christian tradition. Cultural traditions change with technologies and the times. The story of our history change as time goes on and perspectives grow. Denominations are born, grow, shrink, merge and die -- but the Gospel as distilled by Martin Luther will continue influence perceptions of Christian faith, piety, callings for as long as there is a Christian church. So doesn't the influence of Lutheran theology among all Christians to one degree or another make Lutherans special? I think it does -- and I think it is more important than the latest manifestation of "Lutheranism" in Christian culture or ELCA Lutheran churches for that matter. It's not that Lutheran culture isn't important. It is. However, I think we are going to find -- sooner that some think -- that the relevance of "Lutheranism" and the ability of our culture evolve, reform, transform, and emerge in the coming years will heavily depend upon how well Lutherans build and rebuild upon our theological foundation. That's my two cents.


  6. Anonymous12:59 AM

    An excellent set of pointers. Thank you. I came across the confession of faith just a couple of months ago. In a way all the Protestant Churches can trace their lineage to Luther's Church.

    On an unrelated note I have found ELCA folks to be the friendliest people that I have come across anywhere.