We use four words to describe the Lutheran movement: evangelical, catholic, ecumenical and reforming. Since several of those words need some definition, read on:
Evangelical means centered in the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) chose to use this word in its name because it expresses the heart of Lutheran theology. (The term evangelicals is often used today to refer to conservative Christians, fundamentalists, and the “religious right.”)
Justification by grace through faith is a defining phrase for Lutherans.
- + Lutheran theology is centered in grace, God’s unconditional love for us.
- + Justification refers to the way we are made right with God despite our sin and self-centeredness.
- + The Church at the time of Martin Luther was corrupt in many ways and the medieval view at that time was that you earned salvation and your way to heaven through good works. Martin Luther taught that we are justified by grace, not works.
- + Grace means that everything begins with God’s initiative.
- + Our relationship with God is not determined by our good works, our behavior or our being holy and spiritual. Rather God loves and accepts us unconditionally. In baptism we receive the gift of God’s never-ending love.
- + Our faith, our service and our good works are a response to God’s gracious initiative, not the way to earn it. Our whole lives are a response to what we receive in baptism.
Lutherans and the Bible
- + Lutherans read the Bible through the lens of the gospel, the good news. The gospel is the message of forgiveness, freedom, new life, unconditional love and acceptance that we receive through Christ.
- + Lutherans do not give equal weight to all of the Bible; Martin Luther taught that the proclamation of the gospel had ultimate authority.
- + Lutherans define the Word of God first as Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
The Word is also the proclamation of the gospel (in preaching, sacraments and through word and deed).
- + The Bible is the Word of God in that it bears witness to the gospel of Christ.
Lutherans are catholic—part of the universal Church through the ages and around the world.
In the Nicene Creed we say we believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Lutherans embrace the fullness of the Church’s tradition.
Lutherans claim to be part of the catholic (small c) Church rather than a separate sect.
To be catholic means:
- + we share in share in common the central articulation of the Christian faith in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds;
- + we honor and share the scriptures as the authoritative source and norm for our proclamation;
- + we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and holy communion;
- + we use a liturgy with a basic form in common with Christians around the world and through the ages;
- + we use a lectionary (cycle of scripture readings) in common with a majority of Christians around the world.
What makes it catholic?
Though many Protestants may have not observed these traditions in the centuries after the Reformation, many of these ancient practices are being reintroduced. Actually, many of these traditions are not just Roman Catholic, but are observed by Anglicans, Orthodox, many Lutherans and other Protestants.
Some catholic traditions include:
- + stained-glass windows
- + altar, cross and candles
- + processions
- + celebrating the seasons of the church year such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost
- + seasonal traditions such as the Advent wreath, ashes on Ash Wednesday, a palm procession on Palm Sunday
- + celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday
- + wearing albs (white robes) and other vestments
- + making the sign of the cross, bowing and kneeling
- + chanting
Lutherans in the ELCA are committed to the oneness and unity we have in Jesus Christ.
We seek healing for the brokenness and divisions of the Church through history.
We strive for unity in order that our witness to the world will be stronger and more effective.
The ELCA is in full communion with these denominations:
- + The Episcopal Church
- + The Moravian Church
- + Presbyterian Church, USA
- + Reformed Church in America
- + United Church in Christ
- + United Methodist Church
Full communion means:
- + a common confession of the Christian faith;
- + mutual recognition of Baptism and a sharing of the Lord's Supper;
- + allowing for joint worship and an exchange of members;
- + mutual recognition and availability of ordained ministers to the service of all members of churches in full communion, subject only but always to the disciplinary regulations of the other churches;
- + a common commitment to evangelism, witness and service;
- + a means of decision making on critical issues of faith and life;
- + a mutual lifting of any condemnations that exist between churches.
The ELCA is involved in ecumenical dialogues with these denominations:
Roman Catholic, Orthodox, African Methodist Episcopal, Mennonite; and inter-faith dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
Lutherans and Roman Catholics:
A joint statement by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican removed the mutual condemnations of Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the 16th century over justification, and offers the possibility of greater unity between these churches.
Sometimes Lutheranism is defined as a “reforming movement” within the Church catholic.
In each age the gospel continues to challenge the Church to be faithful.
We are reforming because we continue to adapt traditions or social teachings in order that they will further the proclamation of the gospel.
Changes in worship over the past several decades:
- + Ordination of women and women leading worship;
- + Use of contemporary language (from “thou” to “you”);
- + Use of inclusive language for people;
- + Use of expansive language and metaphors for God;
- + More leadership by lay people in the liturgy;
- + Music from diverse styles and ethnic traditions;
- + Recovering of catholic worship traditions
The ELCA seeks to be faithful to the GOSPEL while addressing the ever-changing contemporary situations in society.
The ELCA produces social statements as a prophetic voice to society on issues such as abortion, human sexuality, criminal justice, the death penalty, care of creation and economic injustice.
At the same time, there is a sense that individual members of the ELCA may come to different conclusions based on their own conscience and beliefs.
Sometimes positions of the Church change as society changes:
- + the abolishment of slavery led to a commitment to civil rights;
- + divorce became more accepted;
- + as the role of women in society changed some denominations (including the ELCA) began ordaining women as pastors and bishops
- + as awareness and understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity has evolved, the ELCA joins several other denominations that allow the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships