ELCA vs. LCMS / WELS: How Lutherans Read the Bible


There is a rift in American Lutheranism that may never be recovered from. The two sides are described as “conservative” and “liberal.” The rift goes far deeper than personal politics. The real underlying rift in Lutheranism—and in Christianity—centers on how we read and interpret the Bible.

If you read other blogs on the Internet you’ll find several so-called Christians who slam each other’s beliefs without fully understanding them. Like everyone, I have my own opinion but don’t feel that it’s anymore justified or genuine and any other.

Two Ways to Read the Bible?

In the last 100 years or so, a new “historically-critical” way to read the bible has emerged. This is the view that has been largely accepted by the ELCA. The historically-critical method concedes that all of the Bible may not be historically accurate. Since the early 1900’s science has produced many discoveries, which some feel contradict with Scripture. Groups like the ELCA admit that the Bible is the “Inspired Word of God” but allow greater latitude in Scriptural Interpretation.

The second way to read the Bible is the “Biblical inerrant” method. This is the method used by conservative Lutheran groups such as the LCMS and the WELS. This belief states that the Bible is the perfect and true Word of God in which Scripture is seen as without error. It should be noted that even churches that subscribe to the Biblical inerrant method usually allow a certain latitude of interpretation.

This split goes far beyond Lutheranism and exists I various forms thought American Christianity and Judaism.

(See The Bible Among Lutherans in America by Erik M. Heen)

Ordination of Women Pastors

100 years ago most American Lutherans were on the same page of how they should read the Bible. This changed slowly over time. The first watershed moment was in the 1970’s when the three major churches that would later become the ELCA allowed for the ordainment of women pastors. This was a blatant and obvious refusal of Biblical inerrancy (1 Tim. 2:11-12), (1 Cor. 14:33-34). The ELCA would later make similar statements on issues such as same-sex unions, which are also against the Biblically inerrant interpretation of Scripture.

The ELCA didn’t invent the historical-critical view of the Bible, they just embraced it. The ordination as women pastors is currently a good benchmark of a church group’s view of the Bible. Many North American groups ordain women while there are several others that don’t. The split is wide and continues to grow.

Is One Way ‘More Lutheran’ than the Other?

Luther had his own way of looking at the Bible. For Luther, Christianity didn’t center on the text of the Bible, it centered completely on Christ. Luther wasn’t historically critical of the Bible but he was highly critical of the Christology of certain books. Luther rejected that the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation could be the true Word of God. In fact, in Luther’s translation of the Bible these books are moved to the back.

I would say being critical of the Bible is a very “Lutheran” thing but it comes with a very large caveat. Martin Luther was a doctor of theology and was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He had the knowledge and ability that is well beyond many modern pastors. I would err on the side of extreme caution with any pastor or bishop who tries to explain Scripture any differently than the traditional view.

As far as Luther goes; I’m pretty sure if he were alive today he would probably be embarrassed of the Lutheran church (on both sides) and seek to reform it!

A Plea for Peace

I have lost hope that the Lutheran church in America can be reunited. What is going on in Lutheranism is just a microcosm of a trend that proliferates all Christian sects in America. As long as people interpret the Scripture differently the trend will continue.

This is nothing new. Differences in opinion regarding Scripture have been going on for thousands of years. From the First Council of Nicaea to the modern day—Christians have always disagreed in some fashion.

As Christians, the best we can do is to try to understand each other’s faiths, even if we don’t agree and do our best to make Christ the center of our lives. If we seek to understand each other’s views we are more likely to respect each other but ignorance will most certainly lead to fear and hatred.

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