Agnostic Lutheran

What is a Lutheran?

What if you attended a Lutheran church for years and had no idea what a Lutheran is.

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Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

Attributed to Martin Luther

I sang at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu off and on for perhaps 15 years before my wife and I started attending services regularly in 2017. During that time, I had no idea what a Lutheran was other than that it was a Christian denomination and had something to do with Martin Luther. Eventually, I found it worthwhile to get a better understanding of Lutheranism.

For believers, there might be no final answer to what it means to be a Lutheran because insight can grow forever. But these are the topics of interest to me at this time:

  1. Who was Martin Luther?
  2. What was his connection to the Protestant Reformation?
  3. In general terms what do Lutherans believe?
  4. What are examples of how Lutheran denominations differ from each other?
  5. In particular, what is Reconciling in Christ and why did it—and continue to—cause so much controversy?

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who came to a significant insight into the relationship we have with God:

In these days Luther was tormented by the demand for righteousness before God. “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.” Then, in the midst of that struggle with God, the message of the Scriptures became clear, like a long-shut door opening wide…

What Luther discovered is the freedom of Christians trusting God’s mercy in Christ

[Emphasis mine]Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The bolded text in the quote above stood out to me. For Luther to state that he hates God—righteous or otherwise—is remarkable given that, by all accounts, he was quite devout.

What is meant by “the freedom of Christians trusting God’s mercy in Christ”? What are they freed from or free to do? Luther’s great epiphany was in realizing that a merciful God has already granted, by grace, our salvation—whatever that may mean—when the journey of this life ends and eternal life begins. There is no need to live in fear of God’s righteous judgement.

So, they have been freed from the worry of meeting the demands of the righteous God and are free to follow the teachings of the merciful God to the best of their abilities.

I once joked that there are versions of God that I would prefer to disbelieve more than others. I would certainly prefer to disbelieve in a merciful God. However, I would hope that God’s mercy extends to all and not just Christians.

Luther and the Protestant Reformation

In 1517, Luther, now an Augustinian monk and lecturer at a university in Wittenberg, Germany, published his 95 Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The 95 Theses was Luther’s attempt to curb what he felt were abuses of the practice of indulgences[1].

Luther’s focus was in reforming the Catholic Church. He had no interest in breaking away from it. But instead, he was excommunicated in 1521 and his continuing persistence in pushing for the reforms he felt were vitally important eventually sparked the Protestant Reformation.

What do Lutherans Believe?

According to The Lutheran World Federation, there are 77 million Lutherans in 99 countries across the globe. Do they all believe the same things? Surprisingly, no. 😉

However, I’d say that the following are beliefs that many have in common:

Trinity Wheel
Trinity Wheel
  1. God’s gift of salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God who died for our sins on the cross and rose to life.
  2. God is eternal, transcendent[2], and the creator of all.
  3. God is a trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—coequal and coeternal.
  4. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.
  5. The Bible is the foundational document for all matters of faith.

This list is, of course, hardly definitive and you can spend a millennium or two pondering any of them. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what has happened.

In any event, Lutherans are not in agreement on all matters of faith and in some cases the differences are quite significant.

Differences In The American Lutheran Synods

The article Differences in Lutheran Churches and Synods identifies four major American Lutheran synods[3]:

  1. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
  2. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)
  3. The American Association of Lutheran Churches (TAALC)
  4. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)

It defines, in broad strokes, the differences between them:

Biblical Inerrancy [4]
Open [5]
Closed [6]
Closed Closed
Leadership Roles for Women All
Limited Limited
Same-sex Relationships Yes No No No

Reconciling in Christ (RIC)

The differences in attitudes regarding same-sex relationships indicated above needs further elaboration because this issue goes far beyond Lutherans.

ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation is an independent organization started in 1974. Its purpose:

Since 1974, ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation has advocated for the full welcome, inclusion, and equity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual/aromantic (LGBTQIA+) Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church, congregations, and community.

I’m not sure of the exact reasons why this organization was formed but the 70s was the period in which the AIDS epidemic was starting to take hold in America.

Because the disease affected (and killed) gay men in large numbers, it became highly politicized. “Homosexuality” was placed front and center in the news. “Gay Pride” became a force.

It also caused major rifts in religious communities, including Lutherans. Here is an example affecting ELCA, the largest of the American denominations:

Critics of the country’s largest Lutheran denomination and its more open stance toward gay clergy formed a new Lutheran church Friday at a meeting of a conservative activist group.

The overwhelming voice vote by members of the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal created the North American Lutheran Church, a tiny denomination of churches formerly affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, headquartered in Chicago.

As of early August, 199 congregations had cleared the hurdles to leave the ELCA for good, while 136 awaited the second vote needed to make it official…

The gay pastor issue was the tipping point for many Lutherans, but it followed serious concerns about the ELCA’s movement away from holy scriptures as the final authority for church beliefs…

Lutherans split over gay pastors, Bible beliefs
August 28, 2010 3:47 AM

The Lutheran Church of Honolulu (LCH), where my wife and I attend church services, became a Reconciling in Christ congregation in 1993. Note that the rift affected them too as some members of the congregation left when this happened.

That’s a Wrap

The purpose of this post was to acquaint myself a bit more on what it means to be Lutheran. For a deeper understanding, there have been many scholars and theologians that have discussed this for a very long time and will continue to do so.



[1] In the teaching of the Catholic Church, an indulgence (Latin: indulgentia, from indulgeo, ‘permit’) is ‘a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins’—Wikipedia

[2] Extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience—Merriam-Webster

[3] A regional or national organization of Lutheran congregations—Merriam-Webster

[4] The belief that the Bible is completely accurate and free from errors.

[5] Communion is open to all who have been baptized.

[6] Only people who belong to these synods or to churches that are recognized partners may receive Communion.

[7] These synods believe only men can serve as ministers. They also believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, which states in Timothy 2:12 that a woman cannot have authority over a man. Their belief is that women have a vital but subordinate role to play in the life of the church.

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By sbaptista

I talk to myself in public.

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1 year ago

Impressive and well-done research, Stan!

1 year ago
Reply to  Greg

Thanks Greg!