What Is the Most Conservative Lutheran Synod (How Is It Different from Other Lutheran Synods)?

As a pastor with many years of experience in the Christian ministry, I have a lot of respect for
The Lutheran Church since it boasts a rich history that’s guided the church for over 500 years.
But as with all other churches, changes took place, and splits were inevitable because of
differences in beliefs, practices, and doctrines. As a result, the last century has seen a rise in
liberal Lutheran churches and denominations whose practices and doctrines align with the
modern way of life rather than the original tenets that founded the Lutheran Church and now
form the conservative Lutheran churches. Among the many things I have always been curious
to know is what is the most conservative Lutheran synod?

While the largest conservative Lutheran Church Synod is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the most conservative church synod is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). Although WELS’ membership is only a quarter of LCMS, the WELS follows the most conservative doctrines.

In this article, I will shed light on the practices that set these conservative Lutheran synods
apart from all other Lutheran churches. Read on to learn this and much more!

What makes a Lutheran synod conservative or liberal?

Several theological beliefs and Lutheran practices have guided the Lutheran church since its formation, and these are the beliefs that are deemed conservative. In the conservative synods, things are done as they’ve always been, regardless of the changing times and needs of the church or the congregations. On the other hand, the liberal Lutheran synods have adopted new ways of running things, new practices, and belief systems in line with modern times. In other words, the liberal Lutheran churches are also the most progressive.

Differences between Conservative and Liberal Lutheran Churches 

Conservative Lutheran Beliefs

The conservative Lutherans follow the traditional Lutheran teachings and maintain the orthodox doctrines based on the Bible, unlike the liberal Lutherans who push the churches and denominations towards the left side of political and theological spectrums.

Two main principles in conservativism guide the conservative Lutherans

Bible’s Literal Interpretation 

According to conservative Lutherans, believers and bible readers must always interpret the Scripture literally. So, while the Bible tends to feature symbolic and figurative language, the readers cannot determine the activities that took place arbitrarily. So, in the Scripture in Isaiah 55:12, readers may figuratively interpret the trees clapping their hands, but when it comes to things like the Creation Story implied in Genesis 1-2, or even the commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), the scriptures must be interpreted literally.

Bible’s Authority for Religious Practices and Doctrines

The conservative Lutherans further believe in the Bible’s full authority. These churches fully yield to the Bible’s teachings and believe that the Bible isn’t the one to yield to the churches. So, churches, denominations, or leaders do not have the authority to determine the truth or falsehood, nor can they determine heresy or orthodoxy. And so, Lutheran church leaders are only deemed valuable if they reflect and live by the truths in the Bible. They also believe that the Scripture is errorless because the Holy Spirit inspired it.

The most conservative Lutherans are the WELS.

The WELS the 3rd largest and most conservative Lutheran Church. It only has 400,000 members, but unlike the ELCA, The WELS neither ordains women as clergy nor allows them to serve in the church’s leadership. The WELS believers also take everything in the Bible as the absolute truth with no room for interpretation.

Liberal Lutheran Churches

On the other hand, you have the progressive liberal Lutherans who make up a large chunk of the Lutheran churches. As with other progressive churches, the ELCA is the biggest Liberal Lutheran church with over 5 million members, possibly thanks to their modern, liberal beliefs.

ELCA is the newest of these Lutheran churches. It was founded in 1988. But what makes this Lutheran church stand out is that it was formed as a result of the merging of the ALC (American Lutheran Church), LCA (Lutheran Church in America), and AALC (Association of American Lutheran Churches) that used to belong to the Missouri Synod. These churches combined to form the most progressive of the Lutheran Churches – unlike the rest, progressive ELCA supports progressive practices like ordaining women, which the conservative Lutheran Synods are against.

These are the beliefs that divide the liberal and conservative synods. They include:

Latitude and restrictions on LGBT Issues

Unlike The WELS and LCMS Lutherans, who believe that marriage should strictly take place between one man and just one woman, the ELCA holds a differing belief and supports and allows congregations of different sexualities. The ELCA supports same-sex marriages, and they ordain women and congregants that identify with and belong to the LGBT groups.

Women’s clergy & Ordination

While the conservative Lutherans are against ordaining females as church leaders because they believe that the Bible didn’t allow it, the Liberal ELCA Lutherans support women clergy and ordain female church ministers.

Closed Communion

While the conservative Lutheran Synods like the WELS and LCMS are pretty strict regarding who they allow to partake in the Lord’s Table, it must be individuals whose lifestyles and faith have been vetted in the church’s membership process; the Liberal Lutheran churches are impartial. Liberal Lutherans like the ELCA have an open communion in which they offer bread and cup to all congregants.

 Ecumenical Worship Services

This type of service involves worship from other churches and denominations or religions. Conservative Lutherans believe that this kind of participation represents a form of compromise. The liberal Lutherans have contrarian beliefs, and they fully embrace such services for the promotion of social unity and to encourage religious tolerance.

Thoughts on Evolution and Creation

Unlike the conservative Lutherans who reject Darwinian evolution but believe in and fully embrace the creation doctrines with literal interpretations of the creation accounts implied in Genesis Chapters 1 & 2, liberal Lutherans support evolution and the scientific consensus on the subject of evolution and the creation of the universe.

With this in mind, liberal Lutherans also have progressive views on issues such as gender identity, marriage, and abortion.

It is worth noting that the intermediate, somehow progressive Lutheran church, The LCMS, is the second largest church. Although LCMS doesn’t allow their women to be ordained, the church allows women to take up leadership positions in service of the church. Like The WELS, the LCMS believes that the Holy Communion represents the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

How Is It Different from Other Lutheran Synods)?
What makes WELS the most conservative Lutheran synod? See below

What makes WELS the most conservative Lutheran synod?

WELS, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, also called the Wisconsin Synod, represents a theologically conservative American Confessional Lutheran denomination established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1850.

They follow Martin Luther’s teachings and are against or critical of homosexuality and women being elected as church leaders. This and the fact that they consider the Bible an actual authority for the church practices and doctrines make it the most conservative church. They are also very strict about who participates in the Holy Communion.

What are the social issues that define a conservative Lutheran synod?

The main social issue that defines the conservative Lutheran synod is the church’s critiquing homosexuality. The WELS and LCMS churches are against homosexuality, and this was one of the main things that Martin Luther held against the Catholic church. Since the conservative Lutheran teachings align with Martin Luther’s teachings, the main issue the Lutheran church is against is homosexuality and LGBTQ issues.

Additionally, the WELS doesn’t allow or ordain women into church leadership because they believe it’s not commanded or outlined in the Bible. 

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