The Authority of the Church in the World: A Lutheran Perspective

This essay is slightly revised from a paper delivered at a meeting of the Faith and Order Commission, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, St. Louis, Missouri, October 11, 2002.

[1] According to current statistics, there are over 65 million Lutherans in the world. Most of these (61.7 million) are members of churches belonging to the Lutheran World Federation, “a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition” that was founded in 1947. The LWF has 136 member churches within 75 countries around the globe.1

[2] The history of the Lutheran Church, in its own self-understanding, begins in the apostolic era, but its own separate identity began as a reforming movement within the western Church that was initiated on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther attached the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church (Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, Germany. A church is considered Lutheran if it affirms the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as its primary confessional document, conferring upon it an authoritative place after the Scriptures,2 the ancient ecumenical creeds, and doctrinal positions that prevailed in ancient councils (e.g., the Council of Chalcedon on the nature of Christ). Typically Lutheran churches also affirm the other documents contained in the Book of Concord, particularly Luther’s Small Catechism, but they give differing degrees of authority to them.3 The Lutheran churches have typically maintained much of their pre-Reformation inheritance, including the mass (reformed according to Reformation principles) and various rites and practices (e.g., the church year, confirmation, vestments, and traditional architecture). Due to various historical developments, such as Rationalism and Pietism, however, some of the early Reformation traditions have been lost. Today there are movements in various directions. Some Lutherans seek to recover traditions and practices from the Reformation era (e.g., weekly Eucharist, the sign of the cross, and the use of eucharistic vestments), while others seek a more general, less confessional and even non-denominational, Protestant identity.

[3] There are over 8.5 million Lutherans in North America.4 Most Lutherans in the U.S. belong to congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (over 5.1 baptized members) or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (over 2.6 baptized members). Still others belong to smaller denominations.5 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (also an LWF member church) has 189,654 baptized members.

[4] The only Lutheran denomination in the U.S. that has full membership in the LWF, the NCCCUSA, and the WCC is the ELCA.6 Because that is so, and considering the purpose of this essay, what follows will be limited in such a way that “to be fair to other Lutheran churches” the topic is in fact “The Authority of the Church in the World: An ELCA Perspective.”

[5] The ELCA came into being officially on January 1, 1988, as a result of the merger of three predecessor Lutheran churches: The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. The ALC and LCA had been formed in 1960 and 1962, respectively, from the merger of other predecessors associated with various ethnic traditions.7 The AELC, formed in 1976, consisted of congregations that had left the LC-MS in consequence of changes within that body. The history of the ELCA can be traced back through its predecessors to the colonial era in the U.S. Its members belong to over 10,800 congregations located within 65 synods. One of the synods (Slovak Zion) is ethnically based, but the other 64 are geographical. The ELCA is in full communion with the Episcopal Church, USA, the Moravian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. At its Churchwide Assembly in 2001 it voted to accept an invitation to be a “partner in mission and dialogue” with Churches Uniting in Christ.

Formal Structures

[6] The “Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions” of the ELCA can be found on the internet ( For the sake of brevity in this essay, references to actual sections and full quotations of those documents will be few, since they can be found easily. Otherwise they will be indicated by their respective numbers within parentheses.

[7] After affirming that the highest authority in the church belongs to Christ, the Constitution spells out the three “expressions” of the ELCA. Those are congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization. These are interdependent, and all share the same confession of faith.

[8] The highest “legislative authority” within the ELCA is the Churchwide Assembly (12.11). The Churchwide Assembly meets biennially for several days. It is composed of “voting members” who are elected by the various synods in assembly. Each synod elects one person for every 6,500 baptized members within the synod and one person for every 50 congregations. The synod bishops and officers of the church are _ex officio_ voting members with voice and vote at the Churchwide Assembly. Since the beginning of the ELCA, there have been between 1000 and 1100 voting members at each Churchwide Assembly.

[9] The ELCA churchwide organization has four officers. These are the Presiding Bishop, the Vice President, the Secretary, and the Treasurer. The Vice President (who must be a layperson) serves as Chair of the Church Council. All four officers have six-year terms (renewable). The Treasurer is elected by the Church Council; the other three by the Churchwide Assembly. The Church Council meets at least twice a year and serves as the interim legislative authority between Churchwide Assemblies. It consists of 33 members elected at the Churchwide Assembly for a six-year term (not renewable), plus the four churchwide officers. It also has advisory members (voice but not vote); these are nine synodical bishops and two youth. Each synod has a synodical bishop, elected for a six-year term. In some synods there are no restrictions (term limits) for reelection; in others there may be restrictions (such as two terms). The synodical bishops, the Presiding Bishop, and the Secretary of the Church are members of the Conference of Bishops. This body, which meets at least twice a year, may make recommendations to the Presiding Bishop and to the Church Council.

[10] The ELCA has Offices, Departments, Divisions, and Commissions to carry out its work. The Division for Church in Society is a major unit for the expression of the church’s authority in the world:

This division shall assist this church to discern, understand, and respond to the needs of human beings, communities, society, and the whole creation through direct human services and through addressing systems, structures, and policies of society, seeking to promote justice, peace, and the care of the earth. (16.11.E97)
[11] Over the years the Division for Church in Society has produced social statements, messages, studies, resolutions on social issues for action by the Church Council (and through the Council to the Churchwide Assembly), and policy recommendations for the social ministry activities of the church. The Division maintains offices in both Washington and New York to represent the ELCA in the U.S government, foreign governments, and in the United Nations.

Lutherans in the Mix

[12] Lutheranism is quickly characterized by the great “solas” of its tradition (sola fidei, sola gratia, and sola scriptura), by its insistence upon the distinction (but not separation) between law and gospel, its emphasis on justification, its lesser-known capax formula (finitum capax infititi, “the finite is capable [of bearing] the infinite”), its sixteenth-century confessions, and its doctrine of the two kingdoms.

[13] In regard to its social witness the ELCA affirms that the Scriptures are normative, but it does not exclude the use of other sources. The sola scriptura principle does not exclude the use of other resources, for that principle had a very limited use in the Reformation era, i.e., a reforming one. That was to oppose ecclesiastical traditions that are contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. According to Lutheran teaching and practice, the Scriptures must be read, interpreted, and applied in light of the gospel of Christ. That viewpoint has been formulated in the slogan often attributed to Luther: “Scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child lies.”8 It is recognized that the Scriptures themselves, as well as their particular teachings, are variegated in authority. For Luther, as well as for the Lutheran tradition, whatever in Scripture presents and urges Christ upon us is apostolic and authoritative; the rest is less so.9

[14] In addition to Scripture, Lutherans draw upon tradition (creeds and confessions) and human reasoning in their social witness. Although Lutherans have been wary of “experience” (at least private experience) as a source for theological and ethical reflection, they have surely made use of it. Scripture, tradition, and reason alone, for example, can hardly have been the only sources in the decision of ELCA predecessor churches to ordain women in 1970 or in ELCA social statements concerning capital punishment, economic life, church-state relationships, and more. The experience of Lutherans (both as individuals and corporately) in modern American life has been a resource for theological andethical reflection.10

[15] Lutherans have three distinct (not necessarily unique) emphases to bring to the discussion of the authority of the church in the world. The three are closely related to one another. The first arises out of what has just been said concerning the use of theological resources. In regard to social issues, Lutherans do not ask solely, or even first of all, “What does the Bible say on this?” In keeping with the Scriptures and the confessions alike, Christians should make use of all the resources of wisdom, observation, and reason available in order to discern the present situation being addressed, and proceed with their use along with the teachings of the Scriptures and the confessions in the reaching of conclusions. There is a strong tradition within Lutheranism to ask and to insist upon answers to the questions: What is good for the neighbor? What is good for society? What builds up community?

[16] A second emphasis within Lutheranism is that a distinction must be maintained between law and gospel. According to Lutheran teaching, the Word of God comes to us as both law and gospel. If the distinction is not maintained, the gospel can be lost in favor of legalism, on the one hand; or on the other hand, the law can lose its power to create and sustain the common good in society. The law has two main uses.11 The “first use” (sometimes called the “political use”) “the only one relevant for our discussion here” has to do with God’s ordering of society in order to maintain discipline and to protect the community from those who would cause harm to it. That will mean that actual laws in society exist for the good of all, and therefore they are not immutable. Actual laws existing in Luther’s day and place that maintained a class society, for example, and presupposed a society in which all were baptized Christians have passed from the scene in modern Germany and are not a part of modern American civil law. In Lutheran thinking, law is good and necessary, but it is not immutable (even if it is biblical),12 and it must seek to serve the common good.

[17] A third, related emphasis within Lutheranism is the doctrine of the two kingdoms (or realms). The idea here is that God rules in two distinct but related ways. In the temporal realm of human existence (the “kingdom on the left”) God is active through the law to create and to maintain order, peace, and justice and to oppose violence and injustice. Law, good government, judicial systems, and armed forces are all instruments of God for achieving those ends. In the spiritual realm of human existence (the “kingdom on the right”), however, God wills that all people know the divine love, grace, and eternal promises given in Christ. The gospel, the church, and the ministry of Word and Sacrament are the instruments for those ends.

[18] The strengths, weaknesses, and adequacy of the doctrine of the two kingdoms have been debated since the Reformation, not least by Lutherans themselves.13 At its worst it has led to the separation of religion from politics. In practice the doctrine has sometimes given to the state a political autonomy not intended, tolerating injustices and tyranny – precisely the opposite of what was intended! The two kingdoms ethic is often cited as the basis for “Lutheran quietism.”

[19] The world inhabited by Lutherans today is very different from that of the sixteenth-century Reformation. For example, the distinction between those who govern and those who are governed no longer exists as it did, particularly in a modern democracy. Moreover, living in a time and place where the Christian faith was deeply rooted, Luther assumed that the civil authorities would protect the church so that the gospel could be preached. That cannot be presumed in every part of the globe that Christians inhabit today. In fact, the freedom to worship and to preach the gospel may be a human rights issue in some countries; and if and when that is so, persons from other countries will then have to insist upon the human rights of those victimized.

[20] In spite of its problems, the doctrine of the two kingdoms continues to have importance in Lutheran social thought. Perhaps the main point to this would be that Lutherans are able to participate fully in a pluralistic society, believing that others “persons of other denominations, religions, and even persons of no religious commitments” who work for the common good are serving God and God’s “kingdom on the left.” Lutherans are also therefore able to recognize and accept ambiguity and differing points of view when they are based on reason, evidence, and deliberation. Christian faith does of course have a role to play in the shaping of the convictions and motivations of both the individual Christian and the church in society. The reading of Scripture, the proclamation of the Word (both law and gospel), and the work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians awaken them to the needs of their neighbor and the needs of society. But there is not always a distinct “Christian” answer to social issues. The means by which human needs are to be met are matters of reason, law, and justice.

[21] One way that Lutherans in the ELCA have come to speak of “the authority of the church in the world” that reflects both the Lutheran tradition and modern social and political realities is spelled out in the ELCA Constitution under the section on the Purpose of the Church. That is that the ELCA pledges itself to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction” (4.03.n). The words “institutional separation” and “functional interaction” hold in tension some basic Lutheran convictions about the nature of the church, the purposes of and validity of the state, the necessity of the church to have a voice in society, the possibility of its being able to learn from secular sources, and an awareness of its calling to promote civil life under the reign of God for all of God’s children.

End Notes

1 Statistics are taken from Lutheran World Information online (September 17, 2002). This and other publications can be accessed through the website of the Lutheran World Federation (

2 The distinction between Scripture and the confessions is, respectively, between norma normans (norming norm) and norma normata (a normed norm).

3 The Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, speaks of 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” but accepts other confessional writings in the Book of Concord as “as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church” (2.05-2.06). The standard edition of the confessional documents in use is The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

4 Statistics in this paragraph are from Lutheran World Information online (August 7, 2002). For a comprehensive history, cf. The Lutherans in North America, ed. E. Clifford Nelson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

5 Twelve “Lutheran Bodies” of the U.S. are listed in The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2001, ed. Eileen Lindner (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 163. Among these are the American Association of Lutheran Churches, the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and others.

6 The ELCA belongs to all three groups. It should be added, however, that the (5000 member) Lithuanian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Diaspora, whose bishop resides in Oak Park, Illinois, is also a member of the LWF.

7 The ethnic associations are generalizations. In any case, the ALC of 1960 was a merger of the former ALC of 1930 (German), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish); the Lutheran Free Church (Norwegian) joined the ALC in 1963. The LCA was a merger of the former American Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish), the Augustana Lutheran Church (Swedish), the Suomi Lutheran Church (Finnish), and the United Lutheran Church in America (German, Icelandic, and Slovak).

8 The actual quotation is: “Here [in the Scriptures] you will find the swaddling cloths and manger in which Christ lies.” Quoted from Martin Luther, “Prefaces to the Old Testament,” Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-76), 35:236. A similar saying appears in LW 35:122.

9 Martin Luther, Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, LW 35:396: “All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ”.”Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.”

10 The use of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as sources for authority is often called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” One might wonder whether it has become virtually universal among major Christian denominations. A major statement of it (critiqued by others) is that of Albert C. Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral In John Wesley,” Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, ed. Thomas A. Langford (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 75-88.

11 The so-called “third use” of the law (as a guide for the reborn) has been debated since the Reformation era, but ELCA theologians will typically say that there is no material distinction between it and the first use. The “second use” is to accuse persons, make them aware of the sin in their lives, and thereby drive them to Christ in repentance.

12 An important essay on this is by Martin Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” Luther”s Works, 35.155-174.

13 One example is that of Eric W. Gritsch and Robert O. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 179-90.