Lutherans can you explain the synods?

I realize in America there are 3 major synods. Wisconsin (WELS), ELCA, and Missouri. What’s the differences? Why the division? Some seem so Catholic I wonder do any believe in the real presence in the Eucharist. Forgive me. I’m not familiar much with them.

Regarding the question about the Real Presence: Lutherans, definitionally, believe in the Real Presence. This is because every Lutheran accepts the Augsburg Confession, which states in article 10 (quoting from the Kolb-Wengert translation):

X. Concerning the Lord’s Supper

Concerning the Lord’s Supper it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and are distributed and received there. Rejected, therefore, is also the contrary teaching.

If one calls himself “Lutheran” and rejects the Real Presence, he is in no way a Lutheran, even if he should be a member of a Lutheran church body, since “Lutheran” indicates holding to a particular confession.

Disclaimer: I have never been WELS, nor do I know any WELS Lutherans. So, I will say only this about them, and let others fill the rest in: Of the major bodies, WELS is the most conservative.

I have been both LCMS and ELCA. I was married LCMS, and have family who are LCMS (they followed me), and attend an LCMS institution for my Master’s. I am currently, officially, ELCA.

The main differences between them are these:

  1. The LCMS officially rejects historical criticism and holds to a six-day creation. The ELCA accepts historical criticism and evolution.
  2. The LCMS practice closed communion, where only members of an LCMS congregation or a sister church with whom the Synod has “Altar and Pulpit Fellowship” may commune at an LCMS altar. The ELCA practices open communion, allowing all the baptized to commune; they also may share clergy with the Episcopalians and several others.
  3. The LCMS has male-only clergy. The ELCA allows women clergy.
  4. In the LCMS, each district is headed by a District President who makes no claim to Apostolic Succession. In the ELCA, each synod (confusing, I know) is headed by a bishop who does make claim to Apostolic Succession by way of the Episcopalians.
  5. The LCMS forbids homosexual unions. The ELCA allows them, though there are still conservatives and moderates who oppose them.
  6. The LCMS holds to the Book of Concord “because it is a true explanation of Scripture.” The ELCA holds to the Book of Concord “insofar as it is a true explanation of Scripture.”

Lutherans in America are, as a rule, quite congregational in polity. In my town at least, the ELCA church I attend has only three differences between the LCMS church I used to attend: 1) It has three pastors, and one is a woman; 2) the translation for the Divine Service is objectively worse; 3) it uses the Sign of Peace.

The division itself is largely due to historical immigration patterns, mergers, and theological disputes. The LCMS is mostly German, the ELCA has more Scandinavian ancestry. Both are the results of mergers of smaller Synods (the LCMS happened a while ago, while the ELCA came about more recently), each with their own internal debates. In the words of the senior pastor at the ELCA church: “We are often harshest with those with whom we are closest. Our division is that of a sibling rivalry.”


It is also said that LCMS and ELCA Lutherans become closer and closer the farther they are from Chicago (ELCA home) and St. Louis (LCMS).


If there is more bread and wine consecrated than is consumed in this particular service, does the “extra” bread and wine retain the Real Presence afterward? If so, how is it stored? If not, is there a sense that the Presence is contingent to this particular service?

Would Lutherans ever receive Communion consecrated at last week’s service?

A long-standing practice has been that Lutherans, in general, will not reserve the Sacrament. It is preferred to not consecrate “extra,” but I think the pastor is expected to consume whatever is left over.
On one side, those who deny that the Real Presence remains will reference the Words of Institution with the interpretation that a Sacrament is only a Sacrament in its context: i.e., that it is only the Real Presence within the context of the act of consecration and reception. However, on the other, I have had a professor dismiss this out of hand by quoting Isaiah 40:8 and 1 Peter 1:25 (“The Word of the Lord endures forever”). The former position is what I have heard most commonly.

There have been Lutheran church orders in the past that did things differently, but these generally fell into disuse after a short period, due to the polemical nature of the times (and Luther’s own opposition to such).

I think my wife would receive Communion from the previous week’s service, as I have expressed my disdain of the view that the Elements lose the Presence for years now. But a Lutheran who doesn’t have to put up with my theological rants and verbal ponderings every day? I don’t know, but I doubt many have ever had the need to think about it, since, if the practice exists today at all, it seems very rare.


While some of the divisions are over actual theological differences (ELCA for example is a bastion of liberal theology, while WELS and LCMS are more conservative), a lot of the historical differences resulted from immigration. Some Lutheran churches were established by German immigrants. Others were established by Scandinavian immigrant groups (for example there were Swedish Lutheran churches, Danish Lutheran churches, Norwegian Lutheran churches and Finnish Lutheran churches). Over the years, as these groups became Americanized they began to merge together into the bodies we have today.

The LCMS, for example, was founded as the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. WELS was founded as the German Evangelical Lutheran synod of Wisconsin.

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Not Lutheran, but in the nearby Reformed monastery the sisters, who strongly affirm Real Presence, go to the sacristy after each Eucharist to consume any consecrated leftovers.

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Generally speaking, the synods in the United States were formed along ethnic and linguistic lines by different groups immigrating to the United States in the 1800’s. The synods originating from places in Europe that were more influenced by pietism tend to be more liberal in their views of scripture and of the Lutheran confessions, whereas those from areas that rejected pietism tend to be more conservative in their views of scripture and the Lutheran confessions. Currently, the largest synods in North America consist of the LCMS, ELS, and WELS synods which are rather conservative in their theology, and the ELCA which basically coalesced some of the more pietism influenced ethnic synods into a single body along with break away congregations from the LCMS in the 1980s. The ELCA is extremely liberal in its theology and is regarded by most of the Lutheran bodies in America to be essentially apostate. ELS and WELS I believe have pulpit and altar fellowship and are closely related, whereas the LCMS does not currently have pulpit and altar fellowship with WELS or ELS. The main disagreement there is on what activities a synod may engage in without being considered as engaging in unionism. Otherwise, with regard to our confessions, these three synods are largely in agreement. Personally, I think that these differences may be ironed out over time so that all three synods may be in altar and pulpit fellowship with one another.


I think it depends. There are two schools of thought on this issue. Some people are consecrationists, meaning, upon consecration, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Other people are consumptionists, meaning, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for eating and drinking, and therefore the bread and wine become the body and blood when it is consumed in accordance with the Words of Institution. We have no doctrinal statement on which is correct. I think both sides have a point. However, if I were a pastor I think I would not make a statement affirming either side in this argument (scripture just doesn’t answer this question), but my practice would operate more along the lines of consecrationism if only because I think how you treat the Eucharist teaches something about what we believe in the sacramental union. Practice often shapes our views of things as much or more than stated doctrine.

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ELCA is also twice the size of all the others combined.

ELCA is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, which is more than twice as large as the other international Lutheran groups combined.

There are probably many in ELCA who think those other denominations are “essentially apostate.” But they are only a minority in the much larger ELCA, while they may predominate in LCMS, WELS, et al.

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Luckily apostasy can be objectively demonstrated when one looks at the scriptures, creeds, and Lutheran confessions. It isn’t a subjective issue.

So an example that may be applicable to you, Pew Research Polls demonstrate that two-thirds of Catholics do not agree with the Church teaching on the Eucharist. The governing authority on your doctrine is not popular opinion but your Catechism. It can be objectively shown that on that issue, many Catholics are not faithful to that teaching, for whatever reason (misunderstanding, poor catechesis, or just willful disagreement).


That is an excellent example. The Pew study was flawed, both answers were technically correct.

It is just as difficult to judge apostasy, with many mistakes made in judging what is objectively true.

While I would agree that Chicago tends toward theological liberalism, the situation in the pew is different. If one wishes to judge every ELCA congregation based on what the leadership and some outliers do, I fear that does little to aid the conversation among Lutherans. There are equally harmful assumptions about the LCMS made by ELCA Lutherans.

In the last two years of me being in any sense confessionally Lutheran, I gave up judging based on the acronym on the sign out front. Lutherans are far too congregational in this country to paint with a broad brush. Just as there are ELCA congregations I would never want to be associated with, there are LCMS congregations as well.

I had hoped when I switched Synods that I could eventually be a positive influence on the ELCA, and be a means to a greater Christian unity between the LCMS and ELCA. I found I simply don’t have the stamina to fight on every front. I can neither defend the LCMS nor the ELCA broadly. I can and will, however, defend the reputations and honor of the theologians and pastors who honestly seek, teach, and preach Christ and who happen to be in one or the other Synod.

I don’t think anyone can disagree that the state of American Lutheranism, let alone worldwide Lutheranism, is a disgrace. And all who have ever borne the confession “Lutheran”, including myself, need to repent for our part in the division.


I don’t know how anyone in the ELCA could logically lodge an accusation like that at the LCMS or WELS when goddess worship takes place in the ELCA. No discipline against the offending clergy took place. Some clergy in the ELCA also deny the Resurrection.
The LCMS and WELS would remove pastors committing such abominable offences despite being congregational bodies. They have removed clergy over less serious matters too.

All three–and Lutheran denominations in general–believe in the Real Presence, but reject the Catholic understanding (Transubstantiation) in favor of a formulation called Sacramental Union.

If you want the quick explanation of the differences, the ELCA is significantly more liberal than the WELS and LCMS. The LCMS is fairly conservative and the WELS is really conservative. I think the fourth largest is the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), which falls between the ELCA and LCMS–indeed, it was founded in 2010 by former ELCA members who thought the denomination had grown too liberal, but were not conservative enough to join the LCMS.

It’s one thing to remove a person from position as pastor. But do the various Lutheran bodies recognize the ordinations of the others?
I assume LCMS would not accept an ELCA minister as a visiting minister. But does LCMS regard the Eucharist consecration by an ELCA minister as “valid” - does the Real Presence result?

I assume WELS does not regard the ordination of a female minister as having any value at all. But if an ordained man from a liberal Lutheran denomination converted to WELS, would he need to be re ordained?

I suspect I’m trying to impose my RCC template where it doesn’t fit.

The LCMS says this:

Pastoral Colloquy is the process by which men who meet specific criteria may secure admission to the ministerium of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This admission may be provided through a “colloquy” (discussion, interview) with the Colloquy Committee for the Pastoral Ministry.

Men who, at the time of application are in good standing and in active service as pastors in another Christian Church body/denomination may apply for colloquy.

Such applicants must be graduates of a program of study that leads to ordination, from an accredited institution,* with no fewer than 60 semester hours (90 quarter hours) of required academic credit.

Such applicants must also have served at least three years in a recognized ministry of their church body, and must supply suitable documentation of their active status and good standing in their current church body/denomination.

Pastors of congregations that are not affiliated with a church body/denomination (are “non-denominational” or “independent”) also may apply, but they must supply suitable references and documentation of their authorization to perform pastoral ministry. In all cases the academic requirements will apply.

I couldn’t find anything for WELS.

They wouldn’t. Only those from churches in pulpit fellowship with them, which would also exclude WELS pastors.

I don’t know. But LCMS members aren’t supposed to commune at any church not in fellowship with the LCMS.

With regard to LCMS members communing at non-LCMS altars, the CTCR says the following in its report on the Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper:

[Is it proper for a Lutheran to attend the Lord’s Supper at the altars of churches not in doctrinal agreement with the church body of which he/she is a member?]

“In accordance with the confessional nature of participation in the Lord’s Supper, and in agreement with Lutheranism’s historic position, it is inappropriate to attend the Lord’s Supper at non-Lutheran altars. Since participation in Holy Communion, scripturally and confessionally understood, entails agreement in the Gospel and all its articles, it would not be appropriate to attend the Lord’s Supper in a church with which such agreement is not shared.”

Is closed communion becoming more relaxed at some LCMS churches? I attended an LCMS service in Florida a few years ago and communion was open for worshippers who believed in Jesus as Lord and believed in Real Presence. It wasn’t necessary to speak with pastor before service.


While I never experienced this myself, I have heard of cases like this. I also know one of my professors admitted to us in class that when he served in a parish, while he wouldn’t commune a Methodist, for example, but he did commune Lutherans of other Synods.

So, I would say the closed communion policy is likely slowly fading away, in some places, obviously sooner than others.

I[quote=“commenter, post:16, topic:567813, full:true”]

It’s one thing to remove a person from position as pastor. But do the various Lutheran bodies recognize the ordinations of the others?
I assume LCMS would not accept an ELCA minister as a visiting minister. But does LCMS regard the Eucharist consecration by an ELCA minister as “valid” - does the Real Presence result?

I assume WELS does not regard the ordination of a female minister as having any value at all. But if an ordained man from a liberal Lutheran denomination converted to WELS, would he need to be re ordained?

I suspect I’m trying to impose my RCC template where it doesn’t fit.

I had an email conversation with a friend who happens to be in an LCMS seminary. He had some rather helpful insights on this.
He said that, unlike the LCMS, the WELS holds that no Pastoral office was actually established by Christ. Only that Christ gave the church the authority to call persons to execute certain tasks. To the WELS, “pastor” doesn’t truly exist in the way orthodox churches understand it.
They teach that men are to execute the functions of whatever office exists whenever possible, as that is the Order of Creation. However, if men are unavailable, WELS teaches that women can fulfill any and all functions of whatever office-- including presiding over the Sacrament!

As far as other Lutheran pastors are concerned, the LCMS looks at those coming into the LCMS on a case by case basis. Depending on their understanding of doctrine and of the pastoral office, they could be installed or they might be Ordained. When coming in, they receive seminary training called colliquizing

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