Lutherans vs Episcopalians: What’s the Difference?


The Lutheran and Episcopalian traditions have had a profound impact on Protestant Christianity in Europe, the United States, and around the world. These two branches of the Christian faith have similarities and differences, and knowing what those are helps people to understand their past, present, and future.

The Lutheran and Episcopal traditions originated in separate protests against the Roman Catholic Church in 16th century Europe. The traditions agree that God is Trinitarian and that Christ’s death is an atonement for sin. They disagree about church government and the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

What other doctrines and practices do the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions agree about? What do they disagree about? See the comparison charts below for more information.

Episcopal church
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

Lutheran and Episcopalian: comparison chart

The terms Episcopalian, Church of England, and Anglican are often used synonymously, though each term is partially unique. In general they refer to the same historic branch of Christianity.

  • Episcopalian: From the Greek word for “overseer” and the Latin word for “bishop,” the term refers to a form of church government that locates ecclesiastical authority in the office of bishop as opposed to the papacy. The term is also used to identify a person committed to such a church.
  • Church of England: The term refers to the Protestant branch Henry VIII and his successors established in England in the 16th century. In America at the time of the Revolutionary War, church members increasingly identified themselves as “Episcopalian” because of tension between the Americans and the English.
  • Anglican: From the Latin phrase ecclesia anglicana, the terms means the “English Church.” Though this term is less common in America, “Episcopalian” denominations and churches are considered part of the worldwide Anglican communion.
Lutheran traditionEpiscopalian tradition
FounderMartin Luther (1483-1546)King Henry VIII (1491-1547)
Origin16th-century Germany16th-century England
Early contributorsPhilip Melanchthon (1497-1560)Edward VI (1537-1553), Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Richard Hooker (1554-1600)
Important literatureLuther’s shorter and large catechism, the Book on Concord, the Augsburg ConfessionThe Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles of Religion
OrganizationChurches exist in “synods,” i.e. conferences or districts; some denominations have bishops, some don’t; congregations typically vote on pastorsChurches mostly exist in “communions”; the historic succession of bishops is highly valued; priests and deacons are the other offices in the church
Theological and social worldviewIt depends on the synod; the LCMS is conservative; the ELCA is moderate to liberal depending on the congregation*It depends on the communion; the “Episcopal Church,” the largest communion in the U.S. (est. 2 millon) is socially and theologically liberal**

Various theological topics have divided Lutherans from other Lutherans and Episcopalians from other Episcopalians in the last 150 years. In the late 19th century, one such topic was creation and evolution. In the early 21st century, issues related to sexuality and gender have been debated. Synods, communions, denominations, and churches have split over these issues. (Also see What Do Lutherans Believe About Divorce?)

* The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran synod in the U.S. (est. 4 million), officially supports same-sex marriage and the ordination of people who identify as non-heterosexual. [1] The largest conservative Lutheran synod, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the largest Lutheran synod in America (est. 2 million) believes marriage is between one man and one woman, and supports the ordination of heterosexual men.

** The Episcopal Church in America officially supports and defends issues like same-sex marriage and transgender causes. The communion also realizes that there are congregations that are reserved in this commitment:

“The Episcopal Church warmly welcomes our LGBTQ siblings, but it would be ingenuous to say that the entire church is in the same place on this journey. As with all spiritual journeys, everyone walks at their own pace.

Some Episcopal congregations are actively involved in LGBTQ ministry and their arms are open wide; others are more reserved, but their doors are still open to all; some are still wrestling with their beliefs and feelings. But we’re on this journey together, and The Episcopal Church is dedicated to full inclusion and equality in the church as well as in society as a whole.” [2]

Something a lot of people wonder about Christianity is Do All Denominations Go to Heaven? Follow the link to learn the answer to this important question.

Episcopalian Christian church
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Matthew 24:35 (ESV)

Lutheran vs Episcopalian beliefs, theology, and doctrine

The Lutheran tradition is proudly Protestant. The Episcopalian tradition has roots in the Church of England, in which there has been debate historically over how Catholic they are. The Church of England traces their history back to the early church, which makes them “Catholic” in the broad sense of the term, but they doctrinally they are Protestant.

Lutheran traditionEpiscopalian tradition
Theology (general)Protestant ChristianityOften considered halfway between Catholic and Protestant
Theology (specific)“Lutheranism” isn’t just the name of the tradition, but the theological system within itSome communions and churches appear more Catholic in belief and practice, while others appear more Protestant
View of the BibleConservative synods affirm the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture; moderate-liberal synods view the Bible as a helpful guide to belief and practice, but an imperfect one at bestThe “low church” (see below) has a high view of Scripture; the “high church” values Scripture plus ecclesiastical tradition
View of GodTrinitarianTrinitarian*
View of the atonementConservative synods affirm the truth of the Gospel and believe that Christ took the place of sinners and paid their penalty on the cross; moderate-liberal synods see the death of Christ as an example of dying for something you believe inHistorical documents make clear that only Christ can save, not works
View of salvationNeither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election, but don’t define it the same way as CalvinistsHistorical roots are closer to Calvinism than Arminianism; liberal communions are ecumenical and inclusive of other religions
View of the Holy SpiritMost Lutheran synods and churches are cessationist, meaning they don’t hold to charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity; some small movements like Lutheran Renewal advocate for continuationism**Historically cessationist; some small communions practice charismatic worship (e.g. International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church)
View of the ChurchThe Church is the bride of Christ; believer’s should be regularly involved in the life of a local church, but membership isn’t required for salvationThe “high church” favors Catholic doctrine and practice; the “low church” favors Protestant doctrine and practice
View of the OrdinancesThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey graceThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace
View of the Lord’s SupperThe real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup; this view is often called “consubstantiation”Believes in the real presence of Christ; i.e. Christ is present in the elements in some manner, but not in the way Lutherans or Catholics believe
View of the BaptismPastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be conveyed (unlike Catholicism)Clergy baptize infants and adults; baptized individuals are “grafted into the church” [3]
View of the end timesLutheranism is amillennial, meaning it interprets the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 figuratively and defines it as the time between Christ’s first and second coming (i.e. the Church Age)amillennial

* The first of the 39 Articles reads: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” [4] (Also see Do Lutherans Believe in Predestination?)

* Continuationism and cessationism: Continuationism is the belief that all spiritual gifts, even speaking in tongues and the gift of healing, “continue” today and are operational in the Church. Cessationaism is the belief that some spiritual gifts have “ceased” because God only intended their use for the establishment of the Church in the first century. (Also see Do Lutherans Speak in Tongues?)

References:
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