Lutheran vs Non-Denominational: What’s the Difference?


The Lutheran tradition is a 500-year-old branch of Protestant Christianity. Non-denominational churches are a fast-growing segment of evangelical Christianity, especially in the United States and Europe. These Christians traditions have similarities and differences. What are they?

Lutheranism is a collection of synods (or districts), and churches, that have historical roots in the teachings and ministry of German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). Non-denominational churches are independent congregations with various theological convictions that are mostly conservative in doctrine and practice.

What are the similarities between Lutheranism and non-denominational churches? How different are their beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s Supper, and the end times? Keep reading to learn more.

Many people are curious about the similarities and differences between Lutheranism and the Episcopal Church. See Lutheran vs Episcopal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

Lutheran stone church
““Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” Habakkuk 2:4 (ESV)

Luther and non-denominational churches: comparison

One one hand, Lutheranism is a branch of Protestant Christianity that has historically held to a defined set of convictions based on the Bible. Though in the 20th century some Lutheran synods have distanced themselves from their heritage, their theological and practical roots are fixed. (Also see What Is the Most Conservative Lutheran Synod?)

On the other hand, non-denominational churches have various histories, convictions, and practices that are as numerous and varied as the stars in the sky.

Overview of structural similarities and differences

Lutheran churchesNon-denominational churches
Branch of ChristianityProtestantProtestant
Historical roots16th century Germany, Martin LutherMostly America, and other countries that value freedom of religion*
OrganizationChurches exist in synods, i.e. conferences or districts; some denominations have bishops, some don’t; congregations typically vote on pastorsChurches are independent and by definition don’t belong to a congregation; some “associate” with like-minded churches, mostly for ministerial purposes like serving meals to the homeless
Theological and social worldviewIt depends on the synod; the LCMS and WELS are conservative; the ELCA is moderate to liberal depending on the congregation**Mostly conservative evangelical

* Why do non-denominational churches tend to arise in places that value religious freedom? Anyone can start a church in America and other countries that embrace religious freedom, because the government doesn’t restrict them from doing so. In countries that have less religious freedom, the government limits, sanctions, or regulates religious expression in ways that prohibit the establishment of independent (and even denominational) churches.

** What are the largest Lutheran synods today? The LCMS is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; the WELS is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod; the ELCA is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which is the result of a 1988 three-way merger between the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC).

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.

“The authority of Scripture is greater than the comprehension of the whole of man’s reason.”

Martin Luther
Lutheran church
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 (ESV)

Comparison of beliefs and practices

Lutheran churchesNon-denominational churches
Theology (general)Protestant ChristianityProtestant Christianity
Theology (specific)“Lutheranism” isn’t just the name of the tradition, but the theological system within itA church could be Arminian or Calvinistic in their theology; there are often Baptist-like elements in non-denominational churches no matter their theological convictions*
View of the BibleConservative synods (see above) 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 bestNon-denominational churches are generally evangelical and conservative; the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture are often part of their doctrinal statements
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 inAffirm the truth of the Gospel and believe that Christ took the place of sinners and paid their penalty on the cross
View of salvationNeither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election, but don’t define it the same way as CalvinistsCould be Calvinist or Arminian, but not Lutheran
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 and speaking in tonguesCould be cessassionist or continuationist
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 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 salvation**
View of the OrdinancesThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion**There are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion***
View of the Lord’s SupperThe real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cupMostly seen as a memorial of the death of Christ
View of the BaptismPastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be given (unlike Catholicism)Most practice “believer’s baptism,” which describes the conviction that only professing believer’s should be baptized; infants aren’t baptized, but children can be as soon as they are able to make a genuine profession of faith
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)Many are dispensational and premillennial; those with Reformed theology may be premillennial (similar to Reformed Baptists) or amillennial

* Why are so many non-denominational churches similar to Baptist churches? The Baptist tradition values the autonomy of local churches and congregations. It isn’t opposed to regional or district organization; it is opposed to non-congregational authority. (Also see Lutheran vs Baptist: What’s the Difference?)

The Baptist tradition also values the separation of Church and State. Non-denominational churches also value these convictions because without them, they couldn’t exist or operate.

** Luther said:

“Therefore, it comes about that no one attains grace because he is absolved or baptized or receives Communion or is anointed, but because he believes that he attains grace by being absolved, baptized, receiving Communion, and being anointed in this way. It is not the sacrament but faith in the sacrament that justifies. Likewise the well-known statement of St. Augustine: ‘it justifies not because it is performed, but because it is believed.’”

*** Non-denominational churches are similar to Baptist churches in their view of the ordinances: Non-denominational churches not only adopt the infrastructure of Baptist churches, but many have adopted elements of Baptistic theology, especially as it relates to ecclesiology or the nature of the Church.

Churches administer the Lord’s Supper and baptism, which makes them ecclesiological matters, and many non-denominational churches have a Baptist-like approach to these practices. (Also see Lutheran vs Episcopalian: What’s the Difference?)

“God doesn’t love us because of our worth, we are of worth because God loves us.”

Martin Luther

The rise of non-denominational churches

In the 20th century, many mainline Christian traditions, including Lutheranism, experienced internal conflict and division over theological and social issues. Virtually every Protestant denomination, including Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist, discussed (and fought over) how to deal with social concerns that challenged or altered historic Christian convictions. Many conflicts continue today. Areas of disagreement include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Social concerns: The tolerance or acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ and related matters like the definition of marriage, same-sex adoption, church membership, and church roles (e.g. ordination).
  • Theological concerns: Areas of disagreement include the ordination of women, the authority and nature of the Bible, the exclusivity of the Gospel for salvation, and creation and evolution (and related matters like abortion and gender issues).

In many cases, these disagreements were not reconcilable and led to the establishment of new synods and churches. Some Christians grew disenfranchised with the influence liberal worldviews exerted to change centuries-long teachings and convictions. Rather than change affiliations to another mainline Protestant tradition that was also experiencing similar infighting, many people are opting for conservative, non-denominational churches.

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