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.
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. 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 churches||Non-denominational churches|
|Branch of Christianity||Protestant||Protestant|
|Historical roots||16th century Germany, Martin Luther||Mostly America, and other countries that value freedom of religion*|
|Organization||Churches exist in synods, i.e. conferences or districts; some denominations have bishops, some don’t; congregations typically vote on pastors||Churches 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 worldview||It 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).
Comparison of beliefs and practices
|Lutheran churches||Non-denominational churches|
|Theology (general)||Protestant Christianity||Protestant Christianity|
|Theology (specific)||“Lutheranism” isn’t just the name of the tradition, but the theological system within it||A 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 Bible||Conservative 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 best||Non-denominational churches are generally evangelical and conservative; the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture are often part of their doctrinal statements|
|View of God||Trinitarian||Trinitarian|
|View of the atonement||Conservative 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 in||Affirm the truth of the Gospel and believe that Christ took the place of sinners and paid their penalty on the cross|
|View of salvation||Neither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election, but don’t define it the same way as Calvinists||Could be Calvinist or Arminian, but not Lutheran|
|View of the Holy Spirit||Most 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||Could be cessassionist or continuationist|
|View of the Church||The 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||The 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 Ordinances||There 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 Supper||The real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup||Mostly seen as a memorial of the death of Christ|
|View of the Baptism||Pastors 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 times||Lutheranism 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. 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.
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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