Lutherans vs. Baptists: The ultimate comparison


Baptist and Lutheran are two of the most significant Protestant denominations in Christian history. While there are many commonalities between Baptist and Lutheran denominations, churches, and believers, there are important differences as well.

Lutherans and Baptists agree on several core beliefs of Christianity, including the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, and the centrality of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and his resurrection from the dead. They have had differences on issues like the Lord’s Supper.

Baptist and Lutheran Christian traditions have positively impacted the Church of Jesus Christ. Members and churches that associate with these two branches of Christianity have shortcomings just like any other branch, but traditionally they have been faithful to the cause of Christ.

It will benefit all readers to learn more about these two history-making branches of the Christian faith. Please keep reading to learn about:

  • The difference between what Lutherans and Baptists believe
  • The difference between Lutheran and Baptist practices
  • Statistics on the largest Lutheran and Baptist denominations
Both the Lutheran and Baptist denomination are Protestant

How are Lutherans and Baptists different?

It necessary today to make a distinction between what Lutheran and Baptist churches have historically taught and believed and what some Lutheran and Baptist churches teach and believe today.

Like in other denominations, some churches in these two branches of the Christian faith have replaced historic — some would say biblical — teachings for modern ones that can be characterized as liberal or progressive.

The comparisons below will separate these two approaches to make clear the contrasts between these denominations on the basis of centuries of teaching, not on changes some churches have made in the last decade or two.

What do Lutherans believe?

Traditional Lutheran beliefs are rooted in the biblical interpretations of the German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther’s teaching, preaching, and writing about Scripture — and it’s subjects, like God, people, and the world — are important cornerstones of Lutheran theology.

Historically, Lutheran beliefs have centered on the authority of the bible; that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone; that God is three in one, existing as a Trinity; that all people are born sinful; and that Jesus Christ will return to earth at an unknown time.

Though some liberal wings of Lutheranism, and some individual churches, have called certain historic beliefs into question in recent years, denominations like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have held firm to classic Lutheran teachings.

Key term | synod: A “synod” is a gathering or assembly of a group, often within a denomination, of like-minded people, who network or associate together for ministry effectiveness.

On these doctrines, Lutheranism unites with other Protestant Christian denominations that affirm these classic biblical teachings. Historically, most Baptist churches have held the same convictions about these biblical interpretations, so in these ways these denominations are united.

The fact is, since Martin Luther led the reform movement against the alleged excesses and abuses of the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century, most Protestant churches trace their heritage to him.

Some denominations, including some Baptist ones, acknowledge Luther’s influence on their origins, even though he wasn’t directly involved in establishing them. More directly, Baptists groups commonly trace their origins to 17th century England.

Important Lutheran doctrines

Two important aspects of ecclesiology are water baptism and the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist. Both if these applications of New Testament teachings are observed within the context of a church.

Key term | ecclesiology: As it relates to Christian theology, ecclesiology, simply defined, refers to the study of the church, which may include physical aspects like architecture, but mostly it refers studying the meaning, compositions, duties, and purposes of the Christian church worldwide.

  • Water baptism: Lutherans believe water baptism (as opposed to a “baptism of the spirit,” for example) is a saving work of God that can be administered to infants and adults. Salvation doesn’t depend on baptism, according to historic Lutheran teaching, but it is a means through which God establishes faith, according to verses like Titus 3:5.

“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

Titus 3:5
  • The Lord’s Supper: Known by various denominations as the Lord’s Supper or the Mass or the Eucharist, Lutheranism teaches that the body and blood of Christ are truly present “in, with, and under” the elements. [1]. Jesus describes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-29.
Catholic viewLutheran viewWider Protestant View
The bread and cup turn into the actual body and blood of ChristChrist’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and cupChrist’s body and blood are spiritually present in the bread and cup
Change called: “trans- substation”; the elements literally “transform”Change called: “con- substantiation”; the elements; Christ’s body and blood are “with” the elementsThe elements don’t change: the bread and cup are a memorial only
Preferred term: “sacrament”Preferred term: “sacrament” [2]Preferred term: “ordinance” for most

What do Baptist believe?

As with other Christian denominations, Baptists have certain historic beliefs in common with other churches, and other convictions that are unique to their movement. Certain primary doctrines make them Christian; certain secondary doctrines make them Baptist.

Baptists historically believe in the authority of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the Second Coming. Baptists may be Reformed or Arminian. Some Baptists are premillennial, others are amillennial. Some believe in the miraculous gifts, yet some don’t.

There is a variety of beliefs among Baptists because of the denomination’s historical conviction that individual churches are are independent and largely autonomous. Therefore, in many Baptist churches, it’s possible that a congregation can decide what doctrines to highlight and even ignore.

Key terms | premillennial/amillennial: The terms “premillennial” and “amillennial” describe two different ways to interpret the 1,000 year period described in Revelation 20:1-6. Premillennialists believe that thousand-year period is future an follows the Second Coming of Christ. Amillennialists believe the passage symbolically describes the current Church age.

Baptist churches that have a high view of Scripture emphasize the primary doctrines listed above, not arbitrarily, but because those are the beliefs that the Bible teaches are most important. In recent years, more liberal congregations have emphasized other issues, often social ones.

Though independent in nature, Baptist churches can, and do, voluntarily associate with other Baptist churches with regard to ministry, vision, and organization. Independence doesn’t necessarily mean they are isolated. Some Baptist traditions have more authoritative structure in them than others.

Important Baptist doctrines

Doctrines that are historically important to Baptists revolve around: (1) the church, (2) missions, (3) the Bible, and (4) the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Key term | missions: Generally speaking, “missions” describes the Church’s application of passage like Matthew 28:18-20 in which Jesus instructs his followers to make disciples of all nations.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 28:19
  • Full-immersion water baptism for believers: For Baptists, fully immersing a professing believer in water is how baptism should be performed (unless there are extenuating circumstances). Full-immersion is important to Baptists because it’s illustrated in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 3:16) and because it fully conveys the imagery of identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-5).
  • Congregational church governments: Historically, Baptists have been convicted to establish congregation-led churches, as opposed to being, for example, bishop-led or presbytery-led. Pastors, elders, and other leaders serve and guide the church, but the voting membership decides important decisions. Democracy is an important aspect in Baptist church structures.
  • Missions as a ministry priority: Like Lutherans, Baptist have historically supported missions, developed and trained missionaries from within their local churches, and established parachurch organizations to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. Again, like Lutheranism, missions has sometimes taken the form of direct evangelism and other times it has been service oriented, like providing medical care or building schools.
  • Separation of church and state: In some Christian denominations, especially those who have deep roots in certain European countries, the church and state (i.e. the government) are institutionally linked together. Baptist churches have consistently rejected the state’s involvement in their affairs, including, and especially, related to the selection of church leadership.
  • The Bible as chief authority: Similar to other Protestant denominations, Baptist have historically held to a high view of Scripture, i.e. they believe it is inspired and is the authority for the church and individual believers. This is in contrast to denominations to see a certain individual as most authoritative or a particular set of theological teachings.
  • Individual gospel response: Baptist emphasize the importance of each individual responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The invitation needs to go to each individual and each individual has a decision to make. A child isn’t forgiven because their parents are; a child isn’t redeemed because their parents are.
  • The priesthood of all believers: There are no mediators, other than Christ himself, between the believer and God. This implies that a priest or other clergy aren’t necessary for confessing one’s sins, for example. The priesthood of all believers is a historic doctrine of the Protestant branch of the Christian faith.

Key term | priesthood of all believers: This phrase, common to Protestant theology, conveys that Jesus Christ is the High Priest for all believers and human mediators aren’t necessary, according to Hebrews 4:14. Pastors, other church leaders, and those with relevant spiritual gifts may help others grow in their faith, but they are not a necessary relationship bridge to God.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”

Hebrews 4:14
Worship through music and song plays an important role in Lutheran and Baptist churches

Lutheran and Baptist Churches Today

In the 21st century, some churches that still have the word “Lutheran” or “Baptist” in their title, have changed so much that they bear little resemblance to the forerunners of their denomination or tradition.

The information below doesn’t attempt to reflect the practices of every single Lutheran or Baptist church, or very Lutheran or Baptist individual. Rather, what the Lutheran or Baptist branches of Christianity have historically practiced will be summarized.

Some practices were discussed above in the beliefs section (e.g. baptism, missions, etc.) and they will not be duplicated below.

Lutheran and Baptist worship through music

Worshiping God through music is illustrated in the Old and Testament, by key figures such as King David and the Apostle Paul. Not surprisingly, it has had an important role in Lutheran and Baptist churches.

  • Lutheran congregations have traditionally sang hymns or chorales in their Sunday services. Martin Luther wrote hymns that are still sung in Lutheran (and Baptist) churches, including the well-known “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which he wrote in 1529. Choirs have also played an important part of Lutheran worship through music and song.
  • Baptist churches have traditionally sang hymns, yet today many have added modern worship music to their services. Many traditional Baptist churches still sing hymns. One famous Baptist hymn writer is Robert Lowry who wrote “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” Modern worship music is sometimes led by a “worship pastor” who leads “praise choruses.” And “praise bands” can include acoustic and bass guitar players, a keyboardist, a drummer, and more.

Lutheran and Baptist Christian education

Christian education is the Protestant tradition is rooted in discipleship; meaning, its purpose was to raise and train children in biblical knowledge and Christian living. Christian education is has historically been about much more than teaching Bible stories, however.

  • Lutheran Christian education: primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities and seminaries, have played an important part of Lutheran history. From teaching young people the 10 Commandments in Sunday school to training pastors in Lutheran theology, education has served the vision for the denomination for centuries. Catechisms have been a significant way young people and adults have learned the teaching of the Lutheran denomination.
  • Baptist Christian education: Similar to Lutheranism, education of all levels, for all people, has been a value in Baptist history. Baptists have not only started school in the United States and Europe, but all over the world. Lutherans have also established school around the globe. Sunday schools, youth groups, and bible studies are common in Baptist churches, but catechetical learning is not.

Speaking in tongues

  • Lutheran experience: Speaking in tongues isn’t part of the traditional practice of Lutheran Christianity. Most Lutheran churches are cessationists when it comes to the miraculous gifts, which means that those practices had a special purpose in the early church and then “ceased” in operation. It’s likely possible to find Lutheran individuals, and maybe a church or two that identify with Lutheranism in some way, but those cases are rare.
  • Baptist experience: Speaking in tongues isn’t as rare in Baptist churches as it is in Lutheran churches, but it’s not commonplace either. Because Baptist churches are autonomous a congregation may allow, or even encourage people, to speak in tongues. Or, if the practice isn’t corporately and publicly encouraged, it’s possible that pastors, elders, or church members speak in tongues privately.

Lutheran Church Statistics

Like other Christian denominations, Lutheranism has experienced church splits in its history. In recent years, these splits have been largely rooted in relaxing historical standards on issues like same-sex marriage and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy.

The table below lists the largest Lutheran bodies by size and underneath the table is a brief description of each particular Lutheran body.

What are the largest Lutheran denominations?

NameMembers/
Churches
Founded
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America4.1 million; 9,8001988
Lutheran-Church Missouri Synod2.2 million; 6,1001847
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synodover 385,000; 1,2001850
Lutheran Congregations in Missouri for Christover 300,000; over 7002001
North American Lutheran Churchover 140,000; over 4002010
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: Three Lutheran bodies, which trace their roots to colonial America, merged in 1988 to create the ELCA. In recent years, division has characterized the denomination, mostly over issues related to sexuality and gender. Individual churches are given latitude on these issues.
  • Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: Established by German immigrants in the mid 1800’s, the LCMS refused to participate in the 1988 ELCA merger on doctrinal grounds. In the last 30 years, some LCMS congregations left to join the ELCA. LCMS churches are theological conservative in relation to Christ, Scripture, marriage, and other topics.
  • Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod: In the early 1900’s, Lutheran groups in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, merged to create this synod. It has a high view of Scripture, affirms heterosexual marriage only, and has one of the largest Christian prison ministries in the United States.
  • Lutheran Congregation in Missouri for Christ: LCMS churches left the ELCA in the early 2000’s for dislike of its drift toward progressivism, especially marriage. It differs from the LCMS in that it is friendly toward charismatic beliefs and practices. It doesn’t think social justice efforts should replace evangelism.
  • North American Lutheran Church: Established in Columbus, Ohio, most NALC churches left the ELCA when it decided to adopt progressive beliefs and causes. It has a high view of Scripture and affirms heterosexual marriage only.
Holy Bible on a table
The Southern Baptist Church is the largest denomination in the world

Baptist Church Denominations and Statistics

Autonomy and independence have characterized Baptist churches throughout their history. The name “Baptist” come from their shared conviction to baptize professing believers only, and not infants.

Like other denominations, Baptist movements have split in recent years over disagreements related to theology, behavioral ethics, and church governance.

What are the largest Baptist denominations?

NameMembership/ChurchesFounded
Southern Baptist Convention16.1 million; 45,0001845
National Baptist Convention5 million; 10,0001895
NMBCA2.5 million; 1,2001988
Baptist General Conference of Texas2.4 million; 5,0001848
American Baptist Churches of America1.2 million; 5,4001845
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship1 million; 1,8001991
Progressive National Baptist Convention1 million; 1,5001961
CW Baptist General Conference260,000; 1,2001852
American Baptist Churches203,000; 1,3001905
Conservative Baptist Association200,000; 1,1001947
  • Southern Baptist Convention: The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The SBC was established in the mid 1800’s, mostly as a result of disagreements over slavery. In 1995, the SBC formally renounced its racist roots. Today, over 2,000 SBC churches have memberships that are majority African-American.
  • National Baptist Convention: The NBC-USA is the largest African-American Baptist denomination in the United States. It was founded in 1895, but traces its history to before the Civil War. Many pastors in the NBC were leaders during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The NBC allows women pastors, but doesn’t affirm same-sex marriage.
  • National Missionary Baptist Convention of America: Started with churches that split from the NBC-USA in 1988. Churches have mostly African-American members. Their theology is similar to the NBC-USA. Their disagreements concerned organizational control.
  • Baptist General Conference of Texas: Though roots can be traced to 1848, it was a merger of two Baptist groups in 1886 that led to the formation of the BCGOT. Previously associated with the SBC, but split in 2000, in part, because the BGCOT favored ordaining women. The BGCOT elected a woman as president for the first time in 2007. In the last two decades, the denomination has seen debate between liberal and conservative denominations over issues like ordaining gays and lesbians.
  • American Baptist Churches of America: The present name was adopted in 1972. Generally, ABC-USA churches are less conservative than those in the SBC. Many churches have declared themselves “welcoming and affirming,” even though the denomination stated in 2005 that marriage is between one man and one woman.
  • Conservative Baptist Fellowship: Split from the SBC in 1991 in protest of the tactics of the conservative wing of the SBC. CBF churches “major” on acts of service and “minor” on theology. Like other Baptist denominations, it was wrestled with same-sex marriage and ordaining gays and lesbians. It has no public position on these issues.
  • Progressive National Baptist Churches: Broke away the NBC-USA in 1961 over disagreements about the Civil Rights movement. The PNBC included Martin Luther King Jr. and has focused on civil rights and social justice issues. PNBC allows women pastors and let’s individual congregations decide about same-sex marriage.
  • Converge Worldwide (Baptist General Conference): The Baptist General Conference changed its name to “Converge Worldwide” in 2008, when it decided to focus on church planting. It ordains women pastors, but doesn’t affirm same-sex marriage.
  • American Baptist Churches: Though similar in name to the ABC-USA, it is very different. They don’t trace their roots to the German Reformer Martin Luther (not to be confused with Martin Luther King Jr.) but back to the apostles and even Christ himself. Theologically, they are fundamentalist.
  • Conservative Baptist Association: The word “conservative” alludes to doctrine and theology. CBA churches affirm the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth, the depravity of man, the atonement of Christ, the Trinity, and the Second Coming of Christ. It doesn’t agree with ordaining women to be pastors or affirming same-sex marriage. It hasn’t seen broad disagreement on these issues as other Baptist denominations have.

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacramental_union

[2] https://catechism.cph.org/en/sacrament-of-holy-baptism.html

Also see:

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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