Are Lutherans Evangelicals?


In the Wall Street Journal (Tue, April 3, page A13) Barton Swaim writes a review of T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.   In the review Mr. Swaim makes this interesting comment.

 The second problem is that term ‘evangelical.’ There is an admission at the book’s outset that it’s hard to define, and occasionally Ms. Luhrmann amends the word with ‘experiential,’ suggesting that the Vineyard and associated groups are not typical specimens of evangelicalism.  Most of the book, however, follows its subtitle in denoting its subjects simply as ‘American evangelicals.’  But writing a book about American evangelicals and interviewing only Vineyardites is a bit like writing a travel book about the British Isles without leaving Inverness.  However one defines the term ‘evangelical’–and it should include Reformed Presbyterians, Missouri Synod Lutherans, traditionalist Methodists and the majority of Baptists–a great many evangelical denominations and dispositions stand deliberately opposed to the kind of theological subjectivism, neo-Medieval spiritualism and pious self-absorption that Ms. luhrmann finds at the Vineyard.

Mr. Swaim includes Missouri Synod Lutherans within the category of American evangelicals, along with Reformed Presbyterians, traditionalist Methodists, and most Baptists.

It raises the question of how to categorize Missouri Synod Lutherans.  I would say that we are catholic (small c) but not Roman Catholic, orthodox (small o) but not Eastern Orthodox, evangelical (gospel-centered) but not American Evangelicals.  Yet this commentator in the Wall Street Journal includes us with American Evangelicals.

Is that a common outsider view of the Missouri Synod?  What do you think of that categorization?

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  1. Jaime Nava April 4, 2012

    As a member of the LCMS I sometimes feel very disassociated from other denominations. Too antinomian for some. Too “traditional” for others. Although there seems to be influences from other denominations within our own, I do (or at least I would like to) think that we are a different beast altogether. Polity, theology, practice all have a very different tinge.
    Not growing up Lutheran and tasting the distinction of Law and Gospel was a draught I never had before. Perhaps we flavor other denominations as well but I do believe the taste is distinct.

  2. Tim Koch April 4, 2012

    A few weeks ago I had an 8th grade catechumen ask me during class,

    “Pastor, are we Evangelical Lutherans?”

    I said, “If by evangelical you mean, are we Lutherans that maintain justification by grace through faith…then yes. If you mean anything other than that…then no.”

    I think, given my context in rural SD that the question was one more along the lines of “Are we the same as the ELCA?” But that’s not how she asked the question, so I answered the question she did ask.

    How would you (Dr. Raabe, or any readers of this post) have answered that question?

  3. Matt Borrasso April 4, 2012

    Having spent time at an historically Baptist seminary I think there is a common idea among the fellow students that the Missouri Synod, or any other ilk of Lutherans, and Presbyterians and Methodists are all similarly American Evangelicals because of the common heritage of the Reformation. However, the more time I spent in the classroom being taught by those who aren’t Missouri Synod has caused me to understand the vast differences and come to recognize what Sasse meant when he called us the “lonely way.”

    Dr. Raabe I find your distinction extrememly helpful and have at times used similar language in discussions with other students as to the differneces and what being a Lutheran within the walls of the Missouri Synod means what it does, and why that confession is important and, as I contend, unique. You really do put it best when you say that, “I would say that we are catholic (small c) but not Roman Catholic, orthodox (small o) but not Eastern Orthodox, evangelical (gospel-centered) but not American Evangelicals.”

  4. scott adle April 4, 2012

    If you look at what takes place on Sunday morning, is there a doubt that the LCMS has started to look more like the Evangelicals over the last few decades? When you drop the catholic liturgy, the hymns passed on for hundreds of years, the lectionary, and instead shape the service around what will attract the masses, it would be easy to confuse you with churches who also act like that.

    If you took a trip across the country, stopping in at random LCMS churches, do you think it would remind you more of churches who are sacramental and have a liturgy, or of churches in the Evangelical vein? 30 years ago I think the answer would be obvious. Now, not so much. To be sure, there is a broad spectrum in the LCMS, but that’s part of the point — there didn’t used to be, and what has changed has gone towards the Evangelicals.

    • Erik Herrmann April 5, 2012

      While what you say is probably true about worship, I think that the point of conflation according to the perception of those outside, including the author of the Wall street Journal article, is not worship but our views of biblical inerrancy (and the consequent doctrinal positions) and our social (political) conservatism. It may actually be the associations of the latter that, in part, influenced the changes in worship you describe. In any event, being typical American individualists we have not been particularly interested in being “catholic” as Paul Raabe suggested.

    • scott adle April 5, 2012

      Good point, Professor Herrmann. Because of our stance on Scripture, we often get lumped in with “fundamentalists”, a title which overlaps quite a bit with the Evangelicals. Like most of the labels (evangelical, catholic, orthodox, etc), it has its good and bad. Sometimes we have no trouble with those labels, other times we want some distance.

      I’m intrigued at the idea that our associations with social/political conservatives may have had an influence on our worship practice. Someone else I talked to recently was thinking along the same lines. How do you see this working? Is it along the line that we find ourselves on the same side of many issues, and so we start to act like them in areas where we originally had differences? Or were you thinking of some other way of influence?

  5. Jeff Kloha April 5, 2012

    Matt — your reference to Sasse is pretty helpful. His “Here We Stand” (German title is actually “What is Lutheran?”) was written at the height of the influence of Karl Barth, when questions of Lutheran identity were at the fore. Paul’s answers sounds a bit idiosyncratic, but gets at what Sasse was saying, too.

    The problem is, we don’t always get to define the terms. I’d love it if everyone knew that “evangelical” meant “Good Newsy” (living solely by the Gospel), but in the US, “evangelical” means (on a good day) literal-Bible-reading-based or (on a bad day) reactionary-conservatives-who-use-the-Bible-to-suppress-others’-freedoms.

    And, to Tim’s point, going back 15 years ago there was a young couple in my adult catechism class who had been attending worship services for nearly a year. The last session they asked if we were “Missouri Syn-odd” (sic) — they assumed that we were ELCA because our church sign read “Gethsemane Evangelical Lutheran Church” — keep in mind that the sign and every weekly bulletin also said “Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — but they had heard from a family member that the LCMS were the “mean Lutherans,” and we didn’t seem so mean. In Ohio, though perhaps not South Dakota, “Evangelical Lutheran” means ELCA.

    • Paul Raabe April 5, 2012

      Sasse was dealing with a crucial question that every generation has to address in its own time and place. The question needs to be divided into two questions. 1) How do we define ourselves?
      2) How do outsiders within the U.S. today categorize us? Both questions need attention. On the second question, we might not be all that happy with the answers, but we do have to find out and deal with them. The problem with the label “Lutheran” is that it presupposes some knowledge of the 16th century and most Americans don’t know much about church history. And does “Missouri” mean you are only located in Missouri? And what is a “Synod”? Our label is not readily intelligible to average Americans.

  6. Jaime Nava April 5, 2012

    I agree with this whole-heartedly. To step from the stream of Christian heritage to play in our own backyard pool might seem fun at first but it robs a rich ancestry from those participating. Could it also be that once we stop learning and living the liturgy the Book of Concord plays third fiddle? I wonder. Do we exchange meat for marshmallows?

  7. George Carstensen April 6, 2012

    Ok, I know this wasn’t the question posed in the article, but it did cause me to recall a conversation with a pennsylvania-dutch speaking member of my congregation.

    Being a fairly seasoned church of 140 years, our full name is “Zion *Evangelical* Lutheran Church” a term which one would find in most Lutheran churches founded by predominately German speaking folks – but as it was explained to me, Luther, not being a fan of the term “Lutheran” would have preferred a name that expressed the fact that ‘the Gospel is preached here’ – thus Evangelical – coming from the greek root more than anything else, was an expression that meant that this church was a place where the Gospel was preached (without the connotations that the word Evangelical has taken on in recent years.)

    Anyway. A thought.

    • George Carstensen April 6, 2012

      …but as I think about it, that’s just a rehash of Dr. K’s comment…

  8. St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Blue Church on Facebook April 7, 2012

    A person who knows that the shed blood of Christ is the only gift that we have, will ever need and must share!

  9. Norman Teigen April 9, 2012

    Interesting. You and your readers might be interested in this fascinating new study in the sociology of American religion: Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. “American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us” New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012 (I think, it’s 2012).

    The researchers include an account of an historic LC-MS congregation in Houston.

    After carefully reviewing LC-MS statements from President Harrison and the other seminary re the Affordable Care Act, I would be inclined to place the LC-MS in the Evangelical camp.

  10. Damian Snyder April 12, 2012

    I often wonder what many of the labels “mean” to the vast majority of people who populate the pews. While ELCA, LCMS, Lutheran, Methodist, etc (at least in theory) have specific meanings to Pastors and some learned lay people, I have noticed that to many, a “Christian church is a Christian church”. Sadly, many of the members of Christian congregations, be they Lutheran, Methodist, etc do not delve deep enough into the teachings of their church to notice any differences!

    • Christopher Cole March 4, 2014

      Brother Damian,
      I agree – sadly definitions of “who” we are together in the faith(by what we believe teach and “confess”), have now become the servants of who and what we “feel” or think ourselves to be. Many people really don’t care all that much about labels, choosing a church fellowship for how it makes them feel when they are actively engaged, or for what services(school/daycare/youthgroup/fellowship activities/etc.) that the church or “faith community” can provide for them or their family at the moment. That’s why many congregations have become so program oriented – attempting to meet the felt needs and wants of those attending. (or of those that we would LIKE to attract.)

      This sounds cynical – but I believe that it is all too true.

      Like it or not, in our present society, titles and labels and definitions have become the subjective servants of personal choice and momentary preference. And the answer to the question (for the average person)- “what does this mean?” is usually – “whatever I feel that it means!” Words and definitions often carry little authority anymore – at least for many westerners. And so as Pilate said, “what IS truth?” ~ so say the many. Why? Because they do not want any external boundaries or limitations placed upon them or their individual freedom. And if things can mean “anything” – they end up having no meaning at all. Subjectivity has its roots in the fall… “did God really say…?!” One can only find true definition in His Truth – under submission to His definition and will. Just some thoughts on an old tread… TOO old, I fear.

  11. Andrew Bartelt April 27, 2012

    Ask any military chaplain, where Christian worship is either Roman Catholic or Protestant. One such Lutheran chaplain quipped that the problem with the military’s “General Protestant” worship service is that it is just so “generally protestant.”

    Or go to the Bible belt. I recall an evening with two recent grads after a day at a pastoral conference in MId-South; one was wearing his collar and one was not. I asked if this was their normal attire. One said he regularly wears his collar, “to show I’m not a Baptist.” The other noted he does not, apart from Sunday morning, “to show I’m not a Catholic.”

    We are, at heart, evangelical catholics. Or is it catholic evangelicals?

  12. Timothy Winterstein February 7, 2016

    I think D.G. Hart convincingly shows in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism why the LCMS doesn’t (or shouldn’t) fit into the normal categories of the press or politics.

    • Paul Raabe February 8, 2016


      Please say a bit more on what Hart shows.
      Not everyone has read Hart’s book.

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