Lutherans/LCMS vs ELS


After viewing  the doctrines on the ELS website, I am not seeing much difference between LCMS and ELS. What are the doctrinal differences that have caused the break of fellowship. Also, WELS seems to be quite law-oriented and I know WELS and ELS are in fellowship. Do you consider ELS as law-oriented as WELS?
Have a blessed Easter...

The relationship between the WELS, ELS, and LCMS is kind of like a long family disagreement.  They are so close, but a few issues divide them and for some clergy and congregations, those few issues are the source of a great deal more animosity and condemnations than are really warranted.  

When the fellowship between the three denominations broke up several decades ago, I believe the initiating factor was that the LCMS was engaging in some (probably ill-advised) overtures toward the ALC (which became part of the ELCA in 1988).  Ultimately, the LCMS had to break off this relationship because the ALC began ordaining women, but the damage with their relationship to WELS/ELS had already been done.  

Presently, three primary issues still exist between these Lutheran denominations:

Place of women in the congregation:  LCMS allows each congregation to decide whether women will act as voters in the congregation (since voters assemblies should only be doing business and not dealing with spiritual things anyway), and to serve in congregational offices except for as pastor or in any position which assists in the exercise of the pastor's office (such as elder and president of the congregation).  WELS does not allow women to vote in the congregation and their service in the congregation is limited to the teaching of children and other women.  

Origin of the pastoral office:  LCMS believes that the pastoral office is divinely mandated and required for the church of all times and places.  If I understand correctly, WELS teaches that as long as provision is made that the functions of the pastoral office are carried out (such as by a congregational elder or male Lutheran School Teacher), the office itself is not divinely mandated, but is useful for good order.  As a result, they also have a broader definition of "minister" which includes a majority of people who are employed in the congregation full-time.  

Church Fellowship:  WELS maintains that all acts, including prayer constitute church fellowship, and must only occur between people in doctrinal agreement with one another.  This means that WELS members who attend a wedding or funeral outside their denomination, properly speaking, should "observe" the service, but not participate in the service, even as congregants.  Some would even interpret this difference to mean that WELS Lutheran should not join with non-WELS family members in prayer before a meal.  LCMS, on the other hand, makes a distinction between public and private acts of fellowship.  So, LCMS still maintains communion only among those with whom they agree doctrinally, and they do not participate in joint worship without doctrinal agreement.  However, LCMS members who attend a wedding or funeral in another denomination may sing, join in responses with the congregation, and pray to the extent their own conscience allows.  They may even lead worship in a community or civic setting, provided they are the only clergy involved and they have full control over what is said.  They may also pray together with Christians of other denominations (although not with non-Christians).  

Because the ELS is in official fellowship with the WELS, the descriptions of the WELS above would technically apply to them as well.  However, they tend to be less militant about these positions than the WELS is, and there tends to be a little less uniformity among their ranks in supporting them.  For example, there have been occasional rumblings in the ELS about the doctrine of the ministry where a few individuals desire to move more toward the Missouri position, but they have not been successful thus far.  If they became successful, it is entirely possible that they would endanger the continuation of their relationship with the WELS, since they would no longer have complete doctrinal agreement between the two denominations.  

If I understand what you mean by "law-oriented," I would say that they ELS is not as far down that road as the WELS (see the former paragraph).  However, I would think that "militant" or "separatist" would be a better description than "law-oriented."  My wife and I both have a significant number of WELS relatives, because our families are products of WELS-LCMS marriages where our direct ancestors chose LCMS for their families.  In my experience, the WELS is very much committed to the Gospel that we are forgiven "by grace alone, through faith alone."  

The difference is that they maintain a concept of fellowship which says that not only can they not be in fellowship with a church body who disagrees with them, but they cannot be in fellowship with a church body who is in fellowship with a church body who disagrees with them (essentially being in fellowship second-hand).  They tend to look at fellowship as an "all-or-nothing" prospect, where LCMS looks at fellowship in such a way that they can cooperate to the extent they agree.  So, while the LCMS will only maintain altar and pulipt fellowship with complete doctrinal agreement, I may pray in a non-public setting at breakfast before a local clergy association meeting (providing they are all Christians), or LCMS congregations can work together with other Christians in a food pantry or disaster relief setting, where the WELS must maintain their own separate organizations for such purposes.  

One might say that the WELS has a higher fervency in their commitment to these principles than the ELS, or that they have more unanimous support for these principles among their pastors and congregation than the ELS, but ultimately, they are still agreed on the principles themselves.  

Practically speaking, if I were a lay person, I would be comfortable attending LCMS, ELS, or WELS congregations.  In situations where I have a member with no LCMS congregation nearby, my next best choice is to direct them toward a WELS or ELS congregation that is conveniently located, because I know the Gospel will be taught purely and the Sacraments administered rightly there.  I would even hope that within my lifetime (through corrections on the part of both groups) the three denominations might come together again as a united force for pure truth in our nation and a guide to emerging Lutheran communities in other parts of the world.


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Rev. Jason P. Peterson


I welcome the opportunity to answer questions regarding the beliefs and practices Lutheran Christians, especially questions comparing Lutherans with other Christian denominations or questions which contrast between various kinds of Lutherans. I am especially familiar with the more conservative Lutheran denominations (LCMS, ELS, WELS, etc.). I also take a great interest in examining new Christian movements and popular trends in Christianity from a Lutheran perspective. In addition, I can answer most questions about the original Greek text of the New Testament and its meaning, as well as questions regarding liturgy, evangelism, and preaching. A special area of interest in my ministry is race track chaplaincy/ministry, and I would love to provide information and guidance for anyone interested in this area.


I have been a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod for the past six years at St. John's Lutheran Church in Burt, IA. I currently serve as chairman of the Commission on Ministerial Growth & Support of the Missouri Synod's Iowa District West and as Track Chaplain at Algona Raceway in Algona, IA. I also write as a religion columnist for two local newspapers.

Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Algona Upper Des Moines (newspaper) Bancroft Register (newspaper)

B.A. Concordia University - Ann Arbor, MI (Biblical Languages) M.Div. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (Exegetical Theology, Pastoral Ministry & Missions)

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Zion Lutheran Church (Columbia City, IN) Zion Lutheran Church (Altamont, IL) St. John's Lutheran Church (Burt, IA) Zion Lutheran Church (Lu Verne, IA) Algona Raceway (IA) Fairmont Raceway (MN) Hancock County Speedway (Britt, IA) Clay County Fairgrounds Raceway (Spencer, IA)

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