Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a mainline Protestant denomination headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Formed in 1988 by the merging of three churches and currently having about 5 million members, it is the largest and most liberal of all the Lutheran denominations in the United States.

The Church also has congregations in the Caribbean region. Before 1986, some of the congregations that form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada were part of the ELCA's predecessor churches. The ELCA is one of the largest Christian demominations in the United States. The next two largest Lutheran denominations are the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (with approximately 2.6 million members) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (with approximately 410,000 members). There are many smaller Lutheran church bodies in the United States.

The headquarters of the Church are located at 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago IL 60631.


Organization and structure

The ELCA is headed by a presiding bishop, elected by the Churchwide Assembly for a term of six years. The Churchwide Assembly meets in odd-numbered years and consists of elected lay and ordained voting members; between meetings of the Churchwide Assembly, the ELCA Church Council governs the Church. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was elected in 2001. The most recent Churchwide Assembly was held in August, 2005 in Orlando, Florida.

The Church is divided into one special synod (the Slovak Zion Synod) and 64 regional synods or dioceses in the United States and the Caribbean, each headed by a synodical bishop and council. The ELCA uses the term synod differently than the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which are separate denominations.

Within the church structure are divisions addressing many programs and ministries. Among these are support for missions, outdoor ministries, campus ministries, social ministries, and education. There are twenty-eight colleges and universities affiliated with the ELCA throughout the United States.

See List of ELCA colleges and universities, List of ELCA seminaries, List of ELCA synods.

Predecessor churches

The ELCA formally came into existence on January 1, 1988, creating the largest Lutheran church body in the United States. The Church is a result of a merger between the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), The American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), all of which had formally agreed in 1982 to unite after several years of discussions. The ELCA's three predecessor churches were themselves the product of previous mergers and splits among various independent Lutheran synods in the United States.

  • The American Lutheran Church
    • In 1960 the American Lutheran Church, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church merged to form The American Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Free Church joined in 1963. The ALC brought approximately 2.25 million members into the ELCA.
  • The Lutheran Church in America
    • In 1962 the United Lutheran Church in America, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church formed the Lutheran Church in America. The LCA brought approximately 2.85 million members into the ELCA.

Presiding bishops

Beliefs and practice

The ELCA is a Christian church body holding to the teachings of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The ELCA's doctrine is less conservative and its requirements for entry less stringent than those of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the second and third largest Lutheran bodies in the United States.

  • Interpretation of Scripture: Generally speaking, ELCA clergy are less likely to take the Bible literally than those in the LCMS or WELS. ELCA seminaries and colleges generally teach a form of historical-critical method of biblical analysis, an approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to understand the scriptures and the process of canon formation with reference to historical and social context. For a brief description, see What is the Bible? on the ELCA website.
  • Sacraments: Like other Lutheran church bodies, the ELCA practices two Sacraments, Communion (or the Eucharist) and Holy Baptism (including infant baptism). The ELCA, along with most other Lutherans, holds to the doctrine of the Real Presence, in other words, the belief that Christ is truly present – body, soul, humanity and divinity – "in, with and under" (Augsburg Confession) the Bread and Wine, so that communicants receive both, the elements and Christ himself. Other denominations sometimes erroneously perceive this as a belief in consubstantiation. The ELCA, however, rejects the belief of consubstantiation and regards attempts to explain in terms of philosophical metaphysics how the Eucharist "works" as disrespectful of the Sacrament's miraculous and mysterious character. The Roman Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation, while many other Protestant church bodies doubt the Real Presence in the elements of communion. Unlike most other American Lutheran church bodies, ELCA congregations practice open communion, inviting all baptized persons to receive communion in their congregations.
  • Ministerial training and ordination: Pastors are trained at one of eight ELCA seminaries located throughout the United States. They generally hold a Bachelors of Arts degree or equivalent, as well as a masters degree in divinity, and are required to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek. Pastors are ordained by bishops under terms of Called to Common Mission, the full-communion agreement between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church which calls for the ELCA to adopt apostolic succession in its ordained ministers. Since the passage of CCM, a small number of pastors have elected for presbyteral ordination rather than episcopal ordination, under a bylaw exception passed by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly. In other words, in certain circumstances it is allowed for a pastor, rather than a bishop, to ordain a pastor in the ELCA, with the understanding that this particular pastor would not be eligible for service in the Episcopal Church.
  • Worship styles: Worship styles can vary – from "traditional," in which hymns dating from pre-Reformation times up to the present day are used, to "contemporary," where modern day gospel music is incorporated. The ELCA is a liturgical church, and its services would be familiar to a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian, including features such as the "sign of the cross," the use of Latin-Rite vestments (alb, cincture, and stole; the chasuble and cope is rarely worn, although most bishops tend to wear them), and the traditional liturgical colors: white, red, green, and purple – although in recent years, blue is worn for Advent, scarlet for Holy Week, gold for Easter Sunday only, and black, the traditional color for mourning, is now only worn for Ash Wednesday. The principle book of worship is the Lutheran Book of Worship. Other official resources include With One Voice, This Far by Faith, and Libro de Liturgia y Cántico . The church is currently engaged in the Renewing Worship project, a five-year/five-phase process to determine and develop the "next generation" of comprehensive worship resources that will succeed the Lutheran Book of Worship.

Rostered ministry

As a Lutheran church body, the ELCA professes belief in the "priesthood of all believers", or that all baptized persons are true ministers of the Church. Some people are called to "rostered ministry", or vocations of church leadership and service. After training and certification by local synods these people are "set aside, but not above" through ordination or commissioning/consecration. The ELCA currently has four types of rostered ministery:

  • Pastor: As explained in the previous section, this is an ordained minister of "Word and sacrament".
  • Deaconess: A lay woman, married or single, who serves the Church in a variety of ways. Traditionally, deaconesses served in the caring professions as nurses, social workers, or teachers.
  • Associate in Ministry: Serves local congregations, synods or other ministries in a variety of roles as parish administrators, youth ministry leaders, or other positions.
  • Diaconal minister: A minister of Word who may serve as a chaplain, youth minister, or in some aspect of social justice or advocacy work. This is the newest category established by the ELCA. A Diaconal minister is similar to the role performed by permanent deacons in the Episcopal Church.

The Division for Ministry at the ELCA's headquarters is responsible for the oversight and pastoral care of rostered ministers, in addition to the synodical bishop. Information on the Division's work and the various types of rostered ministry can be found at the Division's webpage.

Ecumenical relations

The ELCA is a member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches and is a "partner in mission and dialog" with the Churches Uniting in Christ.

The Church maintains full communion relationships with the Lutheran World Federation (which includes many automomous national/regional Lutheran church bodies throughout the world), the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. In 2005, the ELCA approved a provisional agreement with the United Methodist Church called "A Proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing", which is the first step toward reaching full communion with that denomination by 2008.

On October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation – of which the ELCA is a member – signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholic Church. The statement is an attempt to narrow the theological divide between the two faiths. The Declaration also states that the mutual condemnations between 16th century Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church no longer apply.

Social issues

In general, the ELCA is a moderately liberal body that emphasizes social justice among its core values. However, there is a great deal of diversity of opinion among its constituent congregations, and, thus, the ELCA has been the arena for a number of tussles over social and doctrinal issues during the years since it came into existence in 1988. In part, this is due to the fact that the ELCA assimilated three different Lutheran church bodies, each with its own factions and divisions, thus inheriting old intra-group conflicts while creating new inter-group ones. In general, however, the ELCA has avoided major schisms, partly by engaging in long periods of study and interactive deliberation before adopting new stances.

The ELCA's stances on social issues include:

  • Role of women: Unlike most of the other Lutheran denominations in the United States, the ELCA ordains women as pastors, a practice that all three of its predecessor churches adopted in the 1970s. Some have become synod bishops since the formation of the ELCA.
  • Sexuality: ELCA policy documents state that "marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse."
  • Creationism/evolution: The ELCA does not have an official position on creation or evolution.
  • Homosexuality: The church has officially welcomed homosexuals within its congregations since 1991. However, its stance and ongoing deliberations on homosexuality have been the subject of sharp clashes. Groups such as Lutherans Concerned/North America are presently advocating for greater strides toward full acceptance and equality for homosexuals, while groups such as Solid Rock Lutherans seek to reverse moves in this direction.

In language first proposed by the church's Conference of Bishops in 1993 and formally adopted by the Churchwide Assembly in 2005, the ELCA holds "there is basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship. We, therefore, do not approve such a ceremony as an official action of this church’s ministry." However, in acknowledgement of the complex nature of this issue, the Churchwide Assembly also expressed its "[trust in] pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care for all to whom they minister."

Though some on both sides of the issue have found this position to be tacit permission for same-sex blessings by individual pastors, no allowance is made for such blessing services in the church's governing documents, and the Churchwide Assembly declined to change church policy to provide for such services.

The ELCA does not presently permit the rostering of active homosexuals. A resolution considered by the Churchwide Assembly would have generally maintained this stance, while providing a process for exceptions to be made for those in a committed homosexual relationship, on a case-by-case basis. After much debate, the resolution failed to meet the two-thirds supermajority required for its adoption, and was defeated.

  • Abortion: The issue of abortion has also been contentious within the ELCA. The church, in documents approved in 1991, set out its position on the matter as follows. The ELCA describes itself as "a community supportive of life," and encourages women to explore alternatives to abortion such as adoption. However, the church states that there are certain circumstances under which a decision to end a pregnancy can be "morally responsible." These include cases where the pregnancy "presents a clear threat to the physical life of the woman," situations where "the pregnancy occurs when both parties do not participate willingly in sexual intercourse," and "circumstances of extreme fetal abnormality, which will result in severe suffering and very early death of an infant." Regardless of the reason, the ELCA opposes abortion when "a fetus is developed enough to live outside a uterus with the aid of reasonable and necessary technology."

Abuse case

In March and April 2004, the ELCA agreed to pay the largest per capita settlement in a church abuse case in the United States to date. The payment was a combination of a jury award and a separate settlement, both stemming from civil suits filed by fourteen plaintiffs against the ELCA, a member synod, several church officials, one of the church's seminaries, and one of its congregations. The plaintiffs charged that they had been sexually abused by an ELCA minister at a church in Marshall, Texas, and that the defendants had been negligent in their oversight and evaluation of the offender. Seeking to reassure member congregations, a church spokesperson subsequently noted that "ELCA bishops do not have authority to reassign clergy, and they do not move known perpetrators to other ministry locations." The offending minister was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2003, and removed from the ELCA's clergy roster.

See also

External links

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