What is a Lutheran?
The short answer is, “A Christian who follows the teachings of Martin Luther.” But that doesn’t really answer the question satisfactorily! Lutherans and Lutheran churches do trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation that took place in Europe in the 16th century. Martin Luther, a German monk, determined that there were differences between the Bible and the church practices of the day. His writings, lectures and sermons inspired others to protest these church practices and join him in calling for their reform. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted a challenge on the church door at Wittenberg University to debate 95 theological issues. Through these 95 Theses, Luther’s hope was that the church would reform its practice and be more consistent with the Word of God as contained in the Bible.
Sadly, many in the church resisted Luther’s reforms. Followers of Martin Luther’s teachings were labeled “Lutherans” by their enemies and took the name for themselves as a badge of honor. Lutheran beliefs spread throughout Europe, especially in Germany and the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. In its principle confession of 1530, the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans expressly defined themselves not as a separate church, but as a confessional movement within the one holy catholic (universal) church.
As early settlers came to the New World, they brought their beliefs with them. The first permanent colony of Lutherans in the Americas was in the West Indies. By the 1620’s Lutherans had settled along the Hudson River in what are now the states of New York and New Jersey. Lutherans continued to speak and worship in their native tongues, and formed groups of parishes or “synods.” By the mid 1800’s massive immigration to the United States had started, first of Germans and later of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish Lutherans. By the end of the 1800’s some 60 Lutheran synods had been formed. In the twentieth century the first of several mergers of these synods began to occur, at first between language groups and later, as English became the primary language of Lutheran Americans, across ethnic groups.
The last of these mergers was in 1988 with the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America from three church bodies: the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The other large Lutheran denomination in this country is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. While there are differences between the Lutheran denominations, they are able to cooperate in serving military chaplaincies and in helping people in need through Lutheran World Relief.
Lutherans in the United States now reflect not only the ethnic heritage of their ancestors, but also the full spectrum of the American culture. We still consider ourselves as a reforming movement within the Christian church, but Lutherans seek to preserve as much of that tradition from the past as is consistent with the Gospel. Centered on the Word of Scripture and the sacraments instituted by Christ himself, the Lutheran Church strives to be faithful to the Good News that our salvation before God is purely a gift from God in the person and the saving life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation by grace alone, faith alone and through Scripture alone continues to be the center of Lutheran teaching, even as we look forward to the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s original call to debate in October of 2017.