The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA is a mainline Protestant denomination headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. With 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 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 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.
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.
- Herbert W. Chilstrom 1988-1995
- H. George Anderson 1995-2001
Mark S. Hanson 2001-
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 the Sacrament of the Altar through what is sometimes called "consubstantiation." This belief is rejected on the one hand by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which believe in transubstantiation, and on the other hand by many other Protestant church bodies, which 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, knowing that this particular pastor would not be eligible for service in the Episcopal Church.
- Worship styles: Worship styles can vary. The ELCA is a liturgical church, and its services would be familiar to a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian.
The ELCA is a member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches and is a special observer in 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.
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.
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.
- Sexuality: ELCA policy documents state that "marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse."
Creationism/evolution: The ELCA has not enforced an official position on on creation or evolution, allowing members to embrace positions ranging from strict creationism to Theistic 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. The most recent debate centers on whether active homosexuals in stable relationships may be ordained as ministers, and whether ministers may bless same-sex partnerships. In January 2005, an ELCA panel on human sexuality put off a definitive decision by recommending that neither practice be approved, but that the church refrain from disciplining congregations that engage in either practice out of respect for "the deep divisions among us." The panel's report will be considered for adoption by the Churchwide Assembly in August 2005.
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."
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.
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