Lutheran Church Denomination

An overview of Lutheranism

Portrait of Martin Luther, founder of Lutheran Church

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According to the Lutheran World Federation, there are approximately 74 million Lutherans in 98 countries worldwide.

The Founding of Lutheranism

The origins of the Lutheran denomination trace back to the 16th century and the reforms of Martin Luther, a German friar in the Augustinian order and professor who has been called the "Father of the Reformation."

Luther began his protest in 1517 over the Roman Catholic Church's use of indulgences but later clashed with the Pope over the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Initially, Luther wanted to debate Catholic authorities over reform, but their differences were irreconcilable. Eventually, the reformers broke away and started a separate church. The term "Lutheran" was originally used by Martin Luther's critics as an insult, but his followers took it on as the name of the new church.

Luther retained some Catholic elements as long as they did not contradict Scripture, such as the use of vestments, crucifixes, and candles. However, he presented church services in the local language instead of Latin and translated the Bible into German. Luther also rejected the kind of powerful centralized authority prominent in the Catholic Church.

Two factors allowed the Lutheran Church to spread in the face of Catholic persecution. First, Luther received protection from a German prince named Frederick the Wise, and second, the printing press made possible the widespread distribution of Luther's writings.

Geography of Lutheranism

According to the Lutheran World Federation, 36 million Lutherans live in Europe, 13 million in Africa, 8.4 million in North America, 7.3 million in Asia, and 1.1 million in Latin America.

Today in America, the two largest Lutheran church bodies are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with more than 3.7 million members in 9,320 congregations, and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) with more than 2.3 million members in 6,100 congregations. Within the United States there are more than 25 other Lutheran bodies, covering the theological spectrum from conservative to liberal.

Sacred or Distinguishing Text

The Bible, The Book of Concord.

Notable Lutherans

Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hubert H. Humphrey, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Tom Landry, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Lyle Lovett, Kevin Sorbo.


Lutheran churches are organized into groups called synods, a Greek term meaning "walking together." Synod membership is voluntary, and while congregations within a synod are governed locally by voting members, churches within each synod agree to the Lutheran Confessions. Most groups meet in a large synodical convention every few years, where resolutions are discussed and voted on.   

Beliefs and Practices

Martin Luther and other early leaders of Lutheran faith wrote most of the Lutheran beliefs found in the Book of Concord. The Book of Concord is considered the doctrinal authority by members of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS). It contains several texts including The Three Ecumenical Creeds, The Augsburg Confession, The Defense of the Augsburg Confession, as well as Luther's Small and Large Catechisms.

The LCMS requires its pastors to affirm that the Lutheran Confessions are a correct explanation of Scripture. The ELCA allows dissent from those confessions that do not deal with the gospel itself.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) includes the Book of Concord as one of the sources of its teaching, along with the Bible. The ELCA Confession of Faith includes the acceptance of the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The ELCA ordains women; the LCMS does not. The two bodies also disagree on ecumenism. While the ELCA is in full communion with the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ, the LCMS is not, based on disagreements over justification and the Lord's Supper.


Valparaiso University

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Your Citation
Fairchild, Mary. "Lutheran Church Denomination." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, Fairchild, Mary. (2021, February 8). Lutheran Church Denomination. Retrieved from Fairchild, Mary. "Lutheran Church Denomination." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).