A teen asks …
What’s the difference between Lutherans and Catholics?
Let me start this – the first of several parts – with a helpful story …
In the first church that I served, we worked very closely with the local Episcopal Church – in fact, at one point, the two church jointly hired one youth minister! As the two churches were strategizing how to share the position, I sat at lunch with the local Episcopal priest and our new youth ministers. (It was actually a husband and wife team.) They asked us, “What’s the difference between Lutherans and Episcopalians?
Being young, inclusive, and wanting to celebrate our unity, I said, “Basically very little … except in the way we structure our denomination.”
Now, the structure is indeed very different. (And to answer today’s question, this mirrors an important difference with the Roman Catholic Church too.) To oversimplify the issue, Episcopalians (and Catholics) have a hierarchical structure; our Luther polity is more flat. Let me explain …
- In a sense, Episcopal priests are ordained (at least in a hierarchical sense) “above” the lay people (the members of the church), and similarly, bishops are consecrated “above” the priests. (The same is generally true in the Catholic Church. It is hierarchical. Bishops above Priests, Cardinals above Bishops, and a Pope above them all.) On the other hand, the Lutheran church is more “flat.” Lutheran pastors are “set apart,” not set “above.” Lutheran pastors certainly have a valuable role within the community of faith, but so does every member of the church. Believing that each member has a sacred role in the life of the congregation, Luther called this “the priesthood of all believers.”
- Because the Episcopal Church is more hierarchical, many sacred acts of the church are performed by the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the local church and the individual congregation. For example, in the Episcopal tradition, acts of membership (including confirmations) are performed only once or twice a year when the bishop can attend a congregation’s worship. The bishop helps usher people into membership in the wider church and not just into the congregation. (I assume this is true in Catholic churches too.) In the Lutheran Church, acts of membership and confirmation are congregational matters.
- In terms of church ownership, the same basic principal again applies. Episcopal churches are in a hierarchical structure; therefore, all of the church property ultimately belongs upward to the diocese and the denomination. The Lutheran Church is much more congregational. The congregation (and its property) belong to the individual church and its members. This distinction has mattered significantly in the last fifteen years. In recent times, many Lutheran and Episcopal congregations have taken (and are still taking) theological stands to abide more closely to a traditional understanding of the Scriptures. As a result, many congregations (like Spirit of Joy) have left their old national denomination and joined more traditional church bodies. When this happens, Lutheran congregations generally leave and keep their own property. (It belongs to them.) When Episcopal congregations change affiliations, they leave without their property. (It belonged to the Diocese).
So, anyway, I was sitting with the Episcopal priest and our new youth directors who asked, “What’s the difference between Lutherans and Episcopalians?” Being young, inclusive, and wanting to celebrate our unity, I said, “Theologically, we’re really about the same, the only real difference is ecclesiological – how we ‘do church’.”
Immediately, the Episcopal priest bristled angrily. “The ecclesial differences are theological!”
Now, the differences between most Protestants and Romans Catholics is way bigger than one devotion can contain! So on and off over the next few weeks, I’ll focus on what distinguishes Protestants (including Lutherans) and Catholics. (And I use that word “distinguishes” intentionally as I view both traditions as “distinguished”! We all Christian! Thus, we’re all brothers and sisters.)
Nevertheless, you asked. So in terms of that priest’s statement – the ecclesial differences are theological – then what I just said about the differences between Lutherans and Episcopalians is also a theological difference between Lutherans and Catholics. Most all of us know, for example, about the Roman Catholic ecclesiological structure. The Pope is the Pontifex Maximus (the Supreme Pontiff), the Holy Father, the head of the church. Below him are the College of Cardinals. Below them are Archbishops, Bishops, and then Priests. There are also other orders of Brothers and Sisters, monks and nuns. And how the Roman Catholic Church is structured is deeply theological.
For example, the foundation of this Catholic Doctrine traces back, in part, to Matthew 16. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They say, “Some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets.” “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon is the first to get it! He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says, “I tell you that you are [renamed] Peter [which by the way means “the rock”], and on this rock I will build my church.”
Catholics see Peter as the Rock! Peter was the undisputed first leader of the Christian Church. Thus, Peter was in a sense the first Pope. And with that belief in place, the first leader (first Pope) led to the second leader … which led to the third “Pope” … which has led to an unbroken chain of authoritative faith that stretches into our present day. Similarly, Catholics believe that there is an unbroken chain of the chief leaders (Popes consecrating Cardinals who consecrate Bishops) who have laid their hands on and consecrate Priests. This is called “the Historic Episcopate” (from which the word Episcopal derives). Through this, it is believed that each newly ordained priest’s authority stretches all the way back to Peter … and thus, of course, to Jesus and this Matthew 16:18 statement of “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Most Protestants (including Lutherans) have a different reading of this important passage in Matthew. We would ask, “What is the true rock upon which the church is built?” Is it a person – Peter? Or isn’t the church really built on the eternal rock of Peter’s confession? In other words, are we saved by a historic line of witnesses linked to Peter, or are we saved by our connection to the truth first proclaimed by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? I’m a good Protestant. I am extremely thankful for an unbroken line of witnesses; nevertheless, I think Jesus-who-is-Son-of-God-and-Messiah is the real rock upon which the church is built!
There are many other distinguishing features between distinguished Catholics and Protestants. I honestly like to focus much more on similarities! In fact, I think that will be my next reflection on this topic: What unites Protestants and Catholics! (That’s infinitely more important!) Nevertheless, you did ask, “What are the difference?” So, I’ll keep on writing reflections (but always under the understanding of “since we all believe in Jesus – crucified, died, and risen – we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ).”
In Christ’s Love,
a guy who in the name
of unity, didn’t respect (or
celebrate) valid differences,
thus bristling an Episcopal
priest by inadvertantly
elements of his theology.
Thus through this,
I hope you hear me
tradition, while boldly
celebrating mine too!