MILWAUKEE (RNS) Recent news reports have thrust the
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) into the middle of a presidential
campaign. What has catapulted this relatively small Lutheran church body into
the media spotlight is the fact that, until recently, presidential candidate
Michele Bachmann held membership in a WELS congregation.
happens in religious or political controversies, people tend to view issues
through the prism of their own perspectives and beliefs. That, in turn, often
results in obscured facts and distortions of the truth.
exactly what happened in the discussion of our denomination's position on the
members, WELS is the third largest of the Lutheran churches in the United
States. It is often described, properly so, as the "most theologically
conservative" of the three.
WELS holds to
the historic Lutheran position that the Roman Catholic papacy fits the biblical
characteristics of the Antichrist. We do this without reservation and without
apology. We believe that our doctrines cannot be tempered by political
correctness or modified to align with changing culture or public opinion.
WELS draws all of its teachings from the
Bible. "By Scripture alone"
was one of the major themes of the Lutheran Reformation,
and WELS has not retreated from that core belief.
Ours is also a
"confessional" Lutheran church, which means that we hold to the
teachings of the Lutheran Confessions because they are a clear and accurate
articulation of biblical truth. These Reformation-era confessional writings
identified the fundamental ways in which the Catholic Church had departed from
the teachings of the Bible.
Martin Luther had sought only to reform his church and return it to the correct
teachings of Scripture, he was excommunicated by Rome and targeted for death.
The birth of the Lutheran church was not Luther's preference; it was made
necessary by the decisions of the Catholic Church itself.
Luther and the
Lutheran Confessions identified the papacy as the Antichrist for three main
-- First, the
papacy claimed to speak with an authority -- even infallibility -- that was
equal to or surpassing the Word of God itself.
By doing so, it put itself in a position of being
"anti" or "in place of" Christ.
-- Second, the
papacy claimed there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, making
membership in a human organization a condition for salvation.
-- Third, in
emphasizing that faith and obedience are necessary for salvation, the papacy
undermined the very heart of the biblical teaching that salvation is by God's
grace alone and comes to individuals through faith in Christ alone.
In each of
these teachings, the papacy placed itself in clear opposition to the foundation
of the Christian faith, and therefore in opposition to Christ himself. Although
the Catholic Church may have softened the way in which it refers to these
doctrines, it has never repudiated or corrected them.
church continues to see the characteristics of the Antichrist in the papacy, it
is wrong and dishonest to portray this belief as stemming from anti-Catholic
bigotry. Yes, we have strong convictions and we identify what we believe are
teachings that depart from the Word of God. But we hold no animosity toward
Christians of the Catholic faith, and we respect the right of people to hold
beliefs different from ours even as we point out the error.
rejoice that even in the Catholic Church (where we believe the gospel has been
distorted) there are many Catholics who hold to a simple faith in Jesus Christ
as their savior and who will ultimately be saved.
the errors that still exist in Catholic doctrine is itself an expression of
love; remaining silent or glossing over doctrinal differences would express the
have portrayed our position on the Antichrist to be a prominent or even
signature doctrine in our church. Certainly we do not deny this teaching or
attempt to hide it. At the same time, it is not a topic of daily discussion, or
a regular theme in Sunday sermons.
This is not a
view peculiar to WELS; it has been the historic position of the Lutheran church
for almost 500 years -- a position still held by confessional Lutheran church
bodies around the world.
Bachmann is no longer a member of our church, and we are not in any position to
comment on her current religious views. But we can say that her previous
membership in our church does not make her guilty of being an
To accuse her
-- or her former church -- of being anti-Catholic is patently unfair and wrong.
(The Rev. Mark
G. Schroeder is president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod).