When Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church in 1517, his motive was to reform the church, not to divide it. Ironically, Luther’s followers have gone off in many directions: the world’s 70 million Lutherans are divided into several hundred church bodies.

Recent decades, however, have witnessed a trend toward Lutheran unity. Last month in Columbus, Ohio, Lutherans in this country took a major step toward unity as three Lutheran denominations, including two of the largest, became one.

The 2.9 million-member Lutheran Church in America (LCA,) the 2.3 million-member American Lutheran Church (ALC,) and the 110,000-member Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) merged to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA,) which will start operating from its Chicago headquarters on January 1 of next year. With 5.3 million members, the ELCA is the country’s fourth-largest Protestant denomination.

Obstacles to the merger included differing perspectives on clergy authority (stressd by the LCA) versus congregational autonomy (stressed by the ALC). These two denominations also differed on more practical matters, such as how to handle pastors’ pension plans. Some of the differences remain unsettled as the new church begins its life.

The First Bishop

The new church’s most pressing item of business was to select its first presiding bishop. Delegates chose Herbert W. Chilstrom, bishop of the LCA’S Minnesota synod, its largest. On the ninth ballot, David Preus, presiding bishop of the ALC, was the last candidate to be eliminated.

In many ways, Chilstrom seemed an ideal choice. Though an LCA bishop, he was well known in the ALC because of the ALC’S ...

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