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 numerical strength in the upper Midwest, where Chilstrom has served for 11 years. Also, Chilstrom’s wife, Corinne, is an ordained (ALC) pastor.

Chilstrom, 55, is known as a peacemaker and reconciler. He played a key role in keeping the merger talks alive when they appeared to be breaking down. Some say his role as a personal counselor became more significant following the November 1984 suicide of the Chilstroms’ 18-year-old son, about which they chose to be candid.

The new bishop describes himself as “theologically centrist,” who is “left of center on social issues.” He once expressed his hope that future Lutheran pastors be “evangelical conservatives with a radical social conscience.”

Whereas the merging churches, in past pronouncements, have allowed that abortion may be a moral decision, Chilstrom opposes abortion except in cases of rape and when the mother’s life is in danger. He has suggested the new church reexamine the issue.

Declining Membership

One of Chilstrom’s challenges will be to halt falling membership. All three merging denominations have faced numerical decline in recent years, including a combined loss of more than 20,000 last year. Chilstrom noted, however, that membership in the LCA’S Minnesota synod increased in each of its 25 years of existence.

It was Chilstrom who proposed that the word evangelical be incorporated in the new church’s name. He said this word indicates the church is serious about bringing others to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As many as 100 ALC congregations already have pulled out, or are expected to pull out, of the new denomination, mainly because the words “inerrant” and “infallible” do not appear in the ELCA’S confession of faith in reference to Scripture. That confession calls the Bible the “inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of [the church’s] proclamation, faith, and life.”

Security was heavy at the convention site in downtown Columbus because of threats the meeting would be disrupted by a controversial group known as Denominational Ministry Extended.

The group, whose leadership includes two defrocked LCA pastors, charges that Lutherans have strayed from the gospel, particularly by ignoring the plight of the homeless and jobless.

The two pastors, D. Douglas Roth and Daniel Solberg, accompanied by about 40 supporters, tried to enter the main convention hall. A brief scuffle ensued; Roth and Solberg were arrested and charged with assault, trespass, and failure to depart.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.