About the Lutheran Church in Canada
The first Lutheran pastor to conduct a service on Canadian soil came from Denmark in 1619. As one of a crew of explorers searching for the elusive Northwest Passage at the time, Rev. Rasmus Jensen found himself on the rugged shores of Hudson Bay. He conducted a worship service for the stranded crew at the site of the present community of Churchill, Manitoba, a service which marked the first recorded Lutheran worship in this country.
Over the centuries since then, many others have immigrated to our country to make new lives for themselves and their families. The names of some churches in the ELCIC and the family names of many members reflect their countries of origin – Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Now, new names are joining the family – primarily coming from China, Vietnam, Africa, and South America. The name “Evangelical” applies to all of us, though. It dates back to 1520 when it was first applied to the church that took shape as people came to believe as did Martin Luther during the time of the Reformation. The word is derived from “evangel,” meaning the good news – the Gospel.
Lutheran churches are based on the Bible and the writings and beliefs of Martin Luther. He was a 16th century priest who saw the need for church reform and, in speaking out about it, transformed Christendom and (unintentionally!) launched the first Protestant church. He didn’t name us, but others started calling his followers “Luther-ans”, and the name stuck!
Current statistics show the ELCIC has about 114,000 baptized members, worshipping in 525 congregations across Canada. Geographically, the church is composed of five synods – Eastern, Manitoba/Northwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Territories, and British Columbia Synod. Each synod is made up of Conferences or Areas, which are also geographically defined and encompass a number of individual congregations. The national church office in Winnipeg is the workplace for many of the people who provide services and programs for the ELCIC, including the church’s National Bishop and administrative staff. It also houses the offices of the church’s national magazine Canadian Lutheran and ELCIC Group Services Inc. (Pensions and Benefits).
The ELCIC Constitution (Article IV) declares: “The mission of this church, as an expression of the universal church and as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, is to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in Canada and around the world through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments and through the service in Christ’s name.” We believe that God calls the whole church to participate in the mission of God, which is the preservation and redemption of all creation. Responding to this call is ministry, and we believe in “the priesthood of all believers,” that is that all of us (not only those who are ordained) are called to fulfill this mission. To this end, each of the three areas of our church – congregational, synodical, and national – serves in ministries of many kinds. All three work together on needs which are best met through shared service, and the ELCIC also serves in conjunction with the other Lutheran and other Christian partners within this country and around the world.
Martin Luther – Our Spiritual Guide
Our history is strongly influenced by our spiritual guide – Martin Luther. Even though he died over 500 years ago, he still is very much alive in what we do and say.
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. Young Luther showed a great deal of promise. By 1502 he had his bachelor’s degree and by 1505 he had achieved a mater’s degree. Then Luther began to study law.
One day Luther was caught in a violent storm. Lightning struck a nearby tree. Luther fell to the ground in terror. He prayed frantically to St. Anne, the special saint for miners (at one time his father had been a miner). He promised that if she would save his life, he would become a monk. At the age of 22, in spite of his father’s opposition, Luther entered a monastery in the Augustinian order.
Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507, and was assigned to teach at the new university in Wittenberg in 1508. In 1512, he became a doctor of sacred scripture and professor of Bible at Wittenberg University.
Like many others in his time, Luther was terrified of a God who wanted vengeance on sinners. He was obsessed with trying to please God. The medieval church taught that a person had to earn God’s acceptance. As Luther studied and taught, he gradually began to realize that the New Testament teaches that grace cannot be earned. God freely accepts people. This became the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.”
Pope Leo X needed money to complete the Church of St. Peter in Rome. One fundraiser was a Dominican prior, John Tetzel, who began to sell indulgences in a parish near Luther’s. The sale of indulgences developed from a medieval system in which people were expected to pay penalties imposed by the church for their sins. They could earn an indulgence by doing special acts of penance such as making a pilgrimage. This shifted into a system of buying indulgences instead of earning them, and that lead to many abuses.
On October 31, 1517, Luther tacked up a notice on the door of the Castle Church. It was an invitation to the theologians of Wittenberg to meet with Luther and to debate the indulgence situation. Luther wrote down his ideas on the notice in 95 points or 95 theses. As Luther tacked up his notice, the sound of his hammer echoed in Rome.
Within two weeks, Luther’s 95 theses were being discussed all over Germany. Attempts at diplomacy failed when John Eck and Luther entered into a debate at Leipzig University. Luther forcefully stated his case and directly challenged the authority of the pope. After that, Luther began to write several books which criticized the pope’s power.
Rome’s authority was being directly challenged. On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo signed a papal decree charging Luther with heresy. Charles V, the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, whose father was German, convened an imperial assembly (called a “diet”) at Worms, Germany. When he appeared before the Diet, Luther was asked two questions: Did he write the books that were standing on a table? Was he willing to recant what he had written?
The following afternoon witnessed Luther’s famous reply: “Unless convinced by the testimony of Scripture of right reason – for I trust neither the pope nor councils inasmuch as they have often erred and contradicted one another – I am bound by conscience, held captive by the Word of God in the Scriptures I have quoted. I neither can nor will recant anything, for it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me! Amen.”
Although Luther was declared a heretic, he enjoyed the protection of powerful German rulers. A new denomination began to emerge. Luther encouraged the congregations to take responsibility for themselves, to choose pastors and provide for the education of the people.
He wrote The Small Catechism so that people would have a simple way of learning and teaching the basics of the faith. He revised worship. He put it into the language of the people and wrote a number of popular hymns. His translation of the Bible became the foundation of modern German.
(From An ELCIC Primer: An Introduction to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; used by permission)
Lutherans believe and teach that the Bible is God’s Word to humankind, a word that reveals and finds its chief expression in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit speaks through this written word and it is read and proclaimed, and through the sacraments, to initiate and sustain faith, and to nurture us in that life of faith so that we might live fully in Christ’s name. Martin Luther taught that the Bible deals with two basic categories – Law and Gospel. For us as Christian educators, it is important to be able to recognize these and the help others understand how they relate to our lives. Our task and privilege is essentially to help learners know God’s love and grace, and to explore ways of living and reaching out as God’s people. The Law gives us basic principles for living, but it also acts like a mirror in showing us how imperfect we are on our own. However, the Gospel tells us that God loves us and treats us as perfect and “not guilty” because of Christ’s sacrifice in atoning for our imperfections (sins). Because we can do nothing to deserve this great gift of love, we believe we live by God’s grace. “Grace,” a word we use to talk about God’s love, has been described as the most important word in the Lutheran vocabulary. Martin Luther developed a slogan that Lutherans believe is the heart of Christianity: “justification by grace through faith.”
For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9
We believe this means that our salvation is not based on what we do or don’t do, who we are, or what we know. Lutherans believe that salvation is a pure act of grace on God’s part. Recognizing this, we believe we are accepted and therefore freed to love, to serve and to “care and share” with others in profound gratitude and worship.
In Lutheran education, the use of the word grace and the integration of the concept of justification by grace through faith alone are important fundamentals. The “theology of the cross” is central to everything.
Theology of the Cross
Luther’s definition of the Gospel: Jesus (God) was on the cross – rejected and suffering in this world. God chose the cross and chooses to be with us today; God is not repelled by our suffering and struggles. God is found in our suffering and struggles. Luther believed that the crucifixion of Jesus should be the pattern for all of the theology and Christian life. God works in ways that contradict our expectations. We would expect God to be glorious and powerful, but God actually comes to us in the humility of Jesus of Nazareth who is arrested, tried, and executed for sedition and blasphemy. What we teach should be consistent with this reality.
The ELCIC’s Evangelical Declaration (point two) says, regarding this, “We commit ourselves as a church, through prayer, study and conversation, to discern what it is for us to live faithfully under the cross in this time and place, seeing the world through the event of the cross. We will enter into the lives of our people in our local, national and global communities,” We say that our Lutheran church is a “confessional” church. For more info on what we “confess” – that is, what we believe and teach, and how these statements are explained and defended, check with your pastor for a copy of The Book of Concord and/or The Augsburg Confession. Luther’s Small Catechism and/or Large Catechism will also be useful in this pursuit.
The Small Catechism was written as Luther’s confession of faith in God, and outlines the basic tenets of the faith in a concise question and answer format. These are also explanations of what things mean. Originally intended for use by parents in instructing their children in the faith.
Over the centuries Christians have called many things sacraments, but Lutherans recognize two – Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. There are other religious ceremonies or rites which are important to us, too, such as marriage and confirmation, but we don’t call them sacraments. Our criteria for naming something as a sacrament is to ask three questions: Did Jesus tell us to do it? Does God use it to assure us of God’s grace for us? Is there something very physical connected with it; an earthly element? When we consider Baptism and Communion, we can answer “yes” to these questions and, therefore, we recognize these two as “sacraments”. In the celebration of the sacraments, we are linked to the living, loving presence of God. We are assured that no matter how far we wander away from God’s purpose for our lives, there is forgiveness for us, and we are always welcome in God’s realm.
Lutherans believe that Baptism is an act of God’s grace. In this simple ceremony of Word and water – as we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – we are made a part of the family of God for all time and eternity. We do nothing to deserve or earn this privilege; it is the gift of God.
Hence, Lutherans baptize people of all ages – from infancy up. Parents and sponsors of young children accept the responsibility to teach and nourish the child’s faith journey. Youth and adults seeking baptism explore its meaning for themselves in preparation.
Affirmation of Baptism/Confirmation
Often those baptized as children are instructed in the faith as they mature, and participate in “confirmation,” or Affirmation of Baptism in their mid or late teens. At this time, they stand up in front of a congregation and personally lay claim to the promises of their baptisms. They “confirm” that the faith in which their parents and sponsors brought them for baptism, they now name as their personal faith, too.
Affirmation of Baptism is also used to receive new members who were baptized in another Christian denomination and are now joining a Lutheran congregation. Inactive members of congregations sometimes participate in this ceremony; too, to make their choice and decision to become more involved in and committed to their church family again.
There are three basic parts to our Lutheran service of Holy Communion – confession and forgiveness, proclamation of the Word, and celebration of the Meal. In essence, we are God’s family gathered together to share family stories and the family meal.
“Holy Communion is a means of grace through which the crucified and risen Christ awakens faith, saves, forgives, unites, gives life, comforts and strengthens God’s people for the work to which they are called in the world.” (from ELCIC Statement on Sacramental Practices, 5.3)
“Sunday is the primary day on which the Church assembles: the first day of creation when God transformed darkness into light and the day on which Christ rose from death and revealed himself to the disciples in the scriptures and the breaking of the bread. The baptized gather to hear the word, to pray for those in need, to offer thanks to God for the gift of salvation, to receive the bread of life and the cup of blessing, and to be renewed for the daily witness of faith, hope and love. To guests, strangers, and all in need, the Church offers these good things of God’s grace.” (from With One Voice; Augsburg Fortress, 1995. Used by permission.)
We see it as a renewal of our baptism each time we partake of the meal provided for us by God to strengthen us as Christians. We believe in the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion. Christ’s presence in this sacrament is as real as the fresh baked bread (or the wafer, depending on the form chosen by the congregation), and the wine or grape juice offered in a common cup or in individual tiny glasses. Dipping the bread or wafer into the wine before eating it, called intinction, is another method of reception of the elements which Lutherans may choose.
The Eucharistic gift of forgiveness of sins and new beginnings is free to all through Christ’s sacrifice, so we believe it is for all people. Hence, increasingly, Lutheran congregations are now communing infants and children whereas formerly Holy Communion was not administered until after confirmation.
Some Sunday church schools and those congregations choosing a “longer and later” form of confirmation program, offer short-term courses for children in one of the lower grades to help them better understand the intricacies of Holy Communion.
Although each ELCIC congregation has the freedom to choose its own practice, “Eucharistic hospitality” is the norm and Lutheran churches welcome all baptized Christians to Holy Communion, regardless of their church affiliation.
Our Lutheran Church is a “liturgical” church. That is, our worship usually follows a pattern that has evolved over centuries of use. Some of our songs and sayings in the service go back to the earliest days of the Christian Church and many of them are words from the Bible.
Liturgy is a Greek word meaning “the work of the people”, and in Lutheran churches people worshipping are indeed active. Standing, sitting, kneeling, shaking hands, walking, eating, drinking, singing, speaking, praying, laughing and sometimes crying, or dancing, are all part of the involved style of worship we enjoy. Lutherans share this kind of format with other liturgical denominations as well – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, some Presbyterian, some United Church, and other Lutherans.
According to Lutheran Confessions, Holy Communion is offered every Sunday. ELCIC congregations are increasingly returning to this practice, or at least having Communion more frequently than four times a year, seasonal or once-a-month pattern used commonly in the past. When a service includes both the Word of God and Holy Communion, a liturgical service is considered complete.
The above information is used by permission from: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and Wood Lake Books Inc. (The Whole People of God).