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 had held membership in a WELS congregation.

As often happens in controversies both religious and political, people tend to view issues through the prism of their individual perspectives and beliefs. That often results in obscured facts and distortions of the truth. The discussion of the WELS position on the Antichrist is a perfect example of this.

With 390,000 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 does hold to the historic Lutheran position that the Roman Catholic papacy fits the biblical characteristics of the Antichrist. We do this without reservation and with no apologies. We believe that our doctrines cannot be tempered by political correctness or modified to align them 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. WELS 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 confessional writings, produced at the time of the Reformation and in the decades that followed, identified the fundamental ways in which the Roman Catholic Church had departed from the teachings of the Bible.  Even though 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 because of his beliefs. The birth of the Lutheran church was not Luther’s preference; it was made necessary by the decisions of the Roman Catholic Church itself.

Luther and the Lutheran Confessions identified the Roman Catholic papacy as the Antichrist for three main reasons: 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 that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church, making membership in a human organization a condition for salvation; finally, in emphasizing that faith and obedience are necessary for salvation, the papacy undermined the very heart and center of the biblical teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone and comes to individuals through faith in Christ alone. In holding to each of these teachings, the Roman Catholic papacy placed itself in clear opposition to the foundation of the Christian faith, and therefore in opposition to Christ himself.

Although the Roman Catholic Church may have softened the way in which it refers to these doctrines, it has never repudiated or corrected them.

While WELS continues to see the characteristics of the Antichrist in the Roman Catholic papacy, it is wrong and dishonest to portray this belief as stemming from anti-Catholic bigotry. We do 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 who hold the Roman Catholic faith, and we respect the right of people to hold beliefs different from ours even as we point out the error. Furthermore, we rejoice that even in the Roman Catholic Church, where we believe that 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. Testifying to the errors that still exist in Catholic doctrine is itself an expression of love; remaining silent or glossing over doctrinal differences would express the opposite.

Media reports have portrayed the WELS 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. Nor is this 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.

Michele 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 “anti-Catholic bigot.” To accuse her—or her former church—of that is patently unfair and wrong.

Serving in Christ,
Mark Schroeder