Question: "What is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)?"
Answer: The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is one of many bodies that descend from the teachings of Martin Luther and his desire to correct the errors in the Roman Catholic Church. The subsequent Protestant Reformation is seen as a return to true Christianity after it had been corrupted.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod traces their origin to the 1828 United Rhine Mission Society in Germany. In 1837 that society sent John Muehlhaeuser to serve in North America, where he eventually moved to Wisconsin in 1848. The first meeting of the Wisconsin Synod took place in 1850. In 1868 the synod (or “assembly”) severed ties with its German branch in order to become “more Lutheran.” Over the following decades, the synod spread across neighboring states and the world—sending missionaries to places like Africa and Japan. They officially became the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1959 (https://wels.net/about-wels/history, accessed 8/25/21).
The word synod is taken from Greek and basically means “an assembly or meeting”; thus, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is an assembly of Lutheran congregations. As of now, they have 1,264 individual churches in 47 states and 4 provinces of Canada, making them the third largest Lutheran body in the United States (https://wels.net/about-wels/history/numbers, accessed 8/25/21). They are in fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC).
In their own words, members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod “share a commitment to be faithful to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. God gathered us to work together and blessed the faithful efforts of all those who have gone before us. We remain together to work as brothers and sisters in Christ and to proclaim the wonders of God’s grace to all the world” (Together in Christ: A History of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, p. 54).
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod broke fellowship with its sister church, the similarly conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in August 1961 over the practical implementation of church fellowship. As a theologically conservative organization, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod teaches many things in line with the stance of Got Questions. On topics such as the identity of Christ, His death on the cross, the Trinity, the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and marriage, their doctrine aligns with ours. However, they also hold some beliefs that are more problematic.
Each of their statements of faith starts with “The Bible and Lutherans teach.” This phrasing would seem to indicate they hold their identity as Lutherans almost as high as the content of the Bible. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod also teaches that God “conveys his forgiving grace and strengthens faith only through the Word and sacraments” (https://wels.net/about-wels/what-we-believe/this-we-believe/good-works). To say that forgiving grace comes through the sacraments is to say the earthly elements are necessary for the forgiveness of sins, and we find this to be unbiblical. WELS teaches that the sacraments are “the only means through which immortal souls are brought to faith and to life in heaven” (https://wels.net/about-wels/what-we-believe/this-we-believe/means-of-grace, accessed 8/25/21). The sacraments consist of the baptism—including infant baptism—and communion. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod holds a view similar to consubstantiation, believing that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under the bread and wine” (ibid.). Communicants therefore receive both bread and wine, and the body and blood of Christ. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod also teaches that salvation can be lost, interpreting 1 Corinthians 10:12 as saying a believer can fall from faith.
Finally, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod rejects the teachings of millennialism and the rapture, believing only in Christ’s second coming, at which point believers and unbelievers will appear before the throne of judgment. They reject a literal Antichrist, claiming instead that the descriptions of that figure in the Bible are being fulfilled by the papacy (https://wels.net/about-wels/what-we-believe/this-we-believe/jesus-return, accessed 8/25/21).
Believers should be careful to assess all the doctrine and practices of any group they associate with, including the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.