There were other reformation movements before him, but it is really Martin Luther who set in motion the split between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, many people are still confused about where Lutherans stand. Some will say they are no different from Catholics, others will say they are protestant, and there are those who claim they are neither.
In this post, I discuss the differences and similarities between the Catholic, Lutheran and Protestant branches of Christianity.
What You'll Learn Today
Who Are Catholics?
The Catholic church flowed from the early church. It was, and still is, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The first person to use the term ‘Catholic Church’ was Ignatius of Antioch in AD 110. He used the term ‘catholic’ in his writing to mean ‘universal’ or ‘complete’.
The term appears in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans. Here’s the specific text.
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Ignatius also stressed on the importance of deacons, bishops, priests and sacraments, setting the foundation for some of the most important traditions in the Catholic Church.
Today, the Catholic Church forms the largest branch of christianity with over 1.3 billion members.
Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity, the role of bishops as the successors of the apostles, and the popes as the successors to Saint Peter.
The Catholic church holds the Holy Bible and sacred tradition in equal importance, claiming both to be sources of spiritual authority. This is actually one of the main causes of the rift with protestants.
The Catholic Church consists of three tiers of clergy: there are the deacons who act as assistants, priests who are in charge of parishes, and bishops who are in charge of dioceses.
The Bishop of Rome, or the pope, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches.
Who Are Lutherans?
These days, when you go to confession, the priest will probably ask you to say Our Father and one Hail Mary as a way to lessen your penance for sin.
This is called an indulgence. Indulgences typically also include charitable deeds.
This has not always been the case. Decades ago, you could buy indulgences with money to reduce your punishment for sin in this life or after in purgatory.
Soon, the sale of indulgences became a highly commercialized and corrupt practice. That’s what led one pious priest called Martin Luther to finally start speaking up against certain Catholic dogma.
Luther writes to his bishop and includes a copy of his book, which later came to be known as Ninety-five Theses.
This marked the beginning of Luther’s campaign against the Catholic Church.
Over the next several years, he raised issues regarding the Church’s view on various foundational principles including justification by faith and righteous acts, the supremacy of the pope and his office, and the role of priests as mediators between God and man.
Martin Luther preached that the Bible alone is the sole source of authority (Sola Scriptura or scripture alone), that man is justified by faith alone (Sola Fide) through God’s grace and that all christians are Holy Priests appointed by God.
The movement started by Martin Luther quickly spread and later turned into what’s known as Lutheranism.
Who Are Protestants?
Lutherans are actually protestants. Lutheranism is one of the major branches of Protestantism, others being Anabaptism, Adventism, and Anglicanism and more.
Protestants are members of any Church or faith that split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reformation. That includes Lutherans.
Similar to Lutherans, protestants believe in the principles of justification by faith alone, the primary or sole authority of the scripture, and the divine appointment of every believer as a high priest.
Beyond that, different branches of Protestantism have different beliefs regarding things like the Eucharist and baptism.
Catholic vs. Lutheran & Protestant
The main split during the reformation was between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant movement.
Even today, these are the two main ideologies in Christianity. The Lutherans are part of the Protestants.
Here are the biggest differences between the two sides.
- The Catholic Church teaches that both faith and good works are necessary for salvation. Lutherans and protestants believe that we are saved by faith alone. We do not earn salvation through good deeds.
- The Catholic Church upholds that both the Bible and sacred tradition are spiritual authorities. Lutherans and most other protestant branches believe the Bible is the sole authority. Some protestants like Anglicans and Methodists hold tradition to be important, but secondary to the scripture.
- The Catholic Church, obviously, supports papal supremacy. They believe the pope has universal authority over the church. Lutherans and Protestants reject this, saying Christ is the head of the church. Martin Luther went as far as likening the pope to the antichrist.
- In the Catholic Church, there’s the laity (the ordinary members of the church) and the clergy with spiritual authority. These include the deacons, priests and bishops. Protestantism, including Lutheranism, has a different concept called universal priesthood. Protestants believe that we are all called to be high priests.
- Both Catholics and Lutherans both have the sacrament of the Eucharist. But while Catholics believe in transubstantiation (the bread and wine, once consecrated, become the actual body and blood of Christ), Lutherans and many protestants reject that belief.
- Lutherans and most protestants believe in two sacraments: the Holy Communion or Eucharist and Baptism. In contrast, Catholics have seven sacraments.
It may seem like Catholics and Lutherans are as far apart as night and day, but they share some fundamental christian beliefs.
For instance, both Catholics and Lutherans (as well as almost all protestants) believe in the Holy Trinity that is espoused in the Nicene Creed.
They also believe in the importance of baptism for salvation.
Both Lutherans and Catholics practice confession to a priest or pastor, though Lutherans don’t believe in indulgences.
What’s The Difference Between Lutherans and Protestants?
Because there are so many branches of protestantism, it’s difficult to come with specific differences between Lutherans and all other protestants.
Different branches have different perspectives on various matters.
For example, Lutherans have retained most of the liturgy (order or method of worship) present in the Roman Catholic Church. In contrast, some protestant churches have a more flexible liturgy or none at all.
On confession, Lutherans believe in going to the pastor to confess your sins. In contrast, many reformation protestants believe in confessing your sins directly to God.
Like Catholics, Lutherans venerate and remember saints. Many protestant churches on the other hand do not canonize saints or have days of remembrance. They believe in the principle of Soli Deo Gloria or Glory to God Alone.
The term ‘saints’ in most protestant branches refers to all believers.
There are many more theological differences between Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants. We haven’t even talked about the few non-trinitirian protestant churches that don’t believe in the Holy Trinity.
But we’ve covered the main differences above that separate the different branches of Christianity.