Just as there are different kinds of Christians in the world, there are different kinds of Lutherans. To understand what is meant by Confessional Lutheran, you must know a little bit about how the Lutheran Church came to exist.
The birthday of the Lutheran Church is usually thought to be October 31, 1517. That's when Martin Luther posted an invitation to a scholarly debate on the sale of indulgences. This invitation is known as the 95 Theses because it contained 95 statements about indulgences showing why the topic ought to be debated. This invitation led to a series of events that continue today.
Luther was a monk of the Augustinian order who was a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. He taught theology in class, and came to realize that much of what was passing for religious knowledge at the time was in conflict with the Bible. By insisting that the Bible is the highest authority in the Christian Church, even higher than the Pope himself, Luther unknowingly began the Lutheran Reformation.
Many people think that all Protestant churches were founded as movements intended to split away from the Roman Catholic church. That is not true of Lutheranism. Lutheranism began as a movement intended to purify the Roman Catholic church. From the start, Lutherans have only wanted to be Catholic in the sense that this word was used by the ancient Christian Church, meaning "universal." In that sense, there is only one Christian faith, not many separate churches. The one, Catholic faith of Christianity is founded upon the Bible alone, not upon the opinions or speculations of theologians. The Lutheran Reformation was intended to restore the Catholic faith to the Roman Catholic church.
After 1517, it became apparent quickly that the Roman Catholic church was going to resist all efforts to reform its doctrine, especially when those efforts were based upon the claim that the Bible ought to be the highest authority in the Church, and not the Pope. Lutherans said that the holy scriptures are the written Word of God. Their Roman Catholic opponents claimed that the Pope's proclamations and judgments, as well as the writings of church-wide Councils also amount to the Word of God, and are ultimately more important than the Bible.
Meanwhile, other Christian leaders in Switzerland, England, and southern Germany criticized the Lutherans for not changing their doctrine and practice quickly enough. They wished to remove every trace of what they considered to be Roman Catholic abuses, and were happy to separate themselves permanently from the Roman Catholic church. Lutherans, on the other hand, only wished to change those things that directly contradicted the Bible, and they hoped that the Roman Catholic church could still be purified. Lutheranism remained a movement of reformation, but its Swiss and English counterparts became movements of separation. At this point, Lutherans had to direct their attention to both extremes: the Roman Catholic church on one side, and the radical reformation on the other side.
In 1530, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (including Germany, Spain, and other lands) called a council at Augsburg, Germany. Luther had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church and dare not attend, for he would certainly have been murdered. But the Lutheran princes and their other theologians attended and presented a summary of what they believe. The document they presented is called the Augsburg Confession, and it remains an accurate description of the Lutheran faith.
The next year, Lutherans produced a longer document defending the Augsburg Confession from many unfair criticisms. Such a defense is sometimes called an apology, which is not the same way we use that word today. That longer document is known as The Apology of the Augsburg Confession.
Over the next few years, Lutherans kept asking that the Pope would call a church council, where all of the problems could be debated, and where (they hoped) the authority of the Bible would prevail. Finally, it seemed to some that such a council would begin meeting in 1536. Martin Luther was asked to produce a document showing which articles of faith were undebatable, and which were subject to discussion. He did so, and the document was formally adopted by the German Lutherans at the city of Smalcald. This document also became a common expression of what Lutherans believe, called the Smalcald Articles. Attached to the Smalcald Articles is a smaller document describing the papacy from the biblical point of view. Together, these documents still describe the Lutheran position in the 21st century.
Martin Luther died in 1546, and later the same year, the Roman Catholic emperor defeated the Lutheran parts of Germany in battle. In the aftermath, a series of compromises were made which were imposed upon the Lutherans over their objections. This situation led to a split between Lutherans who wanted to accommodate to the compromises and other Lutherans who wanted to retain the doctrine and practice they had known for decades, at any cost.
The thirty-year period after Luther's death was filled with controversy for Lutherans in Germany. There were several points of disagreement, some of them arising from the influence of the Roman Catholic emperor and his enforced compromise, and others arising from the influence of the radical reformers in Switzerland and elsewhere. Finally, a group of theologians led by Martin Chemnitz assembled a document meant to end the controversies within the Lutheran church. It identified the points of controversy and described the position of the Lutheran Church that had been stated previously in the Augsburg Confession and faithfully taught by many church fathers from ancient times. This document was called the Formula of Concord, and was adopted by most of the German Lutheran lands at the time. It remains an accurate description of Lutheran theology to this day.
In 1580, the men who wrote and published the Formula of Concord gathered the other important documents together that Lutherans had adopted to describe their faith, and published them in a single book. It was called the Book of Concord, and still defines the meaning of Lutheran in our time. The creeds and confessions included in that book show that Lutherans consider themselves not to be a new church body, but a continuation of the ancient Christian church. Lutherans are Catholic in that sense, because we believe the same thing as the orthodox Christian church from ancient times. The Book of Concord contains:
In our time, many Lutherans have begun to think of their church as another denomination, instead of a continuation of the ancient Catholic church. Some Lutherans never even learn about the confessional documents that describe their faith. Some Lutheran pastors do not take the Lutheran Confessions seriously any more, claiming that times have changed, and the truth has changed with them.
These sad developments have led to the term Confessional Lutheran, which serves to distinguish those who are Lutheran because of the faith they believe, teach and confess from those who are "Lutheran in name only." Confessional Lutherans subscribe to the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions because they are in full agreement with the doctrine of holy scripture. Other Lutherans may also subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, but only insofar as they agree with the Bible. The first group has been convinced that the Lutheran faith is biblically correct, and are willing to defend it. The second group is willing to depart from the historic Lutheran faith whenever they think it is warranted by the changing times or by their own convenience.
Bethany and Concordia Lutheran Churches are confessional Lutheran churches. We subscribe to the Lutheran confessions because they are in full agreement with the doctrine of Holy Scripture.