(LCMC = Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ
and NALC = North American Lutheran Church)
"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
"But we have this treasure in earthly vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." (2 Corinthians 4:7)
Another way that people have attempted to describe the difference between LCMC and NALC is in terms of structural organization. It would be fair to say that the two groups not only have a different perspective on how the Church should be organized, but in some sense, they have a different understanding of what the Church is - how it is recognized and defined.
As an illustration, consider vessels used in Holy Communion: a plate of wafers and a chalice of wine. We believe that God uses the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper as his means of grace, to bring the promise of Christ in to the lives of his people. However, the vessels that contain these earthly elements are "structurally" quite different.
Like the plate of individual wafers, LCMC describes itself as a having a "flat" organizational structure. Preferring to use the term association rather than denomination, LCMC sees itself as a group of congregations "free in Christ; accountable to one another; rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; working together to fulfill Christ's Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations." LCMC intentionally seeks to avoid a top-down hierarchy that dictates local practice, but puts an emphasis on the freedom of congregations to order their ministry to best serve their local mission. The national organization avoids making statements on behalf of the association as a whole. This more horizontal understanding of "church" emphasizes freedom and flexibility of believers in faith together, with all "on the same level."Chalice
NALC, on the other hand, might better be visualized as the chalice of wine. Their structure has more of a vertical dimension, with the national denomination serving as a more unified church body, able to speak on behalf of the whole. NALC shapes its life around four attributes: "Christ-Centered, Mission-Driven, Traditionally-Grounded, and Congregationally-Focused." They have adopted more of a hierarchical model of organization with a Bishop and regional deans, relating to local geographical areas. They seek to be able to provide more centralized coordination of ministries and relationships with other church bodies, while at the same time, remaining focused on the Church's primary mission in the Gospel.
As with many differences among Lutherans, these differences in ecclesiology (understandings of the Church) are the legacy of different ethnic traditions and nationalities in Lutheranism, as well as different historical strands in Lutheran theology and teaching. Such distinctions are not small matters. They are often based on deeply held theological beliefs, and should not be dismissed as irrelevant. However, in the end, they still remain matters of earthly structure. Though the plate and the chalice we use at the table of the Lord may have a different outward structure, Scripture reminds us that Christ is able to use both types of earthly vessels as his instruments of His Word and Sacrament, to convey the promise and power that belongs to God alone.