Twelve days after the September 11 attacks, David Benke followed Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu clerics to the podium of a Yankee Stadium event to honor the missing and the dead. Benke asked attendees to join hands and pray with him "on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer." He prayed "in the precious name of Jesus" and sat down.
That prayer has led to Benke's suspension from the clergy roster of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). It has also exposed deep divisions in the church. Denomination pastors, on condition of anonymity, say the dispute is partly an attempt to unseat synod President Gerald Kieshnick, who approved Benke's participation in the "Prayer for America" event.
Some pastors fault Kieshnick for a more open stance to other churches. Insiders say he was elected last summer at the synod convention in St. Louis after two other candidates split the more conservative vote.
"There are long-simmering tensions in our denomination," Benke told Christianity Today. "To me, it is a shame that they have to bubble to the surface over an issue of prayer at a time of national crisis."
Twenty-one pastors and churches charged Benke, president of the church's Atlantic District, with six sets of ecclesiastical violations, including syncretism (mixing religions), unionism (worshiping with non-LCMS Christian clergy), and violating the Bible's commandment against worship of other gods. Wallace Schulz, synod second vice-president, investigated the charges and suspended Benke, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, in July.
Under appeal, the decision now goes before a three-member dispute resolution board. Its ruling could lift the suspension or remove Benke from the LCMS clergy roster.