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.
Church historian Martin Marty says theological objections are present in the debate but secondary to Benke's critics. "I think the case is as much about power in the Missouri Synod as it is about how to punish Benke," says Marty, a former LCMS member who is now a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The synod's 1847 constitution bans syncretism and unionism. In fact, the founders of the 2.6 million-member Missouri Synod emigrated to the United States in 1839 in reaction to a forced union with Calvinists by the German government.
"Nothing went deeper in their theme than 'we do not want to be pushed into prayer with anyone else,' " says Marty, founding director of the University of Chicago Divinity School's Institute for Advanced Religious Studies, now named in his honor. "I cannot think of a group in all of Christendom as careful about who they pray with as the Missouri Synod."
Charges related to the September 23 event were first brought against Kieschnick last December. However, the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters ruled that only the synod convention could rule on charges against a president. The next convention is in 2004. Kieschnick is serving a three-year term.
Kieschnick says he based his approval of Benke's participation on a resolution adopted by the synod two months before the World Trade Center attacks. Resolution 3-07A says an LCMS pastor can participate in civic events—such as inaugurations, graduations, and "once-in-a-lifetime" events—when there are no restrictions on praying in Jesus' name.
"These occasions may provide opportunity to witness to the Gospel," the resolution reads. "Pastors may have honest differences of opinion about whether it is appropriate to participate in these civic events. In these cases charity must prevail."
Kieschnick and Benke say the September 23 event fits the qualifications allowed by 3-07A, but Schulz's decision does not reference the resolution. Schulz declined to comment, saying the matter should be handled in the church.
After Schulz suspended Benke, he was temporarily removed from his duties at Lutheran Hour Ministries, a service of the International Lutheran Laymen's League (LLL).
For the last 25 years, Schulz has hosted "The Lutheran Hour," a syndicated radio show produced by Lutheran Home Ministries. He was the group's associate speaker before becoming head preacher on June 22. The organization's executive board ruled that Schulz's decision has "politically polarized" Lutheran Home Ministries and donors have threatened to retract up to $1 million in funds.
"While Lutheran Hour Ministries has no official position in regard to the synodical decision, the association of Dr. Schulz with Lutheran Hour Ministries has thrust our organization into unprecedented peril," says a July 10 "crisis statement" from LLL leadership.
According to a Lutheran Home Ministries press release, the LLL executive committee in February asked Schulz to recuse himself from the Benke decision. The investigation fell to Schulz after the five synod vice presidents voted that Kieschnick had a conflict of interest and first vice president Rev. Daniel Preus rescued himself.
Thousands of victims' family members and rescue workers attended the September 23 "Prayer for America" [video]. Sponsored by the mayor's office and hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the program featured musical performances, speeches by political leaders, and prayers from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian clergy.
This is not the first time Benke has provoked ire. In 1998 he participated in an interfaith and interdenominational service for the poor without permission from the synod president. After he signed an official apology to the synod and promised "not repeat this error in the future by participating as an officiant in [an] ecumenical service," the matter was dropped.
Benke's prayer at the Yankee Stadium event has awakened the debate within the LCMS over sharing prayer outside the denomination. After Schulz's decision was announced, Benke's district released a paper, "That WE May Be One," arguing that the "deeply divided synod" rethink its interaction with society.
"If we fail to properly think through the implications of our Lutheran theology for our relationship with the world we will produce a church that remains isolated for fear of being polluted," the document reads. "In so doing, we will place the light of the church under a self-imposed bushel basket of paranoia."
Christians outside the LCMS have also wrestled since 9/11 with involvement in interfaith services. This month, a suburb of Houston will commemorate the attacks with two ceremonies: one interfaith and one hosted by evangelical Christians. An organizer for the evangelical event, "One Voice, The Woodlands Remembers," told the Houston Chronicle that all churches centered on belief in Jesus Christ are welcome. Leaders of the interfaith group hosting the other event accuse "One Voice" organizers of intolerance.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.
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