When Lutheran leader David Benke declined an invitation to participate in an ecumenical prayer service in 1999, other participants left an empty chair at the altar to represent the loss of his perspective. Benke, a district president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is now under fire for participating in the nationally televised memorial service, "A Prayer for America," held September 23 at Yankee Stadium. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and Hindu clergy participated in the service. As a result, five lcms pastors have charged Benke with syncretism, and the charge could lead to his expulsion from the denomination.
Whether Christians should be involved in interfaith services has become a more frequent and urgent question since the terror strikes on September 11. Many Christians, both ministers and laity, wish to extend hands of peace and goodwill to our Muslim neighbors. Depending on individual circumstances, the message of Benke's empty chair at the ecumenical service can also apply to an interfaith gathering: The community is poorer if it is deprived of a clear evangelical Christian witness. Whenever it is possible to maintain our distinctive witness, we should participate.
Those who oppose interfaith services argue that they are, by definition, syncretistic. Their concern is sometimes well founded. The gospel is diluted when the public gets the message that all religions are essentially the same or worship the same God. That danger depends largely on the choices of an event's organizers. How willing are they to welcome free expression of widely diverging beliefs?
A Respectful Presence
So how can evangelicals participate in interfaith services in ways that are true to our consciences? The key lies in the distinction between ...1