An appeals panel of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) has overturned the suspension of pastor David Benke for praying at an interfaith September 11 memorial event at Yankee Stadium (CT, Sept. 9, 2002, p. 17). As a result, tensions are running high in the 2.6-million-member denomination, and sources expect a showdown next year.

Twenty-one pastors and churches charged Benke with syncretism (mixing religions), defending false doctrine, and worshiping with non-LCMS Christian clergy in the September 2001 "Prayer for America" event. Wallace Schulz, the synod's second vice president, investigated the case last summer. Schulz then suspended Benke, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Brooklyn.

On April 11, a three-person dispute resolution panel dismissed all charges against Benke. It reinstated him as the denomination's Atlantic District president. After a 30-day appeals period, the church announced the decision in mid-May. The panel cited a 2001 resolution, 3-07A. It allows LCMS pastors to participate in "once in a lifetime" civic events, with no restrictions placed on praying in Jesus' name.

Schulz lost his 25-year position as host of the syndicated "Lutheran Hour" radio program because of controversy raised over his decision. He told Christianity Today he strongly disagrees with the panel's decision.

"If this dispute resolution panel's approach is permitted to stand, there will be chaos in our synod, since the Word of God will become subject to the word of man," Schulz said.

LCMS leaders say the Benke case has dredged up existing divisions in the denomination. These include disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture and the church's involvement with non-LCMS Christians and non-Christians. Benke told CT, "It appears that tensions have been heightened and will be taken to the national convention in 2004. Politically, it will be a battle."

Sources say key leadership elections and resolutions, including 3-07A, will be major points of contention at the St. Louis meeting next July.

"The 2004 synod convention will be a moment of truth," Benke said.

Gerald Kieschnick, president of the LCMS, has taken heat for allowing Benke to participate in the Yankee Stadium event. He told CT he expects the 2004 convention to uphold the 2001 resolution.

"If some individuals or groups decide they disagree with what the Missouri Synod teaches, believes, and confesses, they have the responsibility to discuss their dissent," Kieschnick said. "If they are unable to persuade the rest of the church body that they are right, then they have a choice to make."

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