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Here they stand

Religion | A year later, controversy over a post-9/11 "interfaith" service still threatens to split Missouri-Synod Lutherans

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

ONE OF THE INDIRECT 9/11 casualties was a conservative denomination that is still, a year later, struggling to regain its balance: the 2.6-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The hit came 12 days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, at a city-sponsored prayer service in Yankee Stadium emceed by TV personality Oprah Winfrey. Rev. David Benke, a Brooklyn pastor and president of the LCMS's Atlantic District, joined with clergy from other denominations and religions on the platform. LCMS president Gerald Kieschnick had given him permission to take part in what both men considered was a civic event of national significance. Rev. Benke led in a brief and somewhat generic prayer, ending it "in the precious name of Jesus."

Some in the LCMS objected to his involvement; 24 fellow clergy and three congregations filed formal charges accusing him of syncretism (mixing elements of different religions) and "unionism" (defined by the LCMS's constitution as "participating in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or congregations of mixed confession").

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All parties agree: Rev. Benke's prayer at Yankee Stadium was but the catalyst that brought a long-simmering feud between two main factions in the LCMS to a boil. On one side are people who want unswerving adherence to historic LCMS distinctives and doctrine. Concordia Seminary at Ft. Wayne, Ind., is a leading champion of this faction.

On the other side are people, including Rev. Kieschnick and Rev. Benke, who tend to be more open to fellowship with other groups. Both sides are represented in LCMS leadership. Intrigue and pressure moves over the years have muddied the constitution and wreaked havoc on church polity.

To Rev. Kieschnick, the Yankee Stadium rally was a once-in-a-lifetime civic event and opportunity for Christian witness in a time of national crisis. But to Rev. Benke's detractors, it was an "interfaith" religious service that included homage to false gods, and his involvement was a "shocking" and strictly forbidden case of syncretism. (The event included invocations of Allah, readings from the Koran, and Hindu rituals.)

It was up to Rev. Kieschnick as LCMS president to act on the charges against Rev. Benke. However, the church's five vice presidents in January forced him to recuse himself because of his own involvement in the matter. First vice president Daniel Preus likewise had to step aside because he had publicly criticized Rev. Benke.

That left the investigation and ruling to second vice president Wallace Schulz, a veteran staffer and radio preacher at the international Lutheran Hour Ministries, an LCMS affiliate run by the 130,000-member Lutheran Laymen's League. The LLL executive committee in February asked Mr. Schulz to recuse himself, too, in order to avoid "polarizing" the League and its supporters. He declined and in June ruled that Rev. Benke was guilty as charged and suspended him as district president.

Protests poured in to LLL headquarters. Angry executive committee members in July yanked Mr. Schulz as main speaker on The Lutheran Hour, heard on more than 1,000 stations, and suspended him from his duties at headquarters. They agreed to keep him on the payroll while they tried to figure out how to separate the ministry from "political polarization." They later said he could continue his employment and possibly be reinstated on The Lutheran Hour if he agreed to abide by stipulations to be drawn up by his boss. So far, he has declined to speak with reporters.

Meanwhile, Rev. Benke has appealed the decision; observers in both main factions think it will be reversed. Early on, he apologized for not making his prayer more explicit.

Officials have scheduled a series of theological conferences across the country to address "issues of contention" in the LCMS. The first one brought together 200 participants, most of them clergy appointed by their districts, in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month.

"Today we Missouri Synod Lutherans find ourselves teetering on the edge of a precipice," warned Prof. Harold Senkbeil of the Ft. Wayne seminary, one of four speakers. "In order for harmony and unity to be restored, we all have to start by stepping back from the edge of the cliff." He said the first step is to "watch our mouths, all of us," and the second is to calmly and earnestly discuss "the doctrinal confusion that is the real source of our distress."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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