This month conservatives in the dissension-racked Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod barely missed ousting Gerald Kieschnick, 61, from the denomination's leadership. The vote at the triennial meeting of the 2.6-million-member denomination was 52.8 percent for President Kieschnick's reelection and 47.2 percent for four other candidates. (The three most conservative candidates split 46.5 percent of the vote.)
Kieschnick opponents have worked for a change ever since he approved the participation of Rev. David Benke, the church's Atlantic District president, in a civic interfaith rally. The rally was held at Yankee Stadium 12 days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Rev. Benke offered a short prayer there. The critics said his involvement showed syncretism (worshipping the true God along with the gods of other religions) and unionism (formal fellowship with other denominations).
The LCMS officially opposes both. One leader, Wallace Schulz, lost his job as speaker of The Lutheran Hour for trying, in his role as a synod vice president, to enforce the denomination's stated position on the matter. The dispute has been doctrinal and emotional: "The dislike, I've never seen it worse," LCMS pastor Greg Smith of St. Louis told reporters.
Overall, the LCMS is largely a conservative denomination, with both sides affirming commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and other biblical essentials. But some LCMS leaders want to make the denomination more like mainstream evangelicalism, and a few want to ordain women. The LCMS is known for practicing closed communion and liturgical worship; Kieschnick supporters often see both denominational teachings as obstacles to church growth.
Kieschnick supporters dealt the minority another rebuke when LCMS first vice president Daniel Preus (who received 31 percent of the votes for president) and second vice president Wallace Schulz lost bids for reelection. Some church leaders said they could not recall any previous ousting of a sitting first vice president, whose position is full-time.
In a bid to head off future disputes like the one involving prayer at Yankee Stadium, the delegates voted 757-446 to direct church leaders to study guidelines drawn up by an LCMS theological commission. The guidelines address how and when clergy should participate in non-church "civic events." Among other things, the guidelines suggest clergy should demonstrate concern and sensitivity for how such participation might be perceived by those inside and outside the LCMS.
The guidelines permit LCMS ministers in special circumstances to take part in "serial prayer" - one person praying after another, even if other participants might not be Christians. Lutheran ministers must be free to proclaim that Jesus is the only Savior, and the events can't promote the notion that Christians and non-Christians are praying to the same God.
Delegates approved a new dispute-resolution process that allows for only the denominational president and the district presidents to file disciplinary charges. Supporters see the new process as one that will lead to more order and less rancor; opponents point to a major concentration of power in the denominational hierarchy.
In other business, the delegates voted 1,163-22 to affirm marriage as "the lifelong union of one man and one woman." They also affirmed the biblical account of creation and said the church would not "tolerate" the teaching of evolution as the explanation for the origins of the universe (as seems to be the case in some LCMS classrooms).
The LCMS continues to struggle with finances. It has reduced its national ministries staff, recalled many foreign missionaries, and cut back its budget; overall, the denomination laid off about half of its full-time missionaries. Nevertheless, delegates voted 653-533 to support raising $100 million over the next six years to proclaim the gospel to 100 million people worldwide. Many opponents said the measure was unrealistic financially: Pittsburgh pastor Scott Stiegemeyer called it "a feel-good resolution to make us feel like we are getting stuff done."
Some LCMS congregations already show their opposition to denominational trends by not giving to the synod. Their number is likely to swell as others dismayed by the convention actions follow suit. A split remains a real possibility.