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LIBERAL - CONSERVATIVE CONFLICT
WITHIN THE LUTHERAN CHURCH, MISSOURI SYNOD

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Quotation:

bullet"To participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God, is an extremely serious offense against the God of the Bible." Rev. Wallace Schulz, national second vice president of the the Missouri Synod. 1

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About Lutheran denominations:

Almost all Lutherans in the U.S. belong to either:

bulletThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) -- the sixth largest Christian denomination in the U.S. with about 5.2 million members.
bulletThe Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod -- the tenth largest denomination with about 2.6 members. It is considerably more conservative than the ELCA.

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A "Prayer for America:"

On 2001-SEP-23, less that two weeks after the terrorist attack on New York City, Oprah Winfrey hosted "Prayer for America." It was a meeting of New Yorkers of all faiths -- and none -- in Yankee Stadium. The prayer service was simulcast on large television screens at stadiums in Staten Island and Brooklyn, NY. It was televised on four national networks. It was at a time when attendees at the service, the rest of the nation, and people worldwide were still trying to come to terms with the tragedy. The prayer service naturally had a strong religious tone. Rev. Dr. David Benke of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod called Yankee Stadium a "field of dreams which has now become a House of Prayer." Among the many faiths represented were:

bulletNew York Police Department bagpipers played "Amazing Grace;" many performers had to wipe away tears between phrases of the music.
bulletA gospel ensemble sang "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again."
bulletPlacido Domingo sang "Ave Maria."
bulletInvocations were by Cardinal Edward Egan, Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, chaplain of the New York City Fire Department.
bulletThe Blowing of the Shofar (a ram's horn used to announce major Jewish events) was followed by Rabbi Arthur Schneier's  "prayer for the country," and Rabbi Alvin Kass, the chaplain of the New York City Police Department. He lead a Prayer for the Families. Rabbi Marc Gellman, head of the New York Board of Rabbis, read a reflection. Rabbi Joy Levitt read Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd...")
bulletGriselda Cuevas of the Incarnation Parish in Manhattan read Romans 8:36-39 in Spanish. Firefighter George Reece repeated it in English.
bulletThe Most Rev. Thomas V. Daily, bishop of Brooklyn, offered a reflection and prayer.
bulletA Sikh prayer and reflection was offered by Dr. Inberjit Singh of the Sikh Temple in Richmond Hills, NY.
bulletThere was a Muslim call to prayer translated as "God is all-knowing and is well acquainted with all things....Be just. That is next to piety."
bulletRepresentatives of the Council of Churches of the City of New York offered prayer and reflection. Six Protestant leaders said prayers. They represented a variety of denominations, including Archbishop Anania Arapajian of the Armenian Church in America, Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Rev. Dr. David Benke, a District President of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. A District President is the equivalent of a bishop in other Christian denominations.
bulletActor James Earl Jones opened the service, saying "Our spirit is unbroken. In fact, it is stronger than ever. Today we reaffirm our faith in the essential dignity of every individual. What we share as Americans and as human beings is far greater than what divides us."
bulletOprah Winfrey concluded the service with the statement "Let not one single life have passed in vain."
bulletArchbishop Demetrious of the Greek Orthodox Church of America gave a benediction.
bulletA second benediction was given by Pandit Roop Sukhram of the Hindu Sreeraam Temple in Brooklyn.

There were also a number of predominately secular speeches by Oprah Winfrey and Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

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Prayer by Rev. Dr. David Benke of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod:

As noted above, Dr. Benke was one of six Protestant clergy who gave a reflection followed by a prayer. He said:

"We're stronger now that we were an hour ago; but sisters and brothers, we are not as strong now as we are going to be. The strength we have is the power of love, and love comes from God, for God is love. Our task is to take that love from this place into our communities, one by one."

"Join me now in prayer on this field of dreams which has now become a House of Prayer -"

"Lord, we are leaning on You today, for You are our Tower of Strength. We are leaning on you, for you are our Mighty Fortress, the Rock of our Salvation, and our Strong Deliverer."

"Those of us who bear the Name of Christ understand that your towering love found its ultimate strength when you stooped to send your Son to die and live again in order to bring the world back together."

"We implore You in tender mercy to comfort with signs of Your Presence those who morn the lost and missing and cannot find you now in the ashes; unbind unfear, unscorch, unsear our souls; renew us with your free Spirit."

"O Tower of Strength, extend Jacob's ladder for those who ascend the stairways to save us even as others escaped the fire and flames."

"O Tower of Strength, open innocent and victimized hearts to the sacrifice of the Innocent one; pour our your consolation upon the traumatized, especially our children."

"O Tower of Strength, unite us now across all boundaries in acts of grace and truth in this great city; guide and empower with wisdom especially our religious and civic leaders;"

"O Tower of Strength, we are leaning on You today; keep us in the shadow of Your shelter, and send us forth to walk in peace."

"In Jesus' Precious Name. Amen." 5 (Emphasis ours)

There is some confusion over the precise words that Dr. Benke said.

bulletThe LSMS site quotes Dr. Benke as saying: "Those of us who bear the Name of Christ understand that your towering love found its ultimate strength when you stooped to send your Son to die and live again in order to bring the world back together." (emphasis ours).
bulletThe Atlantic Division's web site quotes the same paragraph as: "Those of us who bear the name of Christ know that You stood so tall when You stooped down to send a Son through death and life to bring us back together..." (emphasis ours).

A visitor to our site stated that an actual transcription of the prayer included the phrase "a Son." If so, then it could be interpreted in several different ways:

bulletDr. Benke may have made an unintentional slip of the tongue in describing Jesus' status.
bulletHe may have implied that Jesus is God's only begotten son, but that Christian believers are also considered sons of God. For example, Romans 8:14 states: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Galatians 3:26 states: "For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus." (ASV) See also Matthew 5:9, Luke 20:36, and Romans 8:19.
bulletHe may have been expressing a syncretistic belief, and implying that Jesus is only one of many incarnations of God -- a heresy within LCMS theology.

Aside from this theological fine point, Dr. Benke got into a lot of trouble for even delivering a prayer at an inter-faith gathering. Some Lutherans believe that this act granted legitimacy to non-Lutheran beliefs. "Twenty-one Missouri Synod pastors and congregations filed charges against" him. 1

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Response by Rev. Wallace Schulz:

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod suspended Rev. David Benke, one of its high-ranking pastors, both from his position as District President of the Atlantic District and from his position on the Board of Regents for Concordia College in Bronxville, NY. It is not because of what he said that afternoon in Yankee Stadium. It was the fact that there were a number of other clergy present -- Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh -- who also gave meditations and prayers to their deity(s).

He has been charged with two specific errors, both forbidden by the Missouri Synod's 1847 constitution:

bullet"Unionism" which is defined, as mixing the beliefs of various Christian denominations (e.g. Roman Catholic and Missouri Synod).
bullet"Syncretism" -- mixing Christian with non-Christian views (e.g. Christianity and Islam).

There does not appear to be any content in Rev. Benke's prayer itself which contains unionism or syncretism. It was the contribution of prayers and reflections during other parts of the prayer service by Roman Catholic leaders, other Protestants, representatives of non-Christian faiths: Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

The denomination is requiring him to apologize to all members of the denomination and to all other Christians. Rev. Wallace Schulz, second vice-president, wrote in the suspension letter: "By President Benke's joining with other pagan clerics in an interfaith service [no matter what the intent might have been], a crystal clear signal was given to others at the event and to thousands more watching by C-Span. The signal was: While there may be differences as to how people worship or pray, in the end, all religions pray to the same God....In brotherly love and admonition. I appeal to you, President Benke, please make a sincere apology to our Lord, to all members of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and to all Christians who are part of Christ's Body. Joining in prayer with pagan clerics in Yankee Stadium was an offense both to God and to all Christians."

Apparently Rev. Schulz was unaware that the prayer service was also carried by CNN and other networks.

The word "pagan" has at least six different meanings. Often, it is a general-purpose snarl word. Apparently Rev. Schutz used the term in its rather rare meaning to refer to the presence of leaders of non-Abrahamic religions. These are religions which do not recognize Abraham as a patriarch. This normally would include everyone other than a Christian, Muslim, or Jew. By this definition, Pagans include Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, Sikhs, Taoists, Wiccans, other Neopagans, etc. About 45% of the people of the world are Pagans, by this definition.

In his letter Schutz referred to: "...President Benke's joining with other pagan clerics in an interfaith service..." As written, it would seem to imply that he considered Rev. Benke to be a Pagan himself. This may well have been a grammatical error -- or it may have been intentional.

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Motivation for the suspension:

Reporter Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post suggests that the suspension was related to a conflict between two movements within American Christianity -- one liberal and the other conservative. They are:

bulletLiberal ecumenical and interfaith efforts which recognize the diversity of religions in America and promote either an inclusive or pluralistic dialogue approach to Christian denominations other that one's, and to non-Christian religions. This movement has received considerable support from President Bush's calls for tolerance since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
bullet"Back to tradition" (a.k.a. renewal or reform) groups which are largely formed of religious conservatives. They emphasize the differences among religions, the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christianity, and the lower or zero chance of salvation for non-Christians and for Christians who have not been saved.

Some Missouri Synod personnel have said that many view the charges against Rev. Benke as an attack both on Benke and also on the Rev. Gerald M. Kieschnick. He is the Synod's national president, and is a moderate.

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Comments and actions by other Missouri Synod personnel:

bulletDr. Benke posted a carefully reasoned "response to charges" on the Atlantic Division web site. 7 Included is a day-by-day account of the atmosphere in his office and in New York City in the days between the terrorist attack and the day of the Prayer for America.
bulletRev. David H. Mahsman, is editor of the Lutheran Witness, the Synod's newspaper. He said: "The principle is, you don't want to do anything that would compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ. The question is, does participating in an interfaith service after September 11th do that? Benke would say no. In fact, it honors Christ and shows that Lutherans are concerned about the well-being of the entire community. Others would say it placed Christ on an equal footing with Allah and Vishnu and whatever gods are involved."
bulletIn an attempt to cool down the controversy, the Missouri Synod's Board of Directors ordered all parties to refrain from discussing the dispute publicly.
bulletThe Rev. Charles W. Froehlich, who has temporarily taken over Benke's office, has written a letter stating that Schulz' letter "contains inaccuracies and intentional omissions" and "reflects the author's preconceived bias."
bulletFormal charges of syncretism were filed against National President Kieschnick, apparently because he authorized Benke's participation in "A Prayer for America." However, a church panel has decided that Kieschnick can only be disciplined by the full synod, which will next convenes in 2004.

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What do the Missouri Synod regulations allow?

National President Kieschnick told The Washington Post that he authorized Benke's participation in the interfaith service. "He cited a decision by the synod at its July 2001 convention to allow pastors to participate in civic events as long as they are free to express their religious views." 1

The synod decision referred to is a document "The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship: A Report on Synodical Discussion." It was unanimously adopted by the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations." It was also "in Resolution 3-07A, commended by [the]...Synod gathered in Convention" in 2001-JUL. 5 The document refers to instances in which pastors, teachers and other officially recognized church workers are asked to participate in activities which are outside of the Synod's congregational life. The resolution reads: "Some of these are civic events. Offering prayers, speaking and reading Scripture at events sponsored by governments, schools, and volunteer organizations would be a problem if the organization in charge restricted a Christian witness. For instance,. if an invitation requires a pastor to pray to God without mentioning Jesus, he cannot in good conscience accept. Without such a restriction, a Lutheran pastor may for valid and good reason participate in civic affairs such as an inauguration, a graduation, or a right-to-life activity."

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Developments during the year 2002:

Rev. David Benke appealed the suspension to a three member conflict resolution team. The appeal will be first heard by a three-member panel. If he is unsuccessful, he can still appeal further to a panel of three district presidents. As of 2002-AUG-22, the initial appeal panel has not yet delivered its decision.

The internal blood-letting continued. In 2002-JUL, the International Lutheran Laymen's League (ILLL) relieved Wallace Schulz from his duties at the ILLL and the Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM). He was suspended with full pay. It has been reported that the ILLL Board of Directors had asked Schulz to not take part in the decision concerning Bekne's suspension. He allegedly ignored the request. LHM Executive Director Rodger Hebermehl said: "The effect of Dr. Schulz's decision has compromised the ministry's mission of Bringing Christ to the Nations - and the Nations to the Church. Lutheran Hour Ministries is seeking a swift, fair, God-pleasing resolution that will resolve these matters and restore the confidence of our donors, pastors and lay people." 6

Also in July, the LCMS removed the gag order, and started to publish information on the Benke case on their

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Useful Reference:

bulletThe Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod has a web site at: http://www.lcms.org/
bulletThe web site of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod is at: http://www.ad-lcms.org/
bulletTheir web site's section on Dr. Bekne's suspension is at: http://www.ad-lcms.org/Assets/News&Events/DrBenke/DrBenke.htm

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References used:

  1. Alan Cooperman, "New York Lutheran Leader Suspended: Synod Seeks Pastor's Apology for Praying With 'Pagans' After Sept. 11 Attacks," Washington Post, 2002-JUL-6, Page A02. See: http://www.washingtonpost.com
  2. Porter Anderson, "Prayer service: 'We shall not be moved'," CNN.com, 2001-SEP-23, at: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/
  3. " 'Prayer for America' embraces many faiths," CNN.com, 2001-SEP-23 at: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/23/
  4. A group of slides from the Prayer for America can be seen at: http://www.journalnow.com/wsj/
  5. "A statement from Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, President of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod regarding Atlantic District President David Benke's participation in 'A Prayer for America' at Yankee Stadium," undated, at: http://www.lcms.org/president/pdf/benke.pdf You need software to read this files. It can be obtained free from:
  6. "Lutheran Central: 'Connecting Lutherans'," at: http://www.lutherancentral.com/benkedecision/archive.html
  7. Ref. Dr. David H. Benke, "Response to Charges," at: http://www.ad-lcms.org/Assets/

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Copyright 2002 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JUL-6
Latest update: 2005-NOV-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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