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. Despite the conclusion of the case, tensions run high in the 2.6 million-member denomination. Synod leaders expect a showdown at next year's synod conference.

Twenty-one pastors and churches charged Benke with syncretism (mixing religions), defending false doctrine, and unionism (worshiping with non-LCMS Christian clergy) in the September 2001 "Prayer for America" event. Wallace Schulz, the synod's second vice president, investigated the charges and suspended Benke.

On April 11, a three-person dispute resolution panel dismissed all charges. The panel cited a 2001 resolution allowing LCMS pastors to participate in "once in a lifetime" civic events so long as no restrictions are placed on praying in Jesus' name. The decision reinstates Benke as the denomination's Atlantic District president. While the 8-month suspension affected Benke's duties as president, he remained pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Had the appeals panel decided the charges applied, Benke would have been removed from the LCMS clergy roster.

After a 30-day period for Schulz to appeal, the church announced the decision in mid-May. In a letter to the LCMS, Schulz says he did not appeal because "our synod has been through enough of this process."

However, Schulz told Christianity Today that he strongly disagrees with the decision. He says he based his decision to suspend Benke on Scripture, but the panel's "14-page decision contains not one direct reference to God's Word. To make their case, the panel simply quoted a convention resolution."

"If this 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 says. "The controversy we are engaged in within the LCMS has become a concern for many people outside the Lutheran Church [because] they realize the identity of Christianity and the future of a historically Bible-based denomination are at stake."

Both sides say the Benke case has dredged up long-simmering divisions in the denomination. These include the interpretation of Scripture and the church's involvement with other denominations and non-Christians. These same tensions came to a head in 1974 when the president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, faced charges of malfeasance of duties and advocating false doctrine. In reaction, the majority of the school's students and faculty split from the LCMS to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. This group merged in 1988 with the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church of America to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

2004 Showdown

"The underlying debates in the synod have been run through the lens of the Yankee Stadium case," 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 the 2001 "once in a lifetime" rule, will be major battlefields at the St. Louis meeting next July. LCMS leaders say divisions are deep enough that a split is possible.

"The 2004 synod convention will be a moment of truth," Benke says. "If there is a [balanced] election with [politically] mixed resolutions passed, it might encourage everyone to stick around and fight some more. Or maybe people will finally agree to disagree. [But] there is danger of a formal rift."

A key figure in the 2004 conference will be LCMS president Gerald Kieschnick, who was originally charged with promoting syncretism and unionism for allowing Benke to participate in the Yankee Stadium event. However, the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters ruled that only the synod convention could rule on charges against a president. His term ends at the 2004 meeting, but he could be reelected.

Kieschnick considers the Yankee Stadium debate closed but knows that tensions remain. "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 says. "If they are unable to persuade the rest of the church body that they are right, then they have a choice to make."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.