Syncretism: Are we legitimizing the prophets of Baal?
Don HinklePathway Editor
July 24, 2002
Anyone who thinks Missouri Baptists are the only ones dealing with theological conflict these days should consider the growing rift in the theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The controversy began in the days following the World Trade Center catastrophe in which the Rev. David H. Benke, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, participated in an ecumenical prayer service for those traumatized by the Sept. 11 tragedy. Offering prayers with Benke at the service were Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
The Rev. Wallace Schulz, second vice president of the Missouri Synod and the main preacher for "The Lutheran Hour," a St. Louis-based Gospel program carried by more than 1,000 radio stations, ruled Benke guilty of "syncretism" – mixing Christian and non-Christian beliefs – "because he prayed with pagans" during a Sept. 23 service organized by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and emceed by Oprah Winfrey, according to The Washington Post.
The newspaper reported that "The Lutheran Hour" came under severe criticism following Schultz’s decision. Schultz has since been suspended even though he was not acting in his role of speaker with "The Lutheran Hour," but as second vice president, when he suspended Benke. The decision fell to Schultz after the president and first vice president recused themselves. Meanwhile, the Missouri Synod has temporarily pulled the plug on "The Lutheran Hour" in the face of mounting condemnation out of Brooklyn.
Praying with people of other faiths is seen as an act of betrayal to their history and beliefs by many members of the Missouri Synod and it does raise a legitimate theological concern: does the mere appearance by a Christian clergyman participating in a religious service on a public stage with pagan leaders constitute syncretism?
With the theological and political left‘s incessant clamor for tolerance in the face of growing paganism in America, the problem of syncretism should be of paramount concern to conservative evangelicals committed to evangelism. Sadly, syncretism is usually a problem that confronts missionaries in their cross-cultural ministries in foreign lands. Who would have ever thought that syncretism would become like an unlanced boil in America?
As one might expect, in its coverage of the Benke case, the theologically shallow Washington Post asked if Christians should "take the gospel into the public square in a pluralistic, multicultural society?" I find it deeply disturbing that an American newspaper the stature of The Washington Post would even ask such a question. Not only should Christians take the Gospel "to the ends of the earth," but Christians MUST if we are to fulfill the Great Commission. Of course from a purely secular point of view, evangelization is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Thus The Washington Post misses the point in the Benke case because the Lutheran pastor was not engaging – at least directly – in an evangelistic role at the time, which brings us back to the issue of syncretism.
I have not examined all of the evidence against Benke, but clearly he joined pagans in conducting a religious service. It may be that the Missouri Synod will find his mere "appearance" in such a public setting as constituting syncretism because – in the eyes of the attending unbelievers — it lowered Christianity to the level of the pagan faiths that were represented on the same stage and gave the impression that one religion fits all. In other words, mix and match religion. And what does such an impression mean when it comes to, say, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for man’s redemption? The answer is obvious.
From Mt. Carmel to Mars Hill, Scripture is full of examples of God’s men standing on the public stage with pagan leaders, but in each case the pagans were confronted with their worthless beliefs (Elijah even taunted them). I am certainly not an advocate of Christian leaders haranguing anyone because that, too, can hurt our Christian witness. But I am suggesting that our Christian leaders prayerfully consider what events they should – and should not — be participants. It is one thing to stand on the county courthouse steps with a Presbyterian pal, but it is another to do it with the prophets of Baal.