By David L. Mahsman
“Guidelines for Participation in Civic Events,” the product of an assignment sparked by questions raised following a post-9/11 event in New York’s Yankee Stadium, was completed and adopted last month by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations.
The CTCR at its April 19-21 meeting also adopted “A Lutheran Response to the ‘Left Behind’ Series,” which the commission’s executive director, Dr. Samuel H. Nafzger, predicts will be “the most popular report we’ve done.”
Both documents were a result of assignments from Synod President Gerald Kieschnick.
Although Kieschnick asked the CTCR for civic-event guidelines in November 2001, only two months after Atlantic District President David Benke took part in “A Prayer for America” at Yankee Stadium, the commission was clear that it is not rendering a judgment on that event or Benke’s part in it. To look at the guidelines in light of such past events, it says, “would be a misuse of this document.”
“The CTCR wishes to move beyond these events and it offers these guidelines as a way of promoting unity in practice within our Synod in the future,” it says.
The document opens by quoting from the “Cases of Discretion” section of a report to the 2001 Synod convention on Synodwide study of “The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship.” The convention adopted the 2001 report “for continued use and guidance.” The commission says the new guidelines are “based on the guidance offered in” the “Cases of Discretion” section of that report.
Before offering six guidelines, the commission discusses the complexity of “civic events,” a pastor’s responsibilities, the exclusive claims of Christianity, Lutheran “two-kingdom” theology, and the temptation of syncretism in American culture today.
The six guidelines address the sponsorship of an event, its purpose or purposes, public perceptions, public prayer as intercession, public prayer as Christian witness, and synodical commitments.
If a civic event involves joint prayer or worship with non-Christians, LCMS pastors “obviously” may not participate, the guidelines say. Christians may not join in prayer to an “unnamed” or “composite” god, they add, and should not give the impression “that people can pray to the Triune God apart from genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”
More complicated, the guidelines continue, “is the question of participation in events at which religious leaders of various faiths bear public witness to their distinctive beliefs through prayer, readings, and a message or address.” Participation may provide an opportunity to witness to Christ, or it might imply approval of “syncretistic and relativistic perspectives” common in American culture.
“Given the realities, challenges, needs and opportunities that exist in our present culture, this may well be an irresolvable tension,” the CTCR says.
It continues that commission members disagree about “so-called ‘serial’ or ‘seriatim’ prayers involving representatives of different religious (Christian and/or non-Christian) groups or churches.” Some members believe it’s never OK for pastors to take part in events where Christian and/or non-Christian clergy “take turns” offering prayer. But the majority, it says, believes such participation may be possible “as long as certain conditions are met” — such as when its purpose is predominantly civic; it is not conducted as a “service,” in the LCMS understanding of the term; no restrictions are placed on a Christian witness; and it’s clear that participants do not share the same religious views.
Two commission members voted against the document and gave notice that they intend to submit a minority opinion, Nafzger said.
“When it comes to an issue as fraught with complexity, diversity and fluidity as ‘civic events in America,’ there is simply no way to develop guidelines to answer all questions and to resolve all problems,” the CTCR concludes. For the guidelines to be of service to the church and to synodical unity, it adds, “Christian charity must prevail hand in hand with confessional clarity.”
Nafzger said plans are for the guidelines to be mailed by May 10 to congregations, rostered church workers and convention lay delegates. They also will be posted on the Web at www.lcms.org/ctcr.
Just in time for release of the latest — and allegedly last — book in the best-selling “Left Behind” series, the CTCR is providing “a Lutheran response.”
“To be sure, awareness of such end-times topics as the millennium, the rapture, the antichrist and Armageddon has been heightened through these books,” the commission says. “Yet the ideas expressed in the Left Behind series are in many ways contrary to the teaching of Holy Scripture.”
The new CTCR document focuses on the theological framework underlying the “Left Behind” series — premillennial dispensationalism.
“While the series intends and attempts to point people to Christ alone for salvation, its preoccupation with the rapture and tribulation and earthly reign distracts from the chief message of the apostles: ‘Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1:22-23),” the commission says.
The document is written in a way intended to be easily accessible to laypeople, Lutheran or not, who are familiar with the books and have questions about them.
The commission says pastors and other church workers can use the document to become familiar with the theology behind the book series, to review Lutheran teaching on the end times, and to answer questions. It adds that it “could easily be adapted for use in a Bible class or discussion group for those who wish to investigate this topic in a more in-depth manner.”
The response to the “Left Behind” series is to be mailed by early June to congregations and rostered church workers. It, too, will be posted on the CTCR’s Web site.
Posted April 30, 2004