The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has recommended to the upcoming 219th General Assembly approval “for study and reflection” a paper intended to “reexamine and strengthen the relationship between Christians and Jews.”
“Christians and Jews: People of God” has grown out of eight meetings between PC(USA) theologians and representatives of the National Council of Synagogues and four larger consultations involving Presbyterian pastors, theologians and governing body staff members and rabbis from the Conservative, Reformed, Orthodox and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism.
The paper — commissioned by the 2004 General Assembly in response to a controversial and now closed new church development in Philadelphia, Avodat Yisrael, that portrayed itself as a “Messianic synagogue” — seeks to build on a 1987 paper, “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews.”
The current paper, as well as the 1987 paper, is a theological document, not a political one, said the Rev. Joseph Small, director of the GAMC’s Theology, Worship and Education ministries at the council’s Feb. 24-26 meeting here. “Biblical realities should not be read into contemporary political realities,” Small told the council’s Discipleship Committee.
But context matters a great deal, he added, and circumstances in the Middle East continue to change. In 2004, the Assembly’s reiteration of support for a “two-state solution” to the Israel/Palestine conflict, its call to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” and financial support for a Avodat Yisrael that attempted to “convert” Jews to Christianity “created a crisis in the relationship between the Jewish community and the PC(USA),” Small said.
Moreover, since passage of the 1987 paper, he added, the world has seen an increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, acts of terrorism and verbal threats against Israel, two U.S.-backed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have inflamed tensions in the Middle East and around the world and the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
“Christians and Jews: People of God” addresses four issues: theological perspectives on the relationship between Christians and Jews, the land and Biblical promises about it, evangelism and the self-understanding of Christians and Jews as communities of faith.
“The relationship between Christians and Jews is not simply a particular instance of ‘interfaith relations,’” the paper states. “The relationship between Christian faith and Judaism is unique, foundational and enduring.”
The paper rejects both supercessionism — that the new covenant in Jesus Christ replaces God’s covenant with the Jews beginning with Abraham — and Marcionism — that the New Testament supplants the Old Testament.
“Christians don’t replace Jews,” Small told the Discipleship Committee. “All promises remain true. New covenants don’t replace previous covenants. God’s eternal guarantee to the Jews assures us that God’s guarantee to us is also eternal.”
Small’s acknowledgement that the paper’s section on the land is the most contentious for both Israelis and Palestinians — it takes up nearly half the paper’s 12 pages — was borne out in the council’s discussions. Though he said he supports the paper, the Rev. Roger Gench, a GAMC member from National Capital Presbytery, said, “When the paper addresses the land, it merges into politics, which is problematic for Jews and Presbyterians.”
The paper agrees. “Addressing this issue is extremely difficult today, first because of the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the fact that assertions about the land figure centrally in political debates and determination of policies,” it states. “The long occupation of Palestinian territory and the suffering of the Palestinian people has sometimes been justified on the basis of the biblical promise.”
The biblical promise of land, Small told the Discipleship Committee, “is not exclusive or unconditional. The land is God’s gift and always comes with responsibility.”
“It is not possible to deny the particularity of God’s gift of a specific land to the people of God’s covenant,” the paper states. “At the same time it is necessary to ask what this gift means for all the people of the world, and for the people of that particular place, both Israelis and Palestinians, at this time in history.”
The Bible doesn’t establish “any clear geographical boundaries for the ancient land of Israel,” the paper says, so it cannot establish any clear boundaries for the modern state of Israel. Thus, it continues, “neither the Israeli state nor the Palestinian Authority has a divine right to the land.”
What they do have, the paper concludes, is “the right to secure homelands in which to live responsibly, and pursue their national and cultural aspirations.” Such a right, the paper says, is consistent with “Presbyterian commitments to justice and peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike ...”
Christian witness “should not target Jews in pointed strategies of proselytism, attempting to convert them to Christianity,” the paper states in the section on evangelism. “The church’s commitment is always to proclaim Jesus Christ as savior to all people,” Small told the Discipleship Committee. “The question is not whether but how?”
“God remains faithful to the people Israel. God remains faithful to Christians,” the paper states, reiterating Presbyterian rejection of upercessionism. “Jews remain faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... and Christians remain faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom we know in Emmanuel, Jesus Christ. As two peoples who are known and loved by God and who know and love the one God, Christians and Jews are therefore called to be faithful to one another in bonds of love.”
The paper continually calls for Presbyterians to continue to “engage in careful dialogue” around all issues pertaining to the theological relationship between Christians and Jews.
“Christians are called to know Jewish brothers and sisters, to listen and learn from them in the sharing of faith and faithfulness,” it concludes, “and to give thanks for their living testimony to the enduring fulfillment of God’s gracious promises.”
The meetings and consultations leading up to the development of the paper followed a presentation-and-response format, Small said. Transciptions of those presentations and responses will be published prior to the Asssembly in a book entitled Let Us Reason Together: Conversations between Christians and Jews.
The GAMC also forwarded to the Assembly a report entitled “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations.” The paper was commissioned by the 2008 General Assembly and developed through two consultations of a group of 12 Presbyterians and Muslims.
“Christian-Muslim understanding is at a much lower level than with Jews,” said the Rev. Charles Wiley, the GAMC’s coordinator for Theology and Worship. “The conversations were much more guarded.”
At the suggestion of the Muslim consultation participants, Wiley said, the conversations focused on four issues: God’s revelation, the nature of God, names for God and sin and salvation.
Christians and Muslims agree that God is one, Wiley told the Discipleship Committee, and in Arabic-speaking regions both faiths use the term “Allah” as the name for God.“ But we mean very different things when we speak about God and God’s nature,” he added.
The Rev. Thomas Gillespie, chair of the committee and retired president of Princeton Theological Seminary said, “Ultimately, our differences lie in our understanding as Christians of the person of Jesus Christ.”
Members of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus — represented in person by the Rev. Raafat Zaki of Irving, Texas, and through email correspondence by former General Assembly Moderator the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel of Atlanta — complained that the caucus “did not have a seat at the table” in the initial conversations.
The committee recommended and the GAMC concurred to “include broad consultation including representatives of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus and partner churches in majority Muslim countries” as the onversations continue.
The Rev. Jay Rock, coordinator for interfaith relations in Presbyterian World Mission, said “it will take much longer to delve into the practice of living side-by-side with Muslims,” caling the paper “a framework for further reflection and dialogue.” The council’s proposal to the Assembly asks that “a fuller study articulating a theological understanding of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations” be presented to the 2014 Assembly.