Missions Council OKs papers on Christians and Jews, and Christian-Muslim relations

LOUISVILLE — The General Assembly Mission Council has approved two theological papers for consideration by the General Assembly — one called “Christians and Jews: People of God,”  and a second with the title “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations

            The papers both resulted from consultations and were intended to be theological in nature and not tied to the political disputes in the Middle East, said Joe Small, director of the Office of Theology, Worship and Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

            “Biblical realities should not be read into contemporary political realities,” Small told the council’s Discipleship Committee.

            The impetus for the “Christians and Jews” paper came after a series of General Assembly decisions in 2004 “created a crisis in the relationship between the Jewish community and the PC(USA),” Small told the council’s Discipleship Committee.

 That same assembly directed the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship, the Office of Interfaith Relations, and the Office of Evangelism to “reexamine and strengthen the relationship between Christians and Jews and the implications of this relationship for our evangelism and new church development.”

Those consultations — a series of conversations between Presbyterians, Jewish rabbis, and other invited guests — resulted in the “Christians and Jews” paper, which Small said builds upon a 1997 paper called “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.”

The new paper considers four areas: a theological understanding of the relationship between Christians and Jews; the Biblical promise of land for the Jews; evangelism; and identity issues involving how Jews and Christians see themselves as communities of faith.

Relations between Christians and Jews are not simply an aspect of interfaith relations, Small told the committee, but are “of a different order,” foundational to the Christian faith. “It is an enduring relationship,” he said. “Jesus was a Jew. Peter was a Jew.”

And what’s in the New Testament “is not a situation where the church replaces Israel, Christians replace Jews” in covenant with God, Small said.  “God has not abandoned Jews in favor of us. We are not a replacement for them. … God’s continuing faithfulness to the Jews is our promise of God’s faithfulness to us.”

The paper on Christian-Muslim relations is the result of two referrals from the 2008 General Assembly. According to Charles Wiley, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, it’s an attempt to talk with Christians and Muslims about three theological issues: God’s revelation; the nature of God; and the name of God.

And the paper comes with a series of recommendations, including making material available for study and education and “encouraging Presbyterians to come to know and befriend their Muslim neighbors.”

The council passed both papers without real tumult, but not everyone sees the papers as without political implications.

Rafaat Zaki, with the national Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus, complained to the committee that voices of Christians from the Middle East were not considered sufficiently as Christian-Muslim paper was drafted.

            “We feel like we have been completely shut out,” Zaki told the committee. “We expect that to continue,” even though many Christians from the Middle East consider these matters crucial. “Second to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, this is probably the second most important issue to us.”

            In response, the committee added language stating that a “fuller study” that it is suggesting be developed and presented to the General Assembly in 2014 “shall include broad consultation including representatives of the national Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus and partner churches in majority Muslim countries.”

            And, speaking of the “Christians and Jews” paper, council member Roger Gench of Washington, D.C. said that “I do like this paper for many reasons,” and would vote to approve it. But “it verges into political issues that are relevant to our Palestinian brothers and sisters, our partner churches,” particularly in a section related to the Biblical promise of land for the Jews, Gench said.

            He said another report going to the General Assembly — that of the General Assembly Middle East study group,  due to be released March 5— likely will address directly issues involving Israeli and Palestinian claims to the land.