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Presbyterian debate: Is Jesus the savior?

Pastors, elders convene to draft crucial statement

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- More than 500 pastors and elders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) gathered here yesterday to debate the most central theological issue in Christianity: Whether Jesus Christ is the savior of the world.

This became a matter of debate in the 2.5 million-member denomination because of concerns by conservative Presbyterians that efforts to revise traditional Christian sexual ethics reflected a lack of commitment to the authority of Scripture, the reality of sin and the need for Jesus to save people from their sins. Last year's General Assembly attempted to address this by drafting a short declaration that Jesus was "uniquely savior."

But evangelical Presbyterians believed that fell short of affirming Jesus as the savior of the world, rather than one path to God among many. More than one-tenth of the denomination's 11,300 congregations, representing nearly 20 percent of its members, have joined the Confessing Church Movement, declaring their faith in the lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture and traditional Christian sexual ethics. Some fear the movement is a schism in the making.

After much debate, a committee voted unanimously to ask the General Assembly to endorse an eight-page paper on the topic, written by a theologian at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., called "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ." Pittsburgh Presbytery and many conservative groups had endorsed this paper as a solid statement of faith in Jesus as savior of the world.

There are many other topics on the agenda, including whether the denomination's policy on late-term abortions needs to be clarified.

On Saturday, the commissioners elected as moderator the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, a Palestinian who works with international students in Atlanta. On the day of his election, he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state and declared himself committed to nonviolence.

Yesterday he condemned Tuesday's terrorist bombing that killed 19 people on a bus in Jerusalem. He asked all Presbyterians to pray for "a healing between the Israeli Jewish people and the Palestinian Arabs."

The General Assembly works much like the U.S. Congress. Proposed legislation was sent from presbyteries to committees, which met for the past several days to craft their own recommendations to the full body.

From today through Saturday, the full body of 556 commissioners will debate and vote on all of these proposals.

Yesterday much of the debate in the Confessions and Christology Committee, which dealt with the salvation question, dealt with whether to lift a single sentence from an eight-page statement as a simple summary of faith in Christ. The committee chose not to, but that decision can be taken up again by the full body.

"Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" summarizes belief in the Trinity as expressed in the Bible, the creeds and past confessions. A key passage says, "Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him ... No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of 'God our savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.' [1 Tim 2:4] Thus we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith."

After the committee voted unanimously to endorse that document -- and had rejected several more succinct statements on the topic -- the Rev. Nancy Gillard of Missouri asked the committee to also endorse one sentence of the statement as a summary: "Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him."

She argued that members of her small congregation wanted a short, simple statement. Some others agreed, saying that their members might not read an eight-page theological treatise.

Kestelle Wiersma, a youth delegate from Iowa, said she needed something that her little brother and her 80-year-old grandmother could understand. She identified herself as the first member of her family to go to college and said her parents were a carpenter and a homemaker.

"They are simple people. To have a simple statement helps them out with their faith," she said.

But the Rev. James Belle of North Carolina said that the issue was too complex to boil down.

"There are forces that would reduce Jesus to sound bites -- and we have resisted that," he told his fellow committee members.

The move to use one sentence as a summary failed with a 17-41 vote, with one abstention.

The Rev. Catherine Purves, pastor of Bellevue United Presbyterian Church, was present as an observer and has been a national advocate for a stronger statement of faith in Jesus as the savior of the world. Although she was disappointed that the one-sentence summary failed, it did not mean that the committee was backing away from the orthodox theology in the eight-page paper, she said.

"It's a good statement, it's a clear statement, but it's not a headline," she said of the paper.

"I think they were willing to make a theological statement that was abstract and floating in the air. But whenever there was a move to apply it, they backed away. Whenever we wanted a clear statement that we could share with people, they backed away."

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