Troubling Signs Among the Presbyterians

Rabbi James Rudin

July 22, 2004 - Religion News Service

What's up with the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

At the church's recent General Assembly in Richmond, Va., delegates passed resolutions that refused to shut down funding for deceptive missionary campaigns aimed at Jews, and called for study of a selective divestment of investments in companies doing business in Israel.

But there was more.

Perhaps concerned that many evangelical Protestants theologically support Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, the Presbyterians rejected "Christian Zionism" as a legitimate expression of Reformed Christian belief. It was a troubling performance by the nation's ninth largest church -- one that prides itself on fair, thoughtful deliberations and positive relations with Jews.

The PCUSA delegates voted 260-233 to continue funding new churches specifically aimed at converting Jews to Christianity -- efforts that stray far from usual Presbyterian evangelization. Alarmed by a declining membership, the PCUSA now endorses the establishment of churches similar to the Avodat Yisrael (Worship Service of Israel) congregation in Chestnut Hill, Pa.

Avodat Yisrael is unlike other Presbyterian churches because it is a duplicitous attempt to lure Jews into the Christian fold by featuring Saturday Sabbath services, Hebrew prayers, the Torah scroll, a seven-branched menorah or candelabrum, a so-called "rabbi" who is, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Jewish liturgical music.

Avodat Yisrael is insulting to Jews and a shameful activity of the Presbyterian Church.

The "Great Commission" seeks to bring Christianity to the entire world. However, I always thought that meant campaigns of integrity, honesty and truthfulness, not trampling on the sacred symbols of another religion. Instead, the PCUSA has given the green light to fund new churches similar to the deliberately misleading Avodat Yisrael.

The vote undermined more than 40 years of constructive Presbyterian-Jewish religious dialogue that was built on mutual respect and understanding. The action repudiates the 1987 PCUSA document that called for "Christians to put an end to the `teaching of contempt' for the Jews." That document also asserted, "We (Presbyterians) must always acknowledge that Jews are already ... with God."

The PCUSA theological assault on Zionism is more than a battle within the Christian community. Long before Israel achieved independence in 1948, many Presbyterian leaders were unable or unwilling to accept Zionism as a valid national liberation movement. As a result, anti-Zionism became embedded inside the PCUSA, sometimes latent and sometimes virulent.

Interestingly, PCUSA leaders have publicly celebrated the many liberation movements that emerged following World War II, including Palestinian nationalism. But one national liberation movement, Zionism, has never made the Presbyterian "hit parade."

The strong evangelical support of Zionism and Israel upsets many Presbyterian leaders. The vote in Richmond clearly escalated the internal Christian debate.

The PCUSA's vote to study divestment, approved 431 to 62, was an attempt to equate Israel with the former South African apartheid regime. American churches used divestment campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s to oppose apartheid.

Church historians believe it marks the first American Christian effort to rid itself of investments in the Jewish state.

The PCUSA did adopt one positive resolution. It urged church members "to eliminate the language, imagery and symbols that perpetuate stereotypes" against other religions. Such a policy can "better equip the church to live in a religiously plural world."

A good first step for the Presbyterian Church would be to explicitly apply its resolution to the current controversy by eliminating all disingenuous missionary efforts that distort the language, imagery and symbols of Jews and Judaism. A second step is to stop playing the moral equivalency game that falsely links Israel, the only Middle East democracy, to the discredited South African regime.

The resolutions energized one PCUSA group: "Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations." The Rev. William Harter, pastor of Falling Spring Presbyterian Church in Chambersburg, Pa., and a leader of the group, attended the Richmond meeting.

He expressed keen disappointment with the one-sided resolutions: "To be credible as peacemakers, it is critical that the PCUSA be perceived as fair and balanced." Harter vowed his colleagues would continue to work within the PCUSA to build positive relations with the Jewish people and support for Israel's survival and security.

Rabbi Rudin is the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser and DistinguishedVisiting Professor at Saint Leo University.

Copyright 2013/2014 AJC