(KRT) – Move over, Southern Baptists. The stately and politically correct Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is under fire for helping fund a new “messianic” Jewish congregation in suburban Philadelphia.
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Both Jews and some Presbyterians are lambasting decisions by the national Presbyterian General Assembly and local governing bodies to allocate $260,000 in church development funds for a new congregation called Avodat Ysrael, which means “Worship of Israel.”
A Presbyterian minister and Jewish convert to Christianity, the Rev. Andrew Sparks, leads the congregation in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., where ethnic Jews follow many Jewish rituals while practicing the Christian faith.
Echoing similar criticisms of Southern Baptist conservatives when they set up an office to convert Jews, Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, described the Presbyterian support for a messianic group as “institutional and theological condescension.”
“It is especially disturbing that the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is supporting such an appalling religious enterprise,” Rudin wrote in a column for Religion News Service. “For the past 40 years, Presbyterians were in the forefront of promoting and teaching mutual respect and understanding between themselves and the Jewish people.”
Rudin especially condemned giving money to a messianic congregation, which he said masquerades as a synagogue to win Jewish converts to Christianity.
In a lengthy report, the Presbyterian Interfaith Relations Office pointed to a 1987 theological statement in which Presbyterians affirmed the validity of the Jewish covenant, saying the church “has been engrafted into the people of God established by the covenant with Abraham.”
But the report also said: “Along with 40 or more years of involvement in building positive . . . Christian-Jewish relations, there is a history of Presbyterian support for evangelism among Jews that laid the groundwork for developing this new church.”
The report says Avodat Ysrael is “not to be a ministry of proselytizing, but of providing a noncoercive [congregational] context in which unaffiliated Jews and intermarried couples might explore a messianic faith.”
Church leaders say the messianic congregation is being closely monitored. They rejected efforts to reverse the controversial allocation, noting that it was fairly debated and voted on. They deny claims by some that it is a first step in a larger campaign by Presbyterians to win Jewish converts.
The Rev. Warner Bailey, an interfaith leader and senior minister of Ridglea Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, doesn’t favor giving a high priority to evangelizing Jews. But he said no one has a clear “up and down” answer to the controversy.
“On the one hand, we believe we are commanded to preach the Gospel to everyone,” he said. “On the other hand, we believe the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants has never been broken and is the one covenant God has made with humankind. Therefore Christians are honorary Jews in the household of Israel in our belief through the Jew, Jesus Christ.
“We are Jews and Christians together waiting for the coming Messiah,” said Bailey. “Jews are waiting for the Messiah to come that has been promised. Christians are waiting for the Messiah they have known to return.”
We Christians and Jews are eternally linked, he says, despite our disparate views on key elements of our cherished faiths.