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SALVATION:

AND THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (USA)

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Quotations:

bullet"The departed spirit of a believer in Christ goes immediately into the presence of the Lord...When an unbeliever dies, his or her departed spirit goes immediately into Hades to experience conscious, unrelenting torment. There is no in-between place. There is no third choice." Mark Hitchcock 1
bullet"The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema and even dangerous in our shrinking world." Episcopal Bishop John S. Spong. 2
bullet"If you are a [born-again] Christian, you will go to heaven; If you're following another religion, then by default you will go to Hell." Susie Shellenberger. 3

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History of the Presbyterian Church:

The "The Presbyterian Church (USA) was founded by the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. This healed a major split in the denomination which occurred at the start of the Civil War. In 1861 the denomination had split on north/south lines over the issue of the abolition and preservation of slavery.

In the mid 1920s, the church weathered a second serious crisis: the Fundamentalist - Modernist controversy. The denomination was divided whether to retain traditional, historical beliefs, or to accept modern beliefs concerning biblical inerrancy, inspiration of the authors of the Bible, the search for the historical Jesus, the existence and nature of Hell, etc. A commission, organized in 1925, successfully avoided a denominational schism. Some liberal ideas were accepted by the denomination at that time.

In 1996, the Church reported 2.7 million members and 11,416 congregations, divided among 171 presbyteries. Like essentially all mainline Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church has been losing members for the past 40 years -- about 50,000 a year:

bulletSome conservative members believe that the loss is related to the church's continuing, multi-decade discussion of equal rights for gays and lesbians, including both ordination of sexually active persons with a homosexual orientation, and recognition of holy unions for committed same-sex couples. 
bulletMany believe that the drop is caused by the denomination's inability to attract younger members. Youth may well be discouraged, in part, by the denomination's rejection of gays and lesbians as equal members with full rights. Today's high school seniors have far more liberal views on homosexuality than their parents.

Currently, the denomination is seriously split in three ways:

bulletWithin each congregation, between religious liberals and conservatives.
bulletBetween generally liberal urban congregations, and generally conservative rural churches.
bulletBetween "liberal" areas of the country, like the northeast, and "conservative" areas, like the southern states.

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Current conservative-liberal debates on within the church:

During the late 1990's and continuing to the present time, a new crisis has developed within the church over beliefs and practices. The main sticking points seem to be salvation and equal rights for persons with a homosexual orientation -- specifically:

bulletWhether whether gays and lesbians involved in committed relationships can be considered for ordination
bulletWhether ministers should be allowed to hold holy union ceremonies for committed gay and lesbian couples.
bulletWhether a path exists for personal salvation that does not involve belief in Jesus.

There appear to be only three possible future scenarios:

bulletConservatives and liberals will continue disputing church beliefs and practices. The denomination might survive as it has for past decades, with continuing debates causing dissention in the church for many years into the future.
bulletConservatives and liberals might find it impossible to coexist in the same denomination. The church might split into two denominations as it did in the past over slavery -- perhaps to reunite later when beliefs become more homogeneous.
bulletOn the matter of equal rights for gays and lesbians, the church might develop some form of local option in which individual presbyteries would decide matters of procedure for themselves. No similar compromise seems possible on salvation.

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Church's current statement of faith:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s statement of faith, regards salvation as a process. It states:

"Through Jesus' death and resurrection God triumphed over sin. Presbyterians believe it is through the action of God working in us that we become aware of our sinfulness and our need for God's mercy and forgiveness. Just as a parent is quick to welcome a wayward child who has repented of rebellion, God is willing to forgive our sins if we but confess them and ask for forgiveness in the name of Christ." 4

This statement of faith is in accord with the historical Protestant belief on salvation. Sometimes called "Lordship in Christ," this belief holds that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will gain salvation. After death, they will avoid Hell, and attain Heaven. The implication is that forgiveness of sins -- and thus a person's salvation -- is only possible through belief in Jesus Christ and prayer to the Christian God. There is no alternative path to salvation within this statement for the four billion humans (two out of every three people on earth), who:
bulletAre non-religious,
bulletFollow a non-Christian religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, etc.
bulletHave heard the Gospel but have not accepted it.

The implication is that most people, being unsaved, will automatically go to Hell when they die. Such beliefs were one of the prime motivating forces that promoted missionary work in non-Christian countries for over a century.

Conservatives within the church want to retain this statement of faith. There are many organizations within the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church which promote these beliefs, including: the National Korean Presbyterian Council, Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterian Forum, The Presbyterian Layman (a periodical), and the Presbyterian Renewal Leaders Network. They reject religious pluralism -- the concept that the main religions of the world are all legitimate, valid, and true when each is viewed from within their own culture.

Religious liberals tend to reject the traditional concept of Hell and salvation for a number of reasons:
bulletCurrent religious and secular moral codes in the West absolutely reject the torture of prisoners. Those countries which do so are considered pariah nations. It is irrational to believe that a God of love is capable of creating a Hell as described in the Bible -- a place of punishment far more painful and degrading than any on earth; a place fare worse than any minimum acceptable international or national standard.
bulletContemporary moral codes also forbid imprisonment for thought crimes. Amnesty International and other similar groups concentrate on the release of persons who they call "prisoners of conscience." These are individuals who have committed no criminal act, but who have been prosecuted solely for their beliefs. Again, they believe that a loving God would not punish humans for thought crimes -- for following the religion that they were taught as children and accepted as adults.
bulletThe concept of everlasting punishment in Hell without hope of mercy or relief is immoral because it assigns an infinite penalty for a finite transgression -- that of believing the wrong thing for a few years or decades.
bulletMany liberals believe in religious pluralism -- the concept that all religions of the world are legitimate, valid, and true when viewed from within each religion's own culture. If there is a judgment day, then people will be judged in accordance with how closely they followed the tenets of their religion -- in particular how they followed their religion's Ethic of Reciprocity, which governs how they are to behave towards their fellow humans.

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2000-JUL: A liberal challenge to the statement of faith:

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The Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference was held in Orange, CA. It was titled "Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World." 5 Rev. Dirk Ficca of Chicago, the director of the Parliament of the World's Religions, delivered a paper. Ficca, a Presbyterian minister, discussed criteria for salvation. According to PCUSA NEWS, Rev. Ficca, "suggested that an omnipotent and merciful God might provide other avenues to salvation for Jews and Muslims and other non-believers in Christ." That is, there may be a path by which non-Christians might avoid being tortured for eternity in Hell without any hope of relief or mercy.

This suggestion ignited a firestorm of protest from conservative elements within the Presbyterian Church. They regard the suggestion that people other than Christians can be saved and get to heaven to be a vile heresy. Twenty-one church sessions and one presbytery called for the church's General Assembly Council (GAC) to either discipline Ficca or disavow the heretical views he expressed. Peter Pizor, chairperson of the GAC said that the council lacks authority to take judicial action against Ficca or to "make theological statements on behalf of the church." To follow the demands of the sessions and presbytery would violate the church's Book of Confession and Book of Order. Pizor had surveyed opinion of many Presbyterians and had determined that "women and men of good faith disagree on this matter." Neal Presa of the San Francisco Presbytery asked council members to refrain from "divisive assertions and vitriol" and to "rise above the fray" which currently exists between conservative and liberal Presbyterians. In a victory for freedom of thought and speech in the church, the GAC approved a document that affirms "the propriety of open dialogue at GAC-sponsored conferences to explore emerging perspectives." They also restated "the Lordship of Jesus Christ and our salvation through Christ." However, the GAC did not specifically comment on the salvation status of non-Christians.

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2001-JUN: Action by the 213th General Assembly:

The Assembly was held in Louisville, KY, starting on 2001-JUN-9.

The Assembly Committee on Theological Issues, Educational Institutions reviewed three Overtures (01-43, 01-51 & 01-52) from the Presbyteries of San Joaquin, San Diego and Beaver-Butler. They wanted to emphasize that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone. They reject religious pluralism. They viewed all religions other than Christianity as false and deceptive spiritual paths, whose members are forever lost and destined for Hell after death.

Small group discussions were held before committee debate. Open hearings were held, allowing 37 people could voice their opinion. The committee then listened to statements from the presbyteries who offered the overtures. Finally, they heard a report by Joseph Small of the Office of Theology and Worship. According to PCUSA News, rather than passing the overtures to the General Assembly for a vote, the committee suggested that the Assembly answer the overtures by asking "Office of Theology and Worship to prepare and widely publicize materials for study and worship that will help our congregations better understand the theological richness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our Book of Confessions and Book of Order; the imperfections in our daily responses to God's calling; and ways in which congregational and individual witness can be strengthened." 6

Ten conservative members of the Assembly Committee prepared a minority report which stressed that salvation happens through Christ alone. They wrote: "God has been revealed in and through Jesus Christ to be the unique Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, is the singular saving Lord as understood through Scripture, our confessions and Book of Order..." They urge the General Assembly to "raise up the witness of Scripture to Jesus Christ as the one to whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess as Lord (Phil 2:11) and as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)" and to proclaim "that the risen Christ is the Savior for all people."

The General Assembly subsequently approved the following statement:

"We confess the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord.  Every other authority is finally subject to Christ."

"Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior.  It is 'his life, death, resurrection, ascension and final return that restores creation, providing salvation for all those whom God has chosen to redeem.' Although we do not know the limits of God's grace and pray for the salvation of those who may never come to know Christ, for us the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting Him alone.  We are humbled in our witness to Christ by our realization that our understanding of him and his way is limited and distorted by our sin.  Still the transforming power of Christ in our lives compels us to make Christ known to others."

The statement was "extensively amended on the floor and later was criticized by some as ambiguous and inadequate." 7

This statement reinforced the belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Only through knowing and trusting in him can one be certain of their own salvation. But the statement held out a slight promise that God might decide to save some non-Christians:

bulletSome of those who have been exposed to the Christian message, and rejected it.
bulletSome of those who have never heard of Christ, the Gospel or Christianity.

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2001-SEP: Office of Theology and Worship issues salvation statement:

The church's Congregational Ministries Division unanimously endorsed a statement from its Office of Theology, Worship and Discipleship (OTWD). It attempts to define Presbyterian belief about the nature of Jesus Christ and his role in salvation. It was titled: "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ," and was prepared in response to the request by the 213th General Assembly. It was sent to the full General Assembly Council on 2001-SEP-29. 7,8

The statement was unanimously passed by the OTWD. It says in part:

"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 by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living. ... 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."

In this statement, the OTWD:

bulletAffirms the supremacy of Christianity above all other religions.
bulletRejects the concept that a person can be saved through good works.
bulletRejects the concept of universalism -- that everyone regardless of their religious faith will be saved.
bulletAllows the possibility that at least some non-Christians may be saved.

On 2001-SEP-29, Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church presided over a two-day service at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fruit Heights, UT. On the issue of Lordship in Christ, Rogers echoed the OTWD statement. He said the church believes that people will be saved through Jesus Christ. However, he said it is not up to the church to determine who of God's children will be saved. 9

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References used:

  1. Mark Hitchcock, "The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy," Tyndale House, (1999), Page 216 and 219. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  2. J.S. Spong, "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born,"  HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), Page 179. Read reviews or order this book
  3. Susie Shellenberger, "Life on the Edge;" a radio program directed at teens. It is sponsored by Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian agency. The episode aired on 2001-MAY-5.
  4. "Brief Statement of Faith," at: http://www.biblehistory.com/Salvation%20Presbyterian.html
  5. "Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World: An Inter-generational Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference Focusing on Interfaith Relationships," 2000-JUL-26 to 29, at: http://www.horeb.pcusa.org/peace2000/
  6. "Assembly to get answer with to [sic] three overtures on salvation beliefs," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-11.
  7. "Sisters and Brothers in Christ," 2001-SEP-27, at: http://www.pcusa.org/taw/christdoc.htm
  8. John Filiatreau, "Office of Theology and Worship issues statement on Jesus Christ and salvation: 'No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ' " at: http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/
  9. Jamie Lampros, "Church faces controversial issues," at: http://www.standard.net/standard/news/

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Copyright 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.|
Latest update: 2001-OCT-2
Author: B.A. Robinson

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