Presbyterian General Assembly (2014) proposal about biblical terms

The Presbyterian Church (USA) just voted down this "overture."

07-01 On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy—From the Presbytery of Chicago.
Source: Presbytery Event: 221st General Assembly (2014)

Committee: [07-01] Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

Sponsor: Chicago Presbytery

Topic: Unassigned Type: General Assembly Full Consideration

Assembly Action

On this Item, the General Assembly, acted as follows:

Disapprove with Comment

Though the committee voted not to approve Item 07-01, we take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term "Israel," very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.

Electronic Vote - Plenary
Affirmative: 506
Negative: 72
Abstaining: 0

Committee Recommendation

On this Item, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee, acted as follows:

Disapprove with Comment

Though the committee voted not to approve Item 07-01, we take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term "Israel," very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.

[Counted Vote - Committee]
Affirmative: 53
Negative: 8
Abstaining: 0

Final Text:


The Presbytery of Chicago overtures the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.), to

1. distinguish between the biblical terms that refer to the ancient land of Israel and the modern political State of Israel;

2. develop educational materials, with the help of our Presbyterian seminaries, for clergy, church musicians, worship leaders, and Christian educators regarding the “ancient Israel/modern Israel” distinction; and

3. inform our ecumenical partners of this action, nationally and globally—particularly within Israel and Palestine.


This overture was prompted by the publication of the beautiful new publication of Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal, 2013, which has a section of hymns under the unfortunate heading: “God’s covenant with Israel.”

The use of the phrase “God’s covenant with Israel,” is open to interpretation by the reader/singer. Is this “biblical Israel”? Is it the “modern State of Israel”? As one Palestinian American Presbyterian who is a ruling elder said in a letter to those responsible for the publication of the new hymnal:
“Because I am a Palestinian Christian, I am uneasy with the word “Israel” in “God’s Covenant with Israel”—I am always told, however, that what is meant by “Israel” is Biblical Israel and not today’s Israel; but do all Christians know this? With the prevalence of Christian Zionism, which the G.A. repudiated in 2004, I highly doubt it. Even if not intentional, this language is inflammatory, misleading, and hurtful” (Open Letter, October 2, 2013).
One response would be to rephrase it as “God’s Covenant with Ancient Israel,” or, as Thomas Are, retired Presbyterian minister, said in a recent blog, “God’s covenant with the Poor, or even “Our Covenant with the Oppressed” [11.26.13], but there are other examples of the problem. In Advent, we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. …” Does that justify the modern political State of Israel? At the least, it is confusing and unclear. Our Christian Palestinian brothers and sisters call us to make this distinction clearly.

Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, says: “The establishment of the State of Israel created … an intended confusion. … Huge efforts were put by the State of Israel and Jewish organizations in branding the new State of Israel as a “biblical entity” (The Invention of History: A century of interplay between theology and politics in Palestine, Mitri Raheb, editor, 2011; Diyar Consortium, pp. 18–19).

We need to make distinctions between biblical Israel and the modern state. Joshua Ralston writes, in Religion and Ethics:
One way that the recurring challenge of balancing pro-Palestinian advocacy and the rejection of anti-Semitism could be addressed is by avoiding using ancient Israel, Jews and the modern nation-state of Israel largely interchangeably. … The best way for Christians to avoid this bind is to more clearly question the direct correlation between ancient Israel, Jews across space and time, and the modern political state of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian Territories, even as Christians affirm the importance of land for Judaism. (Ralston teaches theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia,
Words shape our reality. Linguists have shown this for some time now. The unnamed are largely invisible. That’s why we Presbyterians and others revised the sexist language in our hymns to be inclusive. We learn much of our theology from singing hymns! That is the theme of Bill Tammeus’ column in The Presbyterian Outlook:

Most of us have heard the possibly apocryphal story of theologian Karl Barth answering a student’s question about the most important thing he’s learned in his decades of study. Barth responded with words from a Sunday school hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” What always struck me about the story was that in his answer Barth affirmed that we learn lots of theology through the words of hymns. It’s still true. (10.14.2013)

In the early days of identifying and changing sexist language in hymns, words were crossed out and new words were written in. It is not so easy to do that with biblical terms that have come to be associated with the modern political State of Israel.

That is why this overture requests the help of our Presbyterian seminaries in clarifying the use of these terms and how to use them appropriately to reference biblical Israel and how to use them appropriately.

Financial Implication

Per Capita $4,000 (2015)

Per Capita $0 (2015) - Revised


ACREC Advice and Counsel

The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns advises the 221st General Assembly (2014) to approve Item 07-01 with amendment as follows: [Text to be deleted is shown with brackets and a strike-through; text to be added or inserted is shown with brackets and an underline.]

“1.          [d] [D]istinguish between the biblical terms that refer to the ancient land of Israel and the modern political State of Israel[;] [.] [This distinction should be made by worship leaders whenever ‘Israel’ is used in a worship setting, whether in hymns, prayers, confession, or sermon.]
“2.          [Direct ACSWP to] develop educational materials [that define ‘Israel’ and related terms such as Zion and Promised Land], with the help of our Presbyterian seminaries, for clergy, church musicians, worship leaders, and Christian educators regarding the ‘ancient Israel/modern Israel’ distinction; and [provide them before the 222nd General Assembly (2016)].
“3.          [Direct the Stated Clerk to] inform our ecumenical partners of this action, nationally and globally—particularly [within Israel and Palestine] [in the Middle East—as soon as possible].”

The ACREC acknowledges with thanks the work of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS) who produced the beautiful new hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. We are grateful for their careful and deliberate work to avoid language “that stereotypes persons according to categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, age, or disabilities. …”

However, ACREC agrees with the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus (NMEPC) that the section heading “God’s Covenant to Israel” included in the new hymnal is problematic. In the “Theological Vision Statement” in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, (Appendix 1), the new hymnal expresses concern about people who have been separated from the centers of power, and declares an intention to “inspire and embolden” to create a “peace that is beyond understanding,” so as to appeal to “worshipers who have not had life-long formation by Scripture and basic Christian doctrine, much less Reformed theology” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, 2013, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 926). This intention is very welcome, but falls short, as ACREC sees it.

The ACREC believes that for the PC(USA), which is a denomination committed to peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it is problematic in the pluralistic setting of the 21st century to use terminology from another era that has taken on new meanings today, without explaining what all the meanings are.[1] The ACREC supports the intent of this overture and believes we are in need of new educational materials to clarify meanings of words that come to us with multiple layers and meanings in today’s pluralistic setting.

For many worshipers today, the word “Israel” has taken on political and military connotations and the original scriptural meanings are almost lost. Just as PC(USA) adopted inclusive and expansive language for racial and gender justice, ACREC believes it is important and timely to be intentional and well-informed with language that has taken on political meanings beyond the walls of church and worship.

Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, MI has used the following paragraph for several years in their worship bulletin:
“ISRAEL” LANGUAGE IN WORSHIP—We want to be sensitive to the pain of our Palestinian-American friends and others when they encounter “Israel” in the language of scriptures, hymns and liturgy. In our worship, “Israel” is referring to ancient Israel, not the modern political state. At various times in history it meant the collective name of the twelve tribes descended from Jacob, “the people of Israel,” the nation of Israel as a whole, or, during the period of the Divided Monarch, to the Northern Kingdom. We want to be faithful hearers and interpreters of the scripture and recognize that Jesus was a Jew, a descendent of David, King of the United Monarchy, and that what we know as the Old Testament was Jesus’ scriptures. 
On PALM SUNDAY, we need to remember that the people who waved palm branches in Jerusalem lived under the yoke of occupation and oppression by the Roman Empire. Over the centuries other oppressed peoples have identified with the plight and the longings of the people of Israel when they were enslaved, exiled, and occupied and also with the message of deliverance and freedom they found in the scriptures. We pray fervently for the day when the Palestinian people no longer live under occupation, a day when Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live together in peace, with justice for all.

ACSWP Advice and Counsel

The Advisory Committee advises that this overture be answered with the following action:

“The 221st General Assembly (2014) instructs the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to develop a short insert or sticker for publications used in congregational worship and study with wording similar in meaning to the following:
“‘Please note in using these texts that the biblical and liturgical “land of Israel” is not the same as the State of Israel established in 1948, which is a contemporary nation state. The Bible contains differing descriptions of the parameters of Israel. Promises of land generally come with obligations to God for justice to be practiced with all inhabitants. Later in Scripture, the Gospel is to be preached to ‘all nations’; in Jesus Christ all peoples are included in God’s promise. Similarly, ‘Zion’ is frequently used in the Bible as a reference to the city of Jerusalem, but in Christian tradition this does not refer primarily to a specific geographical location or political entity but to ‘the city of God’ found throughout history and to the completion of God’s purpose in the age to come. Presbyterian General Assemblies have affirmed the principle that the current physical Jerusalem be shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, both Palestinians and Israelis, living in peace with justice.”
“Further, the General Assembly directs that the Office of Theology and Worship and the Office of the General Assembly share the insert language with an explanatory letter encouraging its use within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and among our church partners internationally, particularly in Israel and Palestine, noting where fuller treatment of the concern may be found.”
The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy advises that commissioners answer this overture with the proposal to instruct the Office of Theology and Worship to develop an insert or similar brief guidance for use not only in hymnals but in other printed and online resources where it is important for God’s purposes not to be identified with any particular nation state. In the words of The Confession of 1967, “Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling” ( ).

In 1987, the General Assembly approved for “provisional” study a report called, “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews,” which states: “The State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically” (under affirmation 6;

A careful treatment of God’s relation to the land in the Bible is found in the biblical background section of the 2010 social witness policy on the Middle East, “Breaking Down the Walls” ( A treatment of related aspects of Christian and Jewish relations can be found in “Christians and Jews: People of God,” a paper developed by the Office of Theology and Worship working with Jewish partners. To be posted along with it is a paper by a Lebanese Christian respondent to “People of God,” George Sabra, who illustrates questions and issues at stake raised in a dialogue process. Neither “Christians and Jews: People of God,” nor the Sabra response, possess official standing. [See Item 01-02, II. Final Responses to Referrals, F. Presbyterian Mission Agency, Referral 17, 2010 Referral: Item 08-09].

Because divine authorization is often claimed by settlers who occupy land designated by treaty for a Palestinian state, the matter addressed by the overture is likely to remain relevant for some time. The Church of Scotland addressed similar concerns in its 2013 assembly statement: A further brief treatment of this matter by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is found in the 2004 Resolution on Confronting Christian Zionism:

Particularly in light of the treatments of this matter in “Breaking Down the Walls” and the Scottish Church’s, “The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land’,” the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy believes the approach recommended above can meet the serious concern of the presbyteries sponsoring this overture. The use of the insert language would, of course, be voluntary, but does reflect the position of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

COTE Comment

This item seeks the help of Presbyterian theological seminaries in the development of educational materials. The Committee on Theological Education (COTE), which includes among its members the presidents of all PC(USA)-related seminaries as well as elected teaching and ruling elders, notes that although COTE provides a major link between the seminaries and the General Assembly, the schools are independent entities whose activities cannot be directed by General Assembly action. The schools serve the denomination in a wide variety of ways, but they do not provide educational resources directly to the assembly. When such resources are required, the usual mechanism is the Presbyterian Mission Agency, through its Theology, Worship, and Education ministry area. The faculty and staff of the Presbyterian seminaries frequently serve as advisors on projects, when invited and as time permits.

PMA Comment

Integral to the narrative of salvation history in the Scriptures is particularity. Christians have long dealt with the so-called “scandal of particularity” that roots God’s relation with humankind as one mediated through particular individuals and peoples, most importantly through Jesus of Nazareth. This unfolding of salvation history means that God’s covenant with Israel cannot be dispensed with by contemporary Christians. Israel is part of our spiritual and theological vocabulary.

At the same time, the General Assembly has articulated a number of times that Christians should distinguish between the people Israel in the Scriptures and the modern state of Israel. The distinction between ancient Israel and the modern State of Israel is important, one that helps us make sense of our faith and its relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people.

The importance of these distinctions was recognized and articulated by our denomination in the document “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews,” which was commended by the 199th General Assembly (1987) for study and reflection. That document makes the distinction in this way: “Both Christianity and Judaism claim relationship with the ancient people Israel; the use of the ‘Israel’ in this study is restricted to its ancient reference. When referring to the contemporary State of Israel this document will use ‘State of Israel’” (Section on “Definitions and Language”). The 216th General Assembly (2004) approved a resolution on Christian Zionism that expressed that “Christian Zionism does not represent the majority of American Christians and the faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” []. Among other things, Christian Zionism is the belief that Christians are required by their faith to support the policies of the modern state of Israel.

At the same time we must also be careful not to claim that God’s covenant is strictly limited to ancient Israel. While it is a danger to confuse the biblical narrative of Israel with the modern state, there is also a danger in declaring that God’s particular relationship with the people Israel ended in the time of the New Testament.

In our present situation congregations and individual Presbyterians will hear the language of “Israel” in multiple different ways. In some cases, “Israel” will be understood to be the present day State of Israel. In other cases, talk about “Israel” and the Old Testament narratives of the people of Israel will be a way of entering into God’s work of deliverance from oppression, living life as sojourners, and God’s promise of entry into a place of abundance.

This overture is a call for educational help in having a clear understanding of important distinctions, the distinctions articulated in “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.” The distinctions made in that document can help Presbyterians speak of “Israel” (both as an ancient people and a contemporary nation) with clarity, insight, and faithfulness. Any additional educational materials on this subject would need to be contextually sensitive to congregations and their particular conversation partners.

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