A Rockville minister has inadvertently touched off a controversy stretching to the highest levels of the Presbyterian Church by his answer to a question about the divinity of Christ.
The dispute, which has reached the top court of the United Presbyterian Church, involves the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, 40, copastor of the Rockville United Church for the past year. Because the church is operated jointly by Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, the controversy has become an ecumenical one.
Kaseman's congregation has no part in the dispute. On the contrary, it met Sunday night and gave Kaseman a unanimous vote of approval. The challenge to him comes from other Presbyterians in the area.
Controversy dates back to last March when Kaseman, a United Church of Christ pastor in good standing from Florida, applied for membership in the National Capital Union Presbytery -- a necessary step for him to serve the union church.
In the course of the prebytery's examination of Kaseman's theological views, he was asked by a member: "Do you believe Jesus is God?"
According to the Rev. Dr. Edward White, executive of the presbytery, he responded: "No, God is God."
Kaseman later said that while he believes Jesus is divine, he could not give an unqualified affirmative answer to the way the question was phrased. "I don't believe there is any simplistic way of answering that question," he said.
Presbyterian officials admitted that it was "an odd way of asking the question," that none of the creeds and confessions of the church deal with Christ's divinity in such terms.
Kaseman was formally admitted to the presbytery as a minister in good standing.
A complaint was filed by the Rev. Glen Knecht, pastor of Wallace Memorial Church in Hyattsville, and two laymen. Last month, the complaint filtered to the top of the United Presbyterian court system, the church's Permanent Judicial Commission.
The commission ruled, on procedural rather than theological grounds, that the local Presbytery again must examine Kaseman's theological views. "The questions posed and responses received as reported in (the record of the presbytery) appear ambiguous and incomplete, and give rise to interpretation on which reasonable persons might differ," the church's high court said.
It added that the presbytery's examination "was not sufficiently thorough and concise as to comply with its constitutional responsibilities."
White acknowledged that the examination of Kaseman last March was not entirely according to the constitution, in part because of some confusion of church officials over required procedures for admitting a pastor from another denomination.
"For ministers coming from another church into the presbytery on a temporary basis, there is a procedure that carries much less involvement," he explained, "but for the pastor of a union church, to have full standing, one must go through the full process." This was not done in March, he acknowledged.
White is confident that when Kaseman is examined again, first by the Ministerial Relations Committee and then by the full presbytery on March 20, he "will be confirmed again." The executive said that Kaseman's work, which also involves a community ministry in the Rockville area, has been quite satisfactory.
Kaseman's parishioners and his copastor, the Rev. Frank Poole, agree. "The congregation is fully satisfied that its copastor has met all the requirements for standing within the presbytery and it is pleased to reaffirm its convenant and contract with Mr. Kaseman," the church said in formal statement on the dispute issued yesterday.
Recalling its origins in 1967 as a union church, the congregation in its statement reaffirmed its "commitment to ecumenical ministry and theological plurality."
In discussing the controversy over Kaseman, White expressed the hope that it might lead to greater reciprocity of clergy credentials on the part of the Presbyterian Church, particularly among cooperating demoninations.
At the Rockville church's congregational meeting last Sunday, that movement got under way, with the passage of a resolution aimed at both the United Presbyterian and Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) churches. The resolution called for increased "respect and trust for the credentialing process in sister denominations with which the Presbyterians are in correspondence."
Kaseman said that his parent denomination, the United Church of Christ has been "shocked and amazed" at the controversy.
Both Presbyterian denominations, which are yoked together locally in the National Capital Union Presbytery, as well as the United Church of Christ, are actively involved in the Consultation on Church Union, which is seeking a broad-based United Protestant church.
The question of the divinity of Christ, which is at the heart of Christian belief, has been the source of disputes throughout church history. It is one of the issues in Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung's current troubles with the Vatican. Two years ago, Dr. George Alley lost his post as head of the department of religion at the University of Richmond because he questioned traditional Baptist views on the subject.
There has been some speculation within Presbyterian circles that the Kaseman case has been politicized by conservatives in the church, already up in arms over the role of women in the church. Last May the church's national General Assembly ruled that every congregation must include women among its elders and deacons, the church's congregational lay leaders.
That decision of the national church has been opposed by a group called Concerned United Presbyterians, who called an assembly in Philadelphia in October to discuss possibly splitting off from the church over the issue.
The Kaseman case was discussed at the Philadelphia meeting. Dr. John Gerstner, professor of church history at the denomination's seminary in Pittsburgh, warned the group that "by permitting the denial of a Christian doctrine," as he described Kasman's position, "the denomination formally will have made apostasy legititmate."
He threatened that the Kaseman case "may well lead . . . to the legitimate withdrawal of a block of conservatives from the United Presbyterian Church." w
One observer, who declined to be named, speculated that the conservatives were "using" the Kaseman controversy because "it would look a lot more respectable to leave over a question of doctrine than over the women's issue."
Several congregations in the West have already left the denomination over the women's issue.