The nation's largest Presbyterian denomination wrestled Thursday with what used to be a no-brainer for Christians: Is Jesus the only way to salvation?
One side called for tolerance of non-Christian faiths. The other warned against weakening Christian teaching in the face of religious pluralism.
In the end, neither side got its way at the General Assembly, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church USA, which is meeting this week in Louisville.
"This was not a victory for anyone," said Parker T. Williamson, who heads the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a leading outlet for the denomination's conservatives.
The debate was long and passionate but orderly and polite. A majority of the more than 500 delegates, called commissioners, struck down a proposal that said Jesus is the lone vehicle of salvation.
That created confusion.
"If salvation isn't singular through Jesus, that would mean it is plural," said Jeff McDonald of the regional district known as the Missouri Valley Presbytery. "If it is plural, who are the other deities we are talking about?"
The growth of non-Christian religions is causing some Christian theologians to rethink what has long been a fundamental doctrine of the faith, church observers said. That has prompted the Vatican, for instance, to clamp down on Catholics who temper the faith.
"We are at a critical point in our denomination," the Rev. Catherine Purves of the Pittsburgh Presbytery said in offering the salvation proposal, which was widely backed by conservatives. "It is well-known that there is a debate among us on the meaning of Jesus Christ."
After the proposal was voted down, a substitute proposal was approved. It said that "assurance" of salvation is found "only in confessing Christ and trusting Him alone."
But the statement did not rule out other avenues of salvation.
"I don't have the right to say that other people can't find God in other ways," said Robert Rea Jr., a commissioner from South Carolina.
The battle between conservatives and others is expected to grow more intense today, when commissioners consider a proposal on allowing gay clergy. Earlier this week, a committee voted 31-25 to recommend that the denomination end its ban on ordaining gays and lesbians.
If the full assembly votes to overturn the ban, a majority of the denomination's 174 presbyteries would need to ratify the change over the next year.