So I’ve mentioned my children in past Mishpochah Messages; please, bear with this Jewish father. I couldn’t expect you to recognize the fact that our two are the brightest, most intelligent children in the world, but the doctor’s name is Miriam and the lawyer is Jenni. They are wonderful kids who do not make it easy for me to write these letters, but I love them anyway! And I have a story to tell you about the older one.
I knew there was something special about Miriam from the date of her birth on December 25, 1983. What kind of a Jewish child comes into this world on Christmas day? Poor Miriam still thinks the twinkling lights and colorful Christmas decorations herald her birthday. Our Hanukkah candle-lighting celebration doesn’t help matters…she’s convinced that her birthday lasts eight days! If anyone is confused about being Jewish and being for Jesus during the holidays…it would be my daughter, Miriam.
What else should I tell you about her? Well, she’s good looking. One of my co-workers (who will remain nameless) often muses, How can that kid look so much like Mitch and still be so adorable?!” She knows the alphabet in English and Spanish (her mother is from Argentina). She loves her little sister to death…we have had some close calls!! She is sensitive and slightly shy. But oh, do we like to talk! Miriam can be defiant but she also makes announcements like, “I’m going to be kind to my little sister from now on.” When, in response to that grand statement, I asked her, “Why?” she replied, “So I can be like Yeshua.” She certainly knows how to melt her daddy’s heart! We’ve had other high-level discussions, sometimes deeply theological in nature. One such conversation was inspired by an incident at our church nursery.
It was Easter morning. I watched Miriam as her eyes widened at the sight of all the other little girls decked out in lovely white dresses and bonnets. Her mother and I should have expected this, but neither of us had made the cultural connection. Consequently, Miriam was dressed in a cute brown dress, her head unadorned, except for the barrettes which neatly clipped her hair in two short ponytails. She loved the bonnets and was entranced by their trailing rainbow array of ribbons, but I knew she was feeling awkward and out of place when she asked me why her dress wasn’t white. I said she could wear a white dress next week, privately wondering if she still had such a thing in her wardrobe. (The truth is, we do not have many white dresses for Miriam, at least not many that have remained white for more than twenty minutes!) As I turned to leave the room, I heard the teacher ask, “And how many of you colored Easter eggs this weekend?” I paused a moment to listen as the children responded with squeals of delight and happy chatter about their egg coloring and hunting adventures. My heart went out to Miriam who was sensitive enough to feel terribly left out. It occurred to me that she might not even know what an Easter egg was!
After church, Miriam and I had one of our high-level dialogues. (Sometimes we conduct them on a seminary level so that she can further my concepts of ultimate reality.) I wanted to know exactly what she had ,teamed in Sunday School and how she felt about it. After hearing about Easter eggs, I asked, “What else did you learn about today?”
She answered with a resounding, “Easter Bunny!”
“And what did you find out about the Easter Bunny, Miriam?” I asked.
Her eyes were shining as she told me, “He goes around giving candy to good boys and girls.” I sat for a moment, caught between feelings of affection and amusement as I usually am when Miriam and I have these “deep” discussions. But as I reflected on my daughter’s church experience, I began feeling a slow bum that boiled up into genuine anger. Nothing about the resurrection! Not a word about the real story of Easter!!
Please don’t get me wrong. I like my church and I like the nursery, but for one hour a week, you would think that they would have something better to talk about than mythical bunnies that bring good little children candy eggs! I did not bring Miriam to church to learn about the religious customs of Scandinavia! I wanted her to learn about the resurrection of the Savior. And I knew that for some of these children, Easter would be the only time their parents would bring them to church. Easter eggs!! Bunnies!?! BAH HUMBUG*#@!
I began consoling myself with the thought that ever since we Jews allowed Gentiles to take over the church, it has been malfunctioning. A bunch of Jews wouldn’t get something that should be so right so wrong…or would we? I thought back to the first generation church, recalled some of the mistakes made by the early Jews for Jesus, and couldn’t quite justify my feelings. But what was I to think of this church of mine, when I was so disappointed, even disgusted with how they handled the celebration of Yeshua’s resurrection in the preschool nursery?
Now, if Christmas is only presents and plum pudding and telling trite stories, and if Easter only means bunnies and bonnets and if those things are all the church has to talk about, then I have no use for it…but I have too much solid experience with the church to allow myself to believe that!
Many Jewish believers think incidents like this are typical. That is a mistake. So if it’s not typical what’s the point of this story? Just this: I know what it’s like to be disappointed in a church…but…we need to help one another past the disappointments and encourage one another to take our proper places in the body of the Messiah.
Should I leave my church because I don’t want my daughter to become assimilated and lose her Jewish identity? Perhaps, if my reason for going to church was to properly enculturate my children. But I have other ways of doing that. Churches don’t exist to guard my heritage, but to glorify God. We will always be disappointed with our congregations if we expect them to perform a service which God never intended for them. The church was not designed to teach computer programming or scuba diving either!
We assemble with other believers because it is commanded in the Scriptures, and because it is good for our spiritual well-being. If we do not become part of a regular fellowship, we will suffer from stunted spiritual growth.
Do you or other Jewish believers you know have difficulty committing to a local congregation? To solve this problem, it might be helpful to understand possible reasons why many (especially new) Jewish believers find it difficult to become part of a local body of believers.
Past Experience…or Lack Thereof
Some of us may have had disagreeable experiences in synagogue, while others didn’t have enough synagogue experience to form a valid opinion. This is as true of Jews who don’t believe in Jesus as it is of Jews who do. Community studies show that 30% of New York’s Jews claim never to attend synagogue, while 21% say they attend regularly. A similar study in Washington DC. indicates that 16% never attend synagogue while 9% do so on a regular basis. (American Jewish Yearbook, 1985, p. 173) National statistics fall within the same ballpark. The ratio of Messianic Jews who attended synagogue regularly before coming to Yeshua is proportionate to general attendance in the non-believing Jewish community.
It is natural to project attitudes reflecting past religious experience (bad, good or simply disinterested) into how we feel about church. When we become believers, it often takes the working of the Holy Spirit to help us become faithful in our worship. It is important for us to remember that in Yeshua, we are a new creation. We have new responsibilities which cannot be overlooked. Some of these responsibilities we meet with joy, others with patience. Regular attendance at worship services is not an elective, nor is it an activity designed for Gentile believers in Jesus. We cannot allow our “before-Yeshua” attitudes toward attending services to carry over to our new life any more than we would cling to views on certain issues of morality which we now recognize as sin.
Worship services aside, many of us come to faith with a well-developed distaste for “organized religion.” It’s not that we want our relationship with God to be “dis-organized” or chaotic. But many of us were brought up with a mistrust of institutions, religious or otherwise. Haven’t you ever been warned, “Ah, they’re all in it for the money.” I’ve heard that accusation flung in the direction of Jewish, Christian and even Far Eastern religious organizations.
“Hypocrisy” is a favorite buzzword among those who have no use for “organized religion.” I meet too many Jewish believers who do not want anything to do with the hypocritical “organized church” and have sought out strange and “non-traditional” fellowships instead. Some seem to think there is intrinsic merit in being unconventional. This is an attempt to avoid the “stigma” of being part of the church. We must ask ourselves whether God means for us to follow Jesus and yet separate ourselves from his people. That, it would seem, is the greater hypocrisy.
Further, those “unusual” fellowships are often more controlling, more culturally foreign than the conventional congregation down the street. Choosing a congregation on the basis of how un-traditional it is isn’t a healthy way to express our identity as Jews. It would be better to select a more conventional congregation and meet our needs as Jewish believers in other ways.
Now there is an exception, but it’s less of an exception than you might think. Some of you might be wondering, “Is he speaking against messianic congregations as well?” No, I am not. Jews for Jesus has started a couple of messianic congregations and we’ll probably start a few more before we’re through.
Messianic congregations are not the kind of “unconventional” I’m talking about, nor are they born out of a desire to disaffiliate from the rest of the body of Christ. At least they shouldn’t be! There are some Jewish believers who have a deep longing to worship in the culture and tradition of our Jewish people. They do not want to escape from Gentile brothers and sisters; they are simply too homesick and lonely for Jewish culture and tradition to be able to concentrate on worship in a culturally alien setting. However, the doctrine of these messianic congregations is not new, nor would it differ from a traditional church doctrine.
If your messianic congregation is “original” in its doctrine, or if the framework of worship preferred there is presented as the only way for a Jewish believer to worship, or if the congregation is looked upon as a haven for avoiding Gentile believers, then you are not in a messianic congregation…you are in trouble, and I suggest you get out!
The Burden of History
Historian Solomon Grayzel wrote, “The history of Judaism and Christianity is written in blood and punctuated in violence.” It is understandable why Jewish believers are reluctant to become involved with the church. From childhood, we are taught that Christians (the people in churches!) are the enemies of the Jewish people. The church was supposedly the institution responsible for persecuting our ancestors. Many of us find it painful to step inside a local church, whatever the denomination. How can we enjoy the company of those who inspired the murder and destruction of our people? Am I exaggerating? Perhaps, but if you were brought up in a home like mine, my words should at least ring with familiarity, if not authenticity.
Is there any truth to the accusation that Christians persecuted Jews? Of course there is! And I will not qualify that statement by placing quotation marks around the word Christian. If I say that all those who mistreated Jews were Christians in name only, I am arrogantly questioning the salvation of early church leaders such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine, not to mention Reformers such as John Wycliffe and Martin Luther.
To deny the past would be foolish. To forgive these men posthumously would be useless. To think that they characterize what God intended the church to be would be foolish and useless. Further, any Jew who holds the entire body of Christ responsible for acts of aggression against the Jewish people is guilty of the same bigotry exercised by anti-Semites against us. Are we ready to accept the doctrine of historic guilt? Shall we call today’s Christians “Jew-killers” just as we have been labeled “Christ-killers?” We must learn to separate between the past and the present, between our personal experiences and the experiences of our forebearers. Let unbelievers use fear and prejudice to remember that they are Jews. We’ll let God’s love and his promises serve as our reminder.
The Myth of the Gentile Church
Some refuse to attend a conventional church because it is “too Gentile.” So nu? What did you expect? There are more non-Jews who believe in Jesus than Jews. The Bible doesn’t teach that church should be a culture club!
The phrase, “Gentile Church” is a propaganda term which detracts from the body that God Himself established. Let’s discard it. Both Testaments distinguish between Jews and Gentiles, but nowhere do we read about separate churches. The Apostle Paul was clear on this when he wrote: “Give no offense, either to the Jews, or to the Gentiles, or to the church of God.” (I Cor. 10:32)
There is a divine distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but the church is a living organism composed of both. The Apostle reveals the mystery of the New Covenant: that Jews and Gentiles are united as one through the Messiah. (Eph. 2:14-19, 3:6)
In light of this, the idea of “the Gentile church” is a contradiction in Biblical terms. The church is Jews and Gentiles serving the Lord together. We should be satisfied for Gentiles to be Gentiles. When there is true fellowship in the Spirit, a free exchange of culture can enhance our unique identities in Christ.
Most Jewish believers don’t expect Gentiles to act like Jews, but it is discouraging when some of us find ourselves being pressured to sacrifice our identity as Jews. This pressure usually comes in the form of a call to sacrifice our pride. We know that as Christians we are supposed to be humble and not proud, so even when “something inside” tells us that God doesn’t want us to give up our Jewish heritage, we can be made to feel guilty if we think that “something” is pride.
Maybe some of us do take undue pride in being Jewish. We must examine our hearts to make sure that our Jewish identity it not a “superiority complex” over our Gentile brothers and sisters. We should repent if we are guilty of such pride, and then realize with a clear conscience that it is not prideful to cherish the heritage God gave us. If the pressure to drop our Jewishness is valid, one might ask how the brothers and sisters who exert this pressure intend to erase their Gentile identity, so that there will truly be neither Jew nor Greek in Christ?
By trying to homogenize the body of Christ, we detract from the gospel through which God intends to unite people from every “tribe and tongue” who believe in Yeshua. (Rev. 5:9) Homogenization has no better effect than segregation, and diversity does not demand separation! If Jewish believers avoid fellowship with those whom the Scriptures have commanded us to love, we could run the risk of becoming modem day Jonahs, avoiding a divine mandate: in this case, to love the brethren.
The body functions as it should when its diverse parts work together. If you think the members of the body should all be the same, you might try using your foot the next time you need to lick a stamp! Unity, not uniformity, is what God requires of his church. It is the difference between hearing a song sung in simple unison as opposed to three part harmony. Let us not contribute to a monotone ministry by denying that diversity. We shouldn’t abandon the church as being “Gentile” and therefore not for us; nor should we sit in church silently suffering because we feel that by being there, we are no longer Jews.
Solving the Problem
We have to help one another by refusing to accept excuses for not joining in regular worship and fellowship. Nor should we accept complaints from brothers and sisters who have gone from one church to the next, never finding one that reaches his or her expectations. We need a more mature outlook. Stuart Dauermann suggests:
“We need to accept the church as it is while continuing to challenge the church to become what it ought to be: both in its relationship to God and to the Jewish people. We can only make a difference in the church if we are there to take an active part.”
Jewish as well as Gentile believers should be committed to a local congregation whether it be one which is messianic, one which meets in a home, or the plain old steeple variety. The text usually used to support this imperative is Hebrews 10:25:
“Not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”
Those who do not want to attend a congregation usually find a way around this verse, but frankly, the entire New Testament is a case for the importance of being part of a local body.
There is no denying that the Jewish believer in Jesus is in a difficult position. Jacob Jocz is a Jewish-Christian author whose work I believe each of us should study. He eloquently describes the dilemma of the Jewish believer in his book, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ:
The uniqueness of the Hebrew-Christian’s situation lies in the fact that he is put in a position where choice is inescapable. Only two possibilities are left to him: on the one side is Jesus Christ, but loyalty to Him spells the forfeiture of national rights; on the other is the Jewish people, demanding the denial of personal conviction, for the sake of its continuing existence. There is no way out of the dilemma.
Some have suggested we simply forget our Jewishness. Others say we should separate from Gentile believers to cultivate our own communities.
I don’t think we have the right to forget the identity which stands as a story of God’s unbroken promises; nor do I feel our Jewish identity will be strengthened by separating ourselves from other Christians. Avoiding what is right might strengthen our pride, but not our heritage, and let us remember there is a difference!
Let’s look at the issue in a positive light. How can we make sure the “Easter Egg Syndrome” doesn’t get the best of us? Well, the next time a fellow Jewish believer tells a story illustrating his or her disappointment in the church, let’s listen sympathetically, but also strengthen and encourage that brother or sister to “not forsake the gathering of fellow believers.” The fact that Yeshua wants us to enjoy fellowship with other members of his body should be enough for us.
We must give Yeshua his rightful position in our lives…for as Jocz writes:
Only men for whom to belong to Jesus means more than to belong to a nation are fit for the kingdom of God.
If we remain loyal to Yeshua above all else, placing not only our Jewishness, but our entire lives in submission to his person and will, we will not only survive-we will thrive as Jewish believers in Jesus.
Perhaps you need affirmation as a Jewish believer. Why not:
- Fellowship when possible with other Jewish believers. We have a handy list of messianic congregations and Jewish Christian fellowship groups throughout the U.S. and overseas. Write if you need the info, and be sure to include your phone number!
- Celebrate the Jewish festivals in your home. This is especially important for us who are first-generation Jewish believers. And those of us who have children must give them the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in Jewish life.
- Take an interest in your local Jewish community. All right, so your local Jewish community is not rolling out the red carpet because you want to be involved. Try to take advantage of cultural and educational opportunities which could truly enrich your life. But do not become trapped into compromising your faith.
- Be a witness to the Jewish people. There is no better way to feel part of the Jewish community and to express your love for our people than to tell them about the Lord. If your Jewish identity matters to you, consider this: by God’s grace, the future of Jewish believers in Jesus calls for us to become energized and equipped to reach our people for the Savior. This begins with winning our own children and extends to the entire Jewish world. Evangelism is our future!
I don’t think my daughters are going to stop being Jewish if they take a sudden interest in Easter eggs, and if there’s candy to be had, it’s a sure bet Miriam and Jenni aren’t thinking about Jews and Gentiles, but rather, “how much?” and “where’s mine?” I really don’t care what color dresses my daughters wore to church on Easter Sunday. I just want Miriam and Jenni to know that Yeshua rose from the dead and because of him, they can be clean and white on the inside.
My church teaches that clearly, and if the nursery attendants didn’t know enough to convey the lesson to the kids, Miri can inform them next year. She might even throw in a Passover lesson for free. Better still, she could prepare a Passover feast, serve it, and explain the Christological significance. That’s not too much to expect from a five-year-old who already knows enough to practice medicine!