Distinct or Divided?
The table was laden with a sumptuous feast. No one would be left hungry after this repast! Better yet was the satisfying fellowship: the lively conversation, the laughter and the warmth that each person felt being together with friends cut from the same cloth.” But all that changed in a moment with a knock at the door.
It was as if a cold wind swept into the room along with those who entered. An entertaining story seemed to die on the lips of one who just seconds before seemed so animated, so enthusiastic. The story would seem silly to the newcomers, he reasoned.
Some who were seated at the table suddenly found the meal distasteful. Plates were quickly pushed away as though the very food on them was an embarrassment. The newcomers were shown to their own table. A few from the first table, who could no longer enjoy what had been a warm, lighthearted celebration just a moment before, joined them.
Those left sitting at the first table couldn’t hide their disappointment. They continued to eat, but the food had lost its savor, along with the lively conversation that quickly dwindled to a few mumbled sentences. The genial fellowship became a dull, frigid gathering of two groups sitting at separate tables.*
We need to ask: What binds people together? What pulls them apart? Language, culture and neighborhood are common denominators that simultaneously bind together and separate individuals and groups.
Social scientists consider religion one of the most potent forces to unite and divide people. Many blame religion for division and its often violent and destructive consequences.
History records episodes of religious people who banded together and turned against others of differing religions…or even against others who adhered to the same basic religion, but were of a different branch or denomination. Yet what we call “religion” has no mind of its own; it doesn’t act of its own accord. It cannot unify or divide; it is only animated by people who profess the religion.
God is not religion and can’t be contained by any religion. He has recorded His own account of His important dealings with humanity. In the record of His sacred history, true faith in Him is an active force to unite people.
Most of the Scriptures tell of God’s dealings with the Jewish people. It is important to remember that God called Israel to be separate from the other nations. Our clothing was to be different, our food was to be different, our celebrations were to be different. Circumcision was irrevocable. Even if we dressed in the clothing of our enemies, standing naked we would be seen as Jews. We were not only separated by circumcision, rituals, dress and so on, but we were also separated into a land, and we were separated by a law.
It is also good to remember the purpose of that separation. It was to keep God’s people from idolatry and the evil practices of their heathen neighbors. This separation was to glorify God and accomplish His purposes. The climax of God’s great purpose and promise to Abraham was that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). He spoke through Isaiah to say,
“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”
When God separated us as a people, His ultimate intention was to restore, to reunite and to heal. He separated us because He wanted to benefit all.
It seems that some of our people mistook God’s calling. For some, Israel’s particularism became an end rather than a means to fulfill God’s purpose. We thought we were to remain separate because we were somehow better in and of ourselves. To illustrate, there are some Jewish people who have no particular belief in God yet would be mortified if their children married “outside.” Yet if there is no God, and if the Jewish religion is myth, why should it matter?
For others, the whole idea of blessing and salvation has been downgraded from the transcendent to the ordinary field of our own human abilities and the many worthwhile, yet secular contributions we have made to society. There might be a vague idea that God has somehow blessed us with more creativity, more intellect, and that we owe it to God and the human race to use our gifts to make the world a,better place.
Either way, God’s purpose of universal blessing has been sacrificed on the altar of our inadequate interpretation of chosenness. Yet God’s plan could not be thwarted by our mistakes. Israel’s greater Son, Yeshua, became the Servant through whom God would pour out His blessing on this divided and divisive world. And even though thus far only a minority of our people have received the blessing that comes through knowing Jesus, millions of people representing thousands of nations have indeed been blessed by knowing Him.
When Messiah died on the cross and rose again from the dead, He not only smashed the barrier of sin that separated all of humanity from our Creator, He also tore down the wall of division between peoples, establishing a profound and eternal bond between individuals of diverse backgrounds.
It seemed good to God, the Holy Spirit and the Jewish disciples gathering at Jerusalem to welcome non-Jews into the place of grace (Acts 15). The spiritual bond was stronger than any racial, national or ethnic connection. This is the triumph of the Servant of the Lord. He turned our failure into victory. Hallelujah!
Truly God is gathering a people for Himself from every kindred tribe and nation. The wonderful, beautiful, delightful thing is that He didn’t ask all the other people to give up their cultures and become Jews, and today, although there are fewer Jewish believers than Gentiles, we are not called to give up our Jewishness either. No culture is to be exalted over another; we can remain distinct, yet that should not serve to divide us.
Those in Christ represent countless cultures, each with their own heritage. It is important to recognize the difference between diversity and division. As Jewish believers, we do not need to be protected or separated from Gentile Christians, for these who are true followers of Yeshua will not tempt us into idolatry or other immoral practices.
Instead of separating us from non-Jews, God has woven us together with Gentile believers into one seamless, rich and colorful fabric of love and unity. Much has happened to wear at that fabric of unity. Yet whenever revival comes, it serves to unite us and strengthen our togetherness in the Lord.
Some of you who have walked with the Lord for more than 20 years will remember the joy of knowing Jesus toward the end of the ’60s and into the first three years of the ’70s. Any believer in Jesus who recognized another had a ready word of encouragement. We waved to one another as we saw the story bumper stickers or T-shirts, whether or not we would choose their particular slogan for ourselves. There was new music, a new sense of earnestness and a generally “up” feeling during the Jesus revolution.
It was especially great to be a Jew who believed in Jesus during those years. So many of us who had been lonely suddenly discovered that there were actually hundreds, even thousands of Jewish brothers and sisters who loved Yeshua just like we did.
But soon enough, people began marking out their own “territory.” That seemed to signal the end of that particular outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The sweet unity, mutual encouragement and acceptance dwindled, and for some it gradually ceased. People began to identify themselves with other people instead of being content to say they were “Jesus people.” It became as the apostle described in 1 Corinthians 1:12, where people announced that they were of Paul or of Cephas.
Then there was an offishness of some Jewish believers toward one another. What started as a line drawn on the ground became a small fence. And the small fences grew up into large walls. And the walls have continued to grow to the point where they are ominous and foreboding.
It’s sad when Jewish believers who really need each other choose instead to distance themselves from one another. Or worse yet, to accept the divisions and distinctions made by those who are not believers! Many staff and friends of Jews for Jesus have been hurt and dismayed by published statements such as this one from the Jerusalem Report:
Jews for Jesus and groups such as Chosen People Ministries and Ariel Ministries…are primarily devoted to coaxing Jews into joining evangelical Christian congregations. Messianic Jews, while they also proselytize, are more concerned with developing their own community of people who profess to follow both Jesus and traditional Judaism—a leap of faith that requires no formal conversion.
Jews for Jesus are accustomed to negative statements and false characterizations from the Jewish press, which feels obligated to oppose us. But it seemed there might be a different tactic at work here. This drawing of distinctions between Jewish believers, could it be that it was designed to “divide and conquer”? If so, then it seems that our opposition may have found a few unwitting allies among our own believing mishpochah. We are now hearing fellow Jewish believers say strange things—implying that we don’t really care to be Jewish. That we simply want to “feed” Jewish believers into churches, as though churches are somehow waiting to chew them up and spit them out without a shred of Jewishness remaining!
I know there are leaders in the unbelieving Jewish community who are absolutely convinced of our Jewishness, though they continue to declare that we are not Jews. They can justify the fact that they know one thing and say another because they believe they are protecting the flock. But when our own mishpochah begin to repeat what the opposition says, whom are they protecting, and from what?
One Jewish believer who heads a ministry of his own recently wrote to his supporters, “Although there are many theological areas of agreement, Jews for Jesus and most Jewish mission agencies differ from Messianic Judaism in that Messianic Jews desire to maintain a Jewish way of life, not just for the purpose of witnessing, but because of what God said: He wants His people to remain a people.”
If that were a statement of a real difference, then the logical conclusion would be that Jews for Jesus and “most Jewish mission agencies” desire to maintain a Jewish way of life only for the purpose of witnessing and not because God said that He wants us to remain a people. That is not true. That brother was wrong.
Maybe you have seen the commercial for a particular car rental agency. The ad features some poor family that failed to choose the “right” rental agency. We see them in a broken-down auto they foolishly rented from the other guy. It’s dark. They are on some deserted stretch of highway, stranded, their vacation ruined. If only they had chosen the right agency, they would be cruising down a sun-drenched coastal road enjoying the most gorgeous scenery imaginable.
We all understand the ploy. We smile. We don’t take it seriously, but maybe we will rent from the “right” agency anyway.
There is a different kind of advertising, the kind that focuses on what makes a product unique and valuable without reference to competitors. So confident are the advertisers in the quality of their products that they have no need to cast aspersions on anyone else.
Various Jewish missions or Messianic congregations need to emphasize their distinctiveness. But can’t we do so without making negative insinuations or implications about the commitments and distinctiveness of others? We can if we are confident of our own identity and careful not to be drawn into someone else’s agenda. None of us should presume to be a spokesperson for another except in those matters where we know that we are in agreement!
It takes some commitment and planning for us to do right by one another. If someone asks, “Well, how are you different from so-and-so?” how would you respond? I would not consider that an appropriate question, and I hope that some of you will reconsider whether it is appropriate for you to answer it as well.
We Jews for Jesus are aware that because our name is a statement as well as the name of an organization, many people mistakenly think that all Jewish believers are either on our staff or agree with everything we say and do. We sympathize with the need for other organizations to have their own identities, and we understand that there are legitimate differences of opinion whereby some are uncomfortable being thought of as part of our organization. Actually, it is a door that swings both ways. There are certain policies held by members of our mishpochah that we disagree with and would not want ascribed to us. But we will not dissociate from those with whom we disagree, and we will not attempt to describe to outsiders why certain members of the mishpochah do the things with which we differ. The differences cannot possibly be more important than the sense of unity and respect for one another that Yeshua wants us to have.
When we (meaning any Jewish believer) assert our own identity, whether as a spokesperson for a congregation, a mission, an umbrella organization or an individual, we should speak for ourselves or for those who have asked us to speak for them. Do not speak for others. That means not engaging in a discussion of how you are different from anyone else in the mishpochah. To assert your identity, you need only speak for yourself. Let others speak for themselves.
So again, what can we do when someone asks, “How are you different from so-and-so?” Why not answer with, “I really appreciate your interest in my mission/congregation/organization/self. Here is what we are all about.…As for how we differ from ______, I think I’m more qualified to tell you how we are the same. I know that ______ also believes that Jesus (or Yeshua/Yeshua) is the Messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets. I know they believe that Jews as well as Gentiles need to find reconciliation through Him. I’m not so confident about telling how they are different from us, because it would be an attempt on my part to state their distinctives and I’m not qualified to do that. But if you ask ______ what their distinctives are, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusion about our similarities and differences.”
What if the person says to you, “But I understand you used to be a member of ______ congregation,” or “Weren’t you on the staff of ______? I thought you would be knowledgeable about them.”
Most people can be tempted to show that they are knowledgeable under such circumstances. But stop and think. Would that congregation, would that mission, would that organization consider your past affiliation with them a good basis for you to represent them in those areas where you feel there are differences? Regardless of the circumstances under which an affiliation ends, we owe it to Yeshua to treat one another with respect and fairness, and that means not taking the liberty to be a spokesperson for someone with whom you feel you have a difference. This is especially true when there has been a congregational split, or when people break an affiliation due to disappointment that one or the other (or both) feel. Perhaps you believe you have not been treated fairly in such a situation. All the more reason not to do unto others what you did not appreciate having done unto you!
To return to the brother who told his supporters how Messianic congregations are different from Jews for Jesus and other Jewish missions: other Jewish believers have made similar statements, not merely to their own supporters, but also to Christian media, and yes, even to the secular press.
As far as maintaining our Jewish identity as part of an effort to be a story, that is rather biblical (1 Corinthians 9:20)! But it isn’t the only reason. Most of us have an abiding commitment to be the kind of Jews that God wants us to be. We will never feel like outsiders to things Jewish.
We expect our unbelieving opposition to do a job on us. For years they have sung the same ditty, which is: “You are either a Jew or a Christian. You can’t be both.” This is a false dilemma. It is not possible for a Jew to become a non-Jew.
We Jews for Jesus always associated Christianity (commitment and obedience to Christ, or the Messiah) as being God’s kind of Judaism. We never doubted that the Messiah of Israel was not only for Israel but also for all people. At the same time, most people on our staff appreciate Jewish services, and several of us have worked on writing ceremonies, weddings, funerals and holiday celebrations that some in messianic Jewish communities have found helpful. Therefore it comes as somewhat of a shock when we hear fellow Jewish believers drawing the same types of distinctions we expect from our unbelieving brothers and sisters, saying that we are somehow “against” Jewish culture. Some of the mishpochah even say that they are not “Christians,” not realizing that the listener might think they are denying Messiah.
Moishe Rosen, the Executive Director of Jews for Jesus, asked me, “So what do they want from us?” The answer seems to be, they want us to be like them, whoever “they” are. What does that mean? Well, it appears as though some of the mishpochah are calling on us to abandon our Gentile friends in order to prove our Jewishness. Maybe that means requiring our staff to only go to those congregations that are “kosher” and referring all the people whom we help bring to faith only to Messianic congregations. We are not going to take that kind of a stand. Some of our staff choose to go to Messianic congregations, and some of our missionaries refer contacts to those Messianic congregations in their area. But we will not become exclusive.
Nor will we do anything that in any way makes us part of the big lie that you can’t be Jewish and be a Christian. We will not accept the notion that it is wrong to call Him Jesus, or that it is necessary to do things a certain way to properly worship Him as Jewish believers. When it comes to worship at home or in the congregation, we think it is a matter of the heart and the conscience.
There is an ironic story of two Jews who were shipwrecked and cast away on an island that would sustain life. They got together and worked on houses, so each had his own home. They even built a little house on the other side of the island to be their vacation house. Since they saw themselves as being different kinds of Jews, one built a synagogue the way he wanted a synagogue to be and the other built one another way. Then they built a third synagogue, which they felt was necessary. That’s the synagogue that neither of them would go to.
Dear mishpochah, there is a world of difference between being unique and being separate. We can be unique in the midst of people who are different from us without having to distance ourselves from them. Perhaps some of our mishpochah are so eager to maintain uniqueness that they are falling into the trap of separatism. There is a very natural tendency to identify what makes us unique at the expense of what makes us similar.
Regardless of how we may differ from one another, our “prime directive” is to be more like Jesus. That is enough to keep most of us occupied. And it’s something that we all need to encourage one another to do. Remember, the most powerful distinctive of the gospel is how it serves to unite us.
The fruit of Yeshua’s sacrifice is a universal blessing, that wonderful weave of diversity that is the body, the holy congregation. Let us not make the same mistake that our forefathers made. Let us not despise the unity that the Messiah died to establish. We dare not appeal to our unbelieving brethren by denying or disguising this awesome reality.
Together we are enjoying a feast of righteousness at a table that was laid for us in the finished work of Yeshua. So when we hear a knock at the door, let’s refuse to get up and move to another table. Instead, why not pull up a few more chairs? There is plenty of room for everyone.
If you have any encouragement from being united in Messiah, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
* This illustration is my idea of what the situation that Paul described in Galatians 2:11ff might have been like. It is not meant to be representative of any particular groups or individuals today.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.