Forum: Alarming Our Community
In January, the Jerusalem Report ran an article titled, The Rabbi Who Lost His Faith…and Found Judaism.” The rabbi to whom the article referred was Chuck Snow—a Jew who renounced his faith in Jesus after 22 years as a professing believer. Snow, who led the London Messianic Congregation, was known throughout the messianic Jewish community. My reaction to the article was three-fold. I felt a profound sense of grief, and yes, I felt betrayed on behalf of those whose lives were torn by Chuck’s defection. I also felt a sense of urgency, a call to examine myself and encourage others to do so. What happened? Is it likely to happen again? Do Jewish believers need to guard against some type of hidden danger that no one sees until it is too late?
You know how carbon monoxide can build up in people’s homes unseen and undetected? People experience flu-like symptoms, but if left unexamined and untreated, their continued exposure to the carbon monoxide can be deadly. Can this happen to us on a spiritual plane? Can attitudes or situations combine and build up to drain the life out of our faith?
I don’t think the problem of defection is any more common among Jewish believers than it is among Gentile believers. Nevertheless, I do think that some dangers to faith are unique to us as Jewish followers of Jesus. We are vulnerable to certain temptations, certain suggestions which can lead to messianic defection. We need to know our vulnerable spots so that we can guard our faith. We need to be alarmed. I don’t mean alarmed in the sense of raising feelings of terror, but alarmed in the sense of having some kind of warning system to alert us of potential danger, like a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide alarm. Perhaps this article might help to serve as an “early detection device” for you or someone you know.
The sad story of shipwrecked faith is as old as the book of Hebrews. The writer of that epistle implored Jewish Christians of his day to persevere in the faith. He feared that his readers might be like the second group of people in the parable of the sower—hearing the word joyfully, enduring for a while but stumbling when trouble comes. That is why we see the repeated admonition in Hebrews to “hold fast…unto the end.”
Commenting on the book of Hebrews, F.F. Bruce remarks that “continuance in the Christian life is the test of reality” and that “saints are the people who persevere to the end.” (1) In other words, true believers remain in the faith throughout their lifetime. That doesn’t mean that true believers never undergo periods of doubt. Hanging on through periods of doubt is part of persevering.
What of those who don’t “hold fast”—those who loosen their grip until they let go altogether and fall away from faith? I believe that those who leave and die in unbelief did not have real faith. Hard words, but true.
Remember, people might speak about faith as though it were merely a set of beliefs, but faith is much more than that. Beliefs might change based upon any number of circumstances, and ultimately people believe what they choose. Faith is commitment to an unchanging reality. Someone who “leaves the faith” never to return did not have a faith commitment. That would be like saying a man was committed to his wife until he left her for another woman. One might say that such a man doted on his wife or was devoted to her for a period of time. However, the word commitment precludes his ever leaving her for another woman. Once that happens, it is no longer accurate to say he had a committed relationship with her. It is the same with those who “leave” the faith. The apostle John wrote of them:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us
1 John 2:19
We need to examine the factors at work in those who “go out from us.” What causes them to leave?
A Dangerous Paradox
To the chagrin of the Jewish community, most Jewish believers become more excited about their Jewishness after coming to faith in Jesus. Many of our people outside of Israel grow up uncertain about what it means to be Jewish. Is it a matter of keeping kosher? Not working on Saturday? Supporting Israel? Eating lox and bagels? Trying to make the world a better place? We know we’re Jews, but without a sense of God’s purpose for our people, we’re like an electrical appliance with no batteries and no power cord. We can’t fulfill our function.
With Yeshua, we are “plugged into” our “Source of energy”—God. We know who made us Jews and we’re thankful—we get “turned on” to being Jewish. Once the Bible begins to play a central role in our life, we tend to connect more with our heritage, our history and the importance of our peoplehood. Many of us consciously seek ways to involve ourselves more in Jewish pursuits as our Jewish identity takes on more importance.
Yet with the excitement of being Jewish comes a hidden danger: a misdirected preoccupation with developing Jewishness apart from Jesusness. As Jews who come to faith in Yeshua, to whom do we look for help in becoming “more Jewish?” For many of us, the obvious role models are religious Jews—and not just any religious Jews—we grow up looking to the rabbis as the authority on all things Jewish. Some Jewish believers make the mistake of thinking that they can learn from the rabbis how to be more Jewish while still holding fast to faith in Jesus. That can be a fatal mistake—like drinking water from poisoned wells.
The interview with Chuck Snow portrays him as someone who grew up “in an assimilated American Jewish family…ignorant of the most basic Jewish instincts.” Snow says he discovered his Jewish identity after joining an evangelical church. Later, upon finding other Jewish believers, Snow became more and more interested in developing his Jewish identify. When he and his wife moved to a largely Orthodox Jewish suburb of London to lead a messianic congregation, Snow says he felt drawn to what he saw among his Orthodox neighbors. He began to study with a rabbi and chose to keep those meetings a secret from even his closest friends. In time, he renounced his faith and left the messianic community, including his believing wife, to settle in Israel where he now lives a modern Orthodox lifestyle.
Snow’s story is not unique. Many Jewish believers who desire to be more Jewish find the wrong teachers. Anyone who is committed to “holding fast” to their faith needs to make a determination to learn from teachers who are likewise committed to Yeshua. Why choose to put oneself under the tutelage of a rabbi or anyone else who not only doesn’t share our commitments but is committed to dissuading Jews from belief in Jesus? It is a good way to put your faith at risk. In fact, it is an open invitation for someone to “win you back” to the “fold” of Judaism—a fold that has no place for Yeshua.
Jesus warned His disciples not to subject themselves to the authority of the religious leaders of their day. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’ Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6,12). Yeshua understood that Jewish leaders wanted to keep others from following Him. He instructed them to be on guard against their teaching, which He described as hypocritical and based upon the traditions of man rather than the Word of God.
We don’t like to think about much less use words like hypocrisy in conjunction with Jewish religious and community leaders today. We’re already labeled traitors and anti-Semites by those who want to keep us “outside of the Jewish box” and most of us wouldn’t want to think—much less say—anything that might seem to justify their negative assessment of us. Despite Yeshua’s warnings, it is natural for us to want the good opinion of those leaders, especially since the opinions they express will prevail throughout most of the Jewish community. Why this tendency to defer to the rabbis?
Most of us who were raised in traditional Jewish homes can admit that, like the majority of Jews, we never felt secure about our Jewishness. In general, Jewish people feel that there are so many mysteries, there is so much to learn, that we’re always on a journey and will never be able to arrive.
Even the most religious Jews continually study but never come to the place where they really know. There’s always another sage or commentary to consult. All Jews feel insecure when it comes to any kind of definitive truth about God and what we ought to believe. Even rabbis have doubts about who God is and what he requires, and that is why there are more sermons on how to relate to other people than there are sermons on how to relate to God.
How many of us have heard the challenge, “You left your own religion without knowing anything about it.” This causes many Jewish believers to feel guilty and inadequate. They don’t realize that Judaism is not a religion of knowing but a religion of doing. Besides, what rabbi would admit that any Jewish believer could “know” enough to accept what the Jewish religion flatly rejects?
This inadequacy and the idea that there is always more to learn before one can “know” has been rationalized and institutionalized so that many consider it part of the beauty of Judaism. Asking the right question is often seen as more important than finding the answer. The idea of the continual search sounds lofty, and the concept of never knowing for certain sounds humble.
Yet when it comes to asking the question “who is Jesus,” suddenly it’s not such a good question and there is a definite set of answers that are given with a great deal of certainty. Those of us who draw a different set of conclusions are seen as deficient. Either our Jewish education was lacking or we are emotionally weak. Perhaps we’re just ignorant. How many of us have been urged to see the rabbi to help us understand the error of our way?
When I told my parents of my faith in Jesus, they invited my uncle the rabbi to come straighten me out. The two of us went to the basement for a private talk. Though the outcome was not what my parents had hoped (I still believed in Jesus) they were not ready to give up the idea that I could be dissuaded. Several years later, just before my wedding, my mother urged me to go see our local rabbi, hoping he could “fix” me.
This type of pressure is common. It may be parents who press the believing child to go see the rabbi. Sometimes adult children press their believing parents to go. In either case it’s a mistake for the believer to comply. There may be good reasons to seek out a rabbi, but it’s never right to go because of pressure from others. If you want to learn from the rabbi about Jewish causes, history, philosophy, or even religion, it’s okay as long as you recognize the difference between the Jewish religion and faith in Yeshua. In other words, the Jewish religion plus Jesus does not equal Christianity. Don’t expect to find your Jewish identity by adhering to the Jewish religion and adding in Jesus. It won’t work. Many elements in Judaism are in direct conflict with faith in Yeshua. In fact, if you study the development of the Jewish liturgy found in the siddur you will find that some of Judaism’s central prayers—which are anti-Jesus—were composed as a reaction to the growing community of Jewish Christians in the first and second centuries. No, your Jewish identity does not come from the ever evolving umbrella of Judaism.
If you do approach a rabbi to gain knowledge on an individual basis, it is only fair for you to inform him or her of your motives and make sure he or she understands you are not seeking a spiritual counselor or a religious authority. Likewise, you must take into account the motive of the rabbi. Is his or her compelling interest to dissuade you from your faith? If so, do not invite such interaction. If the rabbi is merely teaching from a body of knowledge on Jewish concerns you can learn from that person. Nevertheless, we should always strive to be as wise as serpents, and that means we must keep ourselves accountable to mature believers about such meetings so that we can discuss what we learn with those who share our commitments.
Most Jewish believers who see rabbis do so to placate family members, and that can be a costly mistake. Agreeing to go see the rabbi because of outside pressure will only encourage further pressure. That was certainly true for me. As long as you give in, the other party will be hopeful that if not this time, maybe next time you’ll “see the light.” Don’t be like the girl who, just to be nice, goes on a date with the pesty guy who won’t stop asking her out. Though she doesn’t want his company, she hopes that by going out once he’ll be satisfied and stop asking. What a naive mistake! The guy will naturally take this as a signal that his persistence might just pay off. Giving in to pressure only invites more pressure.
Giving in to pressure to see the rabbi is also an obstacle to your story. As long as those opposing your faith feel like you might change your mind, they’ll exert their energy trying to dissuade you from your beliefs rather than trying to understand them.
Finally, I believe it’s wrong to give in to pressure to see the rabbi because doing so insults the Lord. Imagine going to visit someone whose goal in meeting is to seduce you. Imagine telling your spouse (if you don’t have one, imagine that you do) that of course you have no intention of being seduced; you’re only going to be polite! Even more ridiculous, imagine telling your spouse that you’ve agreed to meet with someone who wants to seduce you because a friend of yours said that if you did, he or she would go to church with you. As absurd as it sounds, there’s a parallel. Many Jewish believers have gone to a rabbi or read anti-missionary material because of unbelievers who promised to go to church or talk with a pastor if they (the believers) would see the rabbi, consider the anti-missionary case, etc. Never fall for this sort of manipulation. When we agree to meet with a person whose goal is to help us see why we shouldn’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, we’re showing disrespect for Yeshua. This grieves and offends Him.
A person who consistently gives in to demands to see the rabbi (or who courts the rabbi, seeking acceptance) is signaling that he or she wants to be dissuaded from faith. People who are looking for a way out of their commitment to the Lord won’t have to look far.
The Heart of the Matter
Back to Chuck Snow. In his interview, Mr. Snow says that while still a professing believer in Jesus he “always prayed to God, not to Jesus” and “never felt the need to substitute Jesus for a direct relationship with God.” What does that mean? First, it shows he misunderstood key doctrines he later claimed to reject. Jesus did not instruct the disciples to pray to Him, but to pray in His name. Nevertheless, that’s not the key doctrine here.
Yeshua is God incarnate, something which Chuck Snow seems either to have failed to understand or secretly rejected. At least I would hope if he rejected it he did so in secret, because he was leading a messianic congregation. We have to wonder who Snow thought Jesus was, if not Immanuel, God with us, if not our mediator, if not the one in whose name we pray, if not the eternal “high priest” who makes intercession for us.
In an article titled “Faith in crisis: A return to the synagogue,” Susan Perlman summarizes the accounts of five Jewish believers who renounced their faith and “returned” to the synagogue. The original accounts are found in a booklet published by an anti-missionary organization. Four of the five individuals spoke of inner doubts about their faith. In each case, instead of confronting the doubts and seeking help from believers, they either carried their doubts around in silent secrecy or sought dialogue with rabbis and other religious Jews to resolve those doubts.
These people had a defective faith from the start—not because they had doubts, but because they took their unresolved issues outside the community of faith. Like Snow, one of the individuals reported that even in church she felt uncomfortable about worshipping Jesus—she never prayed in His name.
Early Detection: An Inexpensive Alarm
Perlman lists several factors which contribute to the defection of the people whose cases she reported:
- Lack of grounding in the Word of God
- For most there was a lack of basic Bible knowledge to refute the Scripture twisting of anti-missionaries. All who left the faith seem to be defective in both their understanding and commitment to the Word of God.
- Divided loyalty, i.e. lack of a whole-hearted commitment to the Lord
- No person can survive a walk of faith if they begin that walk by reserving the right to decide what they will or won’t surrender to God. Again and again, Jewish believers who left their faith either lived with unsaved relatives or had unsaved roommates who exerted pressure. They misunderstood the nature of loyalty; they hoped to gain the acceptance of their unsaved family and friends in ways that were disloyal to Christ. They clung to part of their old life rather than yielding it to God.
- Rebellion and lack of proper respect for authority
- In several of the profiles, when told by their spiritual elders that a certain course of action was unwise or improper, they rebelled and chose that course anyway. These were unwilling and unteachable people who would not respond to reasonable scriptural admonitions.
- Isolationist or “loner” mentality
- One cannot be a “loner” for Jesus. One cannot walk outside of the community and live his or her faith in a vacuum. It is easy to be snared by the deceptions of sin when one rejects the healthy climate of believing fellowship and accountability.
Perhaps the most insightful part of Perlman’s analysis is her closing statement:
The common denominator for all these crises was that of community abandonment. Not that the community of believers abandoned those who left the faith, but rather, in each case, the individual or group chose to look outside of the community of believers for their spiritual and social direction, their identity, their sense of well being.
The key question we need to be asking in evaluating where an individual is at with regard to “falling away” is: From where does (fill in the name) ________ get his or her spiritual direction? social direction? life satisfactions? sense of personal identity? acceptance? and overall well being? If the answers lie outside of the community of faith, there is reason to be concerned and to act accordingly. 2
If you want to hold fast to your faith, it’s important to realize that even the strongest believers have times when their faith is tested. The quickest way to find yourself falling flat is to think it would never happen to you. Those who are trained for professional ministry are no exception! We all need to install some kind of “early detection” systems so that an alarm will sound for us or others in our community should we reach a spiritual danger zone. Susan Perlman’s four points and her key question might be a good place to start in building some safeguards for our faith. Nevertheless, understanding the nature of faith is also an important factor in making certain that we are properly “alarmed.”
Belief is one component of faith, but hope and trust also play a part, for faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Those who say, “I just don’t believe in Jesus anymore” usually reached a point long before their disbelief where they stopped trusting God and hoping in His promises. When we put our hope and trust in anyone or anything other than Yeshua, we should not be surprised if our beliefs begin to disintegrate. Truth is not determined by what we hope or whom we trust—but our ability to believe the truth is affected by both of those factors.
Do you know someone whose greatest hope is to get married? That person’s faith is vulnerable. Do you know someone who trusts in their business for their well-being or the well-being of their family? That person is ripe for a faith crisis. Do you have friends who invest far more energy in expressing their Jewishness than they do in expressing what Jesus means to them? Their priorities are dangerously unbalanced.
I’m not saying it is wrong to desire marriage, or a good business, or to want to express one’s Jewish identity. However, if any of these or other issues become our central concern, what does that say about our hope and our trust? And if our hope and our trust veer away from Jesus, will our beliefs be far behind? People do not allow themselves to believe those truths that might interfere with their hopes. They avoid those things which they believe might jeopardize their security. That is why it is so important to keep our eyes on Yeshua and to remember all that we can be in Him, now and forever. Our adequacy is not going to come through knowing “enough” about the Jewish religion, which is largely the traditions of the sages. Our adequacy comes from the Lord: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). That “sufficiency” is another way of saying we are adequate, and that kind of adequacy is more than most of our unbelieving Jewish counterparts would ever claim.
Even now, Chuck Snow admits that contemporary Judaism is largely lacking the sense of a personal God—but we rejoice that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself!”
Remember, Yeshua is our master and rabbi. He is our true and final authority on interpreting Torah and everything else. He alone is worthy of perfect trust. Our greatest hope should be the joy we will have in His presence, and if that is our hope, then we know we can trust Him.
“For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
- F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
- Susan Perlman, “Faith in crisis: A return to the synagogue,” from the compilation of conference papers delivered at LCJE in Zeist, Holland, 1991, page 185.
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.