Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
I was standing near the student union at the University of Illinois watching a hellfire and brimstone preacher condemn the crowd that had gathered to tease him.
"Fornicators!" he yelled at them. "You’re all going straight to hell!" I watched this exchange for several minutes and then the preacher did something unexpected. He called on any Christians in the crowd to raise their hand and identify themselves.
Oh, oooh, how I wished he hadn’t done that! As a new believer, I didn’t know what to do. On one hand, I wanted to be public with my faith, and I was eager for opportunities to share it. On the other hand, I was a student who fit in well with other students. I did not want to identify myself with this raving lunatic of a preacher, whose way of witnessing was so unlike my own.
No doubt most Gentile Christians I know would have felt as I did in that situation. Yet there are times when some Jewish believers might feel torn over identifying with proclamations that are not raving but are somehow not quite "our style." Then again, as Jewish believers we might also feel a conflict of interests when the Church and the Jewish community are at odds with each other.
A Conflict of Interests?
In June of this year, the issue of Jewish evangelism burst on the scene as the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that drew an intensely negative reaction from the Jewish community. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines across the country covered the story, and the furor has not died down yet. The issue continues to spark articles and editorials, not to mention air play on radio and television. What sparked all the controversy? If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the punchline, excerpted from the Southern Baptist document:
BE IT RESOLVED, That we, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 11-13, 1996, reaffirm that we are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16); and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we commit ourselves to prayer, especially for the salvation of the Jewish people as well as for the salvation of "every kindred and tongue and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9); and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.
This resolution has seized the attention of religious leaders from all camps. Among churches, the reviews have been mixed. The leader of one large (non-Southern) Baptist group termed the resolution "wrongheaded." Another leader who heads a coalition of Lutheran, Episcopalian and Catholic churches in New York remarked that the resolution "leaves a bad taste all around." On the other hand, a United Methodist minister and member of the World Council of Churches observed, "The Southern Baptist resolution may not be popular, but it is biblical."
One church leader actually told me she considers Jewish evangelism to be immoral because Jews don’t need Jesus. When I questioned her, she went on to say that sincere Buddhists and others don’t need Him either. Unlike many people, she was willing to follow her premise that Jews don’t need Jesus to its logical conclusion. Either everyone needs Jesus or no one does.
I say "Hooray!" for the Southern Baptists who had the courage to clearly state that everyone, including Jews, needs the Savior.
Within the Jewish community, there has been a united front. Scholar Jacob Neusner said, "When the Southern Baptists announced they wanted to convert the Jews, all hell broke loose." Leaders in the Jewish community have taken turns condemning the resolution as "denigrating to Jews," "tragic and arrogant," "insensitive and pretentious," and something that shows "flagrant disrespect for the faith that gave birth to Christianity." James Rudin, inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, may have topped them all when he said, "This is a total outrage. This is a spiritual attempt at genocide. This is targeting Jews, this is open season on Jews."
The editors of the Baltimore Jewish Times wrote that the Southern Baptists "touched on the core issue on which we will never agree. We do not, will not and cannot accept Jesus as savior and still call ourselves Jews. The naivetÄ of your resolution shows that you do not understand this simple fact."
William Gralnick, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Boca Raton, is preaching the party line when he says, "Messianic Jews are stealth Christians masquerading as Jews. You can hate God. You can deny God. That will not alienate you from Judaism. But confessing Jesus as the Messiah knocks you out of the Jewish box."
A Matter of Circles
I don’t know about the "Jewish box," but I find it a little easier to think in terms of circles.
I took a course on modern Jewish history and was intrigued by the professor’s analysis of the differences between Jewish and Arab communities. He drew two dashed circles on the blackboard, one representing the Jewish community and one the Arab community. The circular lines were not solid because he wanted to illustrate that there is not complete unity within either community. Jews are divided along religious and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic lines, and each of these divisions can be further broken down. Arabs also have diverse backgrounds; they may be Muslim, Christian or Druse; they may be villagers or Bedouin, and so on.
The professor then used the two circles to point out a major difference between Arabs and Jews. In times of war, he explained, gaps between the dashes in the Jewish circle close, and (he demonstrated with a piece of chalk) the line becomes solid. Under the same circumstances, more gaps appear in the Arab circle, and (he demonstrated with the eraser) the line becomes even more fragmented.
I am not familiar enough with the Arab community to comment on the accuracy of the professor’s assessment of its response to outside hostility. But I do know that his assessment of Jews was accurate. We have learned that in times of crisis, the big picture must overshadow any differences we may have. Outside hostility serves to unite Jews and stimulate our loyalty toward one another.
What does all this have to do with us as Jewish believers? Well, we have got more than one circle with which to contend. As Jews, we’re members of one circle, the Jewish people (whether or not we are accepted within it), and as Yeshua’s disciples we are members of another circle, the body of Messiah, also known as the Church. (Note: The Church is a universal term referring to all professing believers in Jesus, as opposed to a particular church or congregation.)
We live in a little intersection where a very small segment of the Jewish circle overlaps into the Church circle. We’re Jews who are also members of the Church. What do we do when these circles pull in opposite directions? Which way do we turn? We want to identify with our fellow believers and support a wider story of Yeshua to our own. But we’re a part of the Jewish people, and we want to identify with our fellow Jews and be sensitive to their concerns.
How do we sort out our loyalties? Should we have a primary loyalty? What do we do when our loyalties conflict? Which circle do we close? Where do we draw the solid line? And what situations give rise to the choice to close the gaps or pull farther apart?
Issues such as the Southern Baptist resolutions challenge us to examine our loyalties. As Jewish believers, we have to understand what’s at stake here: the Church’s willingness to concern herself with the salvation of our people. In this "age of tolerance" it is onerous to take a public stand that calls for all people, including Jews, to come to faith in Yeshua the Messiah. All who take such a stand bring upon themselves the ire of the "broad-minded."
I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the important role Gentile Christians play in the salvation of most Jewish believers. The majority of us today were either led to the Lord by a Gentile Christian or were at least positively influenced toward the gospel by a Gentile friend or associate. I am thankful for those who have cared enough to risk being politically incorrect because without them, how many of us would be spiritually incorrect?
Let’s also remember that many churches have shown a great degree of graciousness and acceptance to our congregations; they have warmly taken us in and allowed us to use their buildings and resources. Whether we rent from or partner with a church, they can choose to open or close their doors to us and more often than not those doors have been open.
This pattern of mutuality between the Jewish and Gentile segments of the body of Messiah is not new. We see it in the pages of the brit chadasha (the New Testament). In Acts 11:29, 30 and Romans 15:25-27 we see Paul taking an offering that Gentile Christians were sending to their Jewish believing counterparts in Jerusalem. The Jewish church was struggling and needed a friend. The Gentile believers responded to that need in a fine display of unity.
We’ve received so much from our Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ. It concerns me that some Jewish believers seem to want to distance themselves from the SBC resolution. They’ve rightly pointed out that the Jewish community has reacted to the resolution with great concern and even fear. Whereas they might have analyzed the reaction of the Jewish community for fairness and looked for common ground with fellow believers, they have professed similar fear and concern.
The Minneapolis American Jewish World newspaper quoted one of our key messianic groups as saying they were "very concerned" about the Baptist statement.
We are concerned because these [SBC] statements have been wrongly perceived by the Jewish media as reflecting the viewpoint of the Messianic Jewish movement as a whole. To encourage the establishment of Southern Baptist churches filled with Jewish believers in Yeshua is to encourage the cultural and ethnic assimilation of the Jewish people. Simply put, the nation of Israel cannot fulfill their prophetic calling if they disappear as a people.
Their press release also said, "Consequently, we would encourage our Gentile Christian friends in the SBC to rethink their position on this matter and to discontinue the objective of setting up Southern Baptist ‘churches’ in Jewish areas. Instead, we encourage the SBC to be sensitive to the Jewish culture and to continue nurturing, in their 16 million members, a clear recognition of the Jewishness of their faith in the Messiah Yeshua."
Listen to what is being said here: The SBC resolution does not reflect the Messianic Jewish viewpoint as a whole. There is also the implication that this resolution will lead to the assimilation and disappearance of the Jewish people.
Clearly, the concern expressed in this quote is one of ecclesiology, but the point of the resolution is missiology. We have mishpochah who are encouraging the Southern Baptists to rethink their position not because they don’t want Southern Baptists to witness to Jews but because they don’t want Jewish believers ending up in Southern Baptist churches.
Yet Baptist leaders are not out to make Jews into Gentiles. In fact, USA Today ran a story that featured a photo of Gustave Elowitz, the leader of Beth Yeshua HaMashiach Synagogue in Houston (an SBC "church"), wearing a tallis and with an overhead of the Shema on the wall in the background. Elowitz is quoted as saying he sees himself as "absolutely Jewish" and that he has no plans to assimilate into the larger Christian culture. The SBC seems quite supportive of its Jewish members and their desire to remain a distinct people within the body of Christ.
I’m not sure why some messianic leaders want to distance themselves from the SBC, but I think it has to do with this matter of circles. Perhaps it’s hard to be objective about a resolution that has caused such a hue and cry within the Jewish community. Perhaps some feel that to get behind the Southern Baptists would only alienate us further from our unbelieving Jewish family and friends.
Some might even hope that by putting distance between ourselves and the Southern Baptists, we might find bridges back to the Jewish community and acceptance within that circle. Some believe that if we are accepted as Jews, more of our people will accept the gospel. I believe this is wrong and wishful thinking, since the whole point of making us outcasts is to "protect" other Jews from seriously considering the gospel. We’ve already heard how the Jewish community views Jews who believe in Jesus, regardless of the level of Jewish practice and identification. In fact, such practice and identification is ridiculed and resented by the majority of rabbis who refuse to acknowledge it for what it is and insist on attributing motives of deception and fraud to whatever Jewish identity we choose to express. As long as we believe in Jesus, we are "knocked out of the Jewish box." Done.
I was involved in Messianic congregations long before I came on staff with Jews for Jesus, and I continue to encourage Jewish believers to worship Yeshua in a Jewish way. But I feel that anyone who disassociates from the SBC resolution on the basis that it will pull Jewish people away from Messianic congregations has missed the point. The point is that the Southern Baptists are willing to tell the gospel to Jewish people who might not otherwise hear it. The point is that the Southern Baptists care enough about our people to take the heat for an unpopular stand on who Jesus is: the only way to salvation for any person, regardless of heritage or culture.
I don’t think we really believe that the Jewish people will disappear if some of our messianic mishpochah choose to worship in Southern Baptist churches. As minister-at-large with Jews for Jesus, I am in touch with many people who worship in various churches and nonetheless maintain a strong Jewish identity. God promised to preserve our people. The evangelization of our people by Baptists will not hurt His cause! And we cannot further that cause by arguing about where those who are yet unsaved will worship if and when they come to faith in Yeshua.
How Do We Decide?
If you feel pulled by the Southern Baptist resolution, it helps to gather facts carefully and gain a good understanding of the players and what they’re saying. Phil Roberts, director of the Southern Baptist Interfaith Witness Department, says that the resolution was the "result of a growing and influential number of messianic believers and congregations within the SBC who were chagrined by the fact that our evangelistic efforts have largely neglected the Jewish people." He described these messianic Jews as those who "worship on Saturday, observe Jewish festivals, and practice their faith freely while contributing vitally to Baptist life."
Larry Lewis, president of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, said, "We’re not asking Jews to leave their religion at all. We only ask they accept Jesus as their Savior." He explained that they have appointed one of their missionaries, Jim Sibley, to "train Southern Baptists on how to share their faith and to establish congregations in predominantly Jewish areas." In other places, Lewis refers to these congregations as churches.
Jim Sibley, who lived as a missionary in Israel for many years, is blunt in his observation: "It’s a mistake to think conversion has to do with making Gentiles out of Jews. That’s absurd."
Let’s remember what William Gralnick, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Boca Raton said: "You can hate God. You can deny God. That will not alienate you from Judaism. But confessing Jesus as the Messiah knocks you out of the Jewish box." He sounds a lot like the Jewish leaders we read about in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the leaders agreed "that if anyone confessed that he [Yeshua] was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue" (v. 22). What was true then is still true today.
It is painful to acknowledge to ourselves that if we take a clear stand for our Messiah, we will never be accepted as Jews by Jewish community leaders. We will not be included and invited to share joys or sorrows. Our opinions will not be sought nor our advice heeded. We are outcasts and we must admit it to ourselves plainly.
Conflicts of interest and loyalty have arisen in the past. Some feel themselves in the midst of one now. We will face others in the future. At times like these, we must decide with care how to act. When the Jewish and Christian circles pull in opposite directions because of the sharp wedge of the gospel, I believe we must solidify the lines in the circle of the Church, that is, the Body of Christ. Our primary loyalty is to the Messiah and to all those who call on His name, whether they be Jew or Gentile.
Remember how Jewish leaders ordered Peter and the other apostles not to preach Messiah Jesus any longer? They were told that to do so would harm the Jewish people (Acts 5:28ff). But Peter and the others answered saying, "We ought to obey God rather than men," and they kept right on preaching.
In Galatians chapter two we read something that might hit a little closer to home with the Southern Baptist situation. Peter drew back from eating with (read: "identifying with") Gentile Christians. It took Paul’s stern rebuke to remind Peter of what was right. Preserving and demonstrating unity with his Gentile brothers and sisters in the Lord took priority over Peter’s cultural sensitivities.
The Apostle Paul rejoiced no matter who promoted the gospel message:
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.
Paul got excited whenever the gospel was preached, even when people with false motives were doing the preaching! How much more should we be excited about our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters who want to preach out of pure motives?
It’s hard to identify with those who are being accused of attempted spiritual genocide, particularly if we hope to gain the good opinion of those making the accusations. But distancing ourselves from those who stand falsely accused will not get us anywhere.
As a missionary with Jews for Jesus, I have often faced false accusations. I’ve stood on street corners handing out the good news of redemption and have been called a Nazi. I’ve been told I’m finishing the job that Hitler started. I’ve been told I ought to be ashamed of myself for believing in Jesus. And I’ve been ministered to by countless Christians who have witnessed these false accusations and have quietly approached me and said, "Blessed are you when people persecute you for Jesus’ sake. Keep up the good work, brother. God bless you. I appreciate you."
What a joy it is to have a brother or sister in Christ stand with me, even for a moment, when unbelievers try to break down my courage and resolve. But when a Christian comes along to encourage me, the benefit of that kind word or quick prayer does not stop with me. The Jewish person who has been thinking about Jesus and finds the courage to call us after receiving the tract benefits. The person who stuffs the tract in a pocket and pulls it out three years later when the Holy Spirit comes to court him or her benefits. All the people for whom a gospel tract is a step along the way on the path of salvation benefit from the encouragement and support of Christian friends who help us to stand firm.
Can we do less when our Gentile brothers and sisters are reviled for doing the difficult thing? When we are tempted to feel that associating with Gentile Christians will alienate us from unbelieving Jews, we need to remind ourselves of Hebrews 13:12-14. Our belief in Jesus has already placed us "outside the camp" of Jewish acceptability.
As followers of our Messiah, we are in that place of disgrace where the rest of the Jewish community will not venture. Our faith has placed us where blasphemers are stoned, where those with infectious diseases are banished, where the refuse is burned and even where people look for a place to relieve their bodily functions. We are considered unclean and in a state of shame. However, let’s remember what the writer of Hebrews tells us. Our Messiah is also outside the camp as far as our people are concerned. We are invited to join Him there, to walk outside the camp by our own volition and not be forcibly removed:
Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.
As we identify with believers, we identify with our Messiah Himself. I don’t think I raised my hand that day at the University of Illinois when the preacher asked believers in Jesus to identify themselves. Now I wish I had.
Let’s Be Thankful
And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" (Romans 10:15). Let’s recognize that the Southern Baptist resolution is "good for the Jews." Through it, many Gentile Christians will learn about Jewish culture and history. Many will learn to witness sensitively to our people. Jay Rock, co-director of interfaith affairs for the National Council of Churches, opposes the Southern Baptist resolution. He says that it may "awaken long dormant committees in a variety of churches to renew their efforts to proselytize Jews." From his mouth to God’s ears. Let’s hope to see the question of Jesus become the number one issue in the Jewish community.
As Jews, we have learned that in times of crisis the big picture must overshadow any differences we may have with each other. As Jews who believe in Jesus, we need to carry that lesson over to the Church. Hostility toward our fellow believers in Jesus, be they Jewish or Gentile, should serve to excite our loyalty toward the Savior and toward all who stand with Him.
The Southern Baptists have taken a lot of heat for the sake of bringing the gospel to Jewish people. Their resolution has opened doors that none of our mission societies or congregations have ever been able to open. Just the flack from the resolution, let alone the implementation of that resolution, has caused an incredible media flurry, allowing the gospel message to blow through previously unreached markets. Phil Roberts has been interviewed on National Public Radio and invited to speak at a recent meeting of the Anti-Defamation League.
Let’s praise God for big new opportunities for our people to hear about their Messiah. When David Brickner was asked to comment on the resolution, he said, "I am heartened that the largest Protestant denomination has taken such a courageous stand calling for the evangelization of Jewish people. What Jewish community leaders are calling a ‘great setback’ in Jewish-Christian relations is really a great leap forward in crystallizing the issue that Jesus is the Messiah for everyone including Jews."
With Paul, let’s cry out that our heart’s desire and prayer to God is for our people’s salvation. And let’s echo his joy that "in every way Messiah is proclaimed." And in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice!
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.