This past April, thirty-one key leaders in the Messianic movement convened in an upper room in Dallas, Texas. Each of us, representing a broad spectrum of congregations and missions, had taken time out of our busy schedules to attend a “Fireside Chat” that would last less than eight hours. Most of those in the room knew one other. Some had been co-workers; some had personally experienced a “falling out” with others present. As we sat in a large circle, Marty Waldman, Rabbi at Dallas’ Baruch HaShem Messianic Synagogue and host to the meeting, took the floor to explain his heart in asking us to come: unity.
Marty articulated what all felt, but few spoke of: there has been a striking level of disunity within the Messianic movement. Yet the presence of these thirty-one leaders spoke of our hope for something better. Though the tension was palpable at times, we all listened as Marty spoke his heart.
Boarding my plane to return home the next morning, I pondered what had been accomplished. Though we hadn’t come up with any sort of comprehensive solution, we had left the meeting with a renewed commitment to building relationships.
An Answer to Prayer
At the meeting, a few of us had looked at each other with knowing smiles. This fireside chat not only represented a step toward unity among the senior leaders of the Messianic movement, but it was also an answer to the prayers of the younger generation.
Less than a month before Dallas, a group of about 70 young Jewish believers in Jesus had met together for a similar purpose in Seattle. That gathering was part of a larger movement called Grassroots. Grassroots has no organizational oversight, but is steered by a core group of young leaders from various organizational affiliations. I was invited into the core group last year, and have served as an advocate for the Grassroots movement within the Jewish missions world. The gatherings, which have taken place annually over the past nine years, are an attempt to restore unity in the Messianic movement on a grassroots level through developing intentional relationships with one another.
Both gatherings were characterized by diversity, including people from a broad spectrum of Jewish Yeshua-believing expressions. Had they been theological forums, we might have stressed our disagreements. But at these meetings there was no debate. We came together as fellow disciples, in the belief that the pursuit of unity is vitally important to the future of Jewish ministry.
Why Work for Unity?
There is good reason to make unity one of our goals. Jesus taught us to love one another; he told us that the world would know that we were his disciples if we did so. I wonder if our disunity has kept us from being truly effective in our role as witnesses within the greater Jewish community. Paul commended the importance of unity to the Christians in Ephesus:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. (Ephesians 4:1-7)
Paul enumerates the characteristics of unity-fostering relationships: humility, gentleness, patience, and loving longsuffering (“bearing with one another in love”). These characteristics should impact our attitude toward others, especially those with whom we disagree, and our willingness to forgive and bear with those who hurt us.
We can’t be unified if we think we are better than others. This is why Paul commanded us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Humility requires us to lay aside our pride. This is challenging once we consider the implications!
For example, are we so convinced that our theology is correct that we cannot relate with those who have different theological notions without arguing our point?
Are we so convinced of our methods that we cannot relate with those who do things differently without trying to convince them to change?
Are we so convinced of our own spiritual maturity that we look down upon those who are still struggling against sin or immaturity?
Pride comes easily, especially for those of us raised in an individualistic society that focuses on personal accomplishment and gain over teamwork. Yet even the disciples, living in a more community-minded society, argued about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. Jesus’ response to his disciples is the same as it is for us today: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4, English Standard Version).
Gentleness and Patience: Approaching Those We Disagree With
Proverbs 15:1 says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” This is common wisdom, equally applicable whether approaching our brothers in Messiah or speaking to others.
Once on a sortie (a time of distributing evangelistic literature and engaging people in conversation on the streets) at Grand Central Station in New York City, I had two very different interactions that illustrate this principle. First, a Jewish lady, who looked like my grandmother, walked by and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” I was thinking on my feet and came back with a quick retort: “No, I shouldn’t. Jesus is the truth, and I am not ashamed of the truth!” The lady turned around, came back to me, and began yelling about all the terrible things that had been done in the name of Jesus. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Once she stopped talking, she gave me the finger, spat on the floor and walked away. This time I was ashamed of myself. Because I hadn’t been gentle or patient with her, she wouldn’t allow me to explain myself. I was reminded of an old quote from How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” I promised myself that I would never respond in kind on the street again.
Just 30 minutes later a middle-aged Orthodox man walked by me and said the exact same words: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” This time my response was different. “Sir, can you explain why you think I should be ashamed of myself?” The man stopped. I don’t think anyone had ever challenged him to explain his words. He looked me in the eye and began listing all the things that had been done in the name of Jesus, and then began calmly explaining how frustrated it made him to see “Jews for Jesus,” since he couldn’t understand how any Jew could align himself with the anti-Semites who persecuted our people. I listened to him and nodded my head. “I can see why you are upset, and I am sorry if I have offended you. But did you know that Jesus himself was a Jew, that he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and that all of his original disciples were also Jewish?” For the next five minutes I was able to share the gospel with him.
Proverbs 15:1 also applies to our relationships within the Messianic community. Without gentleness, we drive people away without giving them a chance to consider our words. Without patience, we demand immediate change and are unable to sustain the gentleness we need over the long term when those who take issue with us continue to do so.
Unity and Forgiveness
Within our movement, there is often a history of hurting and being hurt by others. How do we achieve unity in those kinds of situations? The answer lies in Paul’s fourth point in Ephesians 4:2—we must bear with one another in love. InColossians 3:13, Paul adds, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
We are not simply called to be patient with our brothers, but to forgive them. In situations of long-standing disunity, we often see relationships saddled with resentment that stems from genuine hurt. This is perfectly understandable. Yet the Lord calls us to forgive for the sake of unity.
Thank God that we have Jesus’ perfect example of forgiveness to strive toward. Consider Peter, one of his closest disciples and friends, who abandoned Jesus in his moment of need, going so far as to deny the relationship between them. Yet Jesus, the one who was hurt, took the initiative to forgive and restore Peter. Jesus asks no more of us than what he demonstrated throughout his life.
Two Practical Steps for Pursuing Unity
There are many ways to pursue unity. Here are two steps I’ve found most relevant in my life:
- Be intentional about maintaining relationships. One key thing I’ve learned through my involvement in Grassroots is that it is impossible to have unity with those with whom you have no relationship! In order to pursue unity, we must be intentional about pursuing and maintaining relationships with those we intend to be unified with. Otherwise, disagreements cause us to talk about each other rather than to each other. By being intentional, disagreements cause us to dialogue with each other in a way that strengthens rather than tears down.
- Speak well of others—or at least don’t speak ill of them! I once heard that a person with whom I had no relationship was speaking poorly about me. I felt angry and resentful, tempted to “return the favor.” But in the spirit of unity, I checked my anger, prayed for the person, and gave them a call. It turned out that he had heard something third-hand that I had said in a particular context, and on the basis of that report he had become offended. He thought I had been speaking poorly about him. The phone call proved a great opportunity for both of us to humble ourselves, affirm each other, and commit to a relationship that would invite dialogue in the future. What a reminder it was of the power of gossip, which Jewish tradition refers to as lashon ha-ra, evil speech. I still struggle to bridle my tongue, but I have resolved to speak well of others, to try to understand their point of view, and to keep disagreements between us from spilling over into other relationships. When we see gossip as sin and prayerfully commit to ridding it from our lives, God empowers us to recognize it when it rears its ugly head.
Perhaps God is calling you to seek unity with those from whom you have become alienated. As we work toward unity, we are motivated because of Jesus’ command and Paul’s commendation. We are empowered by the Spirit as we continue to strive to be more like Jesus, forgiving our brothers in humility with gentleness and patience. We are rewarded in our efforts as the power of the Gospel is demonstrated, and the world knows that we are truly Jesus’ disciples. Let’s pray together as we seek unity within the greater body of the Messianic community.