“Jesus I love you, but I don’t
understand your wife,
“She wears too much make-up and
she always wants to fight;
“In my world of black and gray, she
argues shades of white.”
song lyrics by Dead Artist Syndrome
Does the evangelical church in America have an image problem? Among the many who would say yes, some of the Church’s harshest critics are Christians, not just in the pews but in the pulpits and lecture halls. Christians broadcast their disappointment in other Christians in songs, sermons, books—you name it.
It is always good to take an honest self-inventory. And we need to remember the counsel of the book of Proverbs that “. . . he who heeds rebuke gets understanding” (Proverbs 15:32). Do some of us, as the above lyrics indicate, have a tendency to put forth a façade? Do we ever display a quickness to argue our convictions aggressively in tones that are less than humble and sometimes even unkind? I have at times, and maybe you have, too. Yet we need not critique the Church as though we are somehow not a part of it. Plenty of other people are able and willing to do so.
Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have launched their verbal attacks with gleeful abandon, and the media are quick to disseminate their barbs. The Church is getting beaten up from without and within and I don’t like it. Years of direct Jewish evangelism have contributed to my thoughts on this issue.
If any community has had a problem with the Church’s image it is the Jewish community. As Moishe Rosen has often quoted, “The history of Jewish/Christian relations has been written in blood and punctuated with violence.” Moishe loves the Church, and from our mission’s inception he taught our staff to love the Church. Yet all of us in this field realize the truth of that quote and how it has affected our Jewish people. The very worst persecutions against Jewish people, including the Holocaust, have utilized the name of Jesus Christ. Talk about an image problem!
You and I know that Hitler was no Christian. Nevertheless, Christian anti-Semitism is a fact. Throughout history, genuine believers including many church fathers and great leaders such as Martin Luther (whose love for Jewish people turned sour later in his ministry) have made incendiary statements against the Jews. Nothing I or anyone else can do will ever change that. About the best we can say is that Christians who have spoken hatefully about Jews (or anyone else) did so in spite of, and not because of their faith. This has made Jewish evangelism even more difficult than it would otherwise be.
But guess what? Unbelievers rarely state the truest of all objections to believing in Jesus. Yes, many Jewish people cling to Christian anti- Semitism as a reason to reject the gospel, but there is more to it than that. Most Jews as well as Gentiles look for any reasons to avoid whatever might lead them to believe and follow Jesus. Can you blame them? The cost of following Christ is extremely high in terms of spiritual surrender and living a sanctified life. To acknowledge that Jesus is Lord is to willingly submit ourselves to Him and His will for our lives. And for a Jewish person, add to that the conflict such a commitment to Christ will ignite within their family. For a Jewish person to come to believe that Jesus is Messiah is an acknowledgement that our leaders, our entire community has been wrong for 2000 years! Even if the Church had a spotless image, it is still unlikely that Jews and Gentiles would be flocking to get inside.
Nevertheless, I am sorry to say, a segment of Jewish believers in Jesus desires to disassociate from what they call “the Gentile Church.” One Messianic leader recently wrote, “I have never felt entirely comfortable with Christians and over time have had less and less to do with the Church, so that today I have almost no contact and that is the way I prefer it.”
I believe this attitude is similar to that of Gentile brothers and sisters whose critique of the Church also takes a form of disassociation. Some Jewish and Gentile believers seek a better image for themselves, or possibly even for Jesus, by distancing themselves from “those people” who are supposedly to blame for the Church’s bad image. Some seem to think that by doing so, they can avoid being painted with that broad brush. Perhaps unbelievers will see that they aren’t like those other guys, and will be more open to Jesus. Yet Jewish believers in Jesus who distance themselves from other believers have not been able to change the minds of unbelievers about Jesus, and there is a lesson for the broader Church in this.
One individual recently opined that just as “high negatives” prevent certain politicians from being nominated for higher office in their political party, so the “high negatives” of Jews for Jesus compel him to distance himself from us—even denounce us—so everyone knows we do not represent him or his views. What is the response of the Jewish community to this kind of disassociation? In a recent three-part article about the Messianic movement, such efforts were dismissed by unbelieving Jewish leaders. “Though one group may be more hard-sell and the other softersell, they are both equally as reprehensible because they have embraced Jesus as their Messiah,” said one Jewish leader.
Believers don’t gain “votes” from unbelievers by disassociation— unless it is to disassociate themselves from Jesus Himself. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened to some who disassociated themselves from the Church.
Jesus has His own “image problem” (though it is only a problem for those who are self-righteous). Should we seek to distance ourselves from Him? He came into this world unwelcomed and unwanted. He chose to make statements that seem intended to offend (e.g. John 6:53, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that we should dismiss legitimate criticism of ourselves as members of Christ’s Body. But rather than joining unbelievers in ridiculing the Church, we should be on our knees interceding and doing whatever else we can to improve things.
Our task is not a public relations job where we get people to like Christians so that they will like God. It is to be light in a dark world where people’s natural inclination is to hate Jesus because they don’t want God intruding in their lives. So it has always been. God called Isaiah to speak to a people who wouldn’t listen. He knew Jeremiah was going to be rejected by the people he loved the most. Jesus told us, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:8). In Hebrews 13:12- 13 we read that we need to be prepared to suffer and bear His reproach.
The attitude of any believer toward the Church should be guided by Jesus’ own feelings. How does Jesus feel about the Church? Think about the analogy the Apostle Paul uses: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). This passage speaks to a man’s love for his wife, but it also gives us insight into Jesus’ love as that of a husband. A husband may be well acquainted with his wife’s flaws, but if he truly loves her he will stand with her and defend her honor against anyone who might criticize her, even if there is some truth in the criticism.
Believers might impress one another with clever metaphors about the Church’s shortcomings, but do we really believe that Jesus appreciates that kind of wit at his wife’s expense? “Well,” someone may say, “you don’t know how much the Church has hurt me.” And I am truly sorry for that hurt, yet I would tell that person (I hope lovingly), “Jesus understands all about hurt. He experienced it to the max so that you and I and every other sinner in the Church could be saved.”
Jesus is well aware of the shortcomings of the Church, of the sinful behaviors and sad failures so often pointed out by others. That is why He was willing to die on behalf of His beloved people, both Jews and Gentiles, who make up the Church. Jesus didn’t just accept the Church “warts and all.” He did what was needed to sanctify her, with the promise that we will be “holy and without blemish.” That isn’t just an image, it is ultimate reality and should fill us with hope. While the promise is yet to be fully realized, it is as good as done in the plan of God. Don’t you want to identify with that great big beautiful reality?