A man stood in front of his living room window early one Sunday morning staring out at the torrential rain pouring down. His son asked, Are you trying to decide whether or not we should go to church in this downpour?”
“I already decided son,” his father replied. “More than 20 years ago.”
A woman needed a new dress and saw just what she was looking for at a very good price. But just about the only money left after paying the bills and buying groceries was money set aside for her church. “Go ahead and buy the dress,” her friend reasoned. “It’s on sale now and you can always give more money to the church next month.” The woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “This money is my tithe. It’s God’s money already. I’m not about to borrow God’s money to buy a dress, even if it is on sale.”
In those two very different situations, the man and woman had something in common. They responded to their circumstances based on principles to which they were previously committed, following through on choices they had made long ago. That is what commitment to one’s principles does¡it rules out what may appear to be a choice, based on a past decision that takes precedence.
Since February, I have been writing to you about Jews for Jesus Core Values, elaborating on the list that our senior staff identified last year as being central to who we are as a ministry. For those who may have just begun receiving our newsletter, the first three values, (which we’ve already covered) are commitments to the following: direct Jewish evangelism as our priority; an apostolic lifestyle of availability, vulnerability and mobility; and striving for excellence in all we do.
Now I’d like to take our fourth and fifth core values together: our commitment to deploying only frontline missionaries who are Jewish or married to Jews and our commitment to principle-based operations and practice. The first is best understood in light of the second.
What does a commitment to “principle-based operations and practice” mean and how does it affect our work? Principles are standards, usually drawn from Scripture, from which we formulate our policies and practices. Principles are axiomatic truths that do not change. They help us to know what is right and how we should respond in a given situation.
The antithesis of a principle-based approach is what some refer to as “situational ethics.” This approach to life encourages people to adjust their decisions to fit whatever circumstances they are facing. Unfortunately, this approach usually deteriorates into an attitude of “principles shminciples, do whatever you think is right for you.” As circumstances change, so do people’s idea of what is right and wrong. This leads to a condition that some sociologists term “anomie” or normlessness.
Many people do not even realize they are living their lives in accordance with such situational ethics. They decide from one moment to the next how to respond to life’s challenges, based on how they may be feeling at the time or what is most convenient and causes the least amount of discomfort. Without principles, without commitments to a particular course of action, it is only natural for us to make self-centered or self-serving decisions. That is the quickest way to find ourselves adrift in a sea of indecision or moral ambiguity.
It takes forethought to be a principle-based individual or a principle-based organization. You need to think things through, to articulate your standards and commitments in advance. Then, when faced with a difficult circumstance, in most cases you have already made your decision and it is simply a matter of following through.
We at Jews for Jesus identify ourselves as being principle-based because we have prayerfully thought through our principles and standards and committed ourselves, in advance, to certain courses of action, even before we face the decision. We recount to one another the stories in which we found ourselves upholding these principles together, and that strengthens our commitment. I’d like to share one such story with you, going back to our very first witnessing campaign in New York City in 1974.
Opposition was fierce, and our people had to face some pretty scary threats of violence. But we knew before we ever got to New York that we would receive threats, so we had decided in advance that we would not back down in the face of such opposition. Backing down would only signal our opposition that their tactics were successful, and in so doing, we would encourage more threats of violence. We decided we would not back down on principle.
It did not take long for our resolve to be tested. It happened one hot, muggy afternoon when a team of Jews for Jesus was handing out tracts on 47th Street in mid-town Manhattan. For those who don’t know, 47th Street is known as the Diamond district, and many Orthodox Jews work there. Before long, a handful of young Jews for Jesus in their late teens and early twenties were surrounded by scores of Orthodox Jews. The crowd quickly turned into an angry mob. Just as our team members were facing the potential for real bodily harm, one of New York’s finest, an Irishman named officer O’Malley, waded into the midst of the crowd and began berating our team. “How dare you come here like this,” he shouted at them. “You come with me right now to the station.”
Our Campaigners were taken aback to say the least, but they dutifully followed officer O’Malley single file through the mob and down the block away from the scene. Just as the group was about to protest, the officer said, “You were lucky I came along. I would think twice before going back there.” And with that, he let us go. He had acted smart and fast to extricate us from danger.
The team made their way back to the office we had rented for the summer, happy to be in one piece, but uncertain about what to do next. Moishe Rosen was leading the campaign and he wasn’t at all uncertain. But he knew how frightened the team was, so he asked the entire group to make a decision. “We have a choice to make,” he explained. “We can either go back to that same spot this very afternoon, or we can pack up and leave New York City.” Moishe then took a vote by private ballot. The vote was unanimous to return to 47th Street, which we didïin much larger numbers. Together we upheld the principle of refusing to back down in the face of opposition. Our opposition realized that threats were not an effective way to deal with us, but the real victory was that all the Campaigners gained the courage to stand firm. God blessed us for trusting Him, for not backing down. That principle has served our ministry well in similar situations throughout our 25 year history.
Living by principles rarely wins you popularity contests. Some of our Jews for Jesus principles are easily misunderstood, including one of our core values: We are committed to deploying only frontline missionaries who are Jewish or married to Jews. Over the years, some have viewed our principle as elitist and have felt excluded. Now we don’t for one minute believe that you have to be Jewish in order to be effective in evangelizing Jewish people. But I still believe this principle is right for Jews for Jesus because, when your name is Jews for Jesus, you better maintain truth in advertising.
Many non-Jews serve in positions of great importance on our staff. But when it comes to direct missionary work and the public proclamation of the gospel, our ministry has a unique contribution to make. We are proof-positive to the world that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. By maintaining our principle of frontline missionaries being Jews, we keep the integrity of our name and we demonstrate over and over again the words of Paul, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5).
This principle does not make life easier for us. When I was serving as our director of recruitment, I felt the strictures of this principle most keenly. I would visit Bible colleges and seminaries and interact with young people who were bright and dedicated to the Lord. It would have been so convenient for me to recruit these folks as frontline missionaries. But because of our principle to deploy Jewish believers for frontline missionary work, the pool of potential people is much smaller and we have to work harder to find people to serve with us.
Of course it helps us to know that many key administrative staff and board members who are not Jewish fully support this principle. They willingly serve with us behind-the-scenes because they recognize the unique contribution that our ministry makes as Jews for Jesus, and we are thankful to have them serving with us.
Let me encourage you to consider, if you have not already, that core values are not only for organizations. I believe every Christian ought to carefully think through what principles, what commitments, are non-negotiable for him or her. Perhaps you might want to prayerfully make a list as we and many other ministries have done. I think you will find the exercise to be rich and rewarding. Even more, when you find yourself in a situation where you are challenged to make an important decision, you will be prepared to act according to your biblical commitments rather than allowing your circumstances to decide your response. The world tells us it’s okay to decide what is right for us in the moment, and all too often that boils down to what is expedient. May God give us all the courage to choose principles over expedience!