Newspapers this past August were filled with stories concerning a decision by the United Presbyterian Church USA to divest of selected companies doing business in Israel. They will make their final decision in March 2005. The divestment is in protest of Israeli government policy towards Palestinians, and effectively accuses Israel of racism akin to apartheid in South Africa.
Not all Presbyterian leaders agreed with the decision of their denomination. In speaking to writer Gaby Wenig of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (July 30, 2004 Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar”), Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Southern California, remarked concerning those who made this decision, “It seems that they fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down.”1
Another Presbyterian pastor confided, “With all of the human rights violations going on in the world today, I don’t understand why our denomination needed to single out Israel. The decision was very one-sided and imbalanced.” Thank God for those dissenting voices.
It should be understood that no government can be exempt from criticism. Israel is certainly worthy of scrutiny and, as in the United States, there is deep disagreement among Israeli citizens regarding the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. The Jews for Jesus Newsletter is not the proper forum to try to resolve political issues and please be assured that we do not intend to do so. But there is a deeper issue at stake.
The aforementioned news item illustrates a growing problem in many churches. The very assembly that approved divestment also made a declaration that illustrates the root of the problem: “Christian Zionism is not consistent with the basic values of Reformed theology because it makes use of idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture to undergird a certain reading of current events, and to generate support for specific political goals that do not bolster work toward peace and potentially endanger Palestinian and Israeli people.”2
First, the authors of that statement have painted Christian supporters of Israel with a broad brush, perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes. It is true that some Christian supporters of Israel are extreme and uncritical in their views, but certainly they do not speak for all so-called “Christian Zionists.” Even worse, those who wrote the statement have taken upon themselves the role of theological spokespersons, claiming a superior understanding of Scripture and current events, and claiming that this superior vantage comes from Reformed theology. It is questionable if their interpretation is representative of true Reformed theology, and their attitude certainly is not.
Our founder, Moishe Rosen, used to joke, “Here’s an old tradition that I just made up.” Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t seem to realize how much “tradition” they are making up—and in the process they become arrogant toward those who are not quite part of their “tradition.”
One could argue that basic Reformed theology does indeed recognize a future for the Jewish people and calls on Christians to play a supportive role concerning the land of Israel and the promised salvation of her people. Jonathan Edwards, whom many consider the father of Reformed Christianity in America, wrote, “It is the more evident, that the Jews will return to their own land again, because they have never yet possessed one quarter of that land which was so often promised them.”3 He also wrote, “Nothing is more certainly foretold than this national conversion of the Jews.”4
Likewise, John Calvin wrote, “…as Jews are the firstborn, what the Prophet declares must be fulfilled, especially in them: for that scripture calls all the people of God Israelites, it is to be ascribed to the pre-eminence of that nation, who God had preferred to all other nations.”5
We are not trying to boast about God’s promises to Israel, but to point out that key Reformed theologians recognize them. So perhaps it is those who deny a future divine purpose and plan for the Jewish people who are out of step with the basic values of the Reformed theology they claim to represent.
The real problem in some of our churches today is not differing views of eschatology or even disagreements about economics and social justice in the Middle East. There is room in the Body of Christ for differing opinions. The real problem is deeper.
Paul put his finger on that problem when he said to the church in Rome, “Do not be arrogant toward the branches…” (Romans 11:18) The “branches” Paul is speaking of are Jewish people who have yet to believe in Jesus. Paul knew that it would be tempting for the new (Gentile) believers in Jesus to adopt a dismissive attitude towards Jewish unbelievers. It would be easy to conclude that they were no longer God’s chosen, but were altogether replaced by those who believe and follow Christ. Paul labels this conclusion as arrogant and he warns against it. Yet Paul’s warning seems to go unheeded by many.
Arrogance does not begin with the church’s attitude toward Israel. It is part of human nature to forget or dismiss what came before us and to see ourselves as the measure of how things are. Arrogance, or pride, is dangerous; it comes before a fall. It is particularly disturbing when people institutionalize their arrogance as though it is part of their theological distinction.
We Jews for Jesus understand and expect this from those whom we are called to evangelize. Leaders in the Jewish community continually pronounce: “Judaism teaches…” or, “In our tradition…” and what follows are all the reasons why Jews cannot believe in Jesus. The implication is, “This is who we are and this is what you can or can’t believe to be one of us.” Tragically, many Jewish leaders have elevated human traditions to the point where the ancient traditions of the prophets who predicted the Messiah became obscured, distorted or simply deemed irrelevant. It is arrogance and our people have suffered for it.
The Apostle Paul knew that the Church would be tempted to practice this kind of arrogance. Paul warns the Church against jumping to wrong conclusions about Israel. A reading of Romans 11 ought to result in an attitude of humility.
Humility does not require Christians to say, “God’s promises to Israel mean that all her policies are correct and justified.” But it does require Christians to realize that God has called, loved and made certain promises to Israel. Humility requires Christians to see Israel the way the Scriptures say God sees her.
For those Christians in Rome who were tempted to be arrogant toward the Jews, Paul reminded them, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:11)
It is humbling to read that your very salvation is due to someone else’s fall, and part of God’s plan to make that someone else (the Jews) jealous, so that ultimately they would also turn to Jesus (Romans 11:26). If it was not in the Holy Scriptures, it would be unconscionable arrogance to even suggest such a thing. But there it is, in God’s Word.
The great Reformed theologian Charles Hodge humbly commented on this reality, saying, “The future restoration of the Jews is, in itself, a more probable event than the introduction of the Gentiles into the church of God.…God refers to this fact to make us sensible that he still retains purposes of peculiar mercy towards his ancient people.”6
One of the greatest examples of humility—the opposite of arrogance—can be seen in Paul’s own passionate evangelistic fervor. It took humility for him to be God’s Apostle to the Gentiles rather than to his own people. He might have pronounced, “It goes against the basic values of Judaism to involve myself with these uncircumcised people.” But speaking of his service to those who were not his own, he said, “…I magnify my ministry if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them” (Romans 11:13-14).
I don’t for one minute believe that Christians of good will and genuine faith will ever fully agree on all issues of scriptural interpretation, eschatology, politics and social justice in the Middle East. But I hope we can all agree that it is important to understand and appreciate what came before us, whether it regards our various church traditions, or whether it regards “the branches.” That is one way to guard ourselves against arrogance. If we can all agree to that much, maybe there is hope for God’s people, the Church, to experience renewed passion, such as Paul expressed, to see Israel saved. And the salvation of Israel will bring blessing to the whole world, in ways we cannot yet imagine:
“Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!”
- July 30, 2004, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, “Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar,” by Gaby Wenig.
- Stephen J. Stein, ed. Jonathan Edwards, Works, Apocalyptic Writings, vol.8, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, p. 133-134.
- Stephen J. Stein, ed. Jonathan Edwards, Works, A History of the Work of Redemption, vol.9, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, p. 469-70.
- Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX, Epistle to the Romans, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981, p. 434-440.
- Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, V. 3, James Clark & Co. 1960, p. 805. and A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Greenville, SC: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1836, p. 270-285.