These words were spoken as a mild rebuke by a pastor friend some years ago. Since that time, I have not spoken of Christians from the nations as non-Jews.
What was his point? He explained. “My identity is a positive one, made up of ethnic roots, biblical roots and American influences. I am not a ‘non’ something but a positive something.” So why do Messianic Jews and Gentiles continue to use the term non-Jew? It is because they have been told by some Gentiles that they are offended by being called Gentiles. They consider the word to mean pagan. Despite this, I would like to issue a plea that we continue to use the word “Gentile.”
Gentile Can be a Positive Word
The Bible itself uses the term Gentile as a positive word in the most important passage dealing with the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the Messiah. Paul says to fellow believers, “I am talking to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). He then explains the awesome priestly role of Gentile believers to make Jews jealous. This means that Jews would desire the reality of life in the Messiah that they see among the Gentile Yeshua/believers. This should be coupled with the Acts 15 decision that relieves Gentiles from responsibility of living a Jewish lifestyle according to the whole Torah. In context, the meaning of the word “Gentiles” is simply those from the nations or from the different ethnic groups that populate the world.
Ethnic Identity is Significant to God
This leads to an important question. Is it important and significant to be part of a nation or ethnic identity other than Jewish identity? In the past, the idea of homogenized Christianity dominated the West. Yet even so, historic churches maintain ethnic rite churches with special practices and liturgies. There are many other more recent varieties of ethnic churches. In Acts 17:26 we read, “From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places that they should live.” In Revelation 21, we read that the “nations will walk by its light (the New Jerusalem) and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” In this picture, nations are still in existence in the everlasting age. Every nation, tribe and people are represented as being before the throne in Revelation 7. Indeed, the promise to Abraham is that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, not eliminated and homogenized. Israel is elect for the sake of the nations.
Thoughts like these have led our friend John Dawson, president of Youth with a Mission, to teach that God is seeking to redeem cultures. Each has special beauties, insights and distinctives. This is part of the richness of the human family. R. Kendall Soulen, in his monumental book, The God of Israel
and Christian Theology, argues that the distinction of Jew and Gentile is paradigmatic. It opens to us the truth that distinction in unity is willed by God. This is reflected in the variety of nations.
Further reflection will prove to any objective thinker that ethnic and national identities form part of the identity of individuals. We need to think less individualistically, as important as the individual is, and recognize that there can be no personality without dimensions of ethnicity, which include language and cultural ways of being. In the Genesis creation account God shows that He loves variety. He creates persons, no two of whom are the same. As part of this, He creates corporate ethnic identities. Every language has its unique angle on reality. Every culture produces its unique art and so much more. Eugene Nida, the dean of Bible translation, says that every language adds enriching perspectives for understanding Biblical truth.
Ethnic Expressions of Biblical Faith are Enriching
Biblical faith, when allowed to develop naturally, is creatively expressed in many cultural varieties. How exciting to appreciate these varieties! The great liturgy of the historic churches is wonderful in depth and beauty. It powerfully puts forth the meaning of the sacrifice of Yeshua and the meaning of our participation in the Messiah’s communion. The great European expressions of faith in choral music including Gregorian chants, the classical pieces of Bach, and later Romantic era compositions are special beyond words. They are not specifically and culturally Jewish, but in biblical content and depth they are unparalleled. Who could deny that there are wonderful expressions of faith in the soul music and rhythm of American Black churches? In Africa, some native compositions are wonderful and deeply moving. We also enjoy contemporary worship styles that reflect today’s rhythms and instrumentation. In visits to Korea and Japan we took note that they sang western songs in Korean and Japanese. Some universal expression is good. However, their own written material, especially with Japanese and Korean musical qualities, had special anointing. Jewish worship in a New Covenant context is wonderfully enriching too. However, it is not the only worthy expression.
Gentile Calling to Messianic Congregations
Some Gentiles have joined Messianic Jewish groups because they think Messianic Judaism is the ideal form of the Body of Believers. It is good that Gentiles understand the Bible in its original Jewish context. That they would enjoy the Feasts and even Jewish cultural practices is also good. Indeed, this is not a new phenomenon but is well documented even in the first century. God-fearers adopted Jewish cultural practices.
However,the reason for participation in Messianic congregations by Gentiles is not that this is the ideal against which other expressions are lesser. A person who is ignorant of the richness of Christian expressions and practices is likely to unfairly and negatively judge the churches. Some church practices are more rooted in Jewish biblical meanings than many perceive. This includes church furnishings and the liturgy itself. (There are things to be corrected in the churches, but in Judaism as well.) It is important that we bring balance in understanding to Messianic Congregations. We need to teach on the value of the worthy and creative practices of the churches that are in accord with the Spirit of the Bible. It is important for Gentiles to appreciate their own parentage and ethnic heritage where it is good. This especially includes ancestry connected to Christianity. This will help Gentiles to connect to Messianic Congregations as a matter of special calling to our people instead of being motivated by the arrogance of thinking that Messianic Judaism is the superior form of New Covenant faith which should replace other forms of Christianity. (A new replacement theology in reverse?) We in Messianic Congregations have an important roots perspective to contribute.
Jew and Gentile in the Messiah should first emphasize their unity as created in the image of God and born again through Yeshua, having a new heart or spirit. We are together his Bride. This is our deep unity of identity in the Messiah. This will prevent the wrong kind of ethnic pride while enabling humble thanksgiving for the grace of God given to every distinct culture. The enriching variety of Jew and Gentile and multiple ethnicities will forever fascinate us in God’s eternal ages. “Gentile” is shorthand for those from the nations. It includes Russian, Chinese, Korean, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Zulu, Mayan, Indian, Assyrian, and so on! My friend was right. He is not a non-Jew, but a distinctive personality who is part of an ethnicity uniquely valued by God.