A number of years ago, Coach Bill McCartney (formerly the head of Promise Keepers) started a new ministry called “Road to Jerusalem”. This ministry is absolutely committed to stand with Messianic Jews and foster the salvation of the Jewish people.
An amazing dialogue between Messianic Jews and Christians was pulled together by Coach Bill McCartney and Raleigh Washington. Most of the Jewish participants in this dialogue were in the mainstream of the Messianic Jewish congregational movement. Some did not represent that movement but were Jews in Christian churches. A discussion ensued concerning God’s intended destiny for Jewish believers and whether or not this destiny could be fulfilled in Christian churches. This conversation had a refreshing, friendly and mature tone. The issue revolved around Romans 11:29 where Paul speaks of the Jewish people in general, “Though they are enemies of the Gospel for your sake, they are beloved and elect for the sake of the Fathers, for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” We sometimes forget the enormous gain and consensus that has developed in Christian and Messianic Jewish circles. All agreed that Jews who believe in Jesus are still Jews and part of the destiny and irrevocable call of the Jewish people. This is wonderful and amazing! There was not the same unity on the issue of just what that call entails and even less unity between the two groups of Jewish believers on whether or not that call can be fulfilled within a Gentile church.
The Debate: Are Messianic Jews to only be in Messianic Jewish Congregations?
I personally have not found a biblical requirement that Jews be only in Messianic Jewish Congregations and not Christian Churches. In the case of Antioch in Acts and in other congregations planted in the Roman world we see congregations including Jew and Gentile. However, this was before the development of Christian (Gentile) cultures. (While local expressions are varied, there is only one universal Body of the Messiah made up of Jews and Gentiles.)
In our dialogue, some passionately argued that unless Messianic Jews are in Messianic Jewish congregations (which include both Jews and Gentiles as members) the Jews will assimilate and no longer play a part with the Jewish people.
The Jews in Christian churches argued that they still identified as Jews and were called to such churches to bring a Jewish presence and seasoning.
The response to this was to note that this would cause our children to be raised in primarily non-Jewish cultural contexts where they would not identify as part of their people. It was pointed out that none of the children or grandchildren of famous Jewish Christians of yesteryear were sitting at the table for this discussion. Where are they? God has promised to preserve Israel as a distinct people. Should we not see that without a distinct culture there is no distinct people? We should cooperate with God’s heart of preservation. Indeed, assimilation is a real issue, for by natural population growth from the first century there should be hundreds of thousands of Jewish believers today, even in spite of persecution and the Holocaust. We have lost millions of Jews to assimilation. Beyond this, if we want to see a people movement for the Gospel in the Jewish community, we must be communities that are Jewish in culture where that culture is not inconsistent with Scripture. It is an axiom of missions today, and missionaries are so taught, that the most effective way to reach people is to establish Gospel movements within a culture.
The rejoinder was that we can maintain Jewish culture in our families and as individuals without being in Messianic Jewish congregations.
The response was that Jewish life is a communal corporate matter and not just individual. No doubt the Gentile Christian participants found our intra-Jewish dialogue fascinating. However, I would like to try a different approach.
Jewish Calling and Dual Upbringings
The question is how can we live out the conviction that Jews who follow Jesus are still called to live and identify as Jews? How do we foster a powerful movement for Yeshua in the Jewish community? While living in Israel does not solve all the issues, it certainly gives us a head start since we live in a Jewish nation, speak Hebrew and celebrate biblical feasts as a national culture. However Jews who live outside of Israel are also important. If we are still part of the gifts and call of God to the Jewish people, and we are to be a distinct people, then we have to see the impossibility of being a distinct people without a distinct culture. The all encompassing culture of the great mass of churches has Jewish biblical roots, but is not culturally Jewish. Worship is not in Hebrew. Musical styles, celebrations, language, foods, and mental patterns simply are not Jewish. Christian cultures have developed over many centuries by the creative appropriation of Scripture and creativity in Christian peoples. From the hymns of Bach and Wesley, to the powerful Jesus-centered liturgy of historic churches, to the joyful carols of Christmas, we find wonderful and biblically rooted cultures, but not a culture that is Jewish. If we raise our children in these churches, they will tend to feel at home in a Christian culture but less so in a Jewish cultural context. Thus the primary answer to the preservation of the Jewish identity of Jewish believers has been from congregations whose cultural expression and life is Jewish. It is shallow to not face how pervasive cultural influence is in the formation of persons. So I am fully a supporter of Messianic Jewish congregations linked in unity with biblical Christian churches. I have given 33 years to this movement. I do also have a deep and rich Christian background, so I can understand the value of Christian cultures.
The Possibility for Jews in Christian Churches
There is another alternative which has remained largely theoretical. It is anticipated in the writings of Methodist theologian Soulen. He and Orthodox theologian Wyschograd maintain that the Church must fully repudiate replacement theology (that the Church has replaced Israel in the plan of God). However this repudiation can not be complete unless the pastors of churches teach their baptized Jewish members that they are called to live and identify as Jews. Otherwise those who want Jews to believe in Jesus would be working toward the elimination of a distinct Jewish nation. Now if theChurch would do this, we could see a change. This would mean that Jewish members of churches would be raising their children with a dual cultural experience. This is a difficult task, as children of missionary parents know. They grow up in a foreign culture and are very integrated in it by language and cultural experience, usually much more than their parents. Yet in the parents’ home and by visits to the country of origin, they also are integrated in the culture of their parents. While such children may have identity issues, many find themselves deeply enriched for the experience.
Jews who believe in Jesus have a biblical-cultural mandate to be Jewish. For it to happen, it would be crucial that pastoral leadership in the churches embrace the mandate as Soulen describes it in his great book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology. It will not happen without strong church support. It also would entail that the Jewish believers be in an area where there is a significant Jewish population so they can connect to Messianic Congregations in the area and to Jewish community activities. Learning Hebrew, Jewish worship, Jewish feast celebrations, preparing children for Bar Mitzvah and Jewish weddings are just a few of the patterns to be established. Integration into the Jewish community on the part of anointed Jewish believers is important in producing a people movement. To do this in a way that is not shallow is a tremendous challenge. Discipleship of new Jewish believers who come to faith through the witness of these churches, in their call as Jews, will be another challenge. This is part of basic discipleship for Jewish believers.
I would urge all pastors to read Soulen and to take responsibility for encouraging the Jewish calling of your Jewish members. I would urge all Jewish believers in Christian Churches, to seriously embrace the irrevocable calling to be part of the Jewish people and to live a Jewish life. If a family can do this, the children will have an identity with the Jewish nation and an appreciation of the Christian culture of their upbringing as well. The jury is still out as to whether or not this can be done. What is clear, however, is that Jewish disciples of Yeshua are called to live and identify as part of their people. To do this in a church context that is mostly not Jewish will take tremendous commitment and leadership. Unless it can be done, the Messianic Jewish congregation will be the only real choice for Jewish cultural integrity and preservation.