by Dan Juster
I am burdened about the destiny of 100,000 to 200,000 Jews in the Churches of North America. Do they continue to maintain any serious Jewish identity and transmission of that identity to their children? Sometimes those in the Messianic Jewish congregations have written off these Jews in churches. However, we need to ask if God has a special purpose for them.
There are three clear contexts in which Jewish followers of Yeshua live their lives. There is first the context of congregations where the majority of members are Jewish and where Jewish life is fostered in some significant way, either Israeli life, Jewish tradition or other points of cultural identification. In Israel, this is the norm. The community of believers is growing steadily in our homeland. Second, is the context of Messianic congregations where the majority of members are not Jewish, but where a Jewish minority continues to identify with Jewish life. The Gentile majority joins them in this life to varying extents. This is by far the largest number of congregations in the Messianic Movement in the Diaspora and the majority of Messianic Jews seeking to live a Jewish life are in these congregations. Third, are Jews in churches who may connect to some aspects of Jewish life but not necessarily connect to Jewish life in any significant way. What is the will of God for Jews in this category?
A Hidden Replacement Theology
To answer this question, I think it is well to reflect on the words of Michael Wyschogrod, one of today’s most famous Orthodox Jewish theologians. He affirms the great change in many church bodies in repudiating replacement theology (that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people), but then states that this repudiation is only partial, though most church bodies are not aware that this is so. Most churches, but especially Evangelical churches, are delighted when Jews become followers of Yeshua and join their congregations. Yet, these churches do not realize that their cultural patterns lead Jews toward full assimilation into Gentile Christianity (the cultures of the Christianity of the nations) and away from Jewish life.
I have written that much of this culture was creatively developed in accord with the spirit of the Bible. It is wonderful and worthy. However these church cultures, even if pro-Israel, do not really foster Jewish life and intergenerational transmission. Wyschogrod points out with great wisdom, that the full evangelistic efforts of churches in bringing Jews to belief in Jesus would lead to the disappearance of Jews as a distinct people. Even pro-Israel people can hold to a view where Israel ceases to be when the Jews fully convert at the end of this Age. This is replacement theology again, though those who subscribe to it do so unknowingly. The Jews disappear and the Church alone continues as God’s covenant people. So Wyschogrod makes an amazing assertion. The Church will not have fully repented of its replacement theology until it teaches its baptized Jews that they are responsible to live a Jewish life based on Torah. It is not that Wyschogrod desires Jews to believe in Yeshua, far from it. However, he realizes the logic that anything less is still replacement theology, since it does not really value the ongoing continuity of the Jewish people. One is amazed to see that a growing number of Christian Bible Scholars, from Harvard and Yale to Cambridge, believe this is the apostolic biblical position.
What shall we say of Wyschogrod’s argument? Our light for evaluation is based on Romans 11:29, where Paul argues that the gifts and call of God to Israel are irrevocable and Romans 11:5 where he calls Jewish disciples of Yeshua the saved remnant of Israel. Therefore, if we want to see the growth of identifiable Jewish disciples of Yeshua, and do not desire to see Israel diminished, it would seem that Wyschogrod’s argument is airtight. I would note that Jewish life rooted in Torah must be by application in accord with the spirit of the New Covenant. All must be re-applied in Yeshua.
Jews in culturally Gentile Churches
There is nothing theologically wrong with Jews being part of congregations with majority Gentile populations. However, we often view our present experience as if the first century was much like our current situation. In Acts 14 we read that Barnabas and Paul ordained elders in every city where they planted congregations. This was a short time after they preached the gospel in those cities. We ask how could new believers become elders? We forget that the core of the new congregations were Jews and proselytes who were already discipled to a godly life in the synagogues.The synagogue was the preparation for the New Covenant synagogues he planted. Therefore, I believe that New Covenant congregations were closer in culture to Messianic Congregations where Jewish life in Yeshua was still culturally natural. Two thousand years of cultural development has now given us a vastly different situation. Even pro-Israel churches provide little or no discipleship in Jewish calling and life.
I believe there will be a massive change in the church world where the Church will desire that their Jewish members not assimilate. I wrote a little tract on this some years ago encouraging the churches to develop Jewish chavurah (fellowship) groups, as part of the larger church, to foster Jewish life and Jewish involvement in the Jewish community. Jewish life, after all, is a corporate thing. I have met pastors who have said they wanted to do this, but their Jewish members were happy in Christian culture and had no interest in living as a Jew. The pastors did not know how to respond to this disinterest.
We need to respond by noting that Jewish life is not a matter of subjective preference (relativism), but is declared in Romans 11:29 as willed by God for Jewish believers. The scriptures speak clearly: This is God’s gifts and call! It is the example of Jewish believers in the book of Acts.
We understand that Jews come to faith in Gentile church contexts because Gentile believers in Yeshua have demonstrated the reality of life in Yeshua. This is wonderful. However, there is more. Imagine if the churches really taught their Jewish members their covenant responsibility to remain and live as Jews and still be a part of their people. The Messianic movement would then stretch to include such believers and help to train them in Jewish life. Some would come into the Messianic congregational movement, some would be part of Jewish fellowship groups in the churches, and some would even come to a point of openness to hear the call to make and move to Israel. Imagine if just 10% of Jews in churches (or especially their children) in America recovered their Jewish identity and made aliyah to Israel. This would double or triple the body of believers in Israel.
Some of my Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters do not have faith for the future of Jewish followers of Yeshua in the churches. Yet, some have already made their way back to their Jewish calling, even to moving to Israel with effectiveness here. I believe we must have faith for Jewish believers in churches and lovingly reach out to them. However, I also believe we will only be successful if there is a massive outreach to pastors so they will understand the issues. This has not been done. This will require a great move of the Holy Spirit. I believe that focused prayer on this can do wonders.