Competing Trends In Messianic Judaism : A Response

The mission of the UMJC can be captured in one sentence: We are committed to establishing, strengthening, and multi­plying dynamic congregations for Yeshua within the wider Jewish community. This one sentence, however, introduces the tension underlying Gabriella Reason’s article-the inevitable tension of liv­ing at the intersection of Yeshua and Jewishness. This tension can be healthy as well as inevitable, if it moves us to refine and articu­late more clearly the biblical mandate for our community.

For this reason, as much as I appreciate the article’s insights, I find its unifying theme unfortunate. “Competing Trends in Messianic Judaism: The Debate Over Evangelicalism” would be more accurately (if less dramatically) stated as something like, “Complementary Trends in Messianic Judaism.” The article devel­ops its theme by employing a limited sampling of both UMJC and MJAA leaders to highlight differences between the two groups. In the case of the UMJC, at least, by drawing upon such a small number of leaders it creates the false impression that they represent the views of the whole organization. Ironically, the UMJC can be characterized as much by the diversity of viewpoints under its umbrella, as by the distancing from evangelicalism that Reason notes. Furthermore, the differences of perspective that do exist between the UMJC and MJAA can actually help our community to move forward.

Messianic Judaism seeks to span the historic misunderstandings and disagreements dividing the Jewish and Christian worlds. The “debate over evangelicalism” reflects this wider relationship between church and synagogue. We tend to focus on evangelicalism because we’ve had such a deep and fruitful relationship with that segment of the church. Some distancing may be inevitable as our relationship develops, but it must be balanced by appreciation and respect.

I occasionally meet with a group of pastors in Albuquerque to pray for our city and for each other. Recently after prayer, we spent time discussing the Lausanne Covenant, formulated some 30 years ago by participants in the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, Switzerland.1 The pastors were consid­ering this statement, or something similar, as a unifying document for our prayer group. After a quick overview, the moderator asked if anyone had a problem with any of the language in the Covenant. I had to jump in under article 4., “The Nature of Evangelism.”

Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world.

Obviously, this language isn’t “Messianic,” but I didn’t have a problem with that. Indeed, I was impressed by the full-orbed sense of evangelism as a call to follow Yeshua in self-denial and service to the world. My problem was with two phrases, “identify with his new community,” and “incorporation into his Church.” I tried to explain to my pastor friends that I understood the biblical significance of these phrases, and might even agree with them in a narrow sense, if they were adequately defined and nuanced. But the likely impact of this language upon the average reader-Jewish or Christian-is highly problematic. Incorporation into his Church sounded to my Jewish ears like a call to abandon my Jewish identity and assimi-late…and I’m friendly with the church. To most Jewish ears, it would sound even worse. Equally troubling, the phrase in itself implies that there is no continuing role or identification as Jews for Jewish Yeshua-believers. Likewise, in article 6, “The Church and Evangelism,” the Covenant says, “the Church is at the very center of God’s cosmic purpose.” Perhaps, but where does that leave Israel?

To explain my problem with these statements, I emphasized God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel as a key to his purpose for all humanity.2 My resistance to being “incorporated” into the church is not a matter of ethnic pride, or of hoping to impress the Jewish community (although none of us is immune to such motives). Rather, it stems from my sense of calling as a Jew, informed by my reading of Scripture. It’s to the credit of my friends that, though I was distancing myself from them, they remained friendly and interested, and wanted to continue the discussion. Nevertheless, despite the warmth of relationship, and the ability of some evangel­icals to see, or even agree with, our theological viewpoint, the things that trouble me may never have the same impact on them. We can be the best of friends, but they’ll never-or very rarely-get it in the kishkes.

Thus, the tensions between the Messianic Jewish movement and evangelicalism may seem more a matter of sociology, or even psychology, than theology. Reason speaks frequently of the UMJC desire to build a “credible” or “authentic” form of Judaism, as moti­vating some to distance themselves from evangelicalism. She sums up this trend as an “effort to establish bonds with the Jewish com­munity,” 3 which evokes a sense of yearning for a restored familial relationship. The issue comes full circle, however, because our soci­ological distancing is theologically relevant. Jewish social and communal identity is a biblical value. Opting for a Jewish commu­nity of reference may involve social realities, but it is a choice firmly based upon the word of God.

The Torah, of course, repeatedly emphasizes the distinct identi­ty and continuity of Israel. In Balaam’s vision, for example, Israel is called “a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9, JPS) Moses reminds the Israelites to maintain this separateness, “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 7:6) Likewise, one can cite many familiar passages from the prophets that speak of Israel’s distinct identity as a divine gift and priority.4

When the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 concludes that Torah is not obligatory for Gentile Yeshua-believers, it implies that it remains obligatory for Jewish believers-thereby maintaining Jewish continuity within the New Covenant community. Orthodox Jewish scholar Michael Wyschogrod summarizes the situation:

Had the thought that with the coming of Christ the Law had been abolished entered anyone’s mind in Jerusalem, there could not have ensued a long discussion, settled with some difficulty, as to whether circumcision and the Law ought to be made obligatory for the Gentiles. If it was no longer oblig­atory for Jews, how could it possibly become so for others? The only possi­ble explanation dictated by the facts is that the possibility of the Torah not remaining binding for Jews never occurred to anyone in Jerusalem.5

The decision of the Jerusalem Council is not a concession, either to Gentiles or to Jews, but an application of the divine order for both groups within the new realities introduced by the coming of Messiah. Wyschogrod goes on to make the remarkable statement that,

if Paul remains authoritative for the church, Jews who embrace Christ must be persuaded by the church to retain their identity as the seed of Abraham… They must also remain loyal to the Torah and its command­ments, with their faith in Jesus as the Christ as the only characteristic dif­ferentiating them from other Jews. 6


Significantly, Wyschogrod’s first sentence here reflects one of the points of agreement between the UMJC and the MJAA that Reason cites: “God has a separate plan, separate promises, and sep­arate covenant obligations for Jewish and Gentile believers in the present age.” 7 Wyschogrod’s conclusion, that faith in Yeshua as Messiah should be “the only characteristic differentiating [Messianic Jews] from other Jews” (emphasis mine), would proba­bly remain a controversial statement within the UMJC-MJAA spec­trum. I concluded my commentary on the UMJC statement Defining Messianic Judaism with a similar statement:

Too long have we sought to distinguish ourselves within the Christian community by our Jewish emphasis. Instead, let us be recognizably Jewish, a movement within the Jewish community that distinguishes itself by our response to the spirit of Messiah in our midst.8

This sort of Jewish identity may never be fully understood by more than a few evangelicals, even though it is rooted in Scripture, and will inevitably create some distance from the evangelical com­munity. It need not create estrangement or hostility, however, and may even lead to a more mature relationship between Messianic Jews and evangelical Christians.

In this context, Reason’s idea of “modified restorationism” 9 can be helpful. Most, if not all, Messianic Jewish leaders see a model for our community within the New Covenant scriptures, and many speak of the Messianic Jewish community as a restoration of the first-generation Jewish Yeshua movement. But after two millennia, we cannot claim simply to be the restored, uncorrupted, primitive congregation (if there ever was such a thing). Instead, what has been restored is the existence of a Jewish remnant within the wider body of believers, a remnant that is Jewish not only in ethnicity, but also in culture, tradition, and loyalties. The place of this Jewish remnant within the body of Messiah is already a complex issue in the New Covenant scriptures. Today, it is far more complex; hence the debate-not just over evangelicalism, but over the entire bibli­cal basis for our movement.

Seeing Jewish connection as a biblical value, and not just a social-cultural one, will give us a better vantage point to consider some of the controversial statements that Reason cites in her sec­tion on the “Saved” versus “Unsaved” dichotomy.10 Here again, the article’s limited sample creates the false impression that the obser­vations of a few UMJC leaders represent the stance of the entire organization. Instead, these observations reflect the atmosphere of open dialogue and exploration of ideas that has been one of the UMJC’s strengths. Reason is more accurate in noting a reluctance among these leaders to treat the wider Jewish community in terms of “us” and “them,” with us as the “saved” and them as the “lost.”

{josquote)Today, [the Jewish Remnant] is far more complex; hence the debate- not just over evangelicalism, but over the entire biblical basis for our movement.

Like Jewish identity itself, such reluctance may arise out of a reading of Scripture. How do we square the manifold statements of God’s eternal lovingkindness toward the Jewish people with the record of Jewish rejection, or at least neglect, of God’s Messiah? Paul himself struggles with this question, particularly in Romans, where he reaches his famous conclusion, “Concerning the  gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (11:28-29)

This conclusion, and the history of Jewish-Christian relations ever since, force us to treat the “saved” vs. “unsaved” dichotomy with great care. Can we claim to be a Jewish movement while portraying the overwhelming majority of Jewish people and ideas throughout history as bound for eternal damnation? The statements that some readers of Reason’s article may find troubling are explo­rations of this difficult topic. Some are tentative statements calling out for biblical critique and development. Others are more refined, and may lead to new responses to the theological dilemma of Israel’s continuing chosenness and continuing turn away from Yeshua. Clearly, however, we have much work to do on this issue.

What seems equally clear to me is that we cannot neglect the model of the prophets and Yeshua himself, who spoke from within Israel, with undeniable loyalty to the people of Israel, and yet in words of alarm and warning toward Israel. Even those who are most optimistic about God’s mercy toward the Jewish people and indi­vidual Jews must acknowledge that we as a people have largely strayed from God and his ways. In our day, the pious and devout Jews cited by the salvation optimists are far outnumbered by the God-denying and worldly among our people.

In her conclusion, Reason raises “A bigger question concerning the UMJC,” that is, “whether this distancing from evangelicalism will achieve the desired goal of influencing the wider Jewish community.” 11 If Reason means that “this distancing” is an evan­gelistic tactic, a means to the end of influencing the wider Jewish community, I believe she misconstrues the whole issue. But it is right to ask if this distancing, which may arise out of our biblical identity itself, will help meet the “desired goal” we’ve always had of influencing the wider Jewish community. In other words, can we present a dynamic case for Yeshua as Messiah without the lively and compelling concern for personal salvation that evangelicalism raises? Can we call Jewish individuals to risk the alienation and rejection that come from following Messiah, without portraying individual faith in Yeshua as an issue of the greatest consequence? It seems most unlikely.

Reason also speaks in her conclusion of “disassociation” from evangelicalism,12 which is a different matter from “distancing” from evangelicalism. In my experience, evangelical friends of the Messianic Jewish community are increasingly recognizing our distinct calling and its implications for a different-and more dif-ferentiated-kind of relationship between us. Just as I’ve argued that some distance is inevitable, I would also argue that we need to affirm our commonalities with evangelicalism as well, starting with our shared faith in Yeshua as Lord and Messiah, and our belief in the authority of Scripture and the need for a personal, intentional faith response to the God of Israel. This latter point is sometimes downplayed in recognition of the corporate emphasis of much of Scripture. For almost all Messianic Jews, however, our very identi­ty as “Messianic” is a result of personal encounter with Yeshua and a conscious choice to align with him. Indeed, for the majority of us, this response occurred in contact with an evangelical religious community. Rather than disassociation, then, we need to honor and strengthen appropriate ties with this community.

Reason’s characterization of differences between the UMJC and the MJAA is often overstated and simplistic. Yet, at the core, it can be helpful. The UMJC does tend toward more emphasis on connection with the Jewish world, and the MJAA toward more emphasis on the personal encounter with Yeshua. We need to remember that both emphases are biblical and necessary. To respond to both adequately, we must maintain an open dialogue- bounded by Scripture and led by the Spirit-to reframe these bibli­cal realities for our emerging community. Hence, the Union and the Alliance need each other, whether or not we are as divergent as Reason portrays. Likewise, though in different ways, Messianic Jews and evangelicals need each other. None of us will arrive at the God-given goal without the others.

  2. My problem with the Lausanne Covenant, despite its valuable insights and commitments, may be in part a response to its handling of Scripture. Each of its fifteen articles cites from five to fifteen biblical references, yet only nine in the entire document are from the Tenach.
  3. P. 72.
  4. E.g. Isaiah 54:9-10; Ezekiel 37; Jeremiah 31:35-37, 33:24-26, 46:28; Amos 9:8-9.
  5. “Paul, Jew, and Gentiles” in Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish Christian Relations, edited and introduced by R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), p. 194.
  6. Ibid., p. 198.
  7. P. 24.
  8. Kesher Issue 17, Spring 2004, P. 88.
  9. P. 35.
  10. Pp. 67-72.
  11. Pp. 73-74.
  12. P. 75.

Russell L. Resnik is Executive Director of the UMJC.