Competing Trends In Messianic Judaism: The Debate Over Evangelicalism

One of the central challenges Messianic Judaism faces is how to orient itself against its two parent communities: modern evan­gelicalism and American Judaism. As modern Messianic Judaism is historically rooted chiefly in the evangelical movements of the twentieth century, I will trace Messianic Judaism’s relationship with this particular parent. Nevertheless, one cannot discuss the one without the other: the further Messianic Jews move from evangeli­calism, the more closely they identify with the Jewish community. The central question to determine the extent of identification with evangelicalism will be whether, in the end, the distinction between believer and non-believer is primary, as in evangelicalism, or the distinction between Jew and Gentile, as in Judaism. Scholars such as Carol Harris-Shapiro and Shoshana Feher have each studied Messianic congregations over a period of years and applied their research to Messianic Judaism as a whole, finding the movement to be a melding of Jewish ritual with fairly typical evangelical Christian content. While Feher and Harris-Shapiro characterize one segment of Messianic Judaism in very insightful terms, it must be seen in balance with another strand of Messianic Judaism, which is reacting to the first and has quite different aims, resulting in unique theological and ritual characteristics.

Exploring New Ground

This paper will examine the trends within Messianic Judaism through the lens of the two main Messianic Jewish organizations, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). I will argue that central figures within the UMJC differ from their counterparts in the MJAA foremost in a greater distancing from evangelicalism in favor of a greater identification with the Jewish community. While the Alliance is concerned with balancing between Messianic content and Jewish forms, central figures of the Union strive to create a form of Judaism that they regard, and hope the greater Jewish community will regard, as authentically Jewish. If a phrase could characterize the guiding principle of each side, the MJAA would say, “follow the movement of the Spirit,” while the UMJC would say, “be as authentic as possible.” This analysis not only highlights the interaction of each group with evangelicalism, but also explores how these two groups self-consciously and unconsciously react to one another.

I will mention the UMJC and MJAA’s official ties with evangelicalism according to stated doctrines, as well as some of the groups’ differences from one other in this area. Subsequently, I will discuss how ritual life within specific MJAA and UMJC congrega­tions may serve as a vehicle through which to analyze each group’s relationship with evangelicalism. I will then treat the developing stances within each group toward two different potential “out-groups”-first, non-Jewish Messianic Gentiles, and second, non-Messianic Jews. My conclusions will address the complexities and challenges of both the Union and Alliance as they look to the future and prepare a new generation of Messianic Jews for worship and evangelism.

It is necessary first to provide a caveat regarding the methodol­ogy of this study. With the goal in mind of characterizing the broad outlines of the Messianic Jewish movement, I must make general­izations from specific examples. In the first case, related to the Alliance, I follow other scholars in taking congregation Beth Yeshua of Philadelphia as a paradigmatic or leading congregation of the Alliance, (as the works by Harris-Shapiro, Robert Winer, and David Rausch). On the side of the UMJC, I draw principally on two con­gregational leaders: first, Mark Kinzer, leader of congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Executive Director of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, as well as adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, and member of the theology committee of the UMJC; and second, Tony Eaton, the congregational leader of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Jewish Synagogue in West Haven, Connecticut, Northeast Regional Director of the UMJC, and current Treasurer of the UMJC. Mark Kinzer has also recently been one of the two UMJC theology com­mittee members chosen to compose a definition of Messianic Judaism, which was widely approved in the UMJC. For the purpose of this paper, I often take these figures of the UMJC as representa­tive of the whole organization. While they are not the only voices in the UMJC, they do exert considerable influence in their circles and can at least be understood as part of a strong current within the larger group.2 I also highlight the differences between the two organizations while recognizing that there are still substantial sim­ilarities and a certain amount of overlap in membership, seeing as both groups are in the first decades of their existence and are still in the process of defining themselves both in relation to their parent communities and to each other.

Relating to Evangelicalism

At first glance, relating Messianic Judaism to a broad term like “evangelicalism” may seem to obscure more issues than it clarifies. For our purposes, I will use James Davidson Hunter’s definition of evangelicalism, which states that at the doctrinal core, contempo­rary evangelicals can be identified by their adherence to the belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God (on essential matters of faith and life), the belief in the divinity of Christ, and the insistence on the efficacy of Christ’s life, death, and physical resurrection for the salvation of the human soul.3 For Hunter, evangelicals are also generally marked by an individualized and experiential orientation toward spiritual salvation and religiosity, and by the conviction of the necessity of actively attempting to proselytize all nonbelievers to the tenets of the evangelical belief system.4

While I do not have time to discuss the detailed history of the development of the Alliance and Union specifically, in summary, the Alliance grew out of the premillenial dispensationalism of 18TH/19TH century Jewish mission works and the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. The UMJC was then founded in a break from the Alliance in 1979 as an official body of Messianic congregations that promotes the development of Messianic congregations worldwide and helps train Messianic leaders. While the Alliance disagreed with the split at the time, it later formed the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues in 1986, an organization mirroring the tasks of the UMJC as the pastoral wing of the Alliance. Both the Union and the Alliance (and the IAMCS as one of its branches) set out clear doctrinal standards in their bylaws or state­ments of faith that reflect their commitment to core aspects of evangelical doctrine, in line with J.D. Hunter’s definition of evangelical theology. The Union and Alliance also share ways of opposing evangelicalism in theology and practice. For the pur­pose of this talk, however, I will highlight their differences in relat­ing to evangelicalism, which I see as more telling of the nature of their movements.

A first clear difference between the two groups is the Alliance’s greater willingness to identify officially with evangelical move­ments. Alliance members and congregations, for instance, have affiliated themselves with the popular Promise Keeper movement, as well as the Toronto Blessing, a charismatic revival movement. By contrast, the Union is more reluctant to link itself with evangeli­calism. In my interviews with UMJC congregational leaders, each leader stressed how his congregation was seeking to “mature” away from evangelicalism, a topic I discuss in depth to follow.

The UMJC’s plans for a seminary are indicative of another con­trast between the two groups. Both Union and Alliance leaders admit that the UMJC is more disposed to theological reflection than the Alliance. Theology has become an important concern in the UMJC in the desire to teach the next generation the specific Messianic Jewish faith. This interest in theology also led members of the UMJC to form Hashivenu, an organization promoting spiri­tual maturity and Jewish authenticity in the Messianic movement. Those involved include founder Paul Saal, Stuart Dauermann, Mark Kinzer and Rich Nichol, who are on the board of Hashivenu, Michael Schiffman, who is a co-founder of the organization, and Tony Eaton, who is a supporter of the group and sometimes attends Hashivenu meetings. Core principles of the organization include statements such as: “Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cos­metically altered ‘Jewish-style’ version of what is extant in the wider Christian community,” “The Jewish people are ‘us’ and not ‘them,'” and “The richness of rabbinic tradition is a valuable part of our her­itage as Jewish people.” The Alliance, by contrast, is more typically evangelical/charismatic in its self-presentation. The Alliance pres­ents its existence as inextricably linked to Jewish end time revival, harkening back to its evangelical, dispensational origins. The Alliance’s statement of faith includes sections on prophecy and the end time, absent in the UMJC document. The IAMCS, the Alliance’s fellowship organization of Messianic congregations, describes itself in dramatic, charismatic terms: unlike “other organizations,” apparently alluding to the UMJC, the Alliance is “more than an organization” and “is in fact a Spiritual force, a dynamic divine power that has wrought miracles of grace in the hearts of countless Messianic believers… . Men may start an organization, but God starts a movement.” 5 The implication is all too clear: whereas the UMJC was started by men, the MJAA is a God-led “Spiritual force.” The UMJC, however, sees its achievement as having “brought sta­bility, focus, and fruitfulness to the grass roots movement of Messianic Judaism for two decades.” 6 Instead of the theme of revival, the UMJC document stresses the theme of credibility. The dialectic between the Union’s “credible” form of Judaism versus the Alliance’s more charismatic/evangelical focus is also worked out in its approach to ritual life within the congregation.

Messianic Jewish Ritual

Since the Messianic Jewish congregation stands at the center of the Messianic Jewish faith, its practices are an effective gage of each organization’s attitudes toward evangelicalism. The rituals of cir­cumcision and baptism are especially relevant as each represents the primary means of entering into a faith community, the first tra­ditionally for the Jews, the second for Christians. In Messianic Judaism both are practiced, and the rituals create affinity with or distance from one or the other faith community. Bar/Bat Mitzvahs can be seen as parallels to adult baptism or confirmation in that they also function as entrance rituals into the community, in this case when a child of the congregation comes of age. Teenagers are trained in certain beliefs and practices to prepare them for active participation in the congregation, and in the case of Jewish tradi­tion, it is at this point that they come to be held accountable to the law, the commandments of God. As Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a post-bibli-cal tradition, it can also be examined as an indicator of the Union and Alliance’s approaches toward Jewish tradition as a whole.

The MJAA’s Beth Yeshua has its own Messianic mohel, or cir­cumcisor, Rob Kirsch, who performs circumcisions for many Messianic families within and outside of his congregation. An exam­ination of his circumcision ritual reveals a distinct Messianic flavor, taking away elements of the traditional service that are “rabbinic and not scripturally founded,” and adding its own Messianic ele-ments.7 The service is structured so that there is a gradual progres­sion in focus from the physical to the better spiritual reality, from the circumcision of the body to the circumcision of the heart, achieved by the atoning work of Messiah. In this way a ceremony Beth Yeshua has in common with traditional Judaism, which seeks to affirm God’s eternal promises to the Jewish people, becomes a vehicle for emphasizing the Jews’ need for the Messiah, a tradition­al evangelical concern. By contrast, Tony Eaton and Mark Kinzer use the traditional conservative, madrich, the rabbinical manual for life cycle events, for their circumcisions. There is no need for a spe­cific Messianic service, because the child is being brought into the covenant of Israel.

Unlike circumcision, baptism is a specifically New Covenant command, and in evangelicalism, unites the Christian to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, making him or her a member of the uni­versal body of Christ. At Beth Yeshua, baptisms take place once a year at the annual MJAA “Messiah” conference after a brief baptism class and individual testimonies, similar to large Christian revivals. In the UMJC, Tony Eaton and Mark Kinzer have developed unique baptismal ceremonies that recast baptism into a Jewish framework. For the sake of time, I will focus on Mark Kinzer’s approach. For Kinzer, baptism identifies the believer with Jesus’ death and resur­rection, but also commits the believer to worship and study within a specifically Jewish context. In the case of a Jewish person with a previous religious commitment, the division is less between believ­er versus non-believer than between Jew and Gentile: Says Kinzer, “The baptism/immersion of a Jewish person who has already lived a life of faith is not the same as the baptism/immersion of a pagan Gentile. They are not moving from paganism to God, but from an existing relationship with the God of Israel to a new form of that relationship, one that is an anticipatory realization of the world to come, which is an eschatological reality.” 8 Another way the Jewishness of the ritual is made visible is by the setting of baptism in the context of the annual liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, placing the emphasis on communal versus individual repentance. Kinzer here avoids a sharp distinction between Messianic Jews and non-Messianic:

In a traditional Yom Kippur service one sees the sense for the need for atonement and a calling on God and God’s mercy without realizing what the liturgy of Leviticus 16 was pointing to-the coming of Yeshua. Yet I believe that Yeshua is also present in traditional Yom Kippur services and that He is the High Priest of Israel and to the extent to which Jewish peo­ple are truly humbling themselves before God and asking for forgiveness, He presents Israel’s prayers to God. The difference is between those who realize who the High Priest is and are fully conscious and aware of the spiritual reality that is going on, and those who are only very partially aware of the reality that they’re participating in.9

Jesus is the High Priest for both Messianic Jews and devout traditional Jews, and the only central difference lies in the aware­ness of that reality. In this way, identification with the Jewish community is maintained through a rite essentially foreign to Jewish tradition. In the process, certain evangelical distinctions are made less central, such as the difference between believer and non-believer-a topic we shall return to later. The Jewish tradition of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is another case in which this phenomenon can be observed.

Bar or Bat Mitzvah is part of a normal Shabbat worship service in both the Messianic and non-Messianic world. In both Kinzer and Eaton’s congregations, the teenager recites the blessings, the Torah and Haftorah portions, and then gives a short speech or commen­tary on the Torah portion. At Simchat Yisrael, Tony Eaton’s congre­gation, the teenager also reads the New Covenant portion and then often comments on that in the speech.10 While at Beth Yeshua, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is also part of the normal Shabbat service, the interpretation of the event itself recasts the tradition into a more evangelical light, becoming very individualized and Messianic in focus. The main stress is on the young people growing spiritually and taking spiritual responsibility for themselves, and especially their sins. On the other side of the spectrum, Tony Eaton finds that the young people’s beliefs are irrelevant to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah alto­gether: “I don’t care what they believe where the mizvot (com­mandments) are concerned, I care what they do.” 11

Although not all on the UMJC side would agree with Eaton in his perspective, the difference between Beth Yeshua’ approach and Eaton’s is indicative of the divergent overall stances toward tradi­tion within the Alliance and the UMJC. Beth Yeshua, like many in the Alliance, exhibits a suspicion of tradition when it is based on “rote” ritual, without emphasis on the person’s heart attitude, which is the way they perceive most traditional observant Jews. Implicit in this view is an evangelical fear of legalism, a confidence in one’s ability to please God by the keeping of the law without the proper inner disposition or spiritual foundation. Both Beth Yeshua and other Alliance congregations seek to avoid legalism by keeping the issue of ritual observance one of individual choice. For instance, Rob Kirsch of Beth Yeshua explains his wearing of the tzitzit, the ritual fringes, as something “God had laid on my heart,” but did not compel him to insist others wear it, for “each person has the spirit and works things out on his own …It’s not my place to tell them how to ritually behave or act.” 12 Another way to avoid legalism and make the traditions more “kosher” for Messianic use is by overlay­ing them with Messianic meaning and thus making them more “spiritually full,” as seen in Beth Yeshua’s circumcision and Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

The Union overall is more open to Jewish tradition, though there is a wide variety of views even within the UMJC, with diver­gent opinions on what the law entails, how it applies to Messianic believers, and how much to adopt rabbinic applications of the law. Unfortunately, this space does not allow for a full discussion of the complex issues. In general, however, the UMJC stresses the inher­ent duty of Messianic Jews to keep Jewish traditions (which ones are debatable) because they are a part of God’s special calling for Jews as a whole. Traditions, including circumcision, the Sabbath, keep­ing kosher, or observing the holidays, are matters of obedience to God, not personal preference or conscience. In a recent discussion at the 2002 Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE) Conference on Messianic Jewish Identity, a UMJC affiliated rabbi argued that Messianic Jews who do not keep kosher are in sin against God, denying their calling and identity. Kinzer and Eaton have voiced similar views. One of the implications of this stance is that observance of the traditions becomes a measure of spirituality and closeness with God, creating a spiritual hierarchy between those who are most observant relative to those who are less so. By keeping the law, Union congregations also hope to build bridges with observant parts of the Jewish community. According to Stuart Dauermann, a rabbi affiliated with the UMJC and founder of Hashivenu, “If communications are ever to improve, we must maintain every possible shred of commonality with the wider Jewish community.”13

{josquote}In a recent discussion at the 2002 Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE) Conference on Messianic Jewish Identity, a UMJC affiliated rabbi argued that Messianic Jews who do not keep kosher are in sin against God, denying their calling and identity.{/josquote}

In-Groups and Out-Groups

Just as there are rituals that provide links to both the Christian and Jewish communities, there are also groups of people in relation to which Messianic Jews define themselves. Potential “out-groups” of the Messianic movement include both Gentiles and non-Messianic Jews. I will address each in turn. The “Gentile question” is one that strongly affects Messianic Judaism, since many congregations have a membership of at least 40-60% Gentiles. In a sense, these Gentiles serve as a reminder that Messianic Jews are still linked to the Gentile church and evangelicalism, for the Gentiles have generally come from church­es, and not the Jewish community.14 How do Messianic Jews respond to this link?

Despite affirmations of Gentile participation on the part of the MJAA, tensions still abound. Congregations are faced with internal division from having a membership that includes Jews, who take part in the destiny and specific promises to the Jewish people, and Gentiles, who do not. The official stance is that Gentiles and Jews are spiritually equal but distinct, and that Jews should be proud of being Jews, and Gentiles proud of being Gentiles. Nevertheless, the Jewish identity is clearly valorized, causing many Gentiles to strive for greater Jewishness through Jewish observance and search for Jewish roots.15 Since conversion for Gentiles is deemed unbiblical within the MJAA, these are the main options for Gentiles seeking a more Jewish identity. What helps increase a sense of unity between Jews and Gentiles within these rituals is the stress on the impor­tance of being a “spiritual” Jew more than a “physical” Jew, as seen in Beth Yeshua’s case.

UMJC congregations are pioneering a different approach toward the “Gentile question.” They attempt to resolve the issue by requir­ing Gentiles to become observant of Jewish law, or once a Messianic conversion process is initiated, to convert formally. Kinzer describes this shift as a change of Messianic Judaism’s purpose:

More leaders are concluding that Messianic Jewish congregations should be primarily Jewish. In the past, Messianic congregations have generally defined themselves as a place where Jews and Gentiles worship together, witnessing to the unity of Jews and Gentiles. Many in the UMJC are see­ing this as a defective definition. Congregations may have Gentiles, but they are not part of the definition of the congregation, which is to be a Jewish space. The congregation is not an adequate witness to the unity of Jews and Gentiles because the Gentiles there are called to live as Jews- the unity would only be demonstrated if Gentiles were to live as Gentiles . . . . The simple reality is that many Messianic Jewish leaders realize the kinds of congregations being built are unable to adequately express the Jewish life. They are not seen as authentically Jewish.16

As with other issues, the UMJC’s distinguishing mark is its con­cern for Jewish authenticity. One way to be more authentically Jewish is by adopting a conversion process, similar to other forms of Judaism. Kinzer, as well as other members of Hashivenu, are currently working on creating a uniform standard for conversion to Messianic Judaism. While their support of conversion is still the minority position, Russ Resnik comments that it is a “growing minority.” 17 This treatment of Gentiles in the movement, especially in the UMJC, does point to another way that distance from evangel­icalism is established.

Another potential out-group is non-Messianic Jews. As previous scholarship has emphasized, the Alliance maintains the evangelical distinction between saved and unsaved, over that of Jew versus non-Jew. The Alliance’s evangelical ties are evident through its overt links to evangelical movements, its emphasis on the spiritual, Messianic elements of rituals, and the classic evangelical rejection of Gentile conversion. Joe Finkelstein, assistant rabbi of Beth Yeshua, and Debbie Finkelstein his wife, explain that as a Messianic Jew: “when you’re talking about God you know who He is, and you’re saying prayers to someone who is real.” 18 The implication is that a Messianic Jew is the only Jew who will be heard by God.

On the other side, taking into consideration the characteristics of the UMJC already discussed, a more positive attitude toward non-Messianic Jews would be expected. But is it a strong enough tie that the “Jew” versus “Gentile” dichotomy overshadows the evangelical “saved” versus “unsaved” dichotomy? My contention is that there are definite indications of this trend within the UMJC, both from evidence already considered and from other signals by Tony Eaton, Mark Kinzer, and the Hashivenu group, which includes key leaders from the UMJC. In seeking recognition and acceptance from the Jewish community, the UMJC is also more likely to grant it back to the broader Jewish community in key ways.19 One of these ways is in the UMJC’s self-designation. Mark Kinzer’s pamphlet, The Nature of Messianic Judaism: Judaism as Genus, Messianic as Species, endorsed on the back cover by UMJC leaders Paul Saal and

Rich Nichol, argues that Messianic Judaism, by its name and inten­tion, is most foundationally a species of Judaism, not Christianity. For Kinzer, aligning with Judaism entails acknowledging that other forms of Judaism are also valid:20 “In many ways other forms of Judaism are more “biblical” than we are… . Thus, as soon as one looks beyond the strictly Christological significance of the claim to represent the true “Biblical Judaism,” this claim appears less and less compelling.” 21 The implication of looking “beyond” the Christological significance involves stepping beyond the claims of traditional evangelicalism, in which the Christological claims of Scripture are too central to ever be passed over. Hashivenu open­ly criticizes a Messianic Judaism that is still evangelical at its core:

Too often the deep structure of Messianic Jewish religious life is indistin­guishable from that of popular evangelicalism, and bears little or no resemblance to any form of Judaism, past or present. When the world is easily divided up into the classes of “saved” and “unsaved,” when our speech is peppered with casual references to “what God just did” and “what God just said,” when our exclusive mode of prayer is conversational and begins “Father God” and ends “in the precious name of Yeshua,” when our kids are going to Christian schools because the public schools are filled with “Satanic influences,” when speculation about the end-times is more natural to us than reciting a berachah-then we know that the deep struc­ture of our religious life is Hebrew Christian, and has been untouched by the drastic changes in the surface structure of our movement.22

For Tony Eaton, faithful Messianic and non-Messianic Jews have access to God.23 “I am utterly convinced that the prayers of all those who love God and are faithful to Him are heard, whether or not they acknowledge exactly the same thing. I’m not talking about people who worship Allah, or Eastern gods, but the God of the Jewish people is the same God that the Christians worship.” 24 Once again the contrast is evident with the MJAA response, which for its part does not grant non-Messianic Jews access to God without the Messiah. Eaton gives this illustration to emphasize his point: “The day is going to come in the judgment when all these devout Jews are going to come before the Messiah, and when they approach him they’re going to look at him and say, ‘Didn’t I know you?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, you did, you just didn’t know my name.'” 25 The idea is that Jews will one day come to see and be accepted by the one whom they have been worshiping all along. So what is the kind of rela­tionship non-Messianic Jews can have with God in the present? Kinzer explains, “Because of the validity of the Abrahamic covenant, I believe it’s still as possible for a Jew who doesn’t know Yeshua to have a living relationship with God, just as a Christian. But of course Yeshua is still the Messiah and any Jew who knows him is in a better place and has more access to God than before.” 26 Thus Yeshua does not provide the only access to God. It is not that one either has access to God or not, but that one can relate to God to a greater or lesser degree. In this way the believer versus non-believ-er dichotomy is turned into a gradation. Overall, the “saved” versus “unsaved” dichotomy is undermined in three ways: by insisting that Jews will eventually know Yeshua anyway; by claiming that the focus on salvation is a Christian, not Jewish one; and by conceding that Jews can have a relationship with God, albeit a lesser one, even in the present. Measured by James David Hunter’s definition of evangelicals, who believe the necessity and efficacy of Christ’s life, death, and physical resurrection for the salvation of the human soul, some key leaders within the UMJC would not be among them. The effort to establish bonds with the Jewish community has thus taken such precedence for them that a key link to the evangelical community is severed, and even, one could argue to a large part of the Messianic community, represented by the Alliance.27

Looking Towards the Future

Having discussed the main connections and differences between the Alliance and the Union, the question arises, what some of the impli­cations are of these diverging trends and the challenges for each group as it faces the future and seeks to reach Jewish people. One of the central issues for the Alliance is whether there will be a shift away from a charismatic revivalist emphasis towards a more bureaucratized style, characteristic of the UMJC. As the Alliance has been dominated by leaders such as the Chernoffs, who operate with a significant amount of power in a largely “top-heavy,” hierarchical structure; much is dependent on the Alliance’s next leaders. Were regard for theology to rise, Alliance members and leaders, in the interest of Messianic Jewish solidarity, may well turn to the wide and growing body of Messianic works written by Union-affiliated authors rather than standard evangelical works. In this case, the Alliance would likely become more akin to its UMJC counterpart. Other observers, such as Michael Schiffman, expect the rift between the two to widen as each presents a different model of Jewish authenticity, the one because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the other by its links to Jewish tradition.28 As the rift widens, the Alliance could become more and more critical of the Union, and vice versa, as they compete over what a Messianic Jew is. One of the central challenges that exists for the MJAA currently, besides determining the direction of the movement is the issue of Gentile participation-until now, the fundamental tension between asserting spiritual equality while maintaining distinctiveness has not prevented the establishment of spiritual hierarchies of Jews over Gentiles.

In the case of the UMJC, a shift towards the Alliance is unlikely, considering that its history and the trajectory of leaders within the movement have involved a continual distancing from evangelicalism in favor of a greater identification with the Jewish community.29 A bigger question concerning the Union is whether this distancing from evangelicalism will achieve the desired goal of influencing the wider Jewish community. Already the approach toward reaching other Jews is fundamentally different from that of the Alliance. The Alliance’s ties to evangelicalism, including its “saved” versus “unsaved” dichotomy, create a strong impetus for Jewish evangelism. By contrast, leaders within the UMJC are begin­ning to disassociate from the primacy and means of evangelism as traditionally understood. Both Kinzer and Eaton outright reject the term “evangelism.” As Kinzer explains, “I never use the term evan­gelism because of its connotations (Billy Graham rallies, people passing out tracks, etc.). We are called to give witness to the Messiah, but this is expressed within our corporate existence in congregations… . We seek to fulfill our role by living as part of the Jewish people.” 30 With a sarcastic edge to his voice, he adds, “We don’t come as Christians bringing good news to damned souls who need to be delivered from religious bondage.” 31 Kinzer’s conviction, as that of others in the UMJC, is that the more closely they resem­ble their traditional Jewish neighbors, the more likely a non-Messianic Jew would consider joining the movement. The pur­pose of the Jewishness of the services is not primarily to contextu­alize the gospel for Jews, but to express an authentic form of Judaism, and this is what will ultimately draw Jewish people.

A remaining question is whether the desired effect of drawing Jewish people will occur through the UMJC’s means. Even if Messianic Judaism does gain a measure of acceptance as a form of Judaism because of its close ties to Jewish tradition, will this cause Jewish people to join the movement?32 If many Jewish congrega­tions exist now that are struggling for members because of the large-scale secularization within the Jewish population, how will another group make an impression that mainly stresses its similar­ity to the others? More fundamentally, does the feature that originally tied them to evangelicalism, the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, become just an extra ad-on in their efforts to emphasize continuity with the Jewish community? If so, how can this extra be shown to be worthwhile? Having underscored the “Judaism” in “Messianic Judaism,” how much of the “Messianic” part can be downplayed for it to still be a defining element? Or further, can this belief sustain its place over time if rabbinic theology, which often downplays the need for a Messiah, focusing on a halakhic over a redemptive interpretation of Scripture, remains a main source for Messianic Jewish theology? How much can one disassociate from evangelicalism without losing the basis for evangelism, for spread­ing the faith?

One of the central challenges of the UMJC involves balancing how much to strive for identification with the Jewish community versus how much to distinguish itself from it. If the association between the two becomes too close, its own existence becomes relativized. While an emotional issue, the occurrence of “conver­sions” from Messianic Judaism to mainstream Judaism is relevant here. A seemingly unavoidable side effect of identifying closely with the Jewish community is making the transition from the one com­munity to the other very smooth. How can the UMJC deal with this problem? To what extent is it even a problem when the main dichotomy is Jew versus Gentile, not believer versus non-believer? Should the Union continue in its trend of disassociating from evangelicalism, these questions will need to be addressed not only for its self-understanding, but also for the growth and/or survival of the movement.33



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  • Winer, Robert I. The Calling : The History of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. (Wynewood: Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, 1990).



  1. This paper is a shortened version of my Yale University senior thesis of the same title, completed in April 2002.
  2. Another strong voice in the UMJC is Dan Juster. He has started his own congregational organiza­tion, Tikkun, outside of the UMJC as well. He also distances himself theologically from the MJAA, but more along the terms of Christian theological categories, unlike Kinzer and Eaton. He and his followers thus deserve a separate analysis regarding their relation to evangelicalism, which is beyond the scope of this paper.
  3. Qtd. in Harris-Shapiro’s Messianic Judaism 190. See Hunter, J.D. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983. 7.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “About the IAMCS.” 19 February 2002 <>.
  6. About the UMJC. Pamphlet. Albuquerque.
  7. Kirsch, Rob. Personal Interview. 31 January 2002.
  8. Kinzer, Mark. Personal Interview 26 Feb. 2002
  9.  Ibid
  10. Eaton, Tony. Personal Interview. 12 February 2002.
  11. Eaton interview.
  12. Kirsch interview.
  13. Dauermann, Stuart. “The Importance of Jewish Liturgy.” Voices of Messianic Judaism. Ed. Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Baltimore: Lederer/Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2001.4.
  14. To counteract this link, many Gentiles become more observant in Jewish practices than their Jewish counterparts in the movement, making for a confusing dynamic.
  15. Feher, Shoshana. “Challenges to Messianic Judaism.” Voices 222. 16 Kinzer interview.
  16. Kinzer interview.
  17. Resnik, Russ. Personal Interview. 12 March 2002.
  18. Finkelstein, Debbie. Personal interview. 2 February 2002.
  19. Klett, Fred. “The Centrality of Messiah and the Theological Direction of the Messianic Movement.” Proc. of LCJE-NA Conference, 2002, Orlando.
  20. Kinzer, Mark. The Nature of Messianic Judaism, Judaism as Genus, Messianic as Species. West Hartford: Hashivenu Archives. 5-6.
  21. Kinzer, Nature 10-11.
  22. “Core Principle 1: Messianic Judaism is a Judaism…”
  23. Eaton interview.
  24. Eaton interview.
  25. Eaton interview.
  26. Kinzer interview.
  27. On the other side, one could argue that the UMJC is actually following the trajectory of modern evangelical trends insofar as evangelicalism is getting more relativistic. Salvation is often recast into the terms of American therapeutic, self-help culture so that it is a way of “filling” an empty life, increasing self-esteem and happiness. As David Wells writes in No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?: “Theology reconfigured in this model is typically therapeutic: it suggests that Christian faith is mostly about offering wholeness (certainly in spirit and perhaps in body), it suggests that relationships are as important as truth in realizing this wholeness, and it is centered on personal happiness quite as much as righteousness (Wells, 290). In these terms, the language of gradations of salvation makes sense, for salvation is not understood as a matter of heaven or hell, but as a matter of gaining self-fulfillment or self-realization. For further discussions of this trend also see Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.
  28. Schiffman, Michael. Return of the Remnant: The Rebirth of Messianic Judaism. Baltimore:Lederer/Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1992. 172.
  29. Again, the case of Dan Juster must be considered separately.
  30. Kinzer interview. Eaton speaks similarly in his interview.
  31. Ibid.
  32. At this point there is a rejection of Messianic Jews of all stripes by the majority of the Jewish community.


Gabriela Reason is a Messianic Jew from Switzerland. In 2002 she graduated from Yale University Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Religious Studies, focusing on Jewish-Christian relations. She is currently working on a Master of Religion with an emphasis on Biblical Studies at Westminster Theological Seminary. The arti­cle has been adapted from her senior thesis at Yale.