Rediscovering My Gentile Roots
Growing up in the Wesleyan holiness tradition, the son of a Nazarene pastor, I learned early on that there were certain standards of behavior in our community. I also learned fairly quickly that there was flexibility around the edges of these standards. Many of the guidelines that had been strictly observed in our grandparents’ generation—no movies, no dancing, no playing cards (since they are associated with gambling)—were being reevaluated by our parents’ generation. Alcohol was still off-limits, but even that restriction was being redefined. We didn’t drink, not because it was inherently sinful, but as a protest against the damage alcohol abuse had caused in our society, and for the sake of those in our midst who might be tempted into excess.
These communally imposed standards of behavior in my tradition were explicitly linked to a desire to draw close to God, and were a method of removing obstacles that might obstruct that goal. This was the case in the late nineteenth century when these restrictions were developed, and remained the case during my childhood experience of them, and of their modification.
Another distinctive of my denomination of origin was its priority for world missions. Like the Assemblies of God, and other denominations formed during the early decades of the twentieth century, the Nazarene Church devoted a significant portion of its human and financial capital to spreading the good news about Jesus around the world. While the North American congregations struggled to hold on to the fire that defined the early decades of the movement, the international Nazarene congregations were places of renewal. As children we heard stories of what God was doing in foreign cultures, including miracles of healing, deliverance, and changed hearts and cultures. These stories sparked in me a desire to travel the world, and to build connections with God’s people in some of these distant lands.
Messianic Judaism and Torah
I was introduced to Messianic Jewish teaching through the International House of Prayer in Kansas City in the mid 2000s, when I heard Daniel Juster and Asher Intrater speak there. I found in their teaching a perspective on the biblical and historical narrative that made more sense to me than anything else I had heard. Their teaching, and that of other Messianic Jews, helped me recognize God’s work in the Jewish people, both in the restoration of the land and the city of Jerusalem, and in the birth of modern Messianic Judaism—a restoration of Jewish people to the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua.
A few years later, a friend of mine suggested to me that God’s intention was for all believers to continue to observe the Torah. This idea tugged on my back-to-the-Bible, holiness roots. I was pretty clear from Acts 15, and from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that circumcision was off-limits for gentile believers. But it made sense to me that God would be calling all of his people to a higher standard of holiness, and that commands to abstain from certain meats, or to observe the festivals, should be taken seriously by those of us being grafted into Israel. I made a commitment that day not to eat prohibited meats, to rest on the Sabbath, and to celebrate the feasts—a commitment I kept, with some modification, for the next five years. I was still unclear whether these things were required for gentiles, but since they did not seem to be prohibited, I followed Paul’s rule, as I understood it, from Romans 14: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. . . . the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:5–6 ESV), and especially verse 23, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Perspectives on Gentile Torah Observance
During my first semester at The King’s University, studying with Dr. David Rudolph, I took a class called “Jewish Practices in a Messianic Context.” This was a wonderful class, in which we focused on Jewish customs in the home and the synagogue, following the Jewish calendar, and lifecycle events. We also studied the traditional 613 mitzvot, both from Messianic and non-Messianic sources. Among the many insights gained from this process, I was surprised to learn that traditional Jewish commentators looked unfavorably on the Nazirite vow. Ronald Eisenberg writes, “Maimonides, who advocated moderation in all activities, viewed the vows of the Nazirite as excessive and quoted the rabbinic statement, ‘Is it not sufficient for you to abstain from what the Torah had forbidden, that you seek to forbid yourself other things as well?’ ”1 In contrast, we discussed in our class how the Nazirite vow was a God-given outlet for those who desired an increased level of holiness. One of my classmates, Preston Benjamin, had written a paper on the Nazirite vow, arguing that it provides a key to the Messianic community for understanding its own distinctive holy calling.2
Around the same time, Joey Benami, the leader of my congregation, Sukkat Shalom, a Messianic synagogue in Arlington, Texas, taught a series highlighting the ways that Yeshua fit within several themes of Second Temple Judaism.3 One theme was the extension of temple standards into everyday life. Benami focused in his series on how Yeshua brought the influence of the heavenly tabernacle into our earthly lives, and how the kingdom of God Yeshua announced provided a foretaste of the age to come in the present age. Mark Kinzer has similarly written that Yeshua’s resurrection is an encapsulation and advance expression of the Messianic Age. Kinzer finds continuity with Jewish tradition in this aspect of Yeshua’s role. The Sabbath, the Tabernacle, and Israel itself are all signposts in this age of the character of the age to come. It is in Yeshua’s function as the one-man embodiment of Israel that he becomes the perfect picture of God’s plan for all of creation.4
Kinzer describes an expansion of holiness flowing through the biblical narrative in which, through Yeshua, the nations are also brought into the sphere of God’s influence, and are able to enjoy his presence. As I was studying these things, I wondered whether the choice of some gentile believers, such as myself, to observe aspects of Torah traditionally reserved for Jews constituted motion along this trajectory. In other words, was my participation in these elements of Israel’s holiness an appropriate means through which God’s holiness would be extended to me as a gentile? If so, was it God’s intention that all gentile believers ultimately adopt these standards? A related question was, could my choice as a gentile to observe certain standards normally only required of Jews be comparable with a Nazirite vow? These two questions differ in that the first presumes that the preferred state is for myself and other gentiles to observe these standards, while the second views them as potentially temporary, and not the normative mode of life for the (gentile) community.
Understanding and Protecting Our Distinctive Callings
I had chosen to come to The King’s University in part because of my desire to study the Scripture through the Messianic Jewish paradigm, but also in order to build relationships with Messianic Jewish believers. I understood that my own questions about standards of observance were secondary to what God was doing among Messianic Jews. God had been working to restore his Jewish people to the Messiah before I ever came along, and I was excited to partner in some way with that community. I also came to understand that I would receive clarity about my own calling as I came into healthy relationship with the Messianic Jewish community.
In our Jewish Practices class, we discussed various synagogue customs that have presented difficulties for Messianic Jewish rabbis as more gentiles have joined Messianic communities. For example, is it appropriate for gentiles to wear tallitot, since they are traditionally a sign of Jewish identity and covenant responsibility? Or, if a congregation wishes to include gentile believers in the Torah service, or to provide something like a bar or bat mitzvah for gentile members of the synagogue, what will they do with the Torah blessing, which reads, Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the universe, who selected us from all the peoples and gave us your Torah? This blessing implies that the reader and most of the listeners belong to the covenant people of Israel. David Rudolph, a former congregational rabbi, had first-hand experience with these challenges. He suggested that while the tradition of the local congregation should be honored, there is wisdom in considering an alternative Torah blessing for the gentile believer, or having a Messianic Jew read the blessing on behalf of the gentile brother or sister called up to the Torah, so that the blessing can be read with sincerity.
When I, as a prospective student, first met Dr. Rudolph, he recommended three books to me: Jewish Roots, by Dan Juster, Introduction to Messianic Judaism, which Rudolph co-edited with Joel Willitts, and Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, by Mark Kinzer.5 The latter, as most readers will be aware, presents the ecclesial model Kinzer favors, and which he finds presented in the New Testament, which features two distinctive but interdependent branches of the body of Messiah, one Jewish, and the other gentile. This book, along with Rudolph’s instruction, changed my perspective on my role as a gentile believer. Before this, without realizing it, I had held incompatible views of these two groups. While I did see the Messianic Jewish movement as a distinctive group that God had established as part of his plan for the return of Yeshua and the restoration of the world, I still viewed the Church as a universal body. I had not made the connection that, if the Jewish branch of the ekklesia is distinctive, that means the gentile branch is distinctive as well. I believe that some of my difficulty over questions of practice had emerged because of this misconception. If the Church is a universal body, there ought to be a universal standard that applies across the board. This may be true as far as it goes, but Kinzer’s writing in particular was leading me to reconsider this with respect to the particular standards of Torah, often described as signpost commands, or boundary markers, which the Apostolic Writings do not emphasize as applying to gentiles.
The Value of Christian Tradition
Part of the process many of us have gone through in rediscovering the Jewish roots of our faith, and the value and priority of the Messianic Jewish movement, has involved reassessing our own Christian traditions. Christmas and Easter have taken a back seat, or even been delegitimized in favor of Jewish festivals. Sunday has lost its sacred status. Many of the classic hymns and choruses we grew up with are reassessed for potential supersessionist implications. Even the English form of the name, Jesus, and his title, Christ, lose their preeminence as lenses for our devotion.
As I came to realize that God might not be calling me to be a part of the Messianic Jewish community long-term, I felt somewhat like a man without a country. Having left behind the traditions of my youth, I wasn’t sure where to turn. I had come to learn that, while the origins of many Christian traditions and celebrations may not be rooted in paganism, their origins often were tied to a rejection of the Jewish people. How could I go back to Sunday, Easter, and Christmas, knowing this history? Yet I also came to recognize, largely through Mark Kinzer’s writing, and David Rudolph’s instruction, that God had called us as a community of believers from the nations, in this case the United States, to express our love and devotion for him in our own, culturally distinctive way. Surely we wouldn’t start from scratch. Even in a missions context, the existing customs of the community should be incorporated into the expression of the church.
I turned a corner in my thinking when I read Kinzer’s article on Nicaea. In this article, Mark Kinzer masterfully reveals parallels between the early church’s response to the Arian crisis, and the response of kabbalistic Jewish philosophers to a comparable oversimplification of God’s nature in the Jewish tradition. Before articulating this connection, though, he addresses some problems related to the Council of Nicaea, and the history of the Nicene Creed. He acknowledges the anti-Jewish context of the council, in particular its rejection of the Jewish dating for Passover. But he argues that the creed itself need not be bound to this history. He writes, “When Christians honor the Council of Nicaea, they are doing one thing and one thing only: they are paying homage to Yeshua, and glorifying him as the divine Son who is ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:3).” At this point Kinzer drew a comparison that surprised me. He wrote, “The Nicene Creed is thus analogous to the Church’s celebration of Christmas. . . . Neither the holiday nor the Creed should be judged by the purity of its sources or the circumstances of its adoption, but instead by the way it has been understood and practiced by Christians through the centuries.”6
Before reading this article, I was already aware that most Messianic Jewish leaders, including David Rudolph and Dan Juster, affirmed the celebration by Christians of Christmas and Easter, as well as Sunday worship. However, Mark Kinzer has been one of the strongest advocates of Jewish tradition in the Messianic community. Reading his argument for the legitimacy of Christmas, in particular for the reason he expressed, clarified for me why this holiday is important. All through my childhood, my parents, like many others, fought against the commercialization of the Christmas season, and sought to draw our attention to Jesus, as God’s gift to the world—the best gift of all. Many of the Christmas carols were among my favorite hymns, and brought a sense of the Lord’s presence that is still very special to me. I understood that by the same reasoning Sunday as a special day of worship, commemorating Yeshua’s resurrection, should keep its place in our community.
Circumcision and Jewish Distinctiveness
When my first son was born, I struggled with the question of whether to have him circumcised, but for reasons unrelated to gentile Torah observance. I had been circumcised in the 1970s because it was considered medically beneficial and was customary. The truth is I wanted my son to be like me. In the end, though, my wife’s objection, combined with the $500 price tag (not covered by insurance) persuaded me against the procedure. By the time my third son was born three years ago, I had come to a greater understanding of the importance of Jewish distinction. This time, I again chose not to circumcise my son, but for better reasons. God has called the Jewish people to be set apart from all of the nations, and has given them the sign of circumcision as one of the primary markers of that calling. If I have my sons circumcised, I am in some way diminishing the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. By not circumcising them, I am helping to protect that distinctive calling and identity.
In part because of Mark Kinzer and David Rudolph’s teaching, I have come to view my relationship to the other signpost commands in a similar way. If I as a gentile celebrate all of the Jewish feasts in the traditional way, observe the Sabbath, and eat kosher, it becomes more difficult to see the distinction between me and a Messianic Jew. Perhaps neither I nor this hypothetical Messianic Jew have any problem with that, since we are brothers in Messiah, but does this compromise God’s purposes in setting the Jewish people apart as a sign of his holiness to the nations? I have come to believe that the best way for me to honor Jewish distinctiveness in these areas is not to attempt to emulate them—at least not in ways that might be mistaken for traditional Jewish observance. On the other hand, it is appropriate for us as Christians to teach on the meaning of the feasts, to recognize them, and even to develop our own traditions around them. This can be done in ways that are honoring to Jewish tradition without seeking to copy it exactly. None of this requires or calls for an abandonment of Christian traditions which, whatever their origin, have been centered on Jesus for generations.
Conclusion: Returning to the Church
After spending a year at our former Messianic synagogue, Sukkat Shalom, my wife and I felt the Lord calling us to return to the church. Since my Nazarene upbringing, I had joined a charismatic church during college, and my wife and I were both involved in the Renewal, a revival movement which began in 1994 at the Toronto Airport Vineyard church (now Catch the Fire Toronto) under the leadership of John and Carroll Arnott and Randy Clark. Before moving to Texas, we helped plant a church in Springfield, Oregon, which emphasized worship, the presence of God, prophetic ministry, and miraculous healing. While all of these values were shared by the leadership of our synagogue, we missed the particular expression of them that we had left behind. As I came to recognize and value the distinctive calling of the Church, I felt drawn to go back to this community. My wife and I wanted to raise our boys in that same environment of intense and extended worship, and with an abundance of prophetic revelation, that we had enjoyed. So while we didn’t move back to Oregon, the Lord led us to a church here in Texas that, to us, feels like home.
Many other gentile believers have been called to be a part of the Messianic Jewish movement long-term, or even permanently. This is particularly the case for those who have married Messianic Jews, and made a commitment to raise their children as Jews. The Messianic movement has done a wonderful job of welcoming these individuals, and incorporating them into the community. Others, like myself, may have been called to be a part of the movement for a season. In my case, I felt that my commitment to abstain from foods forbidden to Jews, and to celebrate Shabbat and the feasts, was a part of this calling. It allowed me and my family to enter in more fully to the life of the community during this time. I find the Nazirite vow to be a helpful analogy for this experience. For me, it was a choice to follow these standards for a season. When I rested from my work on the Sabbath, ate matzah during Passover, or pitched a tent during Sukkot,7 I did it out of love and devotion for the God of Israel. My desire, like the desire of the founders of the Nazarene Church, was to draw close to God, and I did these things as tangible expressions of that desire.
One thing that stands out to me from my experience is that it was Messianic Jewish leaders who prompted my return to the Church. Today I feel called to the Church. I want to be a part of the community, to worship on Sunday, to sing the old hymns and the new worship songs, and to remember Jesus’ birth with my family on Christmas. I’m still uncomfortable with the Christmas tree. But it was Messianic Jewish leaders who sparked this transition—and not leaders who are ambivalent about Jewish tradition, but precisely those who most celebrate and value that tradition. This is a picture to me of how we should relate to one another. We should celebrate and honor what God is doing in the other community in such a way that those who belong to that community are strengthened in their commitment to it, rather than wanting to leave it behind and join our own.
Joseph Culbertson is a master’s student in the Messianic Jewish Studies program at The King’s University in Southlake, Texas. He moved to Texas with his wife and three boys from Springfield, Oregon, where the couple formed part of the core team of a church plant, and where Joseph served as a worship leader.
1 Ronald L. Eisenberg, The 613 Mitzvot: A Contemporary Guide to the Commandments of Judaism (Rockville, MD: Schreiber, 2015), 73.
2 Preston Benjamin, “The Ongoing Importance of the Nazirite Vow for Messianic Judaism in Antiquity and Modernity” (Unpublished paper, The King’s University, May 3, 2017), 18.
3 “A Fresh Look at the First Century: Yeshua within Judaism,” by Joey Benami, published by Sukkat Shalom, Feb 11, 2018, https://youtu.be/HTXl6ZYfy_8, accessed on http://www.sukkatshalom.us/videos/shabbat-messages, May 10, 2019.
4 Mark S. Kinzer, “Beginning with the End: The Place of Eschatology in the Messianic Jewish Canonical Narrative,” Kesher, Issue 32, Winter-Spring 2018.
7 Camping in a tent during Sukkot was my own attempt to honor the Torah’s instructions for this holiday (Lev 23:39–43). The traditional Jewish sukkah, or booth, differs from a tent in several respects.
5 Daniel Juster, Jewish Roots: Understanding Your Jewish Faith, Revised Edition (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2013). Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, General Editors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013). Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005)
6 Mark S. Kinzer, “Finding Our Way through Nicaea: The Deity of Yeshua, Bilateral Ecclesiology, and Redemptive Encounter with the Living God” Kesher, Issue 24, Summer 2010, 11.