Random Thoughts on Messianic Judaism
I have had a number of interactions with Messianic Jews over the years, attended services and Bible studies, and even attended a Jews for Jesus conference. I have also had the privilege of knowing some fine Jewish Christians in various churches…as well as a few scoundrels and nutters in all aforementioned camps. These encounters, for weal and for woe, continue to bring up questions of doctrine and practice, particularly given my interest in church history and membership in the LCMS, which has a Jewish outreach program (appleofhiseye.org). The issue of the church’s corporate and individual mission/responsibility to the Jews raises the question of where and how Jews professing faith in Christ are to be received into the community of the faithful; IMNSHO in the same way as believers of other ethnicities are, and that is right alongside other brethren in the faith. Not all see that way clearly, hence there are a variety of options for Jewish believers. That being so, I present my take on Messianic Judaism (or MJ):
- What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if Gentiles can baptize the pagan Roman calendar and sprinkle holy water on pagan Germanic customs, it’s a bit rich to criticize Jewish believers who do the same with their culture. Christ not only celebrated the Jewish holidays, he instituted them; he certainly didn’t celebrate Christmas. The problem comes when such observances are seen as Divine mandates for justification and/or sanctification; ie works-righteousness and will-worship. While Talmudic “building a fence about Torah” started out with the best intentions, it lead to killing Messiah precisely by replacing God’s authority with man’s, as there can only be one supreme authority. Then again, the church is not off the hook, having done the same in adding and detracting from Scripture as well as persecuting the saints who called them out for it.
2. MJ is not Judaism per se, but Christianity; other Jews are not fooled, and neither should Gentiles be. To use the term “Judaism” so equivocally is a needles offense to unbelieving Jews – the very problem the MJ movement was started to combat. Besides, orthodox Judaism is also messianic (albeit messiah is yet to come), rendering the term MJ a misnomer.
3. MJ is not judaizing per se, although the movement has its fill of judaizers. Of course, Gentile churches have their fill of latter-day Pharisees and “gentilizers:” extra-scriptural rules about dress, music, media, schooling choice, alcohol, etc ad nauseam, obedience to which becomes a test of one’s credibility as a Christian – and that while claiming to believe in sola Scriptura. No group has cornered the hypocrisy market.
4. If Gentile Christians can form their churches around nationality and other forms of identity politics, so can the Jews – although nobody should. Vanilla American is no less of an ethnicity than Jewish American, and one need not resort to the church-growth paradigm to realize that churches can provide more offense than the Gospel in being culturally homogeneous. Some sanctified common sense and Gospel love should make those believers from without the dominant group feel accepted. Then again, MJ’s should accept Gentile believers as they are without treating them as second-class citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven; the church is to be an house of prayer for all people rather than an ethnic club at prayer.
5. If, as explicated in Luther’s Large Catechism under the Third Commandment, divine worship is no longer tied to a specific day, then MJ’s should feel free to worship on the OT Sabbath; it may run contrary to our tradition, but ours runs contrary to theirs. To my knowledge, only the Reformed following the Westminster standards have a stated position on Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, and so most Gentile believers have no right getting their knickers in knots over over this MJ practice.
6. Gentile Christians should be more worried about how segregated their churches are than how Jewish believers and Gentile wannabees are. On that subject, MJ has a substantial number of Gentile believers who choose to adopt Jewish cultural practices for any number of reasons; then again, the Reformed churches have the saying “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,” while some converts to Eastern Orthodoxy have affected not only ethnic customs but foreign accents and dress. No group has cornered the goofiness market.
6. MJ worship is often contemporary Evangelical worship with minor melodies and scattered Hebraisms, bearing no relation to historic Jewish worship of either the synagogue or temple. Were MJ’s to be interested in the latter, they might find the Liturgy of St James the Less – the very brother of Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew and Aramaic) – most informative, as high-church worship follows the templar (and therefore Jewish) pattern. In that sense, LCMS congregations still using the old Lutheran Hymnal worship more Jewishly than MJ’s. Even the lowest of the low-church, those Presbyterian churches still practicing exclusive a capella Psalmody, are more Jewish than MJ’s in singing the Psalms of David rather than manmade hymns. Go figure.
7. MJ’s are as divided as Gentile Christians, ranging from seventh-day Evangelicals (sola gratia) to seventh-day Catholics (requiring the works of the Law), baptacostals, liberals, and a full tally of -isms and nuttiness just like Gentile churches…but no confessional Protestantism or consciousness of the Ecumenical Creeds. The only consistent creedal position MJ would appear to be dispensationalism; as with its Evangelical matrix, MJ’s “hope is built on nothing less than Scofield’s notes and Scripture Press.” Unfortunately, confessional Protestants as a group have not behaved kindly towards Jews, and so there may be a “credibility gap” resulting in a lack of interest in the churches and symbols of the Reformation. Historically this has been more true of Lutheran than Reformed churches. Then again, the errors of dispensationalism make it a poor bequest to Jewish believers, many of whom need to look beyond their own ethnic interests if serious about doing God’s work in the world.
8. Christian Zionism is no more objectionable than American civic religion; neither has any place in Christian doctrine and practice. That being said, neither does the new and fashionable antisemitism thinly veiled as opposition to Israel or support for Palestinians. That being said, both Israel and the Palestine territories need the Gospel; that and that alone is and should be the concern of the church.
9. For the most part, much of MJ constitutes the sort of adiaphora one sees in churches, and, if seen in such a light by all parties, make their synagogues/churches no more foreign to us than our churches are to them. Just as with us, though, once these adiaphora become articles of faith or yardsticks of judgment, believers fall into error and sin. For example, the dating of Easter as determined at the First Counsel of Nicaea was a deliberate attempt to separate the day from its Jewish antecedent of Passover despite the type-antitype relationship those holidays have with each other; the churches of Asia Minor celebrated Easter on Passover (14 Nisan) and were finally forced to comply with the conciliar decree. Even today, though, those churches faithful to the historic understanding of Westminster celebrate no liturgical year, as every Sunday is seen as an Easter. The point is that the liturgical year with its customs and ceremonies was not commanded or commended in Scripture, and thus cannot be forced upon believers or used as a gauge of Christian maturity and sincerity. Funny, though, how those who forbid a liturgical year can have a midweek prayer service and expect attendance thereat…
10. The above being said, MJ neither contains the majority of Jewish Christians nor represents them. There are and have been Jewish Christians who have been active members in many church bodies, who have not felt unwelcome or awkward (funny what a little kindness can do). Sad to say but some churches have acted as if the command to preach to the Jew first did not apply in their case; of course, there are those of other ethnicities with similar stories, and so no church has cornered the bigotry market. There is no excuse for any of it.
11. Eastern European Jewish cultural practices, while having some basis in the OT, is not a “Biblical culture” per se, having accretions from the various cultures the Jews have encountered in their diaspora. Much is also of rabbinic origin, eg ceremonies surrounding the holidays and legal observances; Jesus’ earthly ministry included open defiance of a number of these. Other practices originate in their own folkish superstitions (every group has them). As such, Gentile believers should not feel obligated to practice them and more than pressuring Hebrew Christians (Jewish believers who join traditional churches) to accept theirs.