I went yesterday to hear my friend, Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, deliver a paper at the LCJE North America Conference being held right here in my own city of Atlanta. LCJE (Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism) is a network of missionaries to the Jewish people. I used to be involved in LCJE and served on the international board for a time. As my paradigm changed from the missions world to the congregational movement, I ceased involvement in LCJE.
There are two aspects of the Jewish missions world that I think are helpful to understand: their role in history and what divides the missions from the Messianic congregations.
From the perspective of history, there would be no Messianic Judaism had it not been for the Jewish missions, such as American Board of Missions to the Jews (now Chosen People Ministries) and Jews for Jesus. Jews for Jesus in particular was the catalytic organization for the Messianic Jewish movement in the 1970’s. Sure, it was the Messianic Jewish Alliance and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations where the congregational movement began to take shape. But Jews for Jesus led the way in establishing a groundswell of Jewish faith in Yeshua.
The congregations and the missions are divided. There is disagreement over methodology and even the meaning of Jewish identity. To put it simply, the missions value the work of obtaining decisions for Yeshua by Jewish people and work to produce such decisions. They hand out pamphlets and work with churches to meet with Jews who have Christian friends. Although cultivating some type of life in Messiah (discipleship) is a value, it is the proclamation of a decisional message that motivates more than anything else.
The congregations value life lived in Messiah. For congregations, decisions are not enough and an over-emphasis on decisional proclamation is a problem. From our perspective, inclusion in a local community of Jewish followers of Yeshua is the measuring stick. Also, a decision by a Jewish person to follow Yeshua is of limited value if that Jewish person then assimilates into Christian culture and essentially neglects or abandons their identity as Jews.
Sadly, the congregations and missions began to divide in the 1980’s, when the revival of Jewish faith in Yeshua was beginning to fade and the glory days were starting to disappear.
Messianic Jewish congregations value participation in the Jewish community, a strong Jewish identity built on relationships with Jews in the mainstream Jewish world and not primarily in the Christian world. Jewish mission organizations are much more in the Christian world and leaders in Jewish missions almost without fail worship in churches. I hear talk from some of them to the effect of, “We support both churches and Messianic synagogues as places for Jewish believers,” but I do not see this reality. The funding for Jewish missions comes from churches and it is their primary place of identity.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no qualms about the validity of Christianity or churches in general.
I just don’t believe that churches are the best place for Jewish followers of Yeshua. There is no social support for Torah living in churches. Quite the opposite, eating a ham sandwich is practically a rite of allegiance to Christ for many churched Jews. To not eat the ham sandwich is taken by well-meaning but tragically misinformed Christians as a form of legalism or Judaizing.
Most importantly, Jewish identity is not passed down from generation to generation by Jews whose primary community is in a church and participation in the life of Klal Yisrael (the wider community of the Jewish people) is virtually impossible for Jews enculturated in Christianity.
It is important for me to say that there are good reasons why some Jews who follow Yeshua choose churches. In many places where Jewish people live, there is no viable Messianic synagogue. By viable, I mean a synagogue which actually has Jewish people in it (it’s tragic and ironic that we have produced Gentile Messianic congregations in many places) and where the teaching and community are balanced and healthy. I find that some Jews in places without a viable Messianic synagogue make good choices, belonging to a church and a mainstream synagogue, in order to make the best in their situation.
So, to summarize, LCJE represents the Jewish missions. The MJAA, UMJC, and IMJA represent the congregations. There is still interaction between the missions and congregations, but very little in most places. Tragically, the missions and congregations need each other, but to work together there would have to be some major paradigm changes. The issued that divide are simple and I could list them as follows:
–The missions see Christianity as the primary community of Jewish followers of Yeshua while the congregations see Klal Yisrael as the primary community.
–The missions tend to view Torah observance and traditional Jewish life as optional or even in some cases forbidden, while the congregations overwhelmingly view Torah as a continuing obligation for Jewish followers of Yeshua.
–The missions emphasize proclamation and decisions while congregations emphasize community and the living out of Jewish life in Messiah together (the missions might say I am being unfair here, but I could be glad to elaborate).
My Story, From Missions to Congregation
It might help my readers from various points of view (Jewish, Messianic Jewish, and Christian) if I explain my story and the changes in outlook that led me out of the missions world and out of LCJE. I am hopeful that a reconciliation between missions and congregations could happen, but I am not overly optimistic since I feel the missions would have to do most of the changing for that to happen. Perhaps my story will illuminate the issues.
I was not born Jewish. In April, my family will complete a conversion process.
I was not born Christian. My family was raised in an environment of blended atheism and long-lapsed Christianity on my mother’s side. I considered myself an atheist until my second year of college when I discovered the message of Jesus primarily through C.S. Lewis’s books.
I found out very quickly and very surprisingly that Jesus was Jewish. I could not simply write off the importance of this fact, though most of my new-found Christian friends regarded his Jewish identity as irrelevant.
Within nine months of my decision to follow Jesus, I traveled to Israel. I attended a Messianic synagogue as well as a Baptist church. The Messianic synagogue, sadly, did not share with me the importance of being Jewish. Messianic Judaism, it seemed, was something all Christians should do. There was no distinction between Jew and Gentile except in this sense: only Jews could be leaders at the synagogue. And there was no conversion.
I didn’t feel I needed conversion. I was part of a group of Jews and Gentiles empowered to live Jewish lives together. It was confusing and my conversion in April is a long overdue correction. In saying this, I do not mean that non-Jews have no place in Messianic Judaism. I think there is a major place for non-Jews in Messianic Judaism and I am not advocating conversion as the only solution. But that is a topic for another time.
I lived at that time a compartmentalized life. I was primarily a Christian, but I saw myself as a missionary to Jewish people and practiced some Jewish customs. I did not believe, nor did the Messianic synagogue, that Torah was an obligation or way of life. Lighting Shabbat candles was a cultural choice like eating bagels instead of biscuits.
I left Georgia Tech and went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago to study Jewish thought and become a better missionary. I planned to go to Israel as a missionary. Eventually I took a post in Atlanta as a missionary to the Jewish people where I worked for five and a half years.
My stance toward Judaism was one calling people out of Judaism and into Christianity. I saw Judaism as the religion of self-effort and Christianity as the religion of grace. I did not understand Judaism and did not take the time to learn the Siddur, rabbinic thought, or Jewish theology.
Nonetheless, over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the approach of Jewish missions. I slowly returned to something that had occurred to me at the beginning of my journey: Jewish life and Yeshua faith went hand in hand and were not opposed.
It bothered me more and more that our methods were confrontational. It seemed a scandal that we led our Jewish friends to join churches where their Jewish identity would be further suppressed. I realized more and more that the biblical gospel is not decisional but communal. That is, the priority of getting people to make decisions to follow Yeshua was misplaced. The true priority of the gospel is the healing of Israel and the nations in Yeshua, a total redemption of body, soul, spirit in a corporate sense and not individualistically. People are saved into a community called to transform the world, not into a private contract with God guaranteeing bliss in the afterlife. A decision for Yeshua without ensuing involvement in a community of Jews living Yeshua’s teaching together was a very short-sighted goal.
You might say, “But if these Jews were placed in church communities, that was fulfilling the need for community and transformation.” The problem is, it was not fulfilling the need for Jews as Jews to be in community and transformation. It was transformation from Jewish life to Christian life. And in too many evangelical Christian churches, transformation is not even an option. Their theology is so decisional, people attend church to hear that they are saved and not to go out and heal anyone or anything.
I then made a providential but foolish choice. I started a synagogue. I was a Gentile (and still will be until April). I knew next to nothing about Judaism. For the first few years I stumbled along and a great group of friends grew out of it and they remained faithful when I was learning and making mistakes by the truckload.
The UMJC, Hashivenu, and my current friends and colleagues at MJTI saved me from myself. Even as a new synagogue leader, I still thought like a missionary. I was opposed to people I now value as close friends. I stood up in a meeting and opposed Mark Kinzer to the whole crowd, but Paul Saal worked with me and gently helped me along as my paradigm expanded.
I went through a pendulum swing and became a little anti-Christian for a while. Immaturity is a constant problem. Over time, and again largely through UMJC and Hashivenu / MJTI friendships, I came again to a great appreciation for the Church as well as Klal Yisrael. My friends at synagogue put up with me through some changes and mis-starts.
Early in the process, I dissociated from LCJE. I lived and still live in an ironic dilemma: feeling that these people in Jewish missions are in many cases among the brightest and finest people, salt of the earth, and yet being opposed to various aspects of their work.
Will the missions accept some of the priorities of the congregations? Will the missions find a place someday working with the congregations? Will churches support a kind of Jewish mission work that is transformed into a Messianic Jewish mode or will churches always be suspicious of anyone who says that Jews belong with Jews in community?
I don’t know. But I do sense that leaders in Jewish missions are at some level dissatisfied as I was. Perhaps they want congregations to change, to emphasize Torah less. Michael Brown, one of the best known Jewish missionary leaders, read a paper last year calling for Messianic Jews to be more Messianic and less Jewish. Maybe the missions would want us to make Torah optional and reject rabbinic tradition’s authority over our lives so that they would feel comfortable sending their disciples to us.
But I know that many of these leaders are on a journey to a holistic gospel. I know that the disciplined reading of biblical texts is doing its work in all of us. And biblical texts support a gospel that is far beyond decisions and converts. Perhaps many mission leaders want to see Jewish communal life for their disciples but feel the congregations would require doctrinal change before they would be comfortable sending disciples into our congregations.
I reflected on all of this yesterday as Rabbi Dr. Dauermann, senior scholar at MJTI and a colleague and friend, delivered a bold, passionate, and persuasive paper on Yeshua as the Son of David. Tomorrow I will blog about Rabbi Dauermann’s message, a mature exploration of the Son of David theme in apostolic preaching.
I will be at another panel in the LCJE meeting tomorrow and the questions about the future will continue to resonate in my mind. It would be good to have more people working together in this great idea of the renewal of Israel in Yeshua. May God help us all to be free from pride and to be transformed by his Son that we might heal others as we have been healed.