I have a friend who led a Messianic congregation with few Jews. In the early days, he assumed that non-Jewish followers of Yeshua could and should take on a life of Torah and even specifically Jewish ways of keeping the commandments.
But over time, he realized, “We are not a synagogue. We are not a Jewish group.” What did he do?
He changed the designation of his congregation. It is no longer a Messianic congregation. I won’t mention the name his group now uses (I’d rather not have people guess who I am talking about and besides, I know of several parallel situations so that this is not a lone occurrence). But what he is now is the leader of a group of Judaically-informed Christians who wish to worship with traditions drawn from Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. He is what I would call a Judeo-Christian congregation.
Is this a direction some Messianic congregations might want to go in? Is this a way for people to incorporate some Jewish traditions without assuming a shallow or false de facto identity as Jews?
I’ve laid out the history of the problems of Messianic Judaism and identity confusion in this series. See especially Part 4, where I summarize and restate much of what has been said before.
I am suggesting solutions because I hear regularly from a large number of Jews and non-Jews who love Torah, Israel, praying the Siddur, keeping Sabbath and dietary law. I hear from Jews who want Messianic Judaism to be a movement about renewing Judaism in Messiah Yeshua. I hear from non-Jews who care deeply about that aim as well and I also hear from some who, frankly, are motivated much more by a love of the worship traditions of Israel than a love for the modern Jewish community (many have no connection to the Jewish community).
I hear from all of these people whose love for God is beyond question. They are seeking something. They don’t want to be in a mess. They don’t want to do harm by perpetuating confusion and diminishing the importance of Jewish identity. Some of them just want to keep the Sabbath in peace. And some want to be part of what God is doing to renew his chosen people, the modern Jewish community, in Yeshua.
Here in Part 5, I want to suggest that a name makes a difference.
The name “Messianic,” I am arguing, and feel free to politely challenge me with reasons why you think I am wrong, should be reserved for groups involved in the Jewish community and attracting a constituency that is significantly Jewish and intermarried. We were the ones who first used the name. We used it to designate a movement of Jews in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The world hears “Messianic” and thinks it means Jewish.
Of course, so many non-Jewish “Messianic” groups exist, many outsiders may already have changed their expectation from “this group is Jewish” to “this is a group of Christians who act like Jews.”
But perhaps it is not too late to save the name, to redeem it.
And I like the name Judeo-Christian for a lot of reasons:
(1) This can be a group with Jews and non-Jews together. It is both Judeo and Christian.
(2) This name tells people right off what you are: Christians who are Judaically informed in tradition and belief.
(3) It emphasizes something many of us have realized for a decade or more: Judaism and Christianity are not opposites, but actually are complementary.
And I believe we should get to work, in Messianic Jewish synagogues and Judeo-Christian congregations, discussing ways to differentiate between Jewish and non-Jewish observances. Do we really want non-Jews making light of the irrevocable election of the people of Israel by God in the Torah blessing? That is, do we really want non-Jews saying the blessing to God who “selected us from all the peoples and gave us his Torah”?
Yeah, I know the arguments. You can say, “We can reinterpret this blessing in light of New Covenant realities. We non-Jews in Messiah are also chosen.”
But, the intention of the prayer is to say that God selected one people out of the peoples of the world. The Bible is clear that this refers to Israelites . . . literally. And the Torah is not given to Americans or Japanese or Polynesians or whomever. The Torah is given to the Jewish people.
Why should our rituals declare untruth and work against the truth that is precious to God? (I hope you don’t need me to prove to you, from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that Jewish covenantal identity remains important to God).
There are many areas to discuss differentiation with regard to: Bar and Bat Mitzvah (for non-Jews?), a B’ris (for non-Jewish babies?), blessings written as if coming from members of Israel, patterns of dress that indicate belonging to a particular type of Jewish community (gentile Hasidim?), and so on.
In Part 6, I will address the reasons why non-Jews might want to be a part of Messianic Judaism proper. But remember, I define Messianic Judaism as a movement by and for Jews and intermarrieds. I am not against the full inclusion of non-Jews, even though this will make us vulnerable to criticism. I believe that some Messianic Jewish communities can model inclusion of non-Jews without diluting purpose.