When a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) wrote a story about me in August of 1997, she portrayed me as "a conflicted man." Our conversation had been fairly cordial. She knew I had drawn some criticism for cosponsoring a conference at Fuller Theological Seminary with the American Jewish Committee. The conference focused on the ways in which religious people attempt to influence public life, which should have been a fairly tame topic. But in arranging the conference, the Jewish planners made it clear they were nervous about the presence of a sizable group of messianic Jews at Fuller. I had insisted that these Jewish converts to Christianity be encouraged to attend our sessionsotherwise there could be no conference.
My Jewish friends reluctantly agreed, but they weren't the only ones who were nervous about the arrangement. Messianic Jews have long resented the ways in which they are shunned by the Jewish community, and many of them worried that I had forged an unhealthy compromise. It looked to them like they were being allowed into the discussion only under the assumption that they would be willing to be a part of a bland "dialogue," in which important issues between traditional Jews and Jewish followers of Christ would be set aside as irrelevant, thus giving the impression that Fuller was backing off from a commitment to Jewish evangelism. Ironically, some constituents of the American Jewish Committee had the opposite worry: They feared that by agreeing to meet on a seminary campus known for its commitment to Jews for Jesus and similar groups, the Jewish community would implicitly endorse the legitimacy of Jewish evangelism.
When I talked with the reporter from the JTA, I told her I was willing to live with these tensions. We evangelicals are indeed committed to Jewish evangelism. But we also need to be in dialogue with the larger Jewish community about important matters of common interest. This is why she portrayed me as "a conflicted man" on the subject of evangelical-Jewish relations. The president of Fuller, she wrote, is "torn between fealty to his faith, which requires him to proselytize 'the Jew first,' and his desire to respect all religious people."
To reinforce her point, she quoted a well-known rabbi with whom I have worked on several projects dealing with religion in public life. Acknowledging our friendship, the rabbi offered the opinion that I was caught up in "the irreconcilable tension that is so much a part of evangelical-Jewish relations, and between his faith commitment and his commitment toward Jews and society." But he also told the reporter that there was hope for me. I am, he said, "a religious pilgrim" who may eventually come to a more consistent position on the subject.
These Jewish commentators have me pretty much figured out. I am indeed firmly committed to Jewish evangelisma fact they understandably find disturbing. I do also have a deep respect for the Jewish people. And there is indeed a kind of "irreconcilable tension" in trying to hold this all together. I hope the rabbi is rightthat someday I will hold a more consistent position on the subject. In the meantime, I have chosen to live with the tension.
Actually, the tension I experience in this area is rooted in some continuing theological puzzles I regularly think about. How are we as New Testament Christians to understand the theological status of Jewishness in our present context?
For a while in my life, I tried hard to get rid of the puzzle by trying outindeed, by defending in some of my writingswhat seemed to me a straightforward theological position, a fairly standard one for Reformed Christians, especially as they attempt to provide a coherent alternative to dispensationalist teaching. The position rests on this basic theological move: to treat God's special attitude of favor toward Israel in the Old Testament as now being completely transferred to the New Testament church.
There is much to be said for making this move. The church is, after all, in an important sense "the new Israel." I have been especially taken with the imagery employed in the First Epistle of Peter. The apostle is writing to a group of Christians that obviously includes Gentiles, but he begins his letter with Old Testament terminology, greeting his readers as the "exiles of the Dispersion" (1 Pet. 1:1, NRSV). Especially significant is the way, in the second chapter, he takes a series of images of Old Testament Israel and applies them to the New Testament church: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." He then adds a quotation from one of the prophets: "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people" (1 Pet. 2:9-10, NRSV). These verses helped clarify my own thinking about the nature of Christian community.
At the Bible conference where I worked in my teenage years, I heard a fundamentalist preacher argue that Satan always promises unity, and that in our own day the devil was actively promoting "one world race, one world church, and one world government." This meant, he insisted, that all true Bible-believing Christians must oppose the racial desegregation movement, the World Council of Churches, and the United Nations.
I remember feeling at the time that this view, even though it tied a lot of issues together in a neat package, was nonetheless a troubling one. I had no strong views about ecumenism or international relations, but I had been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and Jackie Robinson was my hero: I was thrilled by his courage as he overcame prejudice in desegregating major-league baseball, and I had a hard time thinking of him as a tool of Satan.
I gradually came to reject the whole picture set forth by that preacher. But I was never completely clear about how unbiblical his viewpoint was until I realized the implications of 1 Peter 2:9-10. God is putting together a new kind of "race," a new kind of "priesthood," and a new kind of "nation." Jesus is in the business of actively promoting a unity that he does not want us to define ourselves along artificial lines of what the sinful world sees as ethnic-racial or denominational or national identities. Through the blood of Jesus Christ we have been made into a new kind of people, in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Here the idea of the church as a new kind of Israel is a compelling image.
Searching out 'Israel'
This way of viewing things has been constructive for my understanding of the nature of the churchand indeed of the basis for Christian social ethics. But I realize now that I have often put the underlying theological point in too unqualified a manner.
Once I gave a speech, for example, on the topic "Where Is Israel Today?" I wanted my audience to understand where we will find that group of people in contemporary life who are the present-day intended beneficiaries of the promises God made to Israel in Old Testament times. Then I explained what I took to be two mistaken answers Christians often give to my question. The first answer I gave was that the contemporary beneficiary of those promises is, simply, flesh-and-blood Israelthe present-day Jewish people. This, I explained, is the viewpoint of dispensational theology. To illustrate the point, I quoted Lewis Sperry Chafer's statement that we must never confuse "God's consistent and eternal earthly purposeswhich is the substance of Judaismand his consistent and eternal heavenly purpose, which is the substance of Christianity." On this view, God's ancient promises to the Jewish people are still in effect. The Lord wants them to be a flourishing nation, and he has brought them back to their original homeland where, in fulfillment of prophecy, they will someday acknowledge Jesus as the true Messiah of Israel.
The second answer was that of civil religion. I pointed out the deeply entrenched pattern in the United States of seeing the American people as "a chosen people." Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, for one, had been very explicit in setting forth this case. Many of the Old Testament prophecies were now being fulfilled, he said, in North America. He singled out Isaiah 60:1, 3, 5, with its vision of a glorified Jerusalem, as especially relevant in this regard:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.
I also talked about how I saw this theme influencing our foreign policy, through which we often acted as if we were a nation with a messianic mission in the world. I rejected these two answers and set forth a third as the only proper way to understand who "Israel" is today: The church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel. All of the basic promises of divine favor God made to the Jews in the Old Testament are now directed toward that blood-bought community drawn "from every tribe and language and people and nation" and formed by sovereign grace into a new kind of "kingdom and priests to serve our God" (Rev. 5:9-10).
Living with messiness
I am no longer content with the starkness of this way of spelling things out. To be sure, I still do not have any sympathy for the way in which civil religion selectively adapts Old Testament themes to undergird a superpatriotism. But I cannot simply reject the notion of a continuing attitude of divine favor for the Jewish people in the way I once dideven though I continue to make much good use of the idea that the church has also been incorporated, in an important sense, into a new and expanded version of the old Israel.
The only failing grade I ever received for a course during my years in school was while I was a seminary student. The course was on the Epistle to the Romans, and much of the grade was based on the writing of a ten-page exegetical paper. I chose to write on Romans 11, where the apostle Paul discusses the theological status of the Jews since the coming of Christ. I eagerly set about to complete the assignment, reading commentators who set forth a variety of interpretations. I also worked through the chapter in the Greek lan guage, reading it over many times.
I never wrote the paper, and my "Incomplete" became an F on my record. It is one of the few times in my life when I simply could not put my thoughts on paper. The more I read the apostle Paul on the subject, the more I was convinced he was not setting forth a clear step-by-step case for a coherent perspective on the subject. This awareness was deeply distressing for me. I wanted him to be absolutely clear about the status of the Jews. I was committed to being orthodox in my theology, and I had no room for messiness in what I saw as the Bible's teaching on an important topic. Furthermore, I was studying in a Reformed seminary, and I was eager to demonstrate that the promises associated with God's old covenant with ethnic Israel have now been transferred to the church of Jesus Christ, the people of the new covenant. But I did not know how to make the case confidently, so I never wrote the paper.
In subsequent years, I developed my views about the church as the new Israel as a basis for Christian social ethics. In doing so, as I have already reported, I made much use of 1 Peter and other passages that gave support to such a view. But I always had a nagging sense I was cheating a bitthat I had no right to state my case so boldly unless I could make my peace with Romans 11.
Well, I have made my peaceafter a fashion, that is. I can now read Romans 11 with a quiet conscience because I have learned how to live with some messiness in my theology. I do not see the apostle Paul as making a perfectly coherent case on the subject of the Jews. He goes back and forth: Their rejection of Jesus as the heaven-sent Messiah is seriously displeasing to God; they are branches that have been broken off, and a wild shoot has been grafted in their place (see Rom. 11:17), but Gentiles should not take this as a cause for pride, since the Jews are still the "natural branches" who will eventually be grafted back into the tree (11:25). Does this mean, then, that Israel as a people will be saved? Well, "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (11:32). Having read Paul thus far on the subject, I want desperately to have him answer a few more important questions for clarification, since I cannot put all of this together into a coherent package. But instead he starts singing a hymn about the mystery of God's ways. And I have learned at this stage of my theological journey to set aside my questions and simply sing along with Paul:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom
and know ledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?"
"Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?"
For from him and through him
and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Dispensational blind spots
Looking back on my experience of not being able to write my paper for my seminary class, I can see now I was trying too hard not to side with dispensationalism in its insistence on the continuing special status of the Jews in God's dealings with humankind. I can now allow myself to experience some gratitude to dispensationalists for influencing me on this topic. They gave me a disposition to wrestle with some significant questions, some of which have great practical importance for the life of the church of Jesus Christ in today's world. At the same time, it is on many of the practical issues that I find dispensationalism to be especially unhelpfuleven an obstacle at times that stands in the way of clear thinking about the church's mission.
I am especially disturbed by what I see as a refusal on the part of many dispensationalists to criticize the policies of Israeli governments. A few years ago, I asked an Arab Christian from the Middle East a question I regularly pose to international visitors: "What are the theological issues the folks back home really get excited about?" Without a moment's hesitation, she responded: "Whether we can preach from the Old Testament! When the worshipers in our churches hear the stories about Israel as God's chosen people, it is very upsetting, given the way the present-day Israelis have brought such destruction into our lives."
Christians in Arab countries have some good reasons to resent the policies of Israeli governments. Unfortunately, dispensationalists often obscure these issues. They are often so caught up in an enthusiasm for Bible prophecy scenarios that they take it as obligatory to support the Israeli cause no matter what. They see any opposition to Israel's policies as an attempt to thwart God's purposes in history. I find this posture to be unbiblical, even on dispensationalist premises.
Suppose that the establishment of the modern state of Israel is indeed a fulfillment of prophecy. And suppose God wants Israel to prosper in the land, in preparation for the day when the Jewish people will acknowledge Christ as the promised Messiah. None of this exempts us from assessing, and criticizing when necessary, the details of Israeli policies. The Old Testament prophets make it clear that the nation of Israel will never be truly blessed by God unless she pursues justice. To want present-day Israel to flourish as a nation is to want her to treat her citizens and her neighbors justly. We are not on the side of God's plan for Israel if we refuse to subject her actions to critical scrutiny in the light of revealed norms for what it means for a nation to please the Lord.
I also worry much about the failure of some dispensationalists to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism. Some scholars have even detected a strain of anti-Semitism in the dispensationalist movement. At first glance this may seem odd for a school of thought that places such a singular emphasis on God's eternal commitment to the Jewish people. But dispensationalists often direct their affection toward an idealized Judaism. They support an abstract version of what they believe to be a divine plan for the Jews more than they support individual Jewish people. At the very least, their theology of Judaism has not regularly manifested itself in active efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism. And it is precisely in the area of the very real presence of anti-Semitism in modern life where my own concerns about evangelical-Jewish relations are especially focused.
What's more, I'm somewhat worried about how dispensationalist attitudes toward Jewishness can cloud our understanding of the status of ethnicity as such in the divine plan for humankind. It is certainly undeniable that in ancient times God chose to bestow special favors on a specific ethnic people. Because of the idolatrous project that took place at Babel (see Gen. 11:1-9), God chose to accomplish his redemptive purposes by singling out a specific ethnic-cultural group, the Hebrew nation, as the special recipient of his covenant mercies. In that sense, salvation was closely tied to a specific ethnic identity in the Old Testament: To be identified with "the people of God," it was necessary either to be born a Jew or otherwise incorporated into the Jewish community.
But this ethnocentric redemptive economy of the old covenant was never viewedcontrary to what I was taught by dispensationalistsas the final arrangement. The prophets of Israel, inspired by the Spirit of God, looked forward to something greater that would someday happen: "On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations" (Isa. 25:6-7); "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isa. 49:6).
This promise was realized in a very dramatic way on the day of Pentecost, when the curse of Babel was reversed through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2). The post-Pentecost church is now called to show forth a new kind of social reality, in which older ethnic identities are subordinated to the new cultural patterns that come with life in the Spirit. This church in its present life and witness is called to point forward to the sanctified multiculturalism that will be celebrated before the heavenly throne as people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language" will sing praises to the Lamb (see Rev. 5:9; 7:9-17).
I must quickly add that this does not rule out the acknowledgment that God still honors a continuing commitment to the specific ethnic people who served as his special agent under the old covenant. But this commitment is to a people who, already in ancient times, were encouraged to anticipate a day when God's Spirit would be poured out on all flesh (see Num. 11:29; Joel 2:28). There was never a time when the Israel of God had a right to think the covenant blessings were her exclusive property.
I think all of this means that God takes ethnicity very seriously. It may even be that we will in some important sense bring our ethnicities with us into that eschatological multitude no human being will be able to count (see Rev. 7:9). If so, we might have to think about the ways in which not only Israel but all ethnic Christian groups need both to celebrate and yet de-absolutize their "natural" identities as they realize together their larger identity as the blood-bought people of the Lamb.
Much of my conflictedness about my relationship with Jewish people has to do with a sense of being out of step with some prominent patterns of thinking on the subjectpatterns that seem to border on reductionism. I have a nonnegotiable commitment to evangelism, and this includes witnessing to Jewish people about my firm conviction that Jesus is the promised Messiah. But I also oppose treating Jews as though they were only "targets" for evangelism. We evangelicals have much to learn from Jews about issues of public life and about deeply religious topics. And we must work alongside members of the Jewish community in striving for justice and righteousness in the larger society.
Witnessing to; learning from; cooperating withthis seems to me to be an important threefold Christian agenda for our relationships with the Jewish community. But there don't seem to be many Christians who are willing to endorse the whole agenda. Those strong on evangelism have often been weak on learning and cooperation; those who have been eager to nurture learning and cooperative relationships have often downplayed the evangelistic mandate.
Let's be clear about this: Evangelism is a mandate. The Southern Baptists took considerable criticism a few years ago for their emphasis on the need to evangelize Jews among other members of non-Christian religions, and I hope this controversy will at least serve to inform the larger world that some of us really do believe we have an obligation to present the claims of Christ to non-Christians. We evangelicals need to keep reminding our Jewish friends that if they are really serious about having better relations with usand I sense many Jews are indeed serious in this intentionthey cannot demand that we think and act like liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics. This is a price of admission we cannot pay. We are evangel people. Our proclamation that Jesus is the promised Messiah cannot be silenced for the sake of interreligious civility.
But faithfulness to the gospel also requires more than evangelism. We have much to learn from the Jewish people. For one thing, our relationships with messianic Jews, as well as with other Jewish brothers and sisters who have come to faith in Christ, have been precious to many of us and have deepened our understanding of the gospel. But non-Christian Jews also have much to teach us about spiritual matters. Any Christian who thinks otherwise should read Abraham Joshua Heschel on the prophets or the Sabbath, or the fiction of Chaim Potok or even Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small mystery novels. We cannot simply classify Judaism under "Other Religions." We share with Jewish people a common spiritual heritage grounded in God's revelation to Moses and the Hebrew prophets.
Furthermore, we must learn about the suffering of the Jewish people. Evangelicals need to think more deeply about what it means to evangelize Jews after the Holocaust. Much has happened in Jewish-Christian relations since the New Testament was written. Our Christian record in these 2,000 years of history is not an admirable one. Indeed, we have often committed atrocious deeds against Jews. I will never forget the tears of a Jewish friend as he told me about his childhood in a predominantly Christian town in the Midwest, when his classmates taunted him by chanting "Christ -killer" as they followed him home from school.
Evangelical Christians need to weep with Jews as we hear the stories of their suffering. And we must repent of our sins, even as we testify about the One who came to save us while we were still sinners (see Rom. 5:8). We cannot simply quote Pauline passageswritten when the church was a minority religion struggling to clarify both continuities and differences with a Jewish major itywithout recognizing we are doing so from this side of Auschwitz. When Jews, both religious and secular, complain that our evangelistic efforts threaten to destroy their very identity as a people, we must listen carefully. And we must recognize that our responses, however theologically appropriate they may be from a Christian perspective, will not be very convincing to people who have vivid collective memories of forced "conversions." None of this cancels our obligation to evangelize, but it does highlight our obligation to avoid unnecessary offense and to be clear about the challenges we face.
And we must cooperate with Jews in the larger task of working for the health of society. One obvious threat to justice today was described succinctly several years ago when the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism denounced the "proliferation of racism and Jew-hatred in our world today"; this concern should rank high on the agenda for evangelical-Jewish cooperation. We can also work together in seeking creative resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East. Evangelicals in the United States have a special obligation to show by our deeds that we are committed to a pluralistic society. Our regular references to America's identity as "a Christian nation," however well-intentioned in the context of our debates with secularists, are hurtful in the context of our relationship with Judaism. We need to demonstrate that we are willing to work with Jews and others as "cobelligerents"to use one of Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer's favorite termsin finding a common moral basis for promoting the good order of our pluralistic society.
Dialogue and cooperation with Jews have their own genuine value. They should not be construed as mere "setups" for evangelism. But the connections to Christian witness are also very real. In essence evangelism is witnessing to the marvelous message of the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. If we want to tell of the power of the gospel "to the Jew first" (Rom. 1:16, NRSV) in our contemporary context, we may need first of all to draw near to our Jewish friends in order to learn from themand work with themon matters that are of profound significance in our contemporary world.
Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This excerpt is condensed from a chapter in The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage and used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. This chapter expands on an editorial he wrote for Christianity Today ("To the Jew First," Aug. 11, 1997, p. 12).
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
In 1997, Mouw wrote a similar article on the topic for Christianity Today, "To the Jew First" | Witnessing to the Jews is nonnegotiable (Aug. 11, 1997).
Mouw also recently wrote an article for Beliefnet on the subject (actually, it's more like a condensed version of this article).
Earlier Christianity Today articles on Jews and Christians include:
Is Evangelism Possible Without Targeting? | The founder of Jews for Jesus responds to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (Jan. 14, 2000)
Can I Get a Witness? | Southern Baptists rebuff critics of Chicago evangelism plan. (Jan. 14, 2000)
Witnessing vs. Proselytizing | A rabbi's perspective on evangelism targeting Jews, and his alternative (Dec. 3, 1999)
To the Jew First? | Southern Baptists defend new outreach effort (Nov. 15, 1999)
How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | The amazing story of Christian efforts to create and sustain the modern nation of Israel. (Oct. 5, 1998)
The Return of the Jewish Church | In 1967, there were no Messianic Jewish congregations in the world. Today there are 350. Who are these believers? (Sept. 7, 1998)
Mapping the Messianic Jewish World (Sept. 7, 1998)
Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust? | No, despite what a biased film at the tax-supported Holocaust Museum implies (Apr. 27, 1998)
Is Jewish-Christian a Contradiction in Terms? (April 7, 1997)
Jews Oppose Baptist Outreach (Nov. 11, 1996)
Christmas and the Modern Jew | Christians often seem to lack both good missionary strategies toward Jews and sensitivity to their situation in life (Dec. 8, 1958)
Graham Feted By American Jewish Committee | In 1977, Graham walked a fine line between in his work 'to proclaim the Gospel to Jew and Gentile.' (Nov. 18, 1977)
Billy Graham: 'I have never felt called to single out the Jews' | The evangelist discusses targeted evangelism in one of his most quoted statements (March 16, 1973)
Read more about Richard J. Mouw at Fuller Seminary's Web site.
Earlier Christianity Today articles by Richard Mouw include:
Fundamentalism Revisited | Evangelicals would do well to remember fundamentalism as family history. (Nov. 20, 2000)
This World Is Not My Home | What some mainline Protestants are rediscovering about living as exiles in a foreign culture. (May 5, 2000)
Mormon Makeover | An effective evangelical witness hinges on understanding the new face of Latter-day Saints. (Mar. 9, 2000)
Just Saying 'No' Is Not Enough | A Christianity Today forum on homosexuality and public policy. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Abraham Kuyper: A Man for This Season | The surprisingly relevant advice of a Dutch statesman for engaging postmodern culture. (Oct. 5, 1998)
Science with Baloney Detectors | How to discern the truth when popular advocates of competing perspectives on science indulge in a little showmanship (Dec. 8, 1997)
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