|Keith Hunt's Studies||Jesse's Articles|
Messianic Gentiles: Just Jewish Wannabe's?
(Or, from anti-Semitism to anti-Gentilism)
There is an undercurrent of frustration I have felt among the Jewish members of the Messianic movement, and that is how easy it is to attract non-Jewish attendees and members, and how difficult it is to attract Jewish people.
It is an embarrassing problem. The Messianic movement is, among other things, a way for Jewish people who believe Yeshua is the Messiah to congregate with other like believers, without having to abandon their Jewish heritage. Jewish believers have been told by their Jewish family and friends, "You're not Jewish anymore," only to go to churches, expecting more understanding and acceptance, only to be told yet again, "You're not Jewish anymore."
This reminds me of a friend I had in school, who spoke her native language, Hungarian, until she went to school, after which she was forced to speak English, which she picked up badly and never spoke idiomatically. Unfortunately, she forgot how to speak her native tongue, so the only language she spoke, she spoke like a foreigner. Essentially, she became a person without a mother tongue. It was very sad to see.
Jewish believers do seem to experience the astonishing dilemma of becoming an outsider to two groups of people: Jewish people and Christian people.
Messianic groups attempt to give them a place to be without "Gentilizing" them. It seems an exciting prospect, then, to imagine moving forward into telling Jewish people the good news that their Messiah has already come, that believing in Him will ensure their names are inscribed in the Book of Life without fail -- and sometimes, it works out that way. One here, one there, a few Jewish proselytes appear.
Embarrassingly, for every Jewish proselyte, there are many more Gentiles who see the appeal of the Messianic movement, and wish to participate. Why embarrassing? How can the Messianic movement be truly for Messianic Jewish believers, if the place is crawling with Gentiles? (I say this as a Gentile myself).
There is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) desire to heavily encourage Jewish people to come, and to only mildly encourage non-Jewish people, or even slightly discourage them. Some groups seem to try to restrict their membership to Jewish people, or at least have a two-tiered membership, as does the Messianic Jewish Alliance of Canada (MJAC) where full membership is only available to Jewish people, and non-Jewish people can have only an "associate" membership.
There is also a desire not to have non-Jewish people set the agenda for Messianic congregations. This is understandable: non-Jewish people come from many backgrounds, and the more they bring those backgrounds into the service, the stranger and less Jewish it will be, with the danger that you will end up with just another Christian church, albeit a very odd one with Jewish overtones.
I not only understand, but fully sympathize with this caution, and frankly, think in many cases, Messianic groups have not been careful enough to avoid this "contamination." Am I being offensive? If you have a pure red paint, you avoid letting a bit of blue or green mix with it, or it will also be "contaminated," and less red. Not that there is anything wrong with blue or green, but a mixture destroys the character of both.
While I believe both Gentile and Jewish people can contribute to this movement, I believe they tend to contribute in different ways. Generally speaking, Judaism has retained a greater understanding of God's ways than Christianity has; though, statistically, I believe Jewish people are more secular than non-Jewish people are.
The Jewish people have thousands of years of hewing to God's law (which is God's spirit and mind), and avoiding the contamination of foreign teachings. They are the remnant of the three tribes, Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, who were not carried into the Babylonian captivity. Judaism has the benefit of many, many generations of very fine minds who spent their lives meditating on God's words. Granted, there have been some inroads of dubious origin into Judaism, in such things as Kabbalah and some numerological influences, but these are generally very fringe.
In the social sphere, Jewish people have been on the side of justice, civil rights, charity, and tolerance, but have generally been quite insular religiously and ethnically. Religiously, Judaism hews to the unifying force of shared practice. Different streams of Judaism relate to differing degrees of strictness of observance, rather than being denominations, so that in small towns with only one synagogue, it will tend to be Conservative, so the Orthodox and Reform individuals feel relatively at home. There are a few other movements within Judaism, but these generally do not disallow common observance with other synagogues.
Christianity, on the other hand, has, from sometime after 120 A.D., adopted and absorbed the practices of the nations. Catholicism, the dominant form of Christianity, continued to absorb the practices of the peoples it converted, as a strategy of religious conquest. Syncretism is the technical term for this, and while this worked well for the Druids, and is the heart of religions like Baha'i, it is against the very nature of Biblical teaching. Some of these other religions are, using the colour analogy, more like neutral tones, like browns, which can easily take in other colours without changing their essential nature.
Protestantism attempted to return to its biblical roots, but did this by essentially starting out from its Catholic beliefs and practices, and throwing out particular items that it found contrary to scripture, rather than starting afresh.
Whereas Catholicism, like Judaism, is unified by common observance, belief has always been the primary driving force of Protestantism. Differing beliefs give rise to different groups, so there are many thousands of different denominations and sects in Protestant Christianity. Christianity has been extremely zealous for evangelism, and quite active in charity work as well. It has usually been a force against pluralism in society, and has often played a repressive role.
Thankfully, the Messianic model seems to follow the Jewish model of unity through observance, rather than division through belief, so is much more tolerant of variation than denominations tend to be.
My own personal opinion, based on observation, is that the strength of Jewish religion and culture is in its teaching, wisdom, and tolerance for difference among others. The strength of Christian religion and culture seems to be in its passion, and its zeal for evangelism. Both are strong in charitable works, and Catholicism and Judaism are also strong supporters of the arts, something Protestantism, because of its strong background of iconoclasm, tends not to be.
I believe that the best model of Messianism would be generally Jewish wisdom and teaching and Christian zeal and passion: this would be the best of both worlds. To follow Christian teaching and Jewish wariness and insularity would be, I believe, the worst of both worlds.
At the moment, from what I can see, the weakness of Messianism is in its definition of outreach as Jewish evangelism only. Messianics need to reach out in love to the physical needs of the larger community, not just its spiritual needs. The Messianic movement does, thankfully, also seem to be very favorable to the arts, something small movements tend to neglect until they grow large, which I'm happy to say is not the case with Messianism.
And yet, non-Jewish people continue to come to Messianic congregations, and while many come from curiosity, or a desire to learn more about "the Jewish roots of their faith," and do not stay, many choose to make a Messianic congregation their home.
Why do they do this? There is a feeling I have seen among leaders, writers, and Jewish Messianics, that there is something slightly perverse about Gentiles wanting to join a Messianic movement. A feeling that maybe here we are dealing with a bunch of Jewish wannabe's. And, you know, wannabe's are never respected by any culture they glom onto.
So, what to do? You have these ideals of congregations filled with Jewish people who have discovered their Messiah, and what do you get? A bunch of Gentiles playing at being Jewish and getting it all wrong in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that would make any Jewish person cringe. Watching some of the performances is really a kind of travesty. Certainly, many in the larger Jewish community feel that way. They watch their sacred symbols and cultural emblems being appropriated by a group (Christians) that has always tried to destroy them. And they are sure this is just another ploy to assimilate them.
How does it feel to be a Jewish person in a congregation facing these accusations, especially when you look around and see so many Gentiles innocently doing so many things that make you feel there may be something to that argument after all? How does it feel, after escaping the churches that wanted you to put your Jewishness behind you, to find that the Jewish community still sees you in a Gentile light, and how can you fight it? Aren't you still just worshipping with Gentiles, but this time, by making a mockery of who you are?
And certainly, as we saw in a recent Messianic newsletter, most Jewish people would not want a Jewish friend or relative to go to a Messianic service without preparing them first, because "it's so weird." This weirdness comes from the strange mixing of Jewish and Gentile forms of worship. It must be hard not to wish there were fewer Gentiles and more Jewish people. It must also be frustrating to see that the movement meant to serve the needs of Jewish people finding their Messiah, and by extension, Jewish people curious about Messianic belief and practice, "spoiled" by these bizarre Gentiles!
It's got to make you wonder, what are these Gentiles doing here, anyway? I hear soft words about Gentiles "aiding and supporting the movement," and what hits me is that maybe if the movement didn't want Gentile money and volunteer labour and influence, they would be out. After all, what has to be wrong with Gentiles who want to be Jewish instead of their own culture?
Messianics are people who are so proud of their own heritage that even after coming to believe in Yeshua, they fight to maintain their own cultural heritage. To have to consort with people who seem to be willingly throwing away their own identity to masquerade as Jewish must leave a strange taste in the mouth.
Why would any non-Jewish person ever join a Messianic congregation? I am sure the reasons are many. I know from speaking with others, many feel, mysteriously, that this is where God wants them to be, and they are willing to listen. Others may have always been fascinated by Jewish things.
Some may be deeply flattered if they are mistaken for a Jewish person. I don't know. I only know that I myself have never been a Jewish wannabe. My heritage is French and English, and my religious background is Presbyterian on my father's side, and Catholic and Calvinist on my mother's side. I'm not Jewish, and while it would be interesting if there were Jewish people in my genealogy, I have no desire to try to "pass" as anything other than what I am.
So, why would a Gentile attend a Messianic congregation? For me, and many like me, who came out of one church, and then several offshoots, who kept the Sabbath and Holy Days, and did not eat unclean meats, and so on, it is a matter of hewing to Biblical teaching.
If you are a Gentile, and you want to observe the biblical holy days, you have three choices: 1) Do it by yourself or with a few friends, 2) Do it with an offshoot of a church known for its spiritual and emotional abuse, or 3) Join a Messianic congregation. People who have no history of these other churches will not even know #2 is an option, so many will already have been doing #1.
Having people join a Messianic congregation in order to observe the holy days seems to anger some Messianic leaders. This is not what Messianism is for, to meet the needs of Gentiles who want to observe the holy days. And truly, this is not what it was founded for. But to be very frank about what works with movements, I must refer to one of this generation's most successful organizer of tiny groups trying to achieve the impossible against staggering odds: Saul Alinsky. And Alinsky says that, whatever the cause that starts a movement, only a few people will join for that reason. To have greater influence, you need more people, and to get those people, you have to incorporate their causes into your group. Together, you can work towards all of your goals, and be stronger than just the few with one aim in mind.
The Messianic movement has done just this. It has allowed Gentiles in, and grown in numbers and strength by doing so. And in so doing, it has had to, by default, appeal to the interests of non-Jewish people. The big appeal seems to be "rediscovering the Jewish roots of your faith." Another one is "helping Israel." Another is "bringing the Messiah to Jewish people." One of these, a relatively small one is, "observing the holy days." These are all motivations that people in the Messianic movement can share.
Of course, Alinsky's goals were pragmatic: would adding this or that issue to a group add to its strength? In the Messianic movement, we always have to ask, "Is this goal scriptural? Would God approve this goal?" Since, in the Millennial kingdom, God will be bringing the nations together to observe the feast of Tabernacles, surely giving Gentiles a place to observe God's holy days would not be against God's will. And if they are thereby encouraged to support Israel, or Jewish evangelism, or other worthy goals central to the Messianic vision, what is wrong with that?
In practical fact, you can't allow Gentiles in, and then tell them, "we don't care about your needs: that's not what this movement is about, and we're not here to cater to them." Or, you could do that, but then, if Gentile believers feel excluded by the movement, why should they support it with heads, hearts, hands, prayer, and money? This is not blackmail, it is simple pragmatism.
If it is truly wrong to allow Gentiles into the Messianic movement, then exclude us, and if you are correct, God will give you the strength to survive and grow, and if you are wrong, you will die. You must do the right thing, first of all. Too much pragmatism leads to compromise, and I do believe this has already tainted Messianism to some extent.
Did I come to a Messianic congregation because I missed observing the holy days? Yes. Did I stay because I found the form of worship more satisfying? Yes. Do I continue to stay because I feel, for the first time in many years, I am exposed to a deeper insight on scripture than I have ever seen? Yes. Do I then feel a loyalty and obligation to other goals of the movement? More and more so, yes. We come, we learn, we grow. Obviously, the major thrust of the movement should be outward, towards others, and encompassing God's purpose, not inward, towards selfish satisfactions, however spiritual they seem.
My interest in biblical observances came about because of my interest in the Apostolic Church. My studies in early church history made it clear that the early church's observances were so Jewish that, after other churches absorbed more and more religious influences from elsewhere, the churches that had stayed with the "faith once delivered" were castigated as "Judaizers."
Even if you do not think there is anything wrong or immoral about observing holidays that have a non-Biblical origin, you must admit, there is little to be learned from them, unless you really want to learn about pagan religious beliefs. There is nothing in them that can teach and instruct in Biblical faith. It is a brick wall. For people who believe in the Bible, these observances go nowhere. If one does try to learn from them, one is following the religious logic of people God says not to follow. It really is a dead end.
I have found that, the more I study and learn from Jewish sources, the greater insights I have into the Bible. Learning and understanding more about God's purposes during the Holy Days turns out to be only the beginning: indeed, every Sabbath, with the set readings, and with the many commentaries on the meaning of these scriptures, I find greater insight into the mind of God.
I am growing to believe that when Yeshua said that horrible thing to Peter about the church, "the gates of Hell will not prevail against it," he was predicting what we have in this modern day. We have Christian people who are so cut off from the origins of their faith that they are mere infants in Biblical understanding. Their observances, being foreign in origin, block them from growing into deeper knowledge of Biblical truths. When it comes to actual Bible understanding, much of Christianity is only the basic milk. In terms of the many teachings it has absorbed from the surrounding cultures over the generations, it contains much "spiritual junk food". The best that can be said about junk food is that it can keep you alive, but you languish in many sicknesses borne of the lack of vital nourishment.
Current Christian judgements are often based on principles from the nations around them, rather than on God's law (which they believe is "done away"). Christian ideas tend to shift with changes of time and place, so much of modern Christianity is characterized by a kind of rootlessness and intellectual bankruptcy. This leads people to try to fill it with religious experience, or so alienates them so they run after spiritualism or other nations' religions that have retained more of their original practices and beliefs.
While Judaism seemingly does better philosophically, being more in touch with the logic and meaning inherent in the religion, it often seems to suffer from a kind of empty lifelessness. Many people don't really get the spiritual satisfaction from their Judaism they long for, leading people into ever more orthodox or extreme groups, in a desire to find a greater sense of meaning. Jewish people are often drawn into spiritualism or Eastern religions.
Essentially, I believe that Satan brought anti-Semitism into the church to separate the Gentiles from any hope of truly understanding the meaning of the religion they had entered into, and to cut off Jewish people from the fulfilment of their religion through their Messiah. Both groups, Jewish and Gentile, have been blinded, and the blindness comes from being separated from each other. It is like the vow at Mizpeh, where there are two halves that must come together to make a whole.
What a great cosmic joke, after 2,000 years of separation begun by anti-Semitism, for Jewish and Gentile believers to begin to come together, and be torn apart this time, not by anti-Semitism, but by its converse, let us call it anti-Gentilism! Such divisions are not scriptural, and only give place to the devil.
Yes, for Gentile believers to join the Messianic movement merely for their own spiritual satisfaction is small-minded. While Jewish believers being involved with the Messianic movement in order to bring the Messiah to their people is a larger motivation, it, too, is far too small. God tells us that through the Jewish people, "all nations on earth will be blessed." The Messianic movement is, I believe, about being part of God's reversing the great damage Satan has inflicted on God's people, and all people, over the last 2,000 years, so that together, learning from each other, we can grow in His power, and have an enormous impact on the world.
I differ from some in the Messianic movement, who feel mainstream Christian belief and practice is OK for Gentiles, but we are called to reconciliation between Jewish and Christian people. I think our call is to allow all people to be reconciled to God, by illuminating who Yeshua really is, and how God is to be worshipped by his people.
Greater understanding should bring people together, not by being some kind of compromise between current Jewish and Christian practice and belief, but because the heart of the original Apostolic Church, the "faith once delivered" has elements of both. It is to find and restore that faith that is the goal, not finding some kind of "middle ground" between two groups who have been spiritually wounded and misled in different ways, marring their effectiveness in fulfilling God's purpose.
It may well be that Messianics will be a bridge to many Christian and Jewish people. But this is only a happy side effect. The question is, what happens when both Christian and Jewish groups do their best to destroy Messianics? If this movement is truly of God, and not yet another interesting religious hobby, it will, as the time of the end grows near, not be accepted, but rejected, and attacked. That will be the test. If the Messianic movement feels its primary purpose is to be a middle ground between Christianity as it is and Judaism as it is, it will compromise until it is just another "ism" in the continuity of Western religions.
In many ways, it is that now. It is afraid to offend, afraid to make statements or stand up for anything that will create problems on either the Jewish or Christian side. Although it is nearly 100 years old, this movement is still in its infancy. The tests are yet to come. Are our primary loyalties to the sensibilities of our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters? Or are they to God?
Remember, Yeshua said he had come not to bring peace, but a sword, and that he would be a cause of division. Not that this is desirable, or to be pursued, but regrettably inevitable, if one is loyal first to God. Paul, who said "I am all things to all men, that I might by all means win some," was speaking of ignoring his own personal preferences, and taking on other people's perspectives, in order to reason with them in a way that made sense to them. The talk he gave on Mars Hill, about "the unknown god," was a tour de force of this skill. But he refused to compromise God's truth. And when Peter separated himself from Gentile believers in order not to offend his Jewish congregation, Paul upbraided him for this.
Paul, a Pharisee who "sat at the feet of Gamaliel," taught that, in Yeshua, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile." To the extent that the Messianic movement wants to keep its Jewish and Gentile members separate and distinct, and give preference to the Jewish side, its primary loyalty is to an ethnic group and not to God. To the extent that any Messianic group understands which side its bread is buttered on, and does not teach certain hard-to-take Biblical essentials in order not to offend its Gentile members, its loyalty is to men rather than to God.
So what of this embarrassing situation, where no matter how much Jewish evangelism the Messianic movement does, it still brings in more Gentile believers than Jewish ones? How do we understand this, and deal with it? To the extent that the Messianic movement fails to draw Jewish people in, because of its "weirdness", its mingling of Jewish and Gentile religious practices, it is at fault, and must correct its shortcomings. This is a very real weakness.
Essentially, I believe that a Shabbat service should be very like one in any synagogue, except that the congregation would be a mixture of ethnic origins, there would be a B'rit Chadashah reading, and Yeshua would be spoken of, and would illuminate all of the observances and utterances. If there are other divergences that reflect a livelier religion, such as the Israeli music and Messianic dancing, they should be ones that would not offend a Jewish sensibility, and even if they are somewhat unusual, they should not feel foreign or "weird."
But I don't think this is the whole story. The people who are afraid to recommend a Messianic service to an unbelieving friend or relative, at least without some preparation, do themselves attend, and are able to tolerate these "weird" things. Why? Because God's spirit has drawn them, and they will be where He wants them to be, no matter what trivial annoyances they must endure while there. And this is the crux.
Paul touched lightly on this mystery. God has blinded Israel for a time, and it is His time. When he takes off this veil, we will be astounded. I don't believe that time is yet. God is individually speaking to more and more Jewish people, but the majority He seems to have left in that blindness. And how could it be otherwise? The people to whom are entrusted "the oracles of God" (and that has not changed) would have to be blinded not to understand those very things they are guardians of.
After all, the Bible, with all its Messianic passages, is read every Shabbat, and even if Isaiah 52 is omitted, many other passages are not, and God can speak through His scriptures to any heart he wishes.
Even now, speaking to Jewish believers, I find many were drawn by God's spirit directly, and not through human evangelism.
It is God who draws people, not our efforts at evangelism. Not that we are wrong to spread the news, but the important thing is God's intention and His timing. If we do not do the job properly, He can do it Himself. This should be a humbling thought. In the meantime, this embarrassment of Gentile response versus Jewish indifference or hostility should not astonish. We don't know whether we will see a slow increase in Jewish believers, or a sudden influx, or whether much of the evangelism will be a matter of "planting seeds" that will mature in God's own time. This is part of the mystery of God, and so long as we are doing our part, it is not something we should become angry about, or resent each other for.
Satan found it relatively easy to use the differences in ethnic and religious backgrounds of the people in the Apostolic church against it, to divide it, and almost-but-not-quite destroy it. How horrifying that Yeshua had to say that his church would not be utterly destroyed. It is a thread of hope, but it implies an unconscious, half-dead body, where the promise is that it will not die.
If we see the value and the attraction and the beauty in this comatose faith, will we even recognize it when God raises it up to life and vigor and full effectiveness? Many people will fight against it, we know that from the prophecies God gave to John. They will even fight Yeshua on his return, possibly thinking he is the antichrist.
While we have great potential in this movement, because we are trying to return to the way God set up the early church, we have double the temptation to divided loyalties, and double the potential for division within our congregations.
The challenge is to balance, on the one hand, "living peaceably with all men," and "being all things to all men" with "obeying God and not man." This is a very difficult assignment. It requires great maturity and discernment, and I believe it is our obligation to grow and learn not only from the scriptures directly, but also from each other as much as we possibly can, so that we are up to this subtle and dangerous task. In the future, a misstep may cost someone's faith, or our own life.
We have no room for one-sidedness, immaturity, doublemindedness, or divided loyalties. Reconciliation is first to God and the faith once delivered, and through God, reconciliation with one another.
©2000, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at firstname.lastname@example.org. No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.
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