Statement on Evangelising Jews Causes Controversy

A few days ago, the World Evangelical Council has caused annoyance with an advert in the New York Times, entitled “The Gospel and the Jewish People – An Evangelical Statement”. The advert (text available here) is a gesture of “genuine friendship and love for the Jewish people”, but it also affirms that Jews need to accept Jesus:

We believe that it is only through Jesus that all people can receive eternal life. If Jesus is not the Messiah of the Jewish people, He cannot be the Savior of the World (Acts 4:12)… It is out of our profound respect for Jewish people that we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them, and encourage others to do the same, for we believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the World.

There is also a defence of Messianic Judaism:

We deplore the use of deception or coercion in evangelism; however, we reject the notion that it is deceptive for followers of Jesus Christ who were born Jewish to continue to identify as Jews (Romans 11:1).

The statement has been signed by a number of prominent evangelical leaders, but it has also brought down the inevitable wrath of Abraham Foxman of the ADL:

The World Evangelical Alliance Statement defending the targeting of Jews for conversion is offensive and insulting to the Jewish people and brazenly dismisses Jewish self-definition. Instead of validating God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people, and ongoing Jewish covenantal life, themes also found in their Scripture, this group of religious leaders does the opposite.

It is especially odious to defend the duplicitous proselytizing of Jews by groups such as Jews for Jesus and so-called “Messianic Jews.” 

The ADL said the statement also stands in contradiction to Rev. Billy Graham who said:  “I believe God has always had a special relationship with the Jewish people, as St. Paul suggests in the book of Romans. In my evangelistic efforts I have never felt called to single out the Jews as Jews…”  In 2000, Graham defended Jews during the Southern Baptist Convention’s major effort to proselytize Jews, saying, “I normally defend my denomination. I’m loyal to it. But I have never targeted Muslims. I have never targeted Jews.”

(Graham has also said a few other things about Jews…)

The traditional evangelical view is that Jews, like everyone else, need to accept Jesus, and this is reflected in the new statement. I recently read a 1974 popular paperback entitled Tramp for the Lord, by Corrie ten Boom, the famous Dutch Pentecostal who spent time in a concentration camp for hiding Jews from the Nazis. After the war she became an itinerant evangelist, and the book recounts various anecdotes from her travels. On one occasion she visited a hospital in Argentina (104-6):

…Then I came to a man on a rocking bed. He had a different kind of polio and instead of being in a lung he was on a bed that rocked up and down…The nurse told me he was Jewish.

‘Ah’, I said, ‘I am happy to meet one of God’s chosen people. My old father, my dear sister, and some others in my family died in concentration camps because we loved the Jews. I, too, was in prison for helping Jews. But tell me, do you know the Jew, Jesus, as your personal Messiah?’

The bed rocked up and down and he shook his head for he could not speak.

According to the story, the man indicated that he wanted to listen, and ten Boom explained that God had a plan for his life, and encouraged him to look on the bright side. Just before he finally expired he left an appreciative note. Ten Boom concludes:

What a miracle. He understood God did not want him to become a Gentile. Rather he would become a completed Jew.

There is no way that ten Boom could be called anti-Jewish, but I think that many evangelicals today would be rather hesitant to preach to Jews on their deathbeds, let alone to publicise the fact afterwards. However, the idea of getting a Jewish convert does seem to have a particular appeal; back in 2004 I noted a documentary being made by some California Charismatics which would show the impact of Mel Gibson’s Passion. The makers wanted to hear from people with stories such as

a marriage being rescued, an addict who was set free, a Jew who now accepts Jesus as Messiah, someone who experienced physical or emotional healing, and so on.

Aside from the question of bad taste, the theological problem with Christian exclusivity as regards Judaism is that if Judaism used to be the true religion, how can that not be the case now? This is what Foxman is getting at with his “irrevocable covenant” comment, and the idea of a “Dual Covenant” which validates Judaism and Christianity is one which some on the Jewish end of the Jewish-Evangelical alliance have sought to promote: a couple of years ago Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg tried to attribute such a position to Jerry Falwell, who forcefully denied the suggestion. Christian Zionist “prophecy expert” John Hagee has shown more sympathy for concept, and some of the rhetoric of the American right suggests a move towards a “Judeo-Christian” religion. On the one hand, this recent post by Ed Brayton questions the extent to which Christian right “Judeo-Christian” posturing is really serious about the “Judeo” part, but on the other hand the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” religiosity is implicit in American “civil religion”. Also, among Christian Zionists there is now trend towards appropriating Jewish culture: buying Jewish devotional products for their own use, affecting to write “G-d” rather than “God”, and in some cases affiliating with Messianic synagogues. I once met a Christian from Texas who was desperate to find a Jewish ancestor – he eventually converted to Judaism so that he could become a Messianic Jew. But if we have a Dual Covenant, where does that leave the idea of Jesus as the only way to God? And would a convert to Judaism also be saved, or only those practising Jews with “chosen people” DNA?

However, Foxman has problems too. He rails against Messianic Jews, but Judaism is about orthopraxy more than orthodoxy – Messianic services look quite Jewish, so why not see them, like the earliest form of Christianity, as a manifestation Jewish identity? And why should belief in Jesus be a bar to being Jewish, when another kind of Messianic Judaism has recently emerged, based around the belief that the late Menachem Schneerson is the Messiah?

I discussed these tensions further here.

(Footnote: Tramp for the Lord was ghosted by Jamie Buckingham, a neo-Pentecostal writer who was close to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who today runs the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Eckstein’s enthusiasm for Buckingham and Charismatic Christianity has also been controversial, as I explored here. One person who has been keen to claim ten Boom’s mantle is Mike Evans, who founded the Corrie ten Boom Foundation in Holland. Evans is a best-selling Christian Zionist author, and he is currently pushing for an attack on Iran.)