Are Messianic Congregations Necessary or do they divide the Church?
Messianic congregations are not new. The first Christians were Jews who expressed their faith in Yeshua within the context of Messianic congregations. However, there is no record of a specifically Jewish congregation after A.D.400 as the Church became increasingly Gentile in its composition for 15 centuries. That changed since 1967 as Messianic congregations began to emerge again, and while Jewish in their identity, they are within the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy. Messianic congregations are not alike. The scope varies, emphasising Jewishness more than Jesus and the New Covenant, while others are cultic (Lieske, 1999). The predominantly Gentile Church cannot ignore Messianic congregations but seek to understand them as they integrate Jewish traditions and celebrate Jewish festivals as they express their faith in Yeshua. To understand the Messianic movement and its beliefs and practices and conclude whether it serves to divide the Church or even necessary, it first requires a definition: what is the Messianic movement? Secondly, understanding its ethos means understanding its history and, thirdly, its theology, especially how it understands the Law’s role. Only then can this essay adequately consider arguments favouring and against the movement’s existence and determine upon evaluation whether it serves to divide the Church or even enhance it.
What is the Messianic Movement?
David Stern (2002, p. 20) defines a Messianic Jew as ‘a person who was born Jewish or converted to Judaism, who is a “genuine believer” in Yeshua, and who acknowledges his Jewishness’. The term is distinct from ‘Jewish Christian’ and ‘Hebrew Christian’ who understand themselves as belonging to the Jewish people but reject Judaism’s claim to determine what is Jewish (Maoz, 2003). Messianic Jews call for the implementation of what is known as Messianic Judaism (Maoz, 2003), which Richard Harvey (2009, p. 359) states ‘is the religion of Jewish people who believe in Jesus (Yeshua)’.
The call for Messianic Judaism is known as the ‘Messianic movement’. Its goal is to create an entity of Messianic believers within the Jewish community that will be unmistakably Jewish while faithful to the gospel. However, such an aspiration is not popular among the Jewish community as Messianic believers, according to Fehrer (1998, p. 25), ‘straddle the cultures and cause havoc by confusing the boundaries and mixing classifications’.
History of the Messianic Movement
Christ’s resurrection, ascension and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit saw the Church’s birth in Jerusalem. Messianic Jews understand that the first Messianic congregation originated here (Cohn-Sherbok, 2000). In between A.D. 66 and A.D.70, the first Jewish revolt occurred against Rome, causing the Messianic Jews to flee to Pella. Following the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70, they returned and established an assembly in Jerusalem. During this time, Rabbinic Judaism began, and the synagogue became the centre of Jewish life, with Pharisaic Judaism becoming the norm (Schiffman, 1992).
The Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans occurred between A.D. 132 and A.D. 135, which saw many non-Jews accept Messianic claims resulting in the movement evolving into a Gentile Church and believing that saved individuals are those only in the Church. This ideology caused Church leaders to oppose Judaism, resulting in Jewish believers feeling compelled to conform to the Gentile Church.
Cracks began to appear in the third century between Jewish and Gentile believers over Passover’s observance. The gulf widened further as the Messianic community adhered to circumcision and dietary laws. By the fourth century, the Messianic community’s evangelistic efforts among Jewish people began to diminish (Liberman, 2012). Eventually, they disappeared as a movement due to its inability to defend itself against Gentile Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism. History shows, however, that some individuals remained faithful to the Jewish tradition while demonstrating devotion to Yeshua as Saviour. One such individual was Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who in 1735 established a congregation in the Brethren community, where Messianic Jews were encouraged to express their Jewishness (Rudolph & Willitts, 2013).
Zinzendorf was not alone in his burden for the Jewish believers. A Jewish teacher and lawyer called Joseph Rabinovitch, due to persecution, left his hometown of Kishineff, Bessarabia and went to the Holy Land where he began to read the New Testament and concluded that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He returned to Russia with the conviction that he must share his faith with his people in a thoroughly Jewish context (Fieldsend, 1993). He founded ‘The Community of Messianic Jews, the Sons of the New Covenant’. Many Jewish believers lived in England in the early 1800s. They needed help and encouragement to share their faith with other Jewish people, which led to the formation of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of Great Britain (Telchin, 2004).
In America, a significant move occurred in 1915 when Mark John Levy, the general secretary of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America, argued that Hebrew Christianity should be congregational based and Hebraic in its worship and liturgy (Samuelson, 2000). This era of Hebrew Christianity paved the way for Messianic Judaism. Many missionaries worked with the same purpose in America, and Messianic Judaism began in the Jesus movement of the 1960s. In 1973, an initiative changed the name of the Hebrew Christian Alliance to the Messianic Jewish Alliance.
Yakov Ariel (2012) observes that Messianic Judaism struggled for acceptance, and throughout 1970-2010, it developed its subculture replete with conferences, youth movements, periodicals and websites.
A Case for Messianic Congregations
The Church compromises Jewish and Gentile believers (Ephesians 2:11-36). David Stern (2002, p. 3) proposes that ‘without Messianic Judaism – Judaism which accepts Yeshua as the Messiah – both the Jewish people and the Church will fail to achieve their proper and glorious goals, goals which are ultimately coextensive’. However, that is not the same as considering whether Messianic congregations must exist. Their right to exist is a biblically neutral issue (Varner, Fruchtenbaum, Stern, Fischer, & Nerel, 2003). Therefore, it is perfectly permissible for Messianic congregations to function and reflect Jewish culture, music, and teaching just as it is permissible for Chinese or African churches to do so.
The Church persecuted the Jewish people through the Crusades in 1095 and the later pogroms. History documents that the Nazis massacred six million Jews, and yet despite that, God preserved the Jewish People as per the Scriptures. The Holocaust did not result in Jewish assimilation, but instead with God supernaturally keeping his people to fulfil His eternal covenant with their ancestors (Liberman, 2012). David Stern (2002, p. 25) poignantly expresses the dilemma that a Messianic Jew faces given the Church’s persecution of the Jews by saying that ‘if I am fully part of the Church and fully Jewish, then I am one with both the persecutors and their victims’. However, he notes that the Messianic community is a ‘significant phase in God’s process of saving all Israel’ (2002, p. 57) and that Jewish history helps to heal the split between the Church and the Jews. Messianic believers are ‘insiders to both’ (2002, p. 62) and are identified with both Jewish and Christian history.
Many Jewish believers fear losing their Jewish identity (Varner et al., 2003) and view Messianic congregations as an antidote to their possible immersion in Gentile churches. Often, predominantly Gentile churches are insensitive to Jewish believers’ identity problems, leading many Messianic believers to join Messianic congregations. Supersessionism, which is ‘the deeply rooted mistaken assumption that God has finished with Israel (the Jewish people) and that his covenant with them has been ‘superseded’ now that the Church has become the ‘new Israel’’ (Smith, 2013, p. 174) has undoubtedly influenced negative behaviour towards Messianic believers.
The early Messianic community continued to live a Jewish lifestyle, with the apostles continuing to go to the temple and the synagogue and observing feasts and the Law. Additionally, the local Church’s biblical blueprint comprises Jewish and Gentile believers who maintain their ethnic distinctions. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 legislated that Gentile believers are not obligated to adhere to Jewish laws and customs. Modern Messianic congregations have sought to emulate the New Testament model while retaining Jewish identity in their worship and activities. Gentiles who attend such gatherings are aware of the Jewish flavour that pervades them. Messianic congregations undoubtedly facilitate an environment where Jewish believers collectively can express their Jewishness and teach their children both what it means to be Jewish and a believer in Yeshua.
Fruchtenbaum (2003)suggests that the primary purpose of Messianic congregations ‘is to meet the needs and the desires of Jewish believers and to provide Jewish believers with a Messianic community where they are comfortable in expressing their Jewishness’. Liberman (2012, p. 1181) observes that ‘the traditional branches of Judaism—Orthodox, Reform and Conservative—do not offer a truly satisfying experience’ for Messianic believers, who he calls ‘completed Jews’. Messianic Jewish writers accept that kappas (skull caps) and prayer shawls, and other stereotypical Jewish elements are insufficient to sustain Jewish identity (Smith, 2013). So, there is a need for something more substantial with many Messianic Jews embracing Torah observance, one expression of Jewishness that can cause misunderstanding among Gentile believers.
Opinions of the Law
In Messianic Judaism, there are differing opinions on the Law of Moses’s role, stating that it is not an obligation and others, such as John Fischer, disagreeing (2003). The issue of ‘Torah observance’ understands adhering to the Law as obligatory, which unfortunately has led to splitting Messianic congregations. F.F. Bruce (2017) suggests that James commanded the respect of the people of Jerusalem because he kept the Law like other observant Jews. Messianic congregations do not understand the Law of Moses to be mandatory but acknowledge that believers are under the Law of Messiah (Galatians 6:2), also called the Law of the Spirit of Life (Romans 8:2). Many commandments under the Law of Messiah, such as the nine of the Ten Commandments, are common to the Law of Moses (the Sabbath commandment being the exception). What confuses Gentile believers is the similarities between both the Law of Moses and the Law of Messiah. However, while the Messianic believer is free from the necessity of keeping the Law of Moses, he is free to keep parts of it, if he desires, so long as they do not violate the Law of Messiah.
Fruchtenbaum (2003, p. 122) articulates this principle succinctly in stating that ‘the Jewish believer has the freedom to obey certain commands that are New-Testament neutral, meaning they do not violate any New Testament principle or command’. Such action lends justification to Messianic believers adhering to the dietary rules, keeping the Sabbath and the Jewish feasts., and celebrating Jewish holy days.
Observance of the Jewish feasts and holy days aids the Jewish believer to express his Jewishness and teach about their fulfilment in the Messiah. However, such observances cannot be in strict accordance with Judaism as they will conflict with Scripture. Such freedom for the Messianic believer contributes to the congregation by retaining Jewish customs and culture and teaching its members how such relate to and find fulfilment in the Messiah.
The Messianic congregation is first and foremost part of the Church and not part of Judaism. Yeshua, the Head of the Church, is Jewish, as were his disciples and his followers. It was Jewish believers who brought the gospel to the non-Jewish world. The basis of the Lord’s Supper’s ordinance is on the Jewish Passover, and baptism also is a Jewish ritual. It is because of the individuals and practices mentioned earlier that Jewish believers insist that Messianic Jews are the only truly fulfilled Jews (Cohn-Sherbok, 2000). Furthermore, there is the understanding that Messianic Judaism acts as a bridge between the Jewish people and the Church and helps the Church better understand its origin and identity (Rudolph & Willitts, 2013). Telchin (2004, p. 72) notes that by ‘focusing on rabbinic form and synagogue life, Messianic Judaism hopes to gain acceptance by the Jewish community’ and dispel the fear that acceptance of Christ means betrayal of the Jewish people and that one is no longer Jewish.
Messianic believers believe that the Gentile Church has abandoned its Jewish roots, and so its efforts are to recapture the original structure and mission of the Church (Cohn-Sherbok, 2000). It challenges the idea that Judaism and Christianity are mutually exclusive religions and contends that Christianity was originally a form of Judaism (Rudolph & Willitts, 2013). After all, Jesus is a Jew and has a particular relationship to the Messianic Community (Rudolph & Willitts, 2013). There is a perspective that ‘the gospel is indigenous to Jews and rightfully constitutes a form of Judaism rather than a new religion to which Jews must convert’ (Power, 2011, p. 80). Kinzer (2005, p. 97) adds that as the Jews are recipients of a particular calling with a distinctive role and mission in God’s purposes, such is not ‘transmitted to or absorbed by the multinational ekklesia as a whole’.
The Messianic movement can help Gentile Christians understand their faith and Jewish roots because without Messianic Judaism, ‘both the Jewish people and the church will fail to achieve their proper and glorious goals, goals which are ultimately coextensive’ (Stern, 2002, p. 4). Gentile believers say that Messianic sermons are ‘more cerebral than their evangelical equivalents’ (Kaell, 2014, p. 11).
Against the Messianic Movement
Though there is a valid case for Messianic congregations’ existence, some equally propose that such gatherings are unnecessary. One such influential individual in Jewish Christianity, David Baron, expressed concern for the Messianic Jewish movement and wrote about what he called ‘Dangers of the Movement’ (Varner et al., 2003, p. 33). He notes that with the destruction of the temple, there was no need for ‘national observances’ and of course, the emergence of the Church was not dependent upon a building or land and observances (Varner et al., 2003, p. 35). With the temple’s absence, one cannot now observe ritual practices per their initial commandment leading.
Christ ‘abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’ (Ephesians 2:18, NRSV), thus removing the dividing wall, which means that Jews and Gentiles can enter into the one new man of the Messiah. Furthermore, Galatians 3:28 affirms that ethnic, social and gender distinctions in Christ are spiritual and do not disappear. The phrase ‘all of you are one in Christ’ denotes unity which negates the need for distinctive congregations such as an all-male or all-female community or an assembly comprising only slaves. Should not the Biblical model seek to encourage communities that exemplify what it means to be all in Christ Jesus?
The link with the Mosaic Law regarding Torah observance can be a stumbling block to Gentile believers. An emphasis on feasts, food and festivals are shadows pointing to the reality which is Christ as Paul reminds the Colossians not ‘let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2:16,17).
In the church council meeting recorded in Acts 15, Peter emphatically states that God included the Gentiles in the gospel (v.7), that He gave them the Holy Spirit just as to the Jewish believers (v.8), made no distinction between them and Jewish believers and they do not require circumcision.
The writer to Hebrews reinforces that Christ superseded the Mosaic Law’s institutions (Hebrews 8-10). Such observances by Messianic believers of the ‘shadow’ when the substance has come, genders confusion. Messianic Jews base their core identity before God on being under the Law and on ‘claiming cultural, religious and ethnic relation to historical Israel’ (Toit, 2016, p. 106), making Judaism the genus by which they continue to define their core identity ‘according to the flesh’ which is a category belonging to the old age before Christ.
Messianic believers contextualised their synagogues to attract the Jewish community with the intention of conversion. Gershon Nerel (2003) states that Messianic Jews, or Jewish Yeshua-believers, as he calls them, adopt terms such as ‘Messianic Judaism’ and ‘Messianic synagogues’ to highlight the link with mainstream Jewry and refrain from terminologies like ‘church’ and ‘Christian’ to distance themselves from Gentiles.
Furthermore, many Messianic synagogue members are transfers from churches. If Jewish believers leave Gentile churches, it creates an imbalance and distorts the biblical model of all one in Christ without ethnic barriers. Gentile believers need their Jewish brothers to remind and focus on their Hebrew roots and contours of their shared faith. Likewise, Jewish believers need their Gentile brothers to keep them from becoming ethnocentric.
When Messianic believers adopt practices such as Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations and wear tallies and yarmulkes, they are inadvertently creating the impression to young believers that these are what God requires, even though they have no Scriptural basis but rather date from rabbinic and medieval times. It is a textbook example of what Jesus referred to as the ‘commandments of men’ (Matthew 15:9, ESV). According to Varner (2003), a New Testament church model is Antioch, as it was multicultural and multi-ethnic. At Antioch, Paul rebuked Peter’s inconsistent Jewish behaviour and where Barnabas and Paul diffused a potentially explosive situation. At Antioch, all disciples, both Jewish and Gentile, were called Christians (Acts 11:26).
Given that Jewish and Gentile believers are one in Christ, many Jewish believers seeking to prove to the Jewish community that they are still Jewish despite being believers in Jesus became preoccupied with the Messianic movement and saw it to achieve their objective. Maoz (2003, p. 48) notes that ‘Jewish Christians worshipping in churches are under tremendous pressure to leave their churches and join the Movement’. Additionally, he states that Gentile believers are sometimes encouraged to join a Messianic congregation as it affords one some spiritual advantage. Paul maintained Jewish custom insofar that he did not consider it a religious obligation. He did become a Jew to his fellow Jew while acknowledging his liberty to become a Gentile to Gentiles which infers that he thought himself not obliged to practice his day’s Judaism (Varner et al., 2003). Paul categorically states that he is not under the Law, and if he were, Wright (2018, p. 254) claims that he would not have quoted from Psalm 24:1 as ‘meaning that all foods are now acceptable’. He adds that the Messiah’s people have died and have left behind the old identities and have come into the Messianic identity (Wright, 2018).
Although the diverse customs which regulate the lifecycle and lifestyle of Jews in biblical times are binding on members of the Messianic community, they are not legalistic in their approach to Judaism (Cohn-Sherbok, 2000). There is enormous variation among Messianic synagogues. Many congregations within the movement have eliminated some of the liturgy's traditional features, embracing a much more charismatic approach to worship. Such variety might cause one to consider the Messianic movement to be like a counterpart to the Church with its variety and flavours of worship: in other words, merely a ‘church’ with a Jewish flavour.
Messianic congregations have a commendable motive which is to evangelise fellow Jews. However, such a motivation to evangelise is seemingly counterproductive, given its standing and perception within the Jewish community. The Jewish community regards it as ‘deceptive, disloyal, and dangerous’ (Cohn-Sherbok, 2000, p. 167) and insists it betrays the Jewish faith. Such a perception fosters two questions in considering Messianic congregations’ existence. Is a messianic congregation a stumbling-block to Jewish people? Would messianic Jews be more effective in evangelising Jews if they belonged to a church instead of a Messianic community? Messianic Jews want their faith in Yeshua to be genuinely Jewish, not just from a cultural or ethnic or even political perspective, but also from theological and religious. How can Messianic congregations maintain their Jewishness if many Gentiles join and potentially become a majority in local communities? Even more confusing is when Messianic Gentiles react to replacement theology or anti-Semitism, become Torah observant, observe Shabbat instead of Sunday and celebrate festivals rather than the church calendar. Maoz (2003) opines that the Messianic movement has attracted more Gentiles than Jews and has failed to promote the gospel among the Jewish people. The influx of Gentiles ‘blurred cultural boundaries and contributed to the confusion about what or who is a Messianic Jew’ (Power, 2011, p. 81) and can undermine congregational stability (Kaell, 2014). Given that Paul preached about Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23) and boasted in the cross (Galatians 6:14), it is significant that Messianic congregations do not display the cross as a symbol (Kaell, 2014). Despite such challenges and opposition, the Messianic movement advances undeterred.
Messianic Judaism is a hybrid that combines elements of Christianity and Traditional Judaism and can remove the barriers between them and create understanding and tolerance (Kollontai, 2006). However, it can threaten a ‘carefully established division between Judaism and Christianity that most Jews and Christians are eager to maintain’ (Shapiro, 2011, p. 12). The Messianic movement has roused the Church to an awareness of its roots and the gospel’s Jewishness. By contrast, it has confused ‘cultural mores with religious duties’ (Maoz, 2003, p. 247). With its emphasis on the central place of the Torah and its adherence to Jewish custom, some might think it has minimised the complete work of Christ.
In referring to the story of Hosea, his wife Gomer had what Stan Telchin (2004, p. 146) calls a ‘divided heart’ which manifested with a little bit of love for God, a little bit of love for Hosea, a little bit of love for her children, and her lovers. He believes that Messianic Judaism has a little bit of God, a little bit of Torah service, a little bit of Hebrew, bread, wine, yarmulke wearing, keeping kosher, and lots of Messianic meeting and Israeli folk dancing (Telchin, 2004). It is crucial that attachment to national customs ‘does not spill over into religious observance’ (Maoz, 2003, p. 148). In sum, Telchin (2004) suggests that the Messianic movement speaks of these things more than Yeshua and that there is a potential danger of subtly conforming to Jewish practices rather than being transformed into the image of Christ.
Christians can learn much from Messianic Jews regarding the feasts, festivals, and evangelising Jews. Stern (2002) observes that Christianity tends to gloss over the very elements, especially relating to atonement for sin, which Judaism stresses. However, with the increasing numbers of Gentiles joining the movement, how can the larger Jewish community take it seriously if significant numbers of non-Jews dominate its membership? Such Gentile believers adopt Messianic language, which potentially risks division from the Church.
Liberman (2012) is optimistic and envisages Messianic Judaism as a way that Christians can enjoy a richer and fuller faith as in its original context. Suppose Scripture teaches a bilateral ecclesiology, as Kinzer (2005, p. 151) suggests, with the ‘ekklesia’ containing a portion of Israel known as ‘the remnant’. In that case, Messianic churches seem a practical way to cater for Messianic believers. Also, having both expressions as local communities coming together for a service demonstrates unity and togetherness.
It is no secret that sections of the Church adhere to supersessionism, and distancing themselves from this would help relations with Messianic believers and the Jewish community. An example of this is the Roman Catholic Church’s official renunciation of supersessionism (Flannery, 1975). Bruce Marshall (1997) argues that Jewish people’s existence is identifiable and permanent and always distinguished from the nations, and that observance of the Law allows this distinction post-Christum. The Church needs to understand the Jewish ekklesia’s significance to grasp the importance of Yeshua’s Jewish identity (Kinzer, 2005).
Messianic Judaism has the potential to dismantle the barriers between Jews and Christians further to help foster tolerance and understanding and a recognition that there can be unity despite diversity (Kollontai, 2006). There was the potential risk that the Mother Jerusalem church and the daughter Antioch church might grow apart. The Jerusalem Church was exclusively Jewish, whereas the Antioch church was partly Gentile and Jewish. Yet, they were ‘intimately woven together by a common past, consciously aimed to find a way together once the work of mission among the nations began to expand’ (Houwelingen, 2012, p. 21). However, Zev Garber (2016) notes that the Messianic Jew following the Jewish Jesus mandates covenantal Torah Observance, an alternative to, or section of the Eucharist as the soul means of the Lord’s communion. Given Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s supper written initially to Jews and Gentiles, this seems a somewhat backward step. Stokes (1997) issues a reminder that the Gentile role is to identify with Israel instead of identifying as Israel and provoke Israel to envy.
By contrast, Jewish believers fulfil their role in identifying as Israel, in being a reminder of the Jewish roots of the Church and a light to the Gentiles. In the book of Acts, ‘Israel refers to the Jewish people characterised as a people of repentant and obdurate Jews’ (Jervell, 1972, pp. 42-43). In other words, Israel in Acts does not refer to a church made up of Jews and Gentiles but to repentant Jews who are a portion of empirical Israel: Jews who have accepted the gospel and through whom the gospel will proceed to the Gentiles.
Messianic Judaism offers an alternative to Jewish conversions and assimilation into Christian society and culture. It has posed a challenge to the dialogue and exchange between liberal Christians and Jews parallel to Messianic Judaism’s rise (Ariel, 2012). Unfortunately, despite its efforts to promote Christianity among Jews, it has also promoted Judaism among Christians (Ariel, 2016).
Often Messianic congregations are accused of seeking to be under the Law and resurrecting a dividing wall between Jewish and Gentile believers (Schiffman, 1992). Richard Gibson notes that ‘most Messianic groups are better at providing a home for Jews and Gentiles together in Jesus, than many Gentile-culture-dominant churches’ (Smith, 2013, p. 4420). If the early Church is a helpful model, it was a ‘proto-messianic Jewish congregation and even issued a code of conduct for Gentile believers’ (Smith, 2013, p. 4428). At a local level, perhaps the Church and the Messianic movement can exist together under one auspice, with Messianic believers having their service open to all and the Church reciprocating. This model works in multicultural Malaysian churches where the indigenous people have their service, and the Chinese have theirs. Frequently there are combined services. Perhaps such a model may be a possible way forward for the Church and the Messianic movement.
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