Should Christians Attempt to Evangelize Jews?

by Allan R. Brockway

Table of Contents

  • A Lack of Consensus
  • Theological Issues for Christians
  • Different Meanings of "Salvation"
  • Israel's Covenant with God Remains Valid
  • The Role of Antisemitism
  • Christians of Jewish Origin
  • In August 1986 the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism issued a "letter to the churches" concerning its conviction that the New Testament mandates Christians and the church to bring the Gospel to the Jewish people because "The Gospel. . .is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Romans 1:16). This letter has been read and studied widely and, in the process, has been praised as a faithful affirmation of Christian acceptance of the Great Commandment, on the one hand, and roundly condemned as fundamental denial of the Jewish people's relationship with God, on the other. At the very least, the letter has brought the question of the legitimacy of Christian efforts to convert Jews into discussion within the so-called ecumenical churches as well as in the evangelical branches of Christianity represented by the Lausanne Consultation.

    A Lack of Consensus

    There exists no consensus within the ecumenical community concerning an answer to the question, "Should Christians attempt to evangelize Jews?" This reality was acknowledged by the World Council of Churches' Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People when it developed "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue," which was received and commended to the churches by the WCC Executive Committee in 1982:

    There are Christians who view a mission to the Jews as having a very special salvific significance, and those who believe the conversion of the Jews to be the eschatological event that will climax the history of the world. There are those who would place no special emphasis on a mission to the Jews, but would include them in the one mission to all those who have not accepted Christ as their Savior. There are those who believe that a mission to the Jews is not part of an authentic Christian witness, since the Jewish people finds its fulfillment in faithfulness to God's covenant of old. (4.5)

    That the committee of the World Council most intimately involved with the Jewish people could not reach a consensus is indicative of the complexity of the question, a complexity that reaches back almost to the beginning of the Christian church and has been complicated by social and theological developments ever since.
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    Theological Issues for Christians

    There can scarcely be a more central issue for Christian self- understanding than the relation to Judaism and, more specifically, to the Jewish people. And that for the obvious reason (though it has not always been so obvious during most periods in the church's history) that Jesus was a Jew -- a fully observant Jew -- and not a Christian. Consequently, Christianity, which began life as a "school" or "sect" of Judaism, is itself Jewish both in origin and in concept.

    But Paul and gentile converts came to believe it was not necessary to be obedient to Torah (the "Law") in order to merit the salvation promised in Jesus Christ and gentile Christians began to preach that message to Jewish followers of Jesus. Whereas in the beginning they were not averse to Jews remaining faithful to Torah, that changed, so that the message became, in effect: Jews must stop following Torah in order to follow Christ. The line was drawn between Christians and Jews: you can be one or the other but not both. From the Christian side that meant Jews were excluded from the possibility of
    salvation. From the Jewish side it eventually raised the question as to whether or not Jews who became Christians would have a "portion in the world to come."

    Christians, however, had a more troubling theological difficulty than did Jews, for they were inextricably tied, through Jesus, to the God who gave Torah to the Jewish people and entered into covenant with them: "I will be your God and you will be my people." The theological question for Christians thus was how they could be servants of the God of Israel, whom they only knew through Torah observant Jesus, so long as the Jewish people existed as a constant reminder that Christians were interlopers, trespassers even, in the covenant. Since the Jewish people did not convert from Judaism (now perceived as a distinctly different religion) to Christianity, a question mark hung over the legitimacy of Christianity itself. "Evangelization (preaching the Gospel with the intent of conversion) of the Jews" was thus a first priority of the emerging church, because the Jewish people were then, as now, the only legitimate validaters of Christianity. If Jews were to believe that obedience to Torah was superfluous to salvation, then the church was correct in its own theological understanding. But the Jewish people did not -- and do not -- comply with this demand. And so there remains a felt need on the part of many Christians to mount increasingly effective efforts to evangelize Jews. Other Christians, however, are not so sure. In recent years research into second-temple Judaism has provided a more accurate picture than ever before of the world in which Jesus lived and the role he played in the religious-social-political context of his day. It is becoming increasingly clear that Jesus was part of a general movement in Jewish eschatology that looked to the coming Kingdom of God as an end to Roman rule and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land promised to the people God had chosen. Jesus called his own people back to full and complete obedience to Torah, not away from it. His vision was, thus, fully in harmony with that of the Hebrew prophets who demanded that the people abandon their idolatrous practices and return to the Lord -- in order that the Lord would see the faithfulness of his people and fulfill the promises made to their fathers.
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    Different Meanings of "Salvation"

    When Paul and, probably other missionaries to the gentiles, came to the conclusion that non-Jewish Greeks and Romans could by-pass Torah and achieve salvation (a concept that means little to Jews) by means of belief in Jesus and his message, they were operating from a Jewish eschatological assumption that what Jesus called the "Kingdom of God" involved the "ingathering" of the gentiles, i.e., that the gentiles would be participant in the covenant at, or before, the last day. In all probability, Paul wanted all gentiles to enter the covenant of the Jewish people with God. But he preached that what it took to enter the covenant was belief in the salvific power of Christ's death and resurrection, not necessarily adherence to Torah. It should not be surprising that the majority of the Jewish people simply could not go along with abrogation of Torah obedience as a condition for something that made little sense to them in the first place.

    Jewish understanding of "salvation" simply is different from that of Christianity and so the question of "evangelization" of Jews boils down to a question of whether or not Christians have the right to try to convince Jews that their version of "salvation" is preferable to the one Jews have already. Jews and Christians worship the same God -- the God who made covenant with Israel. Should Christians then try to convince Jews to worship God in the Christian way, with the Christian goal (salvation) in mind, instead of the Jewish way, with the Jewish goal (obedience) in mind? Many Christians think so; many do not. In each case the response hangs on a critical interpretation of Christian identity.

    Those Christians who would "convert" Jews firmly believe it is the divinely mandated mission of the church to preach the Gospel to them -- as well as everyone else -- for the sake of Jews themselves, for their salvation. According to this view, Christians would be false to their faith if they failed to bring Jews into the Christian fellowship.

    On the other hand, there are Christians who are just as firmly convinced that the attempt to convert Jews to Christianity is to betray the God whom they both worship. On their reasoning, Jews as individuals are, by definition, part of the Jewish people with whom God made covenant; they are already within the covenant and have no need to enter it in a different way. The attempt to convince them otherwise is an attempt to convince them to deny God's covenant with Israel. The proper stance for Christians, therefore, is to understand as best they can what it means for Jews to live as obedient members of the Jewish people before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And, in the process, help Jews comprehend how it is that Christians -- gentiles for the most part -- can rightly worship that same God "through Jesus Christ our Lord."
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    Israel's Covenant with God Remains Valid

    For centuries Christians knew themselves to be "not Jews." Jews were thought to be killers of Christ, killers of God Incarnate. Jews were everything Christians were not. They were avaricious, venomous, idolaters. But, worst of all, they refused to agree that Jesus was the messiah promised by their own prophets and that gentiles could enter into the covenant with God without obedience to the Law of God, the Torah. The idea that the messiah could be the vehicle for abrogation of the Torah was not only offensive to Jews, it was totally beyond comprehension. In face of that rejection, the preeminent Christian claim became that Christians were now the sole claimants to the covenant, that the church was the "new Israel," and that the stale remnants of the "old Israel" were false and presumptuous in their stubborn insistence that God's covenant remained with them. The latter-day realization that God's covenant with the Jewish people remains valid -- which Vatican II made explicit and numerous Protestant affirmations confirmed -- came, therefore, as a shock to those portions of the Christian community that were aware of or sensed its import. If that were so then Christian identity, taken for granted for centuries, was in serious jeopardy.

    Or was it? If they had become convinced in, say, the fifteenth century that the Jewish people's covenant with God remained valid, there would have been no doubt about Christians' and the church's identity crisis. But in the secular world of the late twentieth century Christians tend to think of Jews as members of a religion that has nothing to do with Christianity as such. The historical fact that Christianity is, and has always been, defined by its relationship to Judaism is largely ignored (though that does not make Judaism any less foundational and Christianity any less derivative).

    Because Christians and the church generally have forgotten the essential Jewishness of their faith, they tend to place the attempt to evangelize Jews in the same category as missionary efforts among people of other religions or of no religion. Jews are simply people who "do not know Christ" and can never be saved unless they do come to "know Him." In sum, most Christians today do not think about the Jewish people in theological terms, Christianity and Judaism or between the church and the Jewish people. During most of this century Christians have viewed Jews as (1) candidates for conversion and/or (2) persecuted people who, because they are human beings loved by God, should be defended (later, as Israelis, they were seen by many Christians as an oppressive people). But generally they have not been comprehended as the people of the covenant into which, through Jesus Christ, Christians claim entry. Instead they have been viewed, almost exclusively, as the victims of antisemitism, something -- particularly since the Holocaust -- that is repugnant to Christians.
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    The Role of Antisemitism

    Christians who want Jews to become Christians and Christians who believe efforts at conversion are illegitimate agree that antisemitism is evil. So does virtually everyone else -- for reasons that have nothing to do with the definitive relation between the Jewish people and the church. When he addressed a delegation of the American Jewish Committee in February 1985, Pope John Paul II said that "Antisemitism, which is unfortunately still a problem in certain places, has been repeatedly condemned by the Catholic tradition as incompatible with Christ's teaching and with the respect due to the dignity of men and women created in the image of God" (italics added). Though his words are true, they could equally well have been said about every human being; there is in them no indication that antisemitism is of a theologically different order from, e.g., racism. The implication is that what makes Jews important for Christians is their humanness, not their Jewishness. Once Jews are seen as of interest and concern to Christians solely as human beings created by God, it is unnecessary to think about them in terms of Chris tian identity. They no longer pose either a threat or a promise for Christian self-understanding.

    Opposition to antisemitism was a theological boon to the church, for it allowed Christians to avoid the unsettling question of the Jewishness of Jesus and thus the knotty question of the legitimacy of attempts to make Christians out of Jews. As important as it is for the church to combat antisemitism on the basis enunciated by the Pope (and, incidentally, by the 1948 and 1961 Assemblies of the World Council of Churches), concentration on antisemitism, humanly defined, has served to obscure the fundamental significance of the Jewish people for the self-understanding of the church. Despite the terrors produced by theological opposition to Jews and Judaism throughout the centuries, the benign neglect of the theological question in favor of a sociological alternative has resulted in some reduction in the incidence of physical persecution, which is certainly to be applauded, but has made little change in the theological grounding for it.

    Since antisemitism is universally condemned by Christians, it is useful to ask about the connection, if any, between evangelism of Jews and antisemitism. Are evangelistic efforts among Jews antisemitic? The answer to this question hinges upon how Judaism and the Jewish people are viewed. It has been said rightly that Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, but the Jewish people is not defined by Judaism. Unlike with Christianity and Christians, it is not necessary to practice or even "believe" in Judaism is order to be a Jew. On the other hand, Jews who become committed Christians are considered by Jews to be apostate, that is, they have abandoned the Jewish people and are lost to it. The conversion of Jews is therefore seen as "spiritual genocide," for if it succeeded on a large enough scale the Jewish people, as Jewish people, would cease to exist. On this reasoning, evangelistic efforts aimed at Jews are definitely antisemitic.
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    Christians of Jewish Origin

    At the same time, it may be argued that, since the Jewish people is not defined by religion, Jews should be able to remain Jews while embracing another religion, Christianity. When the Christian movement was still a sect within Judaism, the question did not arise but, as we have seen, that situation did not last very long. Today, after almost twenty centuries during which Christianity developed into a religion that not only denied the validity of Torah observance for salvation but also, being supra-national, rejected the concept of peoplehood, Jews who become Christian are understood by other Jews to have abandoned, not only Judaism as a religion but the Jewish people itself; they are no longer Jews. The Lausanne Letter therefore is asking the impossible when it calls "upon the Body of Christ to restore evangelistic outreach to the Jewish people to the same, natural and central place as it had in the ministry of the Early Church."

    Although in terms of numbers Christian evangelistic efforts have had little success, some Jews have become Christian out of spontaneous conviction (others have converted in order to share the religion of their spouse and to avoid religious conflict on the part of their children). The "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue" notes that for many Christians of Jewish origin, their identification with the Jewish people is a deep spiritual reality to which they seek to give expression in various ways, some by observing parts of Jewish tradition in worship and life style, many by a special commitment to the well-being of the Jewish people and to a peaceful and secure future for the State of Israel. Among Christians of Jewish origin there is the same wide spectrum of attitudes towards mission as among other Christians, and the same criteria for dialogue and against coercion apply. (4.7)

    No matter what their theological conviction concerning the legitimacy of converting Jews may be, it is important that Christians maintain deep respect for and acceptance of "Jewish Christians" in the Christian community. Often they are not so accepted and, since they are completely rejected by the Jewish people, they find themselves in an extremely awkward and uncomfortable position. The church should receive them as complete Christians, benefiting from their experience in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. But Christians would be well advised not to try actively to increase their number -- lest they be found apostate themselves before the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob . . . and Jesus.
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    First published in One World, 21 April 1987