Messianic Judaism is a comparatively young religion, but not so young that it doesn’t have second- and third-generation adherents. There are a significant number of Messianic Jews and Gentiles who have grown up in the movement.
However—though I don’t have any data to back me up on this, just personal experience—I would guess that most of today’s Messianic Gentiles, if not Messianic Jews, began their life of faith within the church. As a result, most Messianics are people on a journey. They have consciously left old ways of doing and thinking behind, and are moving toward something new and different. (I would argue that both they and the movement as a whole have not arrived yet, but that’s another story.)
Messianic Gentiles are especially likely to have entered the Messianic movement from a Christian background—usually conservative evangelical Protestant, maybe Pentecostal. At some point, they encountered a Bible verse or a book or a conference that started them wondering about the Old Testament or the dietary laws or the Jewish holidays. This prompted the beginning of a journey that has led them—well, it’s hard to say where; there are a lot of places a Messianic Gentile might end up.
Some Messianic Gentiles leave the church, never to return. Some even describe themselves as anti-Church and anti-Christian—terms that, to them, reflect a theology and lifestyle that is simply not compatible with the scriptural witness. They choose a path of discipleship that is disconnected from the organizational church.
At the other end of the spectrum are people who land right back in the church, if they ever leave it to begin with. Like Messianic Jewish pioneer Paul Philip Levertoff, who was ordained as an Anglican priest, they see the institutional church as fundamentally good and redeemable despite its shortcomings.
I’m part of that latter camp. We don’t make as much noise, but we’re out there—regular church folk who are in the process of adopting a Messianic Jewish theology and, to whatever extent they can (or feel is appropriate), a Messianic Jewish way of life.
A third category also exists, and it’s one that should be upheld and nurtured—that consisting of those Messianic Gentiles who have joined Messianic Jewish congregations as healthy and integral members. While in the minority, this is the ideal mode and reflects the original first-century Jesus-faith.
Modalities of Jesus-Faith
I know not everyone agrees with my chosen modality—the particular mode or expression of faith I have embraced; that is, the nondenominational Christian church. Most Messianics I talk to are nice enough about it, but only because the ones who aren’t nice about it don’t talk to me. I’m part of the thing they left behind.
I was at a Messianic conference not too long ago and overheard someone talking about how he didn’t like a particular activity that most Christians enjoy, and didn’t understand what people saw in it, because of course he didn’t.
Look, I get it; hating on church and Christianity and everything that comes with it is the cool, hipstery thing to do. It’s also counterproductive, ignorant, and offensive.
I think many Messianic folks see the modality of the Messianic synagogue as inherently superior to and destined to replace the modalities of the churches within which their journeys began. Kind of like how nondenominational mega-churches feel about the old Baptist modality, and how Baptists feel about the Reformed modality, and how Reformed Protestants feel about the Catholic modality, and how Catholics historically felt about Judaism. And while it’s fun to see the circle come back around to a Jewish modality, I hope you’ll notice that Judaism, Catholicism, Reformed Protestantism, and Baptist evangelicalism are all alive and well. No one got replaced.
At their inception (and for some still today), adherents of all of these modalities thought God had destined them to be a superior replacement for the modality from which they split. Yet at each split, some sympathized with the new movement, but elected to stay in the old modality. The most obvious example for those familiar with American history would be the Puritans and the Separatists—two types of Christians who fled England for the colonies to avoid persecution by the Anglican Church.
I suppose you could apply one of these same two labels to most Messianic Gentiles. Some of us are puritans who stay in the church and hope to change it for the better; some of us are separatists who leave the church and burn our bridges in the process.
I would like to suggest that the separatists among us begin looking at Messianic Judaism from a more fruitful perspective. Instead of seeing it as a movement ordained to supersede and replace the church, let’s consider the potential Messianic Judaism has to exist as a bridge between two worlds: the world of Judaism and the world of Christianity.
This bridge is necessary for the Jewish people because Judaism is missing something: its Messiah. Judaism without Messiah is not what it could be and not what it should be. The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel under their Messiah King and the final realization of the new covenant will bring Judaism into a totally new era; much of what Judaism is today can only foreshadow that era in eager anticipation.
This bridge is also necessary for Christians, because Christianity is also missing something. I used to say that what Christianity was missing was the Torah. Now I think I’d probably say that Christianity is also missing its Messiah, just in a different way. We know his name, his miracles, and his death and resurrection, but most of us would not recognize the first-century rabbi we follow. I am coming to believe that the mystery of the church’s identity as the body of Messiah can only be fully realized when Messiah is fully known by his people as the King of Israel and as an observant Jew.
Messianic Judaism can offer Messiah to the Jewish people in a form the church has never been able to present—Yeshua the consummate Jew, the observant Jew, the eternal King of Israel who stands in solidarity with all of his people throughout all of history. Messianic Judaism can show through its own existence that Jesus and Judaism are not only compatible, but in some way mutually inclusive.
Messianic Judaism can also offer the church a picture of her Messiah that she has all but forgotten: that of the pious rabbi whose resurrection from the dead kicked off a successful Jewish mission to the Gentiles, and whose return will see him recognized as the greatest proponent of Judaism the world has ever known.
In short, Messianic Jews and Gentiles can be and should be bridge builders. With those of us in synagogues at one end and those of us in the church at the other, we have anchors on both sides; if we can each recognize the other side’s role and calling, we can support a connection in between. Through this connection we can work together to provide what is missing in both church and synagogue. But for this bridge to stand, both sides must be firmly entrenched in their respective ground, and each side must respect and honor the other. We need people who are at home in the synagogue and people who are at home in the church, and we all need to get along.
Whatever your calling is, I hope you can see the merit in the callings of others. I hope you can recognize the necessity of those pylons across the river from yours. I hope you can see how the connection between us is a microcosm of a larger connection between Judaism and Christianity, between church and synagogue—a connection rooted in our shared identity as people of the God of Abraham and as subjects, whether we recognize him or not, of the King of Israel.