Out of all the books I was assigned to read in my undergraduate religious studies program at a conservative Christian college, I have one in particular that is my favorite. And it’s not because I like it or because I necessarily agree with it. It’s my favorite book from that program because of the brazen courage—the chutzpah, to use a nice Hebrew word—of its author.
The book is called Orthodoxy and Heresy (one of many books by that title), and its author makes the case that any deviation from the core doctrines of fundamental evangelical Protestantism, as traditionally enumerated and defined, is heresy. For example, to embrace a less-than-literal hell—as C. S. Lewis famously did—is logically equivalent to a repudiation of orthodoxy as a whole. As such, it is heresy.
Generations of evangelical students have been trained as heresy-hunters by teachers with this same mindset. They see themselves as the guardians of truth and righteousness in the galaxy. Or something like that.
I know I sound flippant. But really, it takes chutzpah to claim that one’s own little slice of Christendom has a corner on all truth. It takes brazen, misguided courage for a person to condemn every other believer that doesn’t connect the dots in exactly the same way he does.
Certainly there is room to disagree—in fact, to draw lines around this safe area is the putative purpose of Orthodoxy and Heresy. Yet depending on who is drawing the lines, the encircled space is often so narrow that most Christians throughout history would probably not be included within it.
The Westboro Baptist Church being an extreme example, there exists a vocal minority of extremely conservative Christians who see themselves as “watchdogs”—a term some of them even embrace. They decide who is in and who is out, who is a heretic and who isn’t.
This vocal minority has influence far beyond what their numbers might indicate. They have a disproportionate influence on broader evangelical dialogue. They make it difficult to introduce anything new or to question anything old. They quench good scholarship by deriding good scholars.
So it should not come as a surprise that, in response to the rise of Messianic Judaism, voices have arisen to condemn it.
To some, Messianic Judaism is heresy because it represents a return to the practice of the Torah, the Mosaic Law. To others, it is heresy because it claims a unique and permanent role for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. And, to be frank, I think many consider Messianic Judaism heresy because it is something different, something new, and something they don’t understand.
As it pertains to my attitude toward Messianic Judaism, I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from this vocal minority. I am a Messianic Gentile, a supporter and in some sense even a practitioner of Messianic Judaism.
How can a Christian pastor align himself with Messianic Judaism? Do I think I’m Jewish? Do I attend synagogue? Do I put tape over my light switches on Friday night?
The answer is no; I don’t have to do any of these things to be a Messianic Gentile. I don’t have to live a completely Jewish life in order to be a part of Messianic Judaism. I don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from what I see as the most important religious movement of our time.
Most people see Messianic Judaism as syncretism—a nonsensical blend of two incompatible faiths. They see the claims of Christians and Jews as mutually exclusive; to them, it doesn’t make sense to try to combine the two. They accept a commonly held categorization that looks something like this: Christians believe that Judaism was brought to an end with the coming of Jesus; in contrast, Jews believe that Jesus was not the Messiah, and that Judaism must continue as it has for the past four thousand years.
This simple dichotomy might have been correct for a time during the medieval period. But before the rise of Islam there was substantial crosstalk between Judaism and Christianity, and in the past few centuries this dialogue has begun anew. Christians and Jews are finding common ground. Many Christians no longer believe that Jesus came to end Judaism; in fact, the most reputable scholars of the early Jesus movement across all denominations now believe that Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. The apostles did not see the conflict we see today between a life of Judaism and a life of discipleship to Jesus; in fact, these two sets of values were nothing if not complementary—for Jesus himself is a Jewish rabbi.
On the Jewish side of the fence, more and more rabbis have begun to reclaim Jesus as part of the tapestry of Jewish history. These high-profile traditional Jews do not accept the messianic claims of the New Testament, but they are listening when the scholars speak of a pious, observant Jewish Jesus.
Messianic Judaism, as an ideal, represents a theological bridge between these two sets of dialogue partners. Like the rabbis, they feel that Judaism and the Jewish people must endure in order to fulfill God’s commandments and promises through Moses and the prophets. Like the Christians, they believe the messianic claims of Jesus and his apostles. Where the two fail to see eye-to-eye, Messianic Jews have bridged the gap. They have embraced both sides. They, like the apostles (and like the most prominent historical Jesus scholars), see no conflict between Jesus and Judaism.
It seems unconscionable to claim that what the apostles were doing was wrong—that the Twelve ultimately missed the point of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Yet this is exactly what is claimed—sometimes overtly!—by those who regard Messianic Judaism as a heretical movement.
I cannot fathom what merit people see in this position. Without the guidance of the apostles, we would have no window into the life of Jesus; everything we know about him has been delivered through their faithful hands. We cannot believe that the Holy Spirit came upon the Twelve to empower them to lead the church, and then turn around and claim that they missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. We can accept them and the Jesus they taught to us, or reject both, but we cannot have one without the other. Historically and theologically, it makes no sense to believe in Jesus but reject the apostles.
Yet if Messianic Judaism is correct in what it seeks to do, we must regard it as an unprecedented restoration of the practice of the early church. In that capacity, it provides a living memory of where we began. It connects us to our past, and to the Jewish people, our co-heirs of the faith of Abraham. In all these things, it helps us understand the New Testament and the Messiah we serve in their original Jewish context.
Messianic Judaism truly is the most important religious movement of our time, and we have a lot to learn from it. If we’re willing to listen.