It’s been ten years since we publicly disavowed one law theology (Messiah Journal 101). It’s been a decade of definition: defining terms, ideologies, roles, and ourselves.
At Malchut 2019, we laid those definitions out on the table. My colleague Daniel Lancaster refers to it as “landing the plane,” but I think of it more in terms of creating a whole new airplane.
The 747 Legacy
Since I live in Israel, any flight I take is a long-haul international flight. When I first started these flights in the 90s, the airplane of choice was the Boeing 747. Most of the 747s are now out of service; they have been replaced with smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, but I remember the first time I flew on one. As I loaded my young family onto our first flight to Israel, I wondered how such a massive plane could even fly.
People can engineer marvelous things. The first time those massive trans-continental carriers took flight was in February 1969. For more than half of a century, these planes safely and efficiently trafficked millions of people around the world. Less than 2 percent of the 747s ever built crashed due to mechanical issues, and most of those instances can be traced back to localized human errors.
Much as the engineers at Boeing labored to perfect the manufacture of the 747 to work flawlessly, so too, theology. Early Christian theologians engineered church theology to work efficiently and consistently. It has worked, and like these gigantic planes, it has, for the most part, safely transported millions of people to a multitude of spiritual destinations. However, with the introduction of new technology, the 747s have become outdated, inefficient to fly, and no longer cost-effective. Likewise, a big piece of church theology called supersessionism has served its time.
The 747 of Theology
Supersessionism (replacement theology) is a carefully manufactured and flawlessly engineered theology that first appeared as early as the second century—less than a century after the death and resurrection of Yeshua. We find it already airborne in the epistles of Ignatius, carrying passengers in the writings of Justin Martyr, and dominating the skies by the days of the Ante-Nicene fathers. Ignatius speaks of Judaism as “monuments and sepulchers of the dead” and declares it “utterly absurd to profess Christ Jesus and to practice Judaism.” Justin Martyr tells Trypho the Jew that the Scriptures no longer belong to the Jews but to Christians, and that Judaism errs because it takes the commandments literally instead of spiritually. The Ante-Nicene fathers teach that the church is the new Israel, and the coming kingdom is spiritual. There will be no literal fulfillment of the prophecies about Israel.
Nearly two thousand years later, supersessionism is still flying high. For example, consider Pastor Andy Stanley’s new book, Irresistible, in which he advances quotable material like this:
How much value does the old covenant have? Not any. How much value does the old covenant have now that the new one is here? None.
Jesus issued his new commandments as a replacement for everything in the existing list. Including the Big Ten. Just as his new covenant fulfilled and replaced the old covenant, Jesus’ new commandment fulfills and replaces the old commandments.
Like a big Boeing 747 that just keeps flying, supersessionism is a well-built theology that gets the job done for the church. It is big, spacious, and effective. Within its roomy cabin, everyone gets to fly first-class as the new chosen people of God. The church replaces Israel; the new flight plan replaces the old one, and the New Testament replaces the Torah. But it’s time to grow some new wings.
Engineering a Better Airplane
We are trying to build a better airplane—a transcontinental theology that delivers better service to the people than the old supersessionism model did. We want a more efficient one, better utilizing the revelation of the whole Bible without discarding Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism.
Ten years ago, we realized that the one-law model had intrinsic design flaws that spelled disaster for its passengers, and we went back to the drawing board. In Messiah Journal 134, we unveil the new airliner that we hope will replace the old 747 of supersessionism. We call it distinction theology.
Messiah Journal 134 is a statement piece for First Fruits of Zion in which we further define and clarify our vision, mission, and message. This Shavu’ot, First Fruits of Zion enters its twenty-eighth year of ministry. For twenty-eight years we’ve attempted to correct the story of how disciples of Yeshua relate to the land, the people, and the Scriptures of Israel. With God’s help, we’ve made some progress and, perhaps more importantly, we feel as though we have created a robust platform upon which the mission and message can continue for many years to come. With God’s help, we are in this for the long haul—we’ve been building and creating for nearly three decades. We are not going away.
We have activated a movement. We have taken a leading role in restoring the Jewish gospel proclaimed by Yeshua, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We have risen to defend the unchanging authority of the Torah from those who claim it has been abolished. We have done the hard work of figuring the Torah back into the equation of discipleship as it applies to Jewish and Gentile disciples, respectively. We have fought to defend the election of Israel—the Jewish people—as God’s chosen covenant partners. We have been the leading voice in defining the relationship of Gentile disciples to the larger nation of Israel—maintaining a principle of distinction without separation.
To us, the Gentile disciples are not the redheaded stepchild of the Messianic Jewish movement but fellow heirs to the kingdom along with the Jewish people. It’s like a marriage where both spouses are equal and play their own unique roles to make a healthy marriage. In the kingdom, both Jewish and Gentile disciples are necessary.
Not against the Church
It should go without saying that the church is not the enemy. The theological foundation of the church, established upon replacement theology and supersessionism, is the enemy. The church, as an institution and as a movement of Yeshua’s disciples, has spread the knowledge of the Jewish Messiah to all nations. Its consistent voice has imbedded biblically based values throughout the world. The church has sheltered the disenfranchised and cared for the widow, orphan, prisoner, those in need, the poor, and the forgotten. So why does it seem as if we are picking on the church?
In the article, Distinction Theology and Diversity in the Communities of Yeshua, Daniel Lancaster states:
We don’t want to see the church fail; we want to see it succeed as an international expression of the community of Yeshua. Churches today are far better positioned culturally and sociologically, to advance the kingdom of Messiah among the nations than Messianic synagogues.
In my book Tent of David, I have a chapter titled, “The Church Is Good.” It summarizes my thoughts on the institutional church and the wider body of Christian faith. The church is good, but as Jim Collins points out in his book Good to Great, “good” is the enemy of becoming great. Being good quickly becomes “good enough,” and we lose the ability to wonder, the passion to achieve, the inspiration to become better. I don’t want the church to be good enough; I want the church to be great.
Separating the institution from the theology that supports it is difficult, but that is what we need to do to progress. Again, the church is not the enemy—but we are challenging the theology the institution represents and propagates.
Not against Christians or Christian Practice
The majority of people who identify as Christian have no knowledge and no concern for the matters we are discussing. They are sincerely good people, sincere in their faith, and devoutly committed to the Master. I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with wonderful Christians where I have mentioned the term “replacement theology,” and they have no clue to what I am referring. Replacement theology has been the core assumption of church theology for so long that it has become the default status quo. Replacement theology has scarcely hampered the church’s efforts to do good toward others, to spread the Gospel to all nations, or to emulate the life and teachings of Jesus. Despite replacement theology, Christians are often the moral force and light in their communities.
My point is that, as we criticize supersessionism and replacement theology, we are not taking issue with the individual Christian or their observance of traditional Christianity. That’s not the point. Besides, we are part of the same family. We are brothers and sisters. We should also be friends and respectful toward one another. We are challenging the theology because it has implications for Messianic Judaism.
So, we aren’t fighting the church, and we aren’t fighting against Christians or Christian practice. However, we are challenging the underlying system of replacement theology and supersessionism. That’s the root issue. Rooting it out is going to be a battle. I’m afraid it’s going to be an ugly fight. While we can organizationally separate the goodness and productivity of the institutional church and sincere spirituality and devotion of the individual Christians—both the church and most Christians will feel assaulted, offended, and targeted. When we start grounding those 747s, the passengers are going to be upset. Replacement theology is at the core of the church’s self-definition and Christian identity.
All Theology Is Engineered
At the end of the day, all theology is engineered. We might be building a more efficient airplane to replace the old 747, but eventually, even the replacements are replaced. Theology is man’s best attempt to quantify God’s revelation. We are all trying to make sense of the Bible. We all love God. We all want to know him. We are all disciples, and we want to reflect the life and teachings of the Messiah properly. We share a common desire to see the kingdom established.
Because we genuinely believe this of others, we are generous in our mindset toward others—our very first organizational core value is that we believe in “The fundamental goodness of all of God’s people.” I have a perspective that I call “a narrow theology, and a wide hope.” First Fruits of Zion holds a narrow theology; we are motivated to share our perspectives and our convictions. We believe in our convictions and want to persuade others to accept them, too. We have a message of restoration for the church and a message of hope through Messiah Yeshua to our Jewish people—yet at the end of the day, we also have a wide hope that God’s love, mercy, and acceptance goes way beyond our narrow or limited understanding.