By now, most Christians have at least heard of “Messianic Jews,” that is, Jewish believers in Yeshua of Nazareth who have retained their Jewish identity and continue to observe the Torah and practice Judaism in loyalty to Yeshua and their biblical heritage.
Less well known and less understood are what we can call “Messianic Gentiles.” I identify myself as a Messianic Gentile, and I am not alone. There are a lot of us, and our numbers are growing, but what exactly is a Messianic Gentile?
The Messianic Gentile is a Sabbatarian and Torah-keeper practicing Messianic Judaism, not as a wanna-be Jew, but as a Gentile. The holy Torah of Moses has commandments for both Jews and Gentiles. Judaism is a universal religion. It is naturally centered around the Jewish people (and the Jewish Messiah), but its scriptures and practices extend out to all nations, encompassing all of us in the final consummation of the Messianic Era. A Messianic Gentile lives for the Messianic Era, an idea that our Master called “the kingdom of heaven.”
-D Thomas Lancaster
“I’m a Messianic Gentile” (June 26, 2011)
You probably think I’m crazy even asking if Christians practice any form of Judaism. The vast, vast majority of both Christians and Jews would answer a resounding “no.” Only a tiny population of Jews and non-Jews in what is referred to as the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements (they overlap somewhat but are hardly the same thing) even ask such a question. Moreover, only some of the people inside of those movements are considering or confused by the answer.
But why even ask such a ridiculous question? First of all, I recently read such a question as it was floating by in the blogoverse and was intrigued by its audacity. One such church-going (non-Jewish) Christian says he regularly tells other people in his church that he practices “Messianic Judaism”. This is just a hair off from his possibly telling other Christians that he’s a “Messianic Jew”. I don’t want to be unfair or inaccurate, and this person did not refer to himself as a Jew, Messianic or any other kind.
-from my blog post
Do Christians Practice Judaism (October 17, 2012)
Well, color me chagrined. I seem to have run headlong into a contradiction. Boaz Michael, President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) posted a link to Lancaster’s “Messianic Gentile” blog on Facebook recently (though I can’t seem to find it on Facebook again), and I registered my embarrassment in a comment there as well (this is related to Michael’s recently published book, Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile).
But I felt the issue needed more exposure so of course, I’m blogging about it.
I really don’t think that a Christian can practice Judaism as such because it seems to muddy the waters between practicing Judaism and being a Jew. Don’t only Jews practice Judaism? It’s confusing because Judaism is more than just a religious movement (Christianity is a religious movement). It’s a people group, a culture or collection of related cultures, a lifestyle, and when factoring in Israel, it’s not just a piece of geography, but the Jewish people and the Jewish nation as well.
If you’re not Jewish, how do you “practice” all that?
According to Lancaster, a “Messianic Gentile” such as he, practices Messianic Judaism by keeping the Shabbat and keeping Torah, “not as a wanna-be-Jew, but as a Gentile.”
My Jewish wife once called me a “Jewish wannabe” in the heat of a discussion and among many other events, it has “inspired” me to attempt to embrace my identity as a Christian for the sake of clarity and as a sign that I’m “backing away from her turf.” That Lancaster calls Judaism a “universal religion” doesn’t mean (in my opinion, but I don’t have even the beginnings of the educational and experiential background in religious and Bible studies that Lancaster possesses) that it can be universally appropriated and practiced by anyone anywhere.
There’s a fine line to be drawn here. On the one hand, Gentiles dressing frum and wearing payot would be offensive to Jews and even look kind of crazy, but on the other hand, Isaiah did relate the words of God when he said:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
–Isaiah 49:6 ESV
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
–Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (ESV)
Israel, in a sense, was supposed to be an example to the rest of the world by how it obeyed God and adhered to the standards of the Torah mitzvot. The rest of us were and are supposed to observe, be really impressed, and allow Israel’s idealized example influence our nations to become more just, more compassionate, and for all of us to leave our “idols” behind and embrace ethical monotheism.
Maimonidies (Moshe Ben-Chaim) Laws of Kings, Laws 11:10-12 (Capach Edition): “ …Can there be a greater stumbling block than this (Christianity)? That all the prophets spoke that the Messiah will redeem Israel and save them, and gather their dispersed and strengthen their Mitzvot, and this (one, i.e., Jesus) caused the Jews to be destroyed by the sword, and scattered their remnants and humbled them, and exchanged the Torah, and caused the majority of the world to err to serve a god other than the Lord.  Nevertheless, the thoughts of the Creator of the world are not within the power of man to reach them, ‘for our ways are not His ways, nor are our thoughts His thoughts.’ And all these matters of Jesus of Nazareth and that of the Ishmaelite who arose after him are only to straighten the way of the king Messiah and to fix the entire world, to serve God as one, as it is stated (Zephaniah 3:9), “For then I will turn to the peoples (into) clear speech, to all call in the name of G-d and serve Him unanimously.  How (will this come about)? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of the Messiah, with words of Torah and words of mitzvos and these matters have spread to the furthermost isles, to many nations of uncircumcised hearts, and they discuss these matters and the mitzvot of the Torah. Some say: “These mitzvoth are true, but were already nullified in the present age and are not applicable for all time.” Others say: “Hidden matters are in them (mitzvos) and they are not to be taken literally, and the messiah has already come and revealed their hidden (meanings). And when the true Messiah stands, and he is successful and is raised and exalted, immediately they all will retract and will know that fallacy they inherited from their fathers, and that their prophets and fathers caused them to err.”
-quoted from mesora.org
With respect, the point is, I think, that although Christianity and Islam are not true, they have played a part in the Divine scheme for the redemption of the whole of humanity by spreading some sort of ethical monotheism involving an albeit incorrect idea of Messiah, Torah and Mitzvot. Although Islam and Christianity are part of the overall process leading to the redemption their imperfect ethical monotheism will be rectified through the adoption of the seven laws.
Naturally, neither Judaism in general nor Maimonides in specific, support Christianity nor the idea that God intended our faith as a mechanism for spreading knowledge of God, and the opinions expressed at the mesora website reflect this. Nevertheless, we can see that Judaism has had a great influence on the world (like it or not) as expressed through Christianity and Islam.
But does “influence” equal “practicing Judaism?” Again, most Christians and certainly most if not all Muslims will strongly deny practicing Judaism in any way or form, but returning to the Messianic Gentile, what about them?
I mainly see “Messianic Gentiles” as having a different perspective than more traditional Christians (which isn’t to say that a self-identified Christian in a church couldn’t have the same point of view). As Lancaster says, they “believe that the Torah is not cancelled, and it contains laws and commandments that apply to both Jews and Gentiles. We keep those laws and commandments as we seek the kingdom.” He further states that:
The idea of practicing Messianic Judaism as a Gentile is not a new thing. Paul’s readers were doing it almost 2000 years ago.
However, in my reading of many of Lancaster’s other works, I don’t believe he is saying that we Christians are all obligated to practice Judaism nor commanded to imitate Jews in every detail in their halalach lifestyle. I don’t think you can find the early Christians who were established by Paul living in such a manner, although I admit that they did live more like the Jews of their day than we Gentile believers do today. I don’t doubt they kept a kind of kosher for table fellowship with Jews, perhaps kept Shabbos as they were able (early Gentile Christianity, unlike Judaism, was not a recognized religion by the Roman empire and Gentiles would not have been absolved from working on Shabbos as the Jews were), davened at the set times of prayer, and even observed some of the festivals (Passover would have been particularly meaningful).
But were even the ancient Christians at the end of the Second Temple era “practicing Judaism?”
A few days ago, I wrote a meditation that outlined the struggles Jewish and Gentile believers had with each other in the days of James, Peter, and Paul due to conflicts in what the Gentiles should and shouldn’t be practicing, and what sort of social bonds (if any) should form between Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of the Master…all based on Lancaster’s commentaries.
I don’t think this is an easy issue to deal with. It wasn’t 2,000 years ago, and it doesn’t seem to be in the present. But if the early Christians in their religious life weren’t “practicing Judaism,” what were they doing? “Christianity” as a discrete entity did not yet exist. Were these Gentiles acting as some sort of “quasi-converts” or “amplified God-fearers?” I think the New Testament was struggling with trying to identify who and what the Gentiles were as they entered into “the Way” and never got around to answering the question.
I’m not sure the question has been answered today, either. Some Hebrew Roots supporters have jumped from A to Z and declared that Messianic Judaism is (supposed to be) all-inclusive and there are no distinctions allowed. Gentiles entering the movement acquire a covenant status that’s not only equal to the Jews in the movement, but identical to them in every conceivable detail. A “Messianic Gentile” is just a “Messianic Jew” without a particular string of DNA and (in the case of males) a circumcision.
I’m not trying to be disagreeable to Lancaster, Boaz, or anyone else, but my opinion is that we use the phrase “Messianic Gentile” as a way to describe a Christian who has a very specific view of Jews, Judaism, the Torah, and God, all relating back to what the movement teaches. But does that mean whatever Messianic Judaism is allows both Jews and Gentiles to practice Judaism as a religious or worship form? If my wife and I go to one of the local synagogues and worship together, am I practicing Judaism?
While my viewpoints and attitudes probably identify me as a “Messianic Gentile” by Lancaster’s definition, I tend not to use the label for a variety of personal reasons. My wife thinks of me as a Christian and I can only imagine that everyone who sees me at church doesn’t give my being a Christian (as opposed to being a Messianic Gentile) a second thought. Of course, at this stage of my life, I don’t observe anything that even resembles a Shabbat and my level of kashrut is what the Chabad Rabbi in our community would call “kosher style.” If I wanted to truly be “Messianic,” I’d have a long way to go.
I don’t lay tefillin, I don’t pray while wearing a tallit gadol, I only wear a kippah if I’m actually going to shul (since all men are required to, Jewish or not), I pray with a siddur very sparingly, I can’t pray in Hebrew (languages are not one of the things I’m good at), and in many, many other ways, I’m not a “Messianic” anything. I certainly don’t practice Judaism, Messianic or otherwise.
I can’t tell D. Thomas Lancaster or anyone else that they aren’t practicing Messianic Judaism, but on the other hand, in my own life, I can’t see how a Christian like me could ever do such a thing. I suppose this is where opinions differ and possibilities for some of us are yet to be realized. Even if my wife and daughter were to suddenly become shomer shabbos and kasher our kitchen, and I were to daven at the set times of prayer, who would I be and what would I be practicing?
I tend not to think that it’s any form of Judaism, in spite of the obvious similarities, but on the other hand, I don’t really know what to call it. One thing’s for sure, especially with the recent issues involving Gentiles at the Kotel and the lack of respect we’ve been showing at this most Holy site, I feel once again diminished (it’s so sad some Christians can’t treat Jews with respect) and I know for certain that we sure aren’t Jews.