I was reminded of this once again when I recently came across some articles on the Russian Subbotniks. The Subbotniks were a break-off group from the Russian Orthodox Church. They observed a seventh day and also faithfully observed the laws of Torah. When researching their account, I was not only intrigued by its many similarities to the situation of increasing numbers of Gentiles disciples of the Master returning to the practice of Torah, but I was also struck by some dangerous pitfalls revealed by their story. If we are not careful, we might fall into the same traps. In that regard, the tale of the Subbotniks is as inspiring as it is cautionary.
“The Subbotniks,” pg 49
Messiah Journal Spring 2014 (115) issue
In 1451, Pope Nicholas V issued a decree forbidding all social contact between Christians and Jews. The Church sought to stop Christian converts to Judaism; throughout Europe, those who did so were liable to the death penalty.
This Day in Jewish History
For 24 Adar 5774 – March 26, 2014
To be honest, I’ve been avoiding reading Toby’s article because the title just didn’t “resonate” with me, but now I’m glad I did. Lately, I’ve been writing about the nature of Messianic Judaism for Jewish people and just how Jewish should Jews in Messianic Judaism be. However, as I’m always reminded, there’s the other side of the coin; Gentiles who remain devoted disciples of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and yet who are also attracted to the practice and/or perspective of Judaism on their (our) faith.
But I included the quote about Pope Nicholas V for a reason. When I first read it a day or so ago, I found myself wondering why this Pope found it necessary to forbid contact between Christians and Jews and why there was such a “problem” with Christians converting to Judaism in 15th century Europe? How many Christians were converting anyway, and why? What was the allure?
I suppose the story of the 18th century Subbotniks might contain part of the answer. It seems that periodically in the history of the Church, some sub-group of Gentile believers breaks off from their local, normative expression of Christianity and either converts to Judaism or, without abandoning their faith in Jesus, begins to take on more “Jewish” practices and perspectives.
Luther’s open letter of 1538 condemning Sabbatarian tendencies among Christians in Silesia and Moravia after 1527 is a key work marking the transition toward the anti-Judaic attitudes of the late Luther. Marked by a new severity toward the Jews on Luther’s part, the letter had its origin in Luther’s response to a new Sabbatarianism arising among radical Protestants, which Luther saw as a victory for Jewish legalism over sound evangelical teachings.
-Dr. Lowell H. Zuck
“Luther’s Writing Against Emerging Sabbatarianism”
Apparently, the Reformation didn’t end of the problem of Christian Sabbatarians anymore than Pope Nicholas did.
I’ve often thought that the authors of the Reformation didn’t take things far enough. Sure, they stood up against the errors and abuses of the Roman Catholic church as it existed in the 16th century, but they didn’t change as much as you might imagine. They still kept the Sunday worship day and continued to adhere to and enforce theologies and doctrines that were anti-Semitic and anti-Judaism, even accusing “the Jews” of attempting to mislead Christians (probably relative to the Shabbat):
I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them. I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself. However, the devil is the god of the world, and wherever God’s word is absent he has an easy task, not only with the weak but also with the strong. May God help us. Amen.
-quoted from “The Jews & Their Lies” (1543) by
I’ve been accused in the past of bashing Luther a little too hard, so I’ll try to be a little less aggressive here, but the history of Christians being attracted to aspects of Judaism doesn’t seem to be an isolated one.
Why? What’s the attraction?
Initially, these former members of the Christian Church continued to view both the Old and New Testaments as divinely inspired, but they believed that nothing in the New Testament abolished the commandments of the Torah, including the laws of kashrut (dietary laws). While still considering themselves disciples of the Master, the Subbotniks wrestled with the traditional Orthodox Church’s teaching on the Trinity, and they developed some of their own thoughts regarding Christology and Yeshua’s role as a prophet and miracle worker. They also squarely rejected icons and frescoes of the Orthodox Church as idolatrous.
-Janicki, pg 50
My guess is when my traditionally Christian readers hit the word “Trinity” in the quote above, you may have decided that the Subbotniks were heretics and wrote them off, but hang in there. Also, for the Protestants out there, you may be thinking that the Subbotnik reaction to the “icons and frescoes” of the Orthodox Church may have been appropriate, but they certainly wouldn’t have that sort of issue with Protestant Christianity today. They certainly wouldn’t have left a (for example) Baptist church to take up Sabbath-keeping, would they?
Having spent some number of years in the Hebrew Roots movement (which meant I also exited traditional Church worship and thought), I’ve interacted with many, many people who “left the Church”. They (we) have a lot of reasons for doing so. For me, it was that the Christian Pastors and church members (Sunday School teachers, rank-and-file in the pews) weren’t able to answer all of my questions about the Bible and why Christians do and teach certain things (a Sunday Sabbath, replacement theology). But some people felt much, much worse about Christianity than I ever imagined.
Some people were actually angry at their former churches and their former Pastors. Some people felt lied to. They had discovered, through various processes, that the New Covenant didn’t say what many churches teach, it isn’t a recipe for replacing Israel with the Church in God’s covenant promises, and it isn’t the “swan song” for the Jewish people and Judaism. Many of these people, and some expressions of Hebrew Roots, attempted to follow a path similar to those of the Subbotniks, remaining believers in Jesus (or Yeshua, if you will), but adopting many of the practices of modern Judaism to varying degrees of observance. The logic is that if the fundamental theology and doctrines of Christianity are wrong because they are anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and misrepresent the “Jewishness” of the foundations of “Christian” faith, the true answer to how we Gentiles are to be devoted disciples of Jesus can only be found by seriously revisiting the first century Judaism of “the Way” and building a worship practice and teaching from there. That point of view also accuses the Reformation of not going far enough or perhaps not going far enough back in time as I previously mentioned.
As I quoted Toby saying, the example of the Subbotniks and of all the various non-Jewish groups across history who have devoted themselves to Jesus by devoting themselves to Jewish study and practice is inspiring for modern-day Messianic Gentiles like me, but he also said their story is a cautionary tale.
Toby relates that the Subbotniks were persecuted by the Orthodox Church and the government, but it’s fairly unlikely Messianic Gentiles in the western nations would face the same treatment today. The separation of church and state means the U.S. government has no vested interest in enforcing a state religion as such, and how exactly is a Catholic or Evangelical (or any other kind of) church going to persecute us? No, we won’t be persecuted. Some Christians and some Churches are actually curious about Messianics. Up to a certain point, they find it interesting or even a little fascinating to be just a little more “Jewish” as Gentile Christians and to even “allow” a certain level of Jewish practice among Jewish believers.
But when they finally grasp just how people like me think Jewish believers should be completely Jewish, these Christians back off while rapidly raising their “you’re under the Law” shields. Even Christians like me, who don’t have a significant “Jewish” practice but who utilize a Messianic Jewish informational and educational platform in interpreting the Bible, are at best thought of as intelligent but mistaken and at worst as a member of a cult or even a heretic (what do you mean “the Law” wasn’t nailed to the cross with Jesus?).
But Toby’s right. Messianic Gentiles walk a fine line, at least potentially. We must never mistake Jewish perspective or Jewish practice as the object of our faith. The true focus must be Messiah as the “doorway” by which we may approach the Throne of God.
At the same time, the story of the Subbotniks cautions us about potential pitfalls. What began as a life-giving revelation ended in causing the people to deny Yeshua as Messiah — the very one who had brought them to the truth. This story is not just an interesting footnote for the history of religion. Both Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish movement face the same issues today that the Subbotniks did.
-Janicki, pg 57
I don’t have any numbers to draw from, but anecdotal information suggests more than a few Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements have “swung to the other side,” so to speak, and converted to (usually Orthodox) Judaism. One of the best arguments “the Church” has to dissuade Gentiles from becoming involved in Jewish practices and studies is the danger of apostasy and conversion. This is as big a problem now as it was five-hundred years ago. The understanding that the Church labors under a set of misunderstandings, some of which go back to the very foundations of (Gentile) Christianity, creates the false impression that Christianity is bad and Judaism is good.
I’m not denigrating Judaism, but I am saying that, for my part, it is a lens through which I gain a clearer (in my opinion) focus on what the Bible is actually trying to say, and a better view of the original intent of the Bible writers including the ever controversial Apostle Paul. One of the reasons I limit my “Jewish” practice is to avoid falling into the trap that captured the Subbotniks and that pulls many believers out of Yeshua-faith and into conversion to normative Judaism every year (I should say though, that it’s not my only reason).
In my opinion, Messianic Gentiles will continue to struggle with our own “identity” issues, regardless of whether we find ourselves in a Messianic Jewish synagogue or a traditional church. I’ve participated in adding some resources to a website called MessianicGentiles.com, created by Rabbi David Rudolph, in order to assist in building a positive identity for people like me. While I believe that it is vital for Jews in Messianic Judaism to have authentic Jewish community in the movement so as to not be cut off from larger Jewry, just like Messianic Jews, Messianic Gentiles must never forget that the central focus of our faith is not our practice but the Messiah.
If Judaism were the focus, then Jews in Messianic Judaism could find community in any synagogue of any of the other branches of Judaism. And if Judaism were the focus for Gentiles, then our answer would be to convert to some branch of normative Judaism and that would be that.
But then we end up denying the Master, Yeshua…Jesus. Having come this far under difficult circumstances, being dismissed by other Christians, trying to help our families understand why we do what we do, being accused of being “wannabe Jews,” are we to fail now in our faith and apostatize by becoming Jewish proselytes and casting Messiah aside like an old love affair?