Solomon's porch

When is Church Not Church?

Long before the church was called the church, it consisted of an assembly of Jewish believers who practiced Judaism as part of their devotion to Yeshua of Nazareth.

In the days that followed the spiritual outpouring of Shavu’ot, the disciples found themselves shepherding a large community of new disciples in Jerusalem. Three thousand men and women received the message about Yeshua and immersed themselves for his name. Many of these joined themselves to the community of his disciples in the holy city.

By devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the community of early believers continued in the Jewish mode of faith and practice, which prioritizes study above other pursuits. Judaism places a heavy emphasis on study, learning, and Torah education. Jewish life structured itself around study, and the study of Torah permeated every aspect of Pharisaic Judaism. Rabbinic literature frequently extols the virtues of study and praises the man whose “delight is in the Torah of the LORD, and on his Torah he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The sages had numerous axioms about the greatness of Torah study. Judaism regards the study of Torah as a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew and the primary obligation of Jewish life.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Before the Church Was Called the Church,” pp 16-17
Messiah Magazine, Spring 2014 issue

I wanted to juxtapose the above statement with a definition of the Church as a spiritual body, but all I came up with was this:

1. a building used for public Christian worship.
“they came to church with me”
synonyms: place of worship, house of God, house of worship; cathedral, abbey, chapel, basilica; megachurch; synagogue, mosque
“a village church”
the hierarchy of clergy of a Christian organization, esp. the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England.
noun: the Church

Old English cir(i)ce, cyr(i)ce, related to Dutch kerk and German Kirche, based on medieval Greek kurikon, from Greek kuriakon (dōma ) ‘Lord’s (house),’ from kurios ‘master or lord.’ Compare with kirk.

This is an extension, a sort of “Part 2” to my prior blog post Notes on the Church from an Insomniac, except that I’m writing this wide awake after enjoying a reasonably good night’s sleep. But the concept I’m trying to explore is “the Church” as a unique entity of people from all walks of life, including Jews, who have converted to a religion called “Christianity” based on the worship of Jesus Christ as we find him in the Gospels, and because of their faith in Christ, are saved from eternal damnation and when they die, will go to Heaven to be with God in a realm of eternal peace.

OK, that’s an oversimplification and I’ve deliberately employed more than a little “tongue-in-cheek” in crafting that description. Let’s see what happens when I put “Christianity” in my Google search string.

noun: Christianity
1. the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.
Christian quality or character.
“his Christianity sustained him”

Not much help there.

But consider, as I understand it from the teachings at the church I currently attend. “The Church” (big “C”) was “born” in Acts 2 by the Holy Spirit inhabiting, first the apostles of Christ in the upper room on Pentecost (Shavu’ot) and then a body of thousands of Jewish people coming to faith in Jesus. So far, that’s semi-consistent with Lancaster’s description, except that he doesn’t say something incredibly new and disconnected from prior Jewish and Biblical history was established on that occasion. As I read Lancaster and understand his teachings on the New Covenant, I can only interpret the Acts 2 event in terms of previous Biblical history and see it as the logical and natural extension of God’s plan going forward in time without the requirement to make the train “jump the tracks,” so to speak, and violently diverge from everything written in the Bible (in this case, Torah, Prophets [Navim], and Writings [Ketuvim] or “Tanakh”) up to this point in history.

Spirit, Torah, and Good NewsThe classic New Covenant texts in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 clearly identify Israel as the focus of the New Covenant, a Covenant with identical conditions to those listed in the Old Covenant given at Sinai through Moses. The only difference, and I’ve said this before, is that the covenant would be written on the heart by the Spirit, not on tablets and scrolls, and internalizing the Torah makes it possible for the Jewish people, that is, the nation of Israel, and those who attach themselves to Israel through an Abrahamic faith in the Jewish Messiah, to wholly obey the instructions of God and live a life of holiness.

The New Covenant was inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge (2 Corinthians 1:22) that when Messiah returns, he will complete what he has started and the New Covenant will be fully enacted in our world.

Revisiting my quote of Lancaster regarding the vital importance of Torah study, even the Gentiles were required to do this (Acts 15:21) as the means by which they (we) could understand the teachings of our Master and learn to also strive to live holy lives in anticipation of the Messianic Era and the age to come.

So what happened? The original assembly or ekklesia (which also can be interpreted as synagogue) of Messiah was first wholly Jewish, and then it was legally determined that Gentiles had standing in the Jewish ekklesia of “the Way” without having to undergo the proselyte ritual (Acts 15). That is, we people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12), can be equal co-participants in the blessings of the New Covenant without converting to Judaism and being obligated to the entire set of responsibilities in the Torah. Make no mistake, though. This does not make us absolved of great responsibilities and does not render us “Law-free,” and we indeed have a unique obligation to the Torah of Moses. If we repent of our sins, receive atonement through Messiah, and daily pick up our cross and seek our Master, we will become the crowning jewels of the nations, but only because “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) through the centrality of Israel and her firstborn son, Yeshua of Nazareth, not because we convert to Christianity and join the Church.

Confused? Am I repeating myself?

What I’m asking is if this more “Judaic” viewpoint on the Bible is correct, and the ekkelsia, in terms of Messianic community simply means “assembly” rather than requiring the creation of a unique body called “the Church” which after being “raptured” to Heaven and subsequently returned with Jesus to Earth, remains separate from anyone who came to faith during the “tribulation” (which doesn’t make a bit of sense), then how did things get so messed up?

Whole books have been written trying to answer that question (including this one, which I will start reading soon), but something I read on New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado’s blog seems to (somewhat) apply.

In the article I note one or two “fashions” in NT studies of past decades, ideas or emphases that seem all the rage for a short while but then seem to have faded just as quickly as they appeared. In this case, I cite “structuralist exegesis.”

I also discuss a couple of “fallacies,” by which term I refer to ideas that obtained wide and long-lasting currency but have subsequently been shown to be errors. The question here is why this happens. How do a wide assortment of scholars take something as given when there never was adequate basis for it?

Finally, I explore very briefly some possible future emphases in the field, such as the growing internationalization of those who comprise NT scholars, the growing interest in “reception history,” and one or two other things.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

A pre-publication version of Dr. Hurtado’s article Fashions, Fallacies and Future Prospects in New Testament Studies (PDF) is freely available for you to read. Hurtado spends much of this article describing how brief “fads” in certain New Testament studies gained traction momentarily, but then…

I turn now to consider some other approaches and ideas that had much more impact and much more “staying power,” but were subsequently shown to be erroneous. These ideas are much more important to consider precisely because they won such wide acceptance and over a goodly period of time. These were not passing fashions. They were firmly held and confidently asserted widely, in some quarters treated as solid truth, but are now clearly seen to have been fallacious.

-Hurtado, pg 4

Hurtado says nothing to discredit current Christian doctrine, but the fact that Christian scholarship had gained an attraction and wide adherence to theories and interpretations of the New Testament that have subsequently proven to be unreliable or just plain wrong is compelling to me. For one thing, it establishes that really anything we believe about the New Testament in specific and the whole Bible in general is up for examination, just like any other scientific endeavor. That’s actually pretty huge since from the point of view of sitting in a pew at church every Sunday morning and listening to the Pastor’s sermon, we are generally intended to take everything we hear at face value and consider the message as (mostly) unquestionable fact and truth.

I say “mostly” because I know Pastor doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him all the time, and because it’s possible to ask questions about the sermon in Sunday school class, but even within that context, there’s a limit and one does not cross the line of (so-called) “sound doctrine” or “solid truth” to consider perspectives that, from an Evangelical point of view, would be considered “cultic” and even “heretical.”

But while we may consider the Word of God as Holy, inerrant, and inspired by the Spirit of God, subsequent human interpretations don’t fall in those categories and therefore are “up for grabs.”

Judah Himango in his blog post Torah demands interpretation: an example from Deuteronomy 16, states:

My modus operandi for the project is to restate each command in the broadest, least-interpretive way possible, keeping faithful to the text without inferring or assuming what those words mean. As I came across Deuteronomy 16:16, I wrestled with this standard.

For some commandments, this standard is near impossible to apply without some creative interpreting/inferring/assuming.

For example, “just the facts, ma’am version of this mitzvah is, “Appear before God at the place he chooses for the 3 pilgrimage feasts.”

OK, that’s nice, how would you actually apply this in your life, today?

Judah also says:

You might think I am arguing for rabbinic or church interpretation; leaving the hard work of Bible interpretation to people smarter and more studied than us. But the take-home here should be: commandments are not always straightforward. Practicing them requires study and learning. Jewish and Christian traditions can guide us as a point of reference, but should not be elevated beyond the educated guesses they are.

So Biblical interpretation is not only normative in our studies, it’s unavoidable. It is impossible to understand everything we see in the Bible without running it through some sort of interpretive matrix yielding a hopefully accurate but undoubtedly biased set of conclusions. Bias isn’t necessarily bad and as I said, in any event, it’s unavoidable. The trick is to come to a set of conclusions that not only fits the immediate text being studied, but the underlying and comprehensive theme running through the entire body of the Bible. If isolated or “cherry-picked” bits of scripture contradict the overall tapestry of the Bible as a whole, chances are something’s wrong with your hermeneutics.

These musings are necessarily limited and selective, and others will no doubt offer observations additional to or even critical of mine. This is to be welcomed. But, if NT studies is to continue as a viable field, I suggest that the future approaches taken will have to demonstrate that they offer something substantial, something “value-added” to the study of the fascinating texts that comprise our NT and the remarkable religious developments that they reflect. Trying out this or that new speculation, or appropriating this or that methodological development in some other field will (and should) continue to be part of the ensuing discussion. But, I repeat, to amount to something more than a passing fashion, our approaches will have to be both well-founded and substantial in what they produce. And to avoid the sort of serious fallacies that we have noted, we will have to exercise both committed scholarly effort and self-reflective critique.

-Hurtado, pg 21

Carl Kinbar
Rabbi Carl Kinbar

This summons questions about the level of Messianic Jewish scholarship today, and I explored that question, thanks to another blog post by Dr. Hurtado, almost a year ago. Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar responded in part:

Here are a few thoughts about peer review. The “peer” in “peer review” is used in a very specific sense: it is someone who has recognized expertise in the subject. For example, the scholars who reviewed my doctoral dissertation are peers in the study of rabbinic texts rather than people “just like me” (since I was only a graduate student at the time). You cannot have a peer review process without experts. Although it is possible for someone to become an expert through self-study, such people are as rare as hen’s teeth and the reason is very simple: 99.9% of people who have never been discipled in their field have not learned the basic habits of scholarship and have not been exposed to the sort of critique that would help them to avoid errors of method and fact. With very few exceptions, even the best of the self-taught are like talented basketball players who have only played in pick-up games but have never been involved in organized basketball on any level and therefore have never been coached or received high-level input. I suspect that there are thousands of such basketball players, some of whom have a lot of talent but none of whom have learned the moves that are required even of entry-level NBA players. Becoming a professional player will depend on how others evaluate their talent, not on their own sense that they are NBA-quality. A true peer in “peer review” is someone who has been evaluated as an expert by existing experts.

As a Messianic Jewish scholar, I try to make up for the lack of peer review by submitting my work for review by a range of people, including both scholars and non-scholars. Before I received a significant amount of traditional and academic discipling, I thought that self-study was enough. I now know that it isn’t.

So on the one hand, we may conclude that the current state of Messianic Jewish scholarship would not yet meet the standards set in the realm of New Testament scholarship at the highest academic levels, but on the other hand, it’s headed in the right direction. Does that mean we are forced to accept Evangelical Christian interpretation as the de facto standard? I personally don’t think so, especially when, thanks to Hurtado’s aforementioned paper, we see that even long-standing and popular opinions on the New Testament can be subsequently discounted or discredited.

Am I right and you’re wrong? I can hardly say that and that’s not the point of this missive. My point is that Evangelical Christian theology and doctrine sits on its own laurels at its great peril, as does any position, system, or intellectual endeavor. Intellectual and spiritual honesty and integrity requires continuing investigation and study. The minute you stop questioning your own assumptions and take a position of static dogma, is the minute you lose a living relationship with the Word of God and perhaps even God Himself. That’s not intentional, of course, but it often is a sad result.

Just remember, at one point the Church thought the earth was the center of the universe based on the Bible. At one point, the Church burned people as witches (Europe) or pressed them to death under heavy stones (America) based on the Bible.

Now we are finally facing the idea that much of the Church’s “sound doctrine” and “solid truth” is based on a two-thousand year old mistake, and worse, that we’re taking our major cues, not from the Judaic understanding of the scriptures as they were viewed during the Apostolic Era, but from a group of European reformers who lived barely five-hundred years ago and who themselves may well have been anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish people.

Up to JerusalemIs that what Jesus taught? Is that how Paul interpreted the scriptures? Is that the way James the Just, brother of the Master, determined Gentiles should be included in the branch of Judaism then known as “the Way?”

When is Church not Church? When it’s the assembly of Messiah longing for the coming of the New Covenant, when God’s instructions are written on hearts, and the spirits of men and women, young and old, from the least to the greatest, know God.

We aren’t there yet, but we have a responsibility to strive to be better than we are and in spite of our assumptions and traditions, to continually “be in the Word” (to employ a Christian aphorism), and to realize that our perspective might not be the best vantage point from which to view the full panoramic scope of God’s overarching plan for His people Israel, who are absolutely necessary and central to the Way of salvation for the rest of the world.

To find out more about why the word “ekklesia” and the word “sunagōgē” which we translate into English as “synagogue,” could all be translated as “meeting place” or “assembly” and don’t have to be translated as “church,” read What does Synagogue mean in Hebrew? by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg.

A final note. I’m quite aware that I’ve scheduled this “meditation” to automatically publish on the morning of Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day. This is probably the most holy day on the Christian calendar and I suppose my interpretation of “ekklesia” into something other than “Church” could be seen as an inappropriate criticism. And yet, who we are and to what body we belong is of vital importance, on this day as much as any other, for our Master is Risen, and he is returning. The Kingdom is at hand, and the New Covenant is unfolding. We must be ready, but to do that, we must understand the actual and authentic nature and character of King, Kingdom, and Covenant. It is to that purpose I have dedicated this blog post and all of my writing.


18 thoughts on “When is Church Not Church?”

  1. Hopefully, hearts will turn toward the Father and people will desire to know Him and His will rather than cling to teachings that emphasize the centrality of the Gentiles.

    1. @James — Seems to me that turning the hearts of the children toward their Father (and the fathers toward their children) is Eliyahu’s job description. Just as a place is set for him at the Jewish Passover Seder table in hope that he will come finally one of these years to do so and announce that Messiah ben-David is shortly to make his appearance, may we all remember and emphasize that hope at this season.

  2. @Steve Peterson is correct. Most people want religious things especially to be simple, and for someone else to have figured them out. We are a society that wants things quick and easy – microwave theology, and we want someone else to do it for us.

    You are probably aware of Noam Chomsky’s famous quote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” This is alive and well in the religious marketplace, including MessyWorld.

    I believe the easy yoke we are to submit to of our own free will is the yoke of Messiah as he taught us torah. To those who refuse this easy yoke, they usually end up being held within the harsh strictures of the heavy burden of religion, or the lawlessness of chucking everything. But it is interesting in learning about secular morality, that even these people create a law for themselves, and judge themselves by it, as scripture tells us.

    I believe the Holy One of Israel has his moles, and many have been in place for 10, 20 years or more, and now he is activating us. We have lived so long undercover in this foreign society, we forget that it is not our real home. We may at times wonder if our real home and purpose here was a dream or imagining.

    Let us spend these days of the counting of the Omer in preparation for an empowerment from heaven to fulfill our purpose.

  3. Very good post James. I especially appreciated:

    “Evangelical Christian theology and doctrine sits on its own laurels at its great peril, as does any position, system, or intellectual endeavor. Intellectual and spiritual honesty and integrity requires continuing investigation and study. The minute you stop questioning your own assumptions and take a position of static dogma, is the minute you lose a living relationship with the Word of God and perhaps even God Himself. That’s not intentional, of course, but it often is a sad result.

    What I constantly weigh is the fact that (1) God gives us room to “self correct”, therefore we shouldn’t be so condemning of ourselves, or others, for getting a certain amount of our theology wrong that we simply give up on it altogether. And (2) we should be trembling in fear at the horrific things that have passed as Christian doctrine.

    But like all sin, it is remedied via true repentance.

    For me, it’s obvious that arrogance, hatred, jealousy, and fear (of being excluded from God’s provision) must be taken off the table for “the Church”, for they either directly defy God’s (and later, Jesus’) clear commands, or besmirch His character.

    After that, we must at minimum add in the commands to love, feed, clothe, comfort and care for his brethren, and then we can work out the details of navigating our way through the waters of salvation, eschatology, and the like. Had “the Church” done so originally, we’d have far less to repent from today.

    1. I don’t see that theology has any bearing, as if what we think and understand about the nature of the Holy One and his ways in our finite minds affects what he does. On the other hand, as Tevye says, when belief influences behavior, we move out of the realm of conjecture into the world of halacha. To be snarky about it, you all must know that a certain amount of parts per million of rat excreta and other nasty stuff is allowable in our food.

      How much rat excreta do we want in our belief system?

  4. @Chaya: May we fulfill our purpose every day, Hashem be willing.

    @Ruth: I believe we Gentile believers will be judge by how we have treated the Master’s “little ones,” that is to say, the Jewish people.

    @PL: May Eliyahu come soon announcing the good news of the return of the King.

  5. Probably more than a little. No one is perfect, including me and thee. It’s what we do that defines us (know every tree by its fruit) but we are also what we think. That is, our ideation directs our action, hence the need for Bible study.

  6. Thank you for this, James. I will be speaking at a local college next week for Yom HaShoah. I will begin by stating that we shouldn’t be here memorializing the Jewish victims of the Final Solution. That six million died because they were Jewish should never have happened. But it did.

    If “the church” had been what it should have been then, I believe we would not be gathering to remember and memorialize the victims of the Holocaust next week. If the world would have done what it should have done, we wouldn’t be gathering, either. But the church was right there, bearing the calling to love its neighbor, be the good Samaritan, etc., supposedly in its collective heart, and didn’t do what it should have done, what it was called to do. I think the criticism you bring is quite fair.

    I once asked a survivor of Auschwitz, Angie Suss-Paull, of blessed memory, how might it have been if the Church had taught for two thousand years that Jesus was a Jew and that this was a positive thing. She said, in her thick Polish accent, “Maybe the Holocaust doesn’t happen.”

    But the church didn’t teach that. And the Holocaust did happen. And there are reasons for that.

    Just as the church once thought the earth was the center of the universe, it once thought that it was the “New Israel.” The earth is still standing, barely; but European Jewry is not.

    I see your criticisms as more than fair.

  7. Dan, if the Church wakes up before it’s too late, they don’t have to be on the wrong side of the Holocaust again. They don’t have to be on the wrong side of the final war when God comes and fights for Israel Himself.

  8. Being Jewish and putting my faith in Yeshua for the redemption of my soul and forgiveness of sin, I do not align myself with either the church (Christian) or the Messianic movement.I have seen the persecution of Jews by the Gentile Church as well in these days anti-Gentile prejudice and even hate by some Jewish factions. One wants nothing to do with the “Christian Jesus”, while the other wants nothing to do with the “Jewish” Torah. What we need to do as “Believers”, both Jew and Gentile, is lay down our bias and our tradition and call upon the Name of the One (Echad) that met with Moshe and ask Him to meet with us too on the Mount of Sinai. I am of course speaking in a Spiritual sense, and believe that until we become one in Yeshua, and in the Truth of HaShem, we might be waiting a long time before we see the New Covenant come to fruition. Is it not written in the Brit Chadashah Abba sent His only begotten Son because He loved the whole world? Just an observation that might bear conderation. Shalom.

    1. So, BEN, would you declare “a pox on both … houses” and wait indefinitely for humanity, or even the subset of it that claims interest in Rav Yeshua, to meld together in some common agreement? I think that rather ignores human nature and history, particularly among the aforementioned subset. While you’ve claimed non-alignment with either of the straw-man factions you describe, I’m curious about whether you’ve investigated any approach closely enough that you would align yourself with it? Are you so sure that no one has called upon the One Who met with Moshe on Sinai to meet with Him in similar fashion in order to pursue His Truth? The same apostolic writings that you identified as Brit Chadashah say more than that the heavenly Father sent His son because He loved the whole world. They also report Rav Yeshua’s observation that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The rest, as they say, is commentary. While each individual may need to examine personal biases and even discard some traditions, somewhere there is a bias that represents a leaning toward HaShem and His ways, and a tradition based on what He Himself authored and authorized. James has simply asserted that the “Church”, as it has been called and as it has developed, AIN’T IT. Unity around the Torah in Yeshua’s testimony (viz:Rev.1:2) will require rather some adjustments, particularly for those who have become accustomed to “church”.

  9. Ben, I’m very familiar with struggling in different believing communities but if we just ignore all of the congregations of faith, both Jewish and Christian, what’s left to us? None of them are perfect and everyone has biases. Your perspective represents a certain bias, in fact.

    It is true that when Messiah returns, he will unite all of us under his banner, so to speak, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to perform tikkum olam right now. I get very discouraged in the church I currently attend, but every once in awhile, something I say or do resonates with others in an unanticipated way, and shows me that I can contribute positively in a Baptist church from a Messianic point of view.

    I know plenty of Hebrew Roots people who choose not to affiliate with any group for one reason or another (many feel “burned” by the church or some other collective), and that’s certainly your choice, but in order to summon the future, we must act in the present. A life of faith isn’t one lived on the sidelines.

  10. ….but in order to summon the future, we must act in the present. A life of faith isn’t one lived on the sidelines….
    Yes! But where do I ‘fit in’? I, too, am having trouble finding my place. Unlike Ben, I was raised Baptist. As has been pointed out before, for those raised Jewish it is faith in Yeshua that offends their community, and those raised ‘Christian’ it is the Torah that offends their community. And yet, some how, Torah and Yeshua are both one. It is as though we are dividing ourselves by choosing one side of the same coin. ( Help me out here, folks, I am a ‘baby’ in my growth. )

  11. I wish I could tell you where you “fit in” Cynthia, but that would be a hard question to answer for anyone. I don’t really “fit in” where I am now, so maybe I’m not good at fitting in. On the other hand, the real goal isn’t to fit in but to find a way to make our differences acceptable or at least interesting to others around us.

    I don’t fit in at the little Baptist church where I worship, but I do try to contribute a little here and there, particularly in Sunday school. Fortunately, I’ve spent a ton of time studying the Book of Acts, which is currently the topic of Pastor’s sermons and the Sunday school class, so I find myself reasonably well prepared to gently insert comments here and there.

    I think the “fitting in” part comes in terms of how we treat others and by our example. If we are friendly, desire fellowship, contribute to charity (at my church, they continually are collecting food for the needy, so I always try to show up with a few cans of food), and authentically participate, eventually the community will become accustomed to you and, when you speak, choosing to speak sparingly, people will be more inclined to listen.

    It’s not perfect and my own participation at church may still eventually explode in my face, but as I see it, those of us in a church are sort of “missionaries” to the church, sharing our own light on the good news of Messiah.


    I just listened to the above-linked (in this post, not in the opening meditation) mp3 this morning (from a visitor at the Baptist church mentioned in the meditation and so on); then I read this meditation.

    I find the audio relevant in a number of ways (not to say I agree with the speaker on all things said in the series or that I even listened to the whole series [I listened to one other of the series recordings], nor that I know anything about the person esteemed enough to be invited.

  13. Actually, I don’t know if it’s called an mp3. I’m kinda ignorant on such things. It’s not a download. I picked the link to listen directly.

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