out of step

What is it to be in a Community of Faith?

Being ignored is very dismissive and disrespectful, especially if you claim to have a relationship. I think all of us desire to be understood and that our contributions are useful, not just feigned interest when your real intent is to build a relationship only for the purpose of setting the other person straight. Yes, the Christian need to maintain a semblance of agreement and avoid conflict and the hashing things out that might be useful is discomforting, but that is the way it is.

-chaya1957
from a comment on What I Learned in Church Today: Anti-Gentilism and Crypto-Supersessionism

This speaks to the theme I was discussing on that particular blog post as well as on Old Wine Made New, which is a continuation of my exploration of my role in the church and more fundamentally, who am I?

As much as I’d like to think that I’ve backed off of being arrogant or even disingenuous in my rationale for returning to church, I don’t think I’ve progressed very far. In reading Chaya’s comment though, I realized (or was reminded) that in my case, there are three possible motivations for being in church (although they can certainly overlap):

  1. Seeking community with fellow believers.
  2. Seeking an encounter with God.
  3. Seeking to share my unique perspectives with other believers.

Number three is the one I tend to lead with and the one that has gotten me in plenty of trouble. It’s this part of what I refer to as the Tent of David process that is the most difficult to implement. Actually, the toughest part is to find the right balance between competing priorities in being at church, and I think the balancing point is in a different place for each person.

As I’ve learned before, it’s important to establish yourself as a member of the community, otherwise, no one will take you seriously. I’ve been “standoffish” as far as becoming a community member goes, especially if it requires formally joining the local church. I realize that Pastor Randy has privately taken me through the curriculum he presents in his “new member” classes. Needless to say, I don’t agree with not of the “particulars” of the Baptist or Fundamentalist Church, so I could hardly become a member in good faith.

But being a committed member of the community is a basic requirement that must be fulfilled prior to offering anything in the way of a perspective on a theology or doctrine that differs from the Evangelical Christian norm. Certainly a Messianic Jewish viewpoint on theology and doctrine can be considered quite outside the traditional Christian norm.

But then, I’ve been cheating myself, since one of my major issues, at least within my own mind and heart, is how I lack “like-minded community” in my little corner of Southwestern Idaho. By not joining community, I’ve been denying myself community and thus remaining isolated, at least in terms of face-to-face transactions from fellow believers. Sure, I can show up at church, participate in the worship services, and go to Sunday school afterward, but that’s not community, it’s attendance.

I go out of a sense of obligation, out of a sense that this church is where God wants me to be for some reason, as if I may still have a purpose there, but then, I can’t tell what that purpose might be. For about the first year give or take a month or two, I thought I had a purpose. I spent a lot of face time with the head Pastor and I thought we were building a dialog that could result in at least the introduction of some material from a Messianic point of view.

But it didn’t work out that way. Periodically, someone will pull me aside to ask a few questions or complement me on my participation in Sunday school, but that’s pretty hit and miss.

All of these musings are against the backdrop of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Annual Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin which, as you read this, has just ended. While I’ve struggled with my participation at the conference in the past, in my heart, Beth Immanuel or some place like it is more who I am than a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian church.

This isn’t to say that going to church for a Christian is bad, it just isn’t really “me.” And even then, if being a square peg in a church of round holes had some purpose or meaning, then being different would be OK, especially if, among all the differences, I could find a common “meeting place” with the other people in the church community.

Sometimes I feel like the character “Uncle Martin” in the old TV show My Favorite Martian (1963-1966). I look like everyone else, but the internal differences are remarkable.

I recently read an article at the Rosh Pina Project called The mature Messianic Jewish believer is also a disciple. Writer Dror discussed the variability of Jews in the Messianic Jewish movement who nevertheless, should be considered part of the community. The issue revolved around Jewish Torah observance:

There is a school of thought within Messianic Judaism that teaches that Messianic Jews can only truly be “Messianic” if they are also Torah observant. A sharp divide is made between Messianic Jews who do keep Torah, and those who don’t – with those who don’t even compared to Bin Laden!

Rebbe
Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

I’ve been reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, which is about the history, development, and activities of the Chabad in connecting with largely secular Jewish people and bringing them closer to the Torah through performance of mitzvot and association in Jewish community. Regardless of what you may think of the Chabad and what they do, they have a single-mindedness of purpose and are remarkably inclusive of Jewish people, regardless of background or knowledge.

Messianic Judaism struggles with this issue because, in my opinion, at the same time it is attempting to present Yeshua as the Messiah to non-Jesus believing Jews, it is also trying to establish itself as a Judaism, observant in the mitzvot, knowledgable in Talmud, and everything that every other religious, ethnic, and cultural Judaism is.

I can understand why Messianic Jews want to be taken seriously as a “Judaism”, alongside the other accepted Jewish religious movements. Some Messianic Jews seek to shore up the boundaries of Messianic Judaism by explicitly stating that practitioners must keep Torah. They go too far. People can get carried away with an idealistic vision of a religion accepted even by the Orthodox world, and end up using harsh language against secular Messianic Jews.

Yet only perhaps 13% of Jews worldwide could really be described as Torah-observant, which leaves the 87% of non-observant Jews whom Yeshua still loves. I would imagine that at least 87% of Messianic Jews are not Torah-observant, and it would be weird to have a Messianic Judaism that pretends this huge non-observant majority does not exist or is somehow worth dismissing.

This struggle isn’t my struggle to the degree that I’m not Jewish and have no meaningful input in the Jewish world, Messianic or otherwise, but it does define a parallel issue among the Gentiles involved in the Messianic Jewish movement (who are the majority of members in the movement, at least in western nations).

While many aspects of Torah are found in messianic Judaism as a unique expression of our Jewish faith in the Messiah, we do not believe that the Gentile church, or Gentile Christians universally, are called to the same expression as us. In fact, it is the unity of Jew and Gentile in Messiah, in spite of our cultural diversity, which glorifies God in the body of the Lord, via the one new man. (Eph. 2:15). In our view, therefore, it is wrong to admonish Gentile believers universally to think that they need to observe the Torah. It is clear, furthermore, that the Apostles dealt with this precise question of Gentile Torah observance and answered it on point in Acts 15. All of this will be discussed further in this paper.

-from “One Law, Two Sticks, A Critical Look at the Hebrew Roots Movement,” pg 4
A position paper of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS) Steering Committee, January 15, 2014

The reception of such a statement among non-Jews involved in some aspect of the Hebrew Roots movement is generally not accepted very well and is often understood as the Torah being completely applied only to the Jewish people and having no relevancy for non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) at all. This is a basic misunderstanding as the above-quoted paper states:

At times, this can be rather ambiguous, as the term “Torah” (law), of course, has different meanings depending on context….

Generically, the term “Torah” is often thought of as a set of laws providing a moral code for right living. Although there are such commandments in the Torah, the moral law is a very limited part of Torah, and is not a good basis for understanding what Torah is. While the Torah does contain certain moral laws given to Israel, it was not in fact, given in order to be the ultimate moral statement and standard of God to humanity for ethics and basic right v. wrong living. The Torah does not purport to be such a statement. While there clearly are universal moral laws in the Torah, there are many aspects of the Torah that have nothing to do with morality, and which therefore are not intended to be universal. For example, the commandment to Israel to wear tzitzit (Num. 15:38), or to be circumcised (Lev. 12:3).

The Torah does not approach being an exhaustive, all-encompassing, moral code. In fact, Paul’s assertion in Romans 2:14 states:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.”

-ibid, pg 5

In fact, much of the Torah applies to all of humanity but the Torah uniquely applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of the ancient Israelites who received the Torah from God through Moses as Sinai as the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant between God and Israel.

God gave the law at Sinai, creating a unique nation. There are things given in the Torah which are unique to Israel. Above all, the actual revelation at Sinai was not the law, but rather, the lawgiver. In fact, God not only gave the law at Sinai, but God revealed Himself unto the people Israel. (See Ex. 19 and 20). The Jews from the most ancient times have understood this.

-ibid, pg 6

Mount SinaiA Gentile believer’s obligation to the Torah is more involved and complicated than it would seem on the surface, especially when accessing an Evangelical Christian (low) view of “the Law”. Nevertheless, no one is trying to minimize or marginalize the Gentile participants in Messianic Judaism or those who have discovered the “Hebrew Roots” of the Christian faith.

But what does this have to do with my sense of Christian community or lack thereof? Plenty. Actually, it has more to do with my sense of community within the Messianic Jewish movement, even though that community is remote.

In reading Fishkoff’s book about the Chabad, I came across a bit of dialog attributed to an older Jewish gentleman, a businessman, who had become involved in Chabad activities and who had been encouraged to perform some of the mitzvot, including laying Tefillin. He found it compelling to increase his observance, at least to some degree, but he admitted, “I still work on Shabbos.”

I’ve read in any number of Jewish sources, that Judaism relative to the mitzvot is not an absolute. In Christianity, we are taught that Judaism is an “all or nothing” religion. Either you perform all of the mitzvot and perform them perfectly, or you are condemned by God. It’s the rationalization for us to say that Jews cannot keep the Law perfectly (who could?) and therefore, they need to abandon the Law entirely and accept the free gift of grace and salvation from Jesus Christ.

But that’s not how observant Jews see themselves, and certainly not within the Chabad framework. In fact, Jews who have grown up in other branches of Orthodox Judaism complain, according to Fishkoff, that Chabad services are too elementary and that the Chabad siddur (prayer book) is laced with English translations of the Hebrew and Hebrew transliterations for Jews unfamiliar with Jewish worship. That’s great if you’ve been a secular Jew all of your life and are uninitiated in the synagogue service, but if you have been raised an Orthodox Jew, it’s bound to be slow and frustrating.

But all of these people along the scale of observance and familiarity with Torah and Talmud are Jewish and all of them are universally in covenant with God. That needs to be understood by the rest of us (Gentile Christianity). The expectation is to strive to be better without necessarily ever becoming perfect. In Judaism, God is a gracious and forgiving God, not a harsh taskmaster.

Evangelical Christianity, for its part, is also lenient relative to any expectation of “performance” by its constituency, but there are expectations nonetheless, though they tend to center around things like church activities, tithing and other giving activities, church and classroom attendance, and so on. Ironically, Evangelicals, at least some of them, perform more “Torah” than you might imagine, such as visiting the sick, giving to charity, donating food items to the hungry and those organizations that feed them, praying for the well-being of others, both in the church and beyond, and so on.

churchBut what about me? That is, what about the “Messianic Gentile” or one who self-identifies as such? I work on Shabbos, not at my job, but I typically do my lawn work. I try to spend as much of Saturday as possible reading the Bible and studying, but my wife, who is in fact Jewish, does work on Saturday. So does my Jewish daughter. And I’m likely to have some sort of “honey do” list to complete on Saturdays.

My wife will light the Shabbos candles for Erev Shabbat but typically she doesn’t invite me to be a part of the event. We eat “Leviticus 11 kosher” or as the local Chabad Rabbi calls it, “kosher-style,” but we’ve never kashered our kitchen. My wife doesn’t always fast for Yom Kippur. She rarely attends Shabbat services.

Neither one of us lead what you might call an “observant” lifestyle. Now how that works in my wife’s Jewish experience is between her and God and I will not question how she chooses to live out a Jewish life.

But identifying as a “Messianic Gentile,” what does Messianic Judaism expect of me? Some have said that Gentiles are “invited” to extend their observance beyond the minimum required by the Acts 15 ruling, but depending on who you talk to, some people in Messianic Judaism (more of the Gentiles than the Jews) are a little stiff about what you do and don’t do.

It gets even worse in some (but not all) Hebrew Roots communities to the point of “legalism,” and as we saw from the Rosa Pina Project quote above, if you’re a Messianic Jew and you aren’t scrupulous in your observance, you can be open for some harsh criticism.

I say all this to illustrate the challenges in establishing and maintaining community, regardless of what that religious community might be. While I find that I missed attending this year’s Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel, some part of being there is intimidating. I worry about fitting in sort of the way I worry about fitting in at church. The theology and doctrine taught at Beth Immanuel is more in line with my personal beliefs, but what about my practice? And at church, although my practice isn’t much of an issue, what about my theology and doctrine?

A believer is someone who believes Yeshua is the Messiah.

A disciple is someone who believes Yeshua is the Messiah, and is making a serious attempt (although it will be weak and flawed in many ways) to conform his life to the ways and teachings of Yeshua. As well as his behaviour and attitudes changing, his conceptualising of faith will change and he will begin to understand concepts which were initially tricky, like Yeshua died in our place, Yeshua is divine, and we need to work on our hearts to produce spiritual fruit.

See the difference?

Mature disciples who meet regularly with other disciples will strengthen their faith, and may or may not choose to observe Torah in order to supplement and enhance this spiritual journey. Yet at its core, this is a personal choice.

-Rosh Pina Project

Regardless of who you are, Jew or Gentile, as a believer in and disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), it ultimately is less about what you do as who you are in relationship to God through Messiah. The relationship, the walk, the interaction, is where it all starts. Performance of the mitzvot, however you want to define that, is the outgrowth, the expression, the fruit of that relationship in faith, but how many of the mitzvot you perform and how well you perform them doesn’t define you as a disciple, since each person negotiates his or her relationship with God.

I’m convinced that people of faith are far more judgmental of other people of faith than is God.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of community, it only gives us the means to dodge the judgmentalism of other people in our community (or sometimes outside of it).

I suppose part of my issue of community within the church is my own judgmentalism, how I view Christian viewpoints on Israel and Judaism and why they don’t conform to my own. As I’ve said several times before, it is arrogant presumption to believe Evangelical Christians would have any desire whatsoever for some outsider to breeze into their church and tell them what’s what. How dare I judge their theology and doctrine and yet bristle when they judge mine?

coastI feel caught in the middle, between my struggles with Christian theology and Messianic practice. But those are community issues. The real issue is whether or not I’m a believer or a disciple. If the former, then it’s all about what I know about God and if the latter, then my heartfelt desire should be to know God. If I am truly seeking to know God, then everything should flow out of that pursuit and whatever community of faith I find myself in should judge me, for good or for ill, on that basis.

In turn, I should judge myself on what my goals really are. They should never be about changing anyone’s mind for only God does that. If I am a disciple, my single goal should be to draw nearer to God through Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus). From that, everything else will come.

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6 thoughts on “What is it to be in a Community of Faith?”

  1. Your struggle with community? I think everyone has it. Certainly not in the same way, but you’re not alone. I had to read Chaya’s comment that you quoted in the opener, especially the first part, a couple of times. It reverberates with meaning for all who feel they don’t fit.

    I don’t know what the answer is for you, except to keep obeying God. If you believe that He wants you in that church, among that piece of the Body, then stay. Only good will come of it, no matter the bumps along the way. And as to formally joining…do you have to agree with everything? Is there something you have to sign? My pastor flat-out told us that he didn’t expect and was fine with disagreement and there was no covenant or contract we had to sign.

    We’re part of the Wesleyan tradition, though. That’s like “Evangelical lite” to a lot of people. 🙂

  2. Marie, I think the answer is in the last words I wrote in this blog post:

    If I am a disciple, my single goal should be to draw nearer to God through Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus). From that, everything else will come.

    No community is perfect, though some are less optimal than others depending on a variety of factors. But the real goal isn’t just to find “like-minded community” but to encounter God and to cleave to Him.

    God will provide everything else I need, and “satisfies the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16).

  3. Certainly an interesting read. I have found myself in somewhat the same situation. I feel like an outsider as far as the world is concerned. But I most certainly know I belong to Heavenly Father, and He is the only one I have to seek to please and live for. I ask for His guidance, read the scriptures and pray. As I continue to dwell in His Word, I am being transformed by the renewing of my mind and heart. I “listen” to the scriptures, not man. As I learn from the scriptures, I strive to live by them. All the things (laws) Heavenly Father has given are for our good and have been given to us out of His love for us. He did not give them, just because He could make up the “rules”, He knew how things would be in this life, and wanted to give us guidance that would help us to become more like Him, and have safe passage as we travel through this life journey. Some are for better health, others for better relations with mankind and with Heavenly Father. Some to keep us focused on what is really important, and others to keep us on the straight and narrow path that leads us home to Heavenly Father. There are even Words to guide family life, and celebrations (Sabbaths) to remind us and teach our children what Heavenly Father has done, is going to do and about His wonderful loving care.

  4. I think that modern followers of Jesus have underestimated the following texts that explain how the first followers of Yeshua behaved, and in doing that, are not experiencing important issues that many Jewish communities do experience:

    Acts 1:13-14 “And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”

    Acts 2:41-42,44-47 “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers… Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

  5. To be in a community of faith is like love according to Paul: the community is patient and kind; the people in it do not thrive on envy or look to boast; they are not arrogant or rude. The community does not insist on its own way; the people in it should not be overly irritable or resentful; the community does not, as a whole, rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Community bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    I’ve never been in a community just like that, but I do see it at work in some. The evangelical community I work in wears me down and frustrates me with its non-Jewish culture, its distance from intimate knowledge of the One they believe in, but, on the other hand, its people are giving and loving and accept me for what I am and the way I believe, ever more, over time.

    I think that’s where we’re at as Messianic-oriented believers: always be grateful for silver linings in a sky full of clouds.

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