When I write a book review, I normally start at the beginning of the book and move through to the end. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just kind of linear that way. But J.K. McKee’s book One Law for All: From the Mosaic Texts to the Work of the Holy Spirit was organized in such a way that I decided to start in the middle and work my way out from there.
A little background. McKee in the center of his work, is comparing what has been called “Divine Invitation” (which is an unfortunate label for reasons I’ll address later in this review) with “Covenant Obligation”. These are difficult issues to discuss with a general audience since they require a great deal of specialized knowledge and tend to apply to only very small subgroups within both Christianity and Judaism, specifically movements called Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism.
The question, within those particular contexts, is whether non-Jewish believers in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, are allowed to observe some, most, or even all of the commandments in the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch in Christianity and the Torah in Judaism, or if Christians are actually under a covenant obligation to observe all of these commandments exactly or at least more or less like religious Jewish people?
I should say that even addressing what this sort of observance looks like, regardless of it being voluntary or mandatory, is highly variable. How the mitzvot (commandments) are to be observed aren’t always agreed upon even between different branches of Judaism. And particularly in Hebrew Roots, there’s a tendency to believe one can disregard any Jewish authority or opinion regarding how one is to perform a mitzvah and choose your own method based on whatever reason you want as long as you deem it “Biblical.”
In the introduction to the book (p. x), McKee states:
Here’s where things start to get interesting. Unless otherwise stated, all emphasis in a quote from the “One Law” book belong to McKee.
A question that I have been asked by more than a few people is which option they are to choose: Is the Torah a Divine Invitation to non-Jewish Believers, or is it a Covenant Obligation upon non-Jewish believers? Is the Torah mandatory for Jews to follow, and an option for non-Jews to follow? Or is the Torah something mandatory for all of God’s people to follow?
-McKee, p. 83
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael coined the phrase “Divine Invitation” some years ago in explaining how FFOZ had shifted its theological stance from supporting a single standard of observance for both Jewish and Gentile Messianic believers to a viewpoint that advocated Jewish distinctiveness and the understanding that certain of the mitzvot are exclusively reserved for the Jewish people. He never intended it to become a theology all its own but unfortunately, the label stuck. The idea is better expressed as Gentiles in Messiah indeed being obligated, but to a certain subset of the Torah commandments (see Toby Janicki’s article “The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses” in the Winter 2012 issue of Messiah Journal for a detailed discussion on this matter) as opposed to a single, uniform application of the mitzvot for all human beings.
McKee’s commentary seems to assume that a Gentile is obligated to exactly zero Torah commandments or all of them, with no variability based on covenant role, identity, nationality, gender, geolocation, and so on.
McKee opposes the position of “divine invitation” which I expected, stating that it is bound to be confusing to non-Jewish Messianics relative to which parts of the invitation to accept, which parts to turn down, and just how one accepts the various invitations (do Gentiles have to perform an accepted mitzvah in exactly the same way as a Jewish person?). At one point in his criticism of this “theology,” he seems to attack Jewish Torah observance as well, replacing it with a more “Christian” concept of “Jewish identity”:
More importantly, though, if there is anything seriously being overlooked about the unique distinctiveness of Jewish people, it is that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), with Yeshua the Messiah Himself being the quintessential Jew. This is far more significant than Torah-keeping being what apparently makes the Jewish people distinct.
Just a few paragraphs later however, he surprises me by saying something I more or less agree with.
For Messianic Believers today, our family has always emphasized the need to love people into this — rather than issue condemning and mean-spirited words. Much of the “pagan” rhetoric that one sees in fringe parts of the Messianic world has significantly impeded progress for the Kingdom of God, and is a major blight that is not spoken against enough. Yet at the same time, if Divine Invitation presents Shabbat, the appointed times, or kosher eating as entirely optional, what is keeping someone from turning it down?
The only parts I didn’t agree with were McKee’s identifying the “pagan rhetoric” against the Christian Church as originating in the “Messianic world”. I organize Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots (One Law is a subset group within larger Hebrew Roots) as two separate movements with only a superficial overlap, usually at the level of the non-Jewish believer who is attracted to Judaism to some degree. I don’t typically hear Messianic Jews or Gentiles denigrate Christianity and find the “pagan rhetoric” confined to certain circles within Hebrew Roots (although, to be fair, as McKee said, they are “fringe parts” of the movement or even “fringe individuals”).
The other part I question is if something is considered an option, then there’s nothing preventing a person from saying, “No, I don’t feel led to do that.” That’s what optional means. You don’t have to. McKee’s commentary about Christians and Torah observance becomes confusing and even mysterious just a few pages later.
But before that, in addressing Covenant Obligation, McKee says:
If Believers are “obligated” to “keep Torah,” then this can quite easily lead to a few people thinking that their Torah-keeping will earn them their salvation, and can manifest itself in rather rigid and legalistic assemblies forming.
Born again Believers are not required to keep God’s Torah as though it were some kind of debt or obligation (cf. Galatians 5:3); on the contrary, we are told, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
On the one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see a supposed One Law proponent recognize some difficult truths about the movement, but on the other hand, he had to denigrate all Torah observance, even for Jewish believers, by saying loving one’s neighbor fulfills (abrogates, demolishes, deletes) the law. McKee seems to miss the nuances Paul is injecting into Romans 13 and how they connect back to what Jesus calls “the Two Greatest Commandments” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28 citing Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18).
But that can’t possibly be what McKee’s saying because of the major theme of the book, which is to advocate for Torah observance for Gentiles. I find this author to be a sometimes confusing blend of One Law and Wesleyan perspectives (McKee states that he had a Wesleyan upbringing to which he apparently still adheres) and as I was reading through the rest of this section, I started to think of him as a “One Law Wesleyan.”
McKee continued to defend the Church and to criticize One Law adherents for throwing Christianity under the bus, so to speak:
I have constantly asked various individuals who are “One Law” why they criticize elements of today’s Church who follow well over ninety-percent of the Torah that can be followed today, and why they treat our Christian brothers and sisters as some kind of perpetual “enemy.”
This is one of McKee’s confusing messages. He defends the Church as it is and states they are already observing most of the mitzvot, and yet he is pushing (apparently) for greater “jewishly” Torah observance by (One Law) Christians.
Our ministry has never advocated that today’s evangelical Christianity is some kind of illegitimate impostor religion, more in touch with accomplishing the objectives of the Adversary than in achieving the mission of God. We have advocated that the Church has flaws to be certain, but that it is the responsibility of Messianic Believers to build on a positive legacy of faithful Christian men and women who have preceded us in the faith…
The last paragraph I quoted was startling to me because it reminded me of what Boaz Michael wrote in his book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile:
The church is good but the church needs to change.
I’ve written a number of different commentaries on his book including this one, and acknowledge that what Boaz produced challenged me personally to set aside my discomfort about going back to church and to “take the plunge,” which was nearly two years ago. Boaz was instrumental in getting me to see what is good in the Church, which is the same message McKee is delivering.
I applaud McKee for maintaining a high view of Christianity and the faithful men and women in the Church, which he acknowledges is practically unknown within One Law communities, but if he does not advocate for One Law anymore than “divine invitation,” and he apparently does not identify with mainstream Christian assembly (although he protects and defends Christians), what else is there that could be considered “One Law”?
As it turns out, McKee’s third viable option is:
Obeying the Lord is neither an optional invitation nor a mandated obligation, it is a supernatural compulsion enacted by the perfecting activity of the Holy Spirit on the human soul.
I’m disappointed. I expected a much stronger approach to his application of One Law. But this is like just redressing the One Law argument in spiritual rather than covenantal language. The Holy Spirit (supposedly) compels the individual to desire to observe the 613 commandments or something like them, give or take your opinion on the halachah established by the various Rabbinic sages in the numerous streams of Judaism across thousands of years of history.
Actually, I know where he’s getting this:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
–Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)
Unfortunately, McKee has a couple of problems. The first is that the New Covenant was made exclusively with the House of Judah and the House of Israel and does not presuppose any other nations or people groups at all (least of all he and me). Yes, there is a New Covenant application for Gentiles which I summarized here, but up to this point in the book, while McKee mentions various aspects of the New Covenant, he jumps from Jeremiah 31 straight to the Last Supper (Matt. 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-39; and John 13:1-17:26) without making the connection explicit. I know how it works (and it took me months of study to figure it out) but chances are many of McKee’s readers don’t (or they don’t understand it correctly).
The other major problem is that the New Covenant hasn’t been fully enacted yet. It’s not here. Jesus inaugurated it with his life, death, and resurrection, but until his return, we are only living in what you might consider the leading edge of the Messianic Age. What that means is until the resurrection and until Messiah returns to us here on Earth and ascends the Throne of David in Holy Jerusalem, we are still living in Old (Sinai) Covenant times!
So we don’t have the Torah supernaturally written on our hearts yet and thus, neither Jews and certainly not Gentiles have the Holy Spirit granted ability to naturally obey God and never sin, which is what the New Covenant is all about…the forgiveness of all sins and the ability to never sin again and obey God’s law (as it applies to each individual and each people group).
And yet he says:
A position of Supernatural Compulsion does advocate that a Torah obedient walk of faith is expected of all God’s people but it is to be found as an individual grows in holiness and spiritual maturity…
While “expected” and “obligated” sound really similar to me, I like that, at least, McKee is acknowledging not everyone is going to adopt the various mitzvot at the same rate or to the same degree. It’s a matter of spiritual growth and maturity. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard many stories of secular Jews who became “religious” and this is more or less how they approach the vast body of mitzvot, taking a mitzvah at a time and growing into it.
But for a Christian, there are additional roadblocks, such as a lifetime of being taught that the law is dead.
McKee said in his book that he advocates for a gentle, educational approach rather than going into a church and beating Christians over the head with a Torah scroll. In some sense, this is reminiscent of my own Tent of David experience. It’s sort of like evangelizing the church by encouraging them to consider a more Messianic perspective on the Bible, but where I desire to educate about how the New Covenant works and thus alter Christian perceptions on the primacy of national Israel and the Jewish people in the age to come, McKee is hoping to encourage more “Torah observant” behavior in normalized Christianity.
This is still refreshing because a lot of One Law people I’ve encountered in person and online hate the Church, call it “Babylon,” “pagan,” and “apostate,” and encourage Christians to abandon the Church. His attitudes about the Church are very similar to mine.
But here’s one more surprise I didn’t see coming:
Does a ministry like Outreach Israel and TNN Online think the Torah is for everyone? Yes. Does this include things like Shabbat, the appointed times, and kosher? Yes. But such an affirmative also needs to be tempered with another question: Are these aspects of God’s Torah for everyone right now in the 2010s? This is something that only God, in His plans for an individual’s or a family’s life, especially evangelical Christians, knows for sure — and I cannot fully answer.
As I am reading McKee, I think he’s saying that believing non-Jews can and should observe the mitzvot in a more or less “Jewish” manner and to the same degree as Jewish believers (and Jewish unbelievers), but that such standards cannot be imposed from the outside by human agency. Even if one worships with other One Law advocates, that community has no right to direct a person or a family to observe this or that mitzvah. Such a directive will only come from the Holy Spirit and only in the way God’s plan is designed for the individual or family and through the process of spiritual growth and maturity.
I’m a little uncomfortable saying that Christians who don’t have a One Law or even a Messianic Gentile perspective are spiritually immature. I happen to know some people at the church I attend who are models of spiritual maturity and who I admire greatly. Just associating with such people is an honor. From a Jewish perspective, they could be referred to as tzaddikim (“righteous ones”). A Christian would say “saints”.
In the first century C.E. before the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from Israel, Paul’s Gentile disciples in Syrian Antioch and the various communities he established in the diaspora probably behaved in a distinctively Jewish manner, much more so than Christians would consider “normal” today, even acknowledging the “Jewish roots of the faith.” In those days there was no such thing as “the Church” or “Christianity,” there was only the Jewish movement of “the Way,” the “Ekklesia of Messiah” which included Jewish and Gentile members.
I suspect that after the resurrection and in the reign of King Messiah, we will have something similar, not a Church and then a Judaism but rather an Ekklesia with two distinct populations: Israel or the Jewish people, and the people of the nations who are called by His Name. This isn’t exactly what McKee is advocating because he believes Jesus-worshiping Jews and Gentiles are all citizens of Israel, but it’s kind of similar.
What McKee may be shooting all around but not quite hitting is the fact that the New Covenant age has yet to arrive (although we’re currently experiencing a foretaste of the promises yet to come) and that the Torah will only be written on our hearts in the future. While some non-Jews will acquire an apprehension of the centrality of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plan prior to that time, many others, and probably most Christians, won’t.
I think the reason McKee can’t answer the question about when or how Gentile Christians will be drawn to naturally obey God is because it’s not going to happen until after we are resurrected and perfected in Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit and in accordance to God’s New Covenant promises.
Addendum: My partner in this endeavor, Pete Rambo, just published Part 1 of his own review of McKee’s book.