The title of today’s little missive will probably rub at least some people the wrong way, but hear me out.
Living with a Jewish wife, a non-Messianic Jewish wife, one who shares absolutely no common theology with me, is sometimes quite illuminating. Last week, the oldest son of the local Chabad Rabbi and Rabbitzen had his Bar Mitzvah. Apparently, I’m quite ignorant about all this, since I thought it would be on Shabbos.
Not so (although there was another related event on Shabbos). It was on Thursday. There were a ton of Jews from Crown Heights (Brooklyn) who came for the affair. My wife helped cook tons and tons of kosher meals since Boise is hardly the center of a thriving Jewish community, thus Kosher is hard to come by.
My wife is very protective of her Judaism and her Jewish community. The occasional “Messianic” (Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t really matter to her) who shows up at Chabad kind of rubs her the wrong way. Fortunately, the Bar Mitzvah was by invitation only, so it was unlikely to attract the casually curious or the Messianic who wanted to dive a tad deeper into actual Jewish life.
By the way, one of the people she’s protecting the local Jewish community from is me. I’m never quite sure if my asking something like, “How did the Bar Mitzvah go” will be perceived as genuine interest or as an intrusion (fortunately the former in this case).
Processing all this over the past several days, and doing a lot of detailed lawn work while the missus was at Shabbos services (all day in this case, there was a lot of “hobnobbing” to do), I realized that maybe it’s a good thing I’m not Jewish.
Really, I can’t stand being stuck in a crowd, particularly made up of (mostly) people I don’t know, for a long period of time. If, for some strange reason, my wife had asked me to attend with her, I’d feel like the proverbial fish out of water. I’ve read some books on the Rebbe and the Chabad, but I’m sure I’d fit in at a Chabad Bar Mitzvah about as much as a Pepperoni and Canadian Bacon pizza.
The missus is about as much of an introvert as I am, so when she finally came home from Shabbos services and the subsequent activities around 5 p.m., she was wiped out. I don’t blame her.
I don’t blame her for not including me in her Jewish life, either. The more I’ve disconnected myself from any formal association with Messianic Jewish groups, the more I have begun to realize that maybe I never belonged in the first place. Of course, I belong in a church about as much as a nudist in a nunnery, so I’m not saying that traditional Christianity is an option for me either.
I am saying that a Gentile (well, me anyway) attempting to adopt Jewish practices is kind of like putting a cat in a doghouse. One of these things is not like the other.
My wife showed me a photo of the Bar Mitzvah boy. Wow, what a young face. He was also wearing one of those black fedoras and a black jacket, which seemed strange on a kid that age. But then again, I’m not Chabad or even Jewish. Even if I discovered some long-lost family secret that my mother was Jewish, while halachically, that might make me Jewish, at almost 62 years of age, I would still lack a lifetime of Jewish experience.
In other words, I’d still think and feel like a Goy.
I think it’s OK for me and people like me to not pretend to be someone and something we’re not. It’s OK not to engage in what I’ve heard called “Evangelical Jewish Cosplay”.
I don’t think I have a Jewish soul, and I don’t think I’ve got long, lost Jewish ancestors, and I don’t think I’m a descendent of one of the lost tribes or any of that stuff.
I hang onto my current understanding of the Bible because it’s the one that makes the most sense. That’s why I’m about as welcome in a Christian Bible study group as a quart of Vodka at an AA meeting. Sooner or later, I’m going to say something that will be perceived as a threat.
Just showing up in a traditional Jewish venue would be enough to be looked at askance since I’m a Christian (what my wife calls me, not necessarily how I see myself).
Like I said, it’s easier and better to avoid trying to be something you’re not, especially since you’ll (I’ll) stick out like a clown at a funeral. Oh, for a time I can “blend into” a Church setting, but only until I open my mouth.
If religious community is important to you, then I hope you’ve got one where you are accepted for the person you are. I hope you fit in.
For those of you who don’t, welcome. That’s my world. That’s the world of a lot of us who hold to an alternate view of the Bible’s overarching message, particularly the actual meaning of the New Covenant. Some of you have found enough fellow “oddballs” within driving distance that you have formed your own groups. That’s good.
But we’re pretty strange ducks, and sometimes there isn’t a significant number of like-minded oddballs around to get together with.
Besides, within our own little sub-group, there are numerous sub-sub-groups who are just different enough to where we’re not going to get along for one reason or another.
And then, there are those folks who are just plain “out there”.
So, if you have ever gotten that feeling that you don’t fit in, no matter how hard you try, maybe you’re trying too hard to belong in the wrong place. Instead of having that make you feel disenfranchised, maybe you should feel grateful.
Thank you God for making me who I am, even if that sort of person isn’t very common, and even if that person isn’t always easy for others to understand. The downside is you don’t have a small Bible study group to go to every Wednesday night (at least not without starting a theological “knife fight”). The upside is you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. All you have to do is be the person you are.
Something to ponder. If Jesus died on Passover and rose again a few days later (depending on your timetable), then why are most people celebrating his resurrection a whole month before Passover this year (and various other years as well)? Respectful responses are welcome. No witch hunting.
-Query from Facebook
No, this wasn’t directed at me. It was a general question tossed out into social media by a Facebook “friend” (I put that in quotes because we’ve never met face-to-face).
It’s an interesting question, but I must admit, it wasn’t the catalyst for today’s “morning meditation.” Easter was.
More specifically, my massive and total disconnect from Easter was the catalyst. For Easter, or perhaps more accurately expressed, for “Resurrection Day” three years ago, I crafted this little missive about my emotional disconnect from the event, even as I was attending Easter…uh, Resurrection Day services in a little, local Baptist church.
There were certain things I liked about the service. There were certain things I learned. But I wasn’t just gushing with joy like everyone else around me because “he is risen”.
Add to that, the memory of how my wife looked at me when I was walking out the door to go to Resurrection Day services, how crushed and betrayed she seemed, as if she found out I was cheating on her. I know I’ll never attend another Easter service in my life.
My regular readers are aware that my wife is Jewish and not a believer. More specifically, her viewpoint of Jesus, Paul, and Easter is what she learned from the local Chabad Rabbi. She would never stop me from expressing my faith in whatever way I choose, but I know it bothers her, at least on certain occasions…
She sometimes surprises me, though. She said that although she wouldn’t take me to Israel with a Jewish group, she does want me to go with a more appropriate (for me) Messianic group. I once had a passion to do that, but a lot of things dried up for me, including my sense of community.
I’ve been thinking about Rabbi Stuart Dauermann’s essay “The Jewish People are Us — not them” which you can find published here and which I reviewed a few years back.
Rabbi Dauermann was emphasizing that a Jewish faith in Yeshua shouldn’t result in Jewish “messianists” considering the wider Jewish community as “them” or as “the other,” the way most Christians consider “unbelieving” Jews. From his perspective (as I understand it), Jewish devotion to Rav Yeshua is very Jewish and should, if anything, result in Jewish Yeshua-disciples being drawn closer to larger Jewish community because, after all, Moshiach is the first-born of Israel’s dead, living proof that the New Covenant promise of the resurrection to Israel will indeed come to pass.
What’s more Jewish than that (and I know I’ll take “heck” from one or two Jewish critics of my blog for that question)?
But what about those of us, we non-Jewish “Christians” who stand on the Jewish foundation of the Bible, who feel a greater connection to Passover and Sukkot (Festival of Booths) than Christmas and Easter? What about those non-Jewish believers who feel more comfortable calling ourselves “Messianic Gentiles” or Talmidei Yeshua than Christians?
While Rabbi Dauermann may feel a lot closer to Jewish community than the Christian Church (and I agree, he should), does a “Messianic” perspective for a Gentile believer draw us closer to the Church or push us further away?
Simply put, because Rabbi Dauermann is Jewish, he identifies with larger Jewish community, even those who are not disciples of Rav Yeshua (which just baffles the daylights out of most Christians I’ve spoken to about it). I have a Jewish wife, so I’ve seen that dynamic in action first hand, and any thought of my denying her or forbidding her to associate with Jews (not that I would, of course), is totally revolting to me, absolute anathema.
But to reverse the equation somewhat, being a Gentile disciple of Jesus does not automatically make me think of the Church as “us” or even “me”. In fact, on Easter, I feel more apart from “Church” than ever.
Going back to the previously mentioned Facebook commentary on Easter, there have been some interesting responses. There are others like me out there who also experience the disconnect from this Christian holiday, even those who remain in the Church. Some recognize Easter as a deliberate attempt by the early “Church Fathers” to co-opt the Passover/Resurrection event for Gentiles, divorcing it from its Jewish origins and context.
Others launched into “paganoia,” often a consequence of some Hebrew Roots teachings, saying that Easter was a deliberate attempt to introduce paganism, particularly worship of “Ishtar.”
I don’t think I’d take it that far.
But I am disturbed by one thing. The resurrection of Rav Yeshua is living proof that the New Covenant promises of God to Israel (Ezekiel 37:11-14) will indeed occur, and Yeshua is the “first fruits from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Why don’t I feel connected to that?
Well I do, sort of, but it happens more on Passover and during the week of Unleavened Bread than it does at Easter, whether I’m in a church or not.
I know there are Hebrew Roots and Messianic Gentiles out there, those in their churches and elsewhere, who still have an emotional connection to Easter. These people were probably raised in a Christian setting by their Christian families or otherwise, spent enough time in a church to forge that visceral linkage.
I didn’t, not when my parents took me to church as a child, nor when I returned to Christian community as an adult.
Today being Easter punctuates for me that I consider normative Christianity as “them, not me.” I can’t say “us” because I don’t have an alternative “us” to relate to, at least not in an actual, physical form of community.
I’ve said before that I’ve given up the identity crisis that has seized so many non-Jews who are either in Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots community. As Popeye famously quipped, “I yam what I yam,” even if it doesn’t have a widely recognized name or label.
For those of you who are indeed emotionally and theologically attached and even thrilled by Easter or Resurrection Day, may you use your worship to strengthen your devotion to Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) and all he brings to us.
For those of you who are like me, any day is a good day to bring honor to our Rav and glory to the God of Israel. May the day come when we all merit the resurrection from the dead, and the life in the world to come.
One of the difficulties…that Christian theologies have not really grasped, is that Rav Yeshua’s gentile disciples don’t actually participate in any covenant whatsoever. Perhaps that is why they invent fictitious covenants. What they have instead of a covenant is an individually-based responsibility to rely on HaShem’s unchanging character and graciousness. They must trust HaShem Who wishes all humanity to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, as Rav Shaul wrote to Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:3-4. They, and their children, and their children’s children, each must approach HaShem as trusting individuals. They may pass to their children a heritage of knowledge about how to trust HaShem, but each must choose to embrace and employ that knowledge afresh in their own lives. They may form collective communities of faith-filled individuals, and they may covenant with each other to serve HaShem, but they do not possess a collective responsibility under a covenant with HaShem in which HaShem has bound Himself by His Oath.
I’ve written about the “connection” (or lack thereof) between Gentile believers and the New Covenant many times before, and I agree with ProclaimLiberty (PL) that we non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) are not named participants in the New Covenant (see Jer. 31, Ezek. 36), and thus we have no stake in those covenant promises.
That might come as a shock to some of you.
But through Hashem’s grace and mercy for the human race, He has allowed any of us who attach ourselves to Israel through our Rav to benefit from some of the blessings of that covenant.
We know that Hashem wants all human beings, not just Israel, to come to a knowledge of Him, to become His servants, to worship Him alone as the God of Israel:
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.
–Isaiah 45:23 (NASB)
For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
–1 Timothy 2:3-4
These are just a few scriptural examples illustrating God’s desire for all people, both Israel and the nations, to be devoted to Him.
But what PL wrote made me think. The Jewish people are collectively Israel, and the covenants apply to all Israel. Yes, each individual Jew has his or her own responsibilities to fulfill under covenant, but ultimately, God doesn’t covenant with each individual Jew, but with all of them, past, present, and future.
A Jew is the only person to be born into a covenant relationship with God whether he or she wants to.
Not so with the rest of us.
Except for the Noahide covenant, which Hashem made with all living things, we are born into no relationship with God at all. If we want a relationship with Him, we have to choose that for ourselves and then act on it (not that the Spirit of God can’t send us certain “prompts”).
Good thing we have free will to make that choice.
But then I thought about the “Church,” which is something of an artificial construct, so I dug back into the concept of the “ekklesia”.
— n , pl -siae
1. (in formal Church usage) a congregation
2. the assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state
[C16: from Medieval Latin, from Late Greek ekklēsia assembly, from ekklētos called, from ekkalein to call out, from kalein to call]
I tend to think of the ekklesia in its broadest sense, as that world-wide body of people, Jews and Gentiles, who have answered the call of Rav Yeshua to follow his teachings and draw nearer to Hashem. For Jews, this is the next “evolutionary” step or the next logical extension of their covenant relationship with Hashem, since Rav Yeshua is the mediator of the New Covenant.
For non-Jews, we are allowed to draw near to Israel and be “grafted in” (and being grafted in to the promises doesn’t make us Israel) to stand alongside Israel within the body of the ekklesia so that we can benefit from many of the blessings of the New Covenant.
Here’s where things get blurry.
PL describes we non-Jews as coming to Hashem through Rav Yeshua individually. It is true that in the Church it’s said that “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” This means that even if you are a Yeshua-disciple, your kids may not be. They don’t inherit a relationship with God just because you have one.
This is the exact reverse of a Jew’s covenant relationship with Hashem. When Jewish parents have a child, that child does inherit a covenant relationship with Hashem by virtue of the fact that he or she has Jewish parents (or a Jewish mother in the case of my children).
As non-Jews, one-by-one, we come to faith and trust in Rav Yeshua and it is our custom to gather together with other individual non-Jewish believers in a congregation to worship and fellowship. In and of itself, a “church” is an expression of part of the world-wide ekklesia, the larger body of Jewish and Gentile believers.
PL said of we non-Jewish disciples:
They may form collective communities of faith-filled individuals, and they may covenant with each other to serve HaShem, but they do not possess a collective responsibility under a covenant with HaShem in which HaShem has bound Himself by His Oath.
I believe this is true, but it’s still difficult to reconcile with emotionally. Reading this statement, makes me feel disconnected and unattached.
I know my attachment is symbolic and metaphorical, even though it has real, tangible results, but it draws a sharp distinction of what happens when Jews gather together in a synagogue on Shabbos, and what happens when Christians come together in church on Sunday.
The former are bound not only to each other but to Hashem by covenant, a formal, specified, and direct relationship between Israel and their God. We “Christians” voluntarily covenant with each other and are beneficiaries of the kindness of the God of Israel, though we have no formal relationship with Him.
It made me realize just how fragile that relationship is.
Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
I believe being born into a covenant relationship with Hashem has a cost. If you are Jewish and choose to disregard the covenants and your responsibilities relative to them (Shabbat, kosher, davening, tzedakah, and so on), I believe that at the judgment, there will be consequences. None of my children are even slightly religious and my wife’s observance is “so-so” and I worry about that.
As far as being “natural branches,” I don’t know their state at present. But I do know that even as they are, they are still members of the covenants simply because they’re Jewish.
I’ve heard it said that Judaism isn’t an all or nothing religion, so every time my wife does go to shul, davens, lights the Shabbos candles, or observes other mitzvot, I’m pleased. But there’s always more to do.
Even a secular Jew is a Jew, and even being non-observant, has a relationship with Hashem (even if they’re totally unaware of it).
We non-Jews, on the other hand, though we don’t have a formal relationship with Hashem, also don’t have as many rights and responsibilities. We get a lot of the same benefits (the Holy Spirit, the promise of the resurrection in the world to come, the love of Hashem, prayer) without the obligations shouldered by collective Israel (and there’s no other way to think of Israel except “collective”).
But our “attachment” to that metaphorical olive tree isn’t as secure as is Israel’s. The covenants are a lock. They don’t go away just because Israel as a whole or any individual Jew is not observant. The only thing that changes are the consequences, one set for obedience, and another set for disobedience.
For the rest of us, we need to watch our “Ps and Qs” so to speak. As Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) wrote (Romans 11:18), if we are arrogant and put “the Church” ahead of Israel, we can easily be knocked off the root. The root (and I believe one way to look at the root is as Israel’s covenant relationship with God) supports us, not the other way around.
The root belongs to Israel by covenant right, and we Gentiles are merely “resident aliens” among Israel (metaphorically speaking). We have no rights. We are granted guest status just because God’s a “nice guy,” so to speak. Not that God would do it, but if any one of us gets out of line, God could blow us off the root with a (metaphorical) sneeze.
That should make you feel a little insecure. I feel a little insecure.
But that’s not the end of it. PL finished his comment this way:
Curiously enough, because HaShem is faithful to those who place their trust in Him, and because He values the voluntary commitment of people who cling to His precepts without the demands of a covenant (as described of the foreigners in Is. 56), gentile disciples may benefit practically in a manner that is very similar to the benefits promised to Jews under the covenant. The advantages possessed by Jews, which Rav Shaul described to the Romans in the third chapter of his letter, are still very much valid and effective, and “grafted-in” wild gentile olive branches have no reason to boast of their position relative to native acculturated Jewish branches on his metaphorical olive tree of faith, but the wild branches are no longer merely fodder to be fed into a fire. One does not require a covenant to accept HaShem’s benefits, but one should not be jealous merely because someone else (namely the Jewish people) does have one. In fact, one may be grateful that HaShem’s covenantal faithfulness toward Jews demonstrates that He may be trusted even without a covenant. And this enables gentile disciples also to pursue faithfulness in response to HaShem’s gracious provision of all manner of blessings.
We non-Jewish disciples are living proof that God can be trusted beyond the covenant promises to Israel. Covenants are highly formal and specific agreements between two parties, but every word the comes from the mouth of the living God is trustworthy, carved in stone, immutable, unchangeable, and utterly reliable.
We may only come to God one-by-one as non-Jews outside of the covenants, but we are more than just individuals. We are part of something greater. We voluntarily come to Hashem, and we may voluntarily covenant with each other when we gather together, but we are more than just a group of individuals. We are members of the ekklesia and we make up a huge portion of the ekklesia alongside of Israel. We are different from the sum of our parts because the grace of God has made us children and family of the Most High.
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
I originally found the meme on Facebook but it led to James F. McGrath’s blog (which is at Pathoes and thus cluttered with too many ads that slow the blog page from loading in the browser) where he doesn’t say that much more about it. All McGrath commented on was this:
The quote was circulating on social media recently, and so I thought it should be turned into a meme. I made the one above and scheduled the post. Then yesterday I saw that Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented had made their own meme with (a truncated version of) the quote. And so I am including that one too, below. I am glad Heschel’s words are getting this much attention just in time for Evolution Weekend, for which they seem especially appropriate.
See also Jim Kidder’s post on the attempt of the Discovery Institute to do precisely what Heschel criticizes.
At its core, Christian life is set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer. An unbroken circle, in the words of an old hymn.
Maybe that’s the problem, assuming it’s true. If the rituals, sacraments, and Sunday school lessons don’t connect to anything but the life you lead on Sunday morning and evaporate immediately afterward, then religion is no more relevant to your day-to-day existence than watching an hour-long television show once a week. In fact, given how much attention entertainment is given in our culture, that TV series may actually be more relevant, since it has a much wider audience, thus giving you more people to relate to through the show.
In the latter story, the first question it says millenials are asking is “Is our church real or relevant?”
I guess the question I’d respond with is “Are you real or relevant?”
OK, that was a tad snarky, but hear me out.
In any human endeavour, it can be said that you will get out of it what you put into it. I think that extends to the world of religion and faith as well. If you want a “relevant” relationship with God, you have to seek it out. It’s not just going to happen.
Sure, God can do anything including override your free will, but experience and the Bible teach me that He’s not going to do that. He requires much, and we only find relevancy and a sense of our faith being real when we respond, not just for a few hours on Sunday (or on Saturday if you’re Jewish or otherwise attend a synagogue), but for seven days a week during each waking moment.
I know, I know. Easier said than done, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t attend to the desires and requirements of God every time I take a breath. It’s too easy to get distracted by our jobs, home life, taking kids to soccer practice, dozens and dozens of mundane tasks where, in order to be mindful of the living God, we must make the extra effort to turn to Him, even as He’s waiting for us to do that.
I think the problem with the perceived lack of relevance of religion in modern life is the misunderstanding on what religion is. Yes, part of it has to do with ritual, and particularly for observant Jews, set times for prayer, gathering with a minyan, blessings upon donning a tallit and laying tefillin, blessings before eating, different blessings depending on what you’re eating, blessings after eating, blessings over lighting the Shabbos candles, blessings over…
I’m making Judaism sound rather cumbersome, but only to make a point.
If that’s your total vision and understanding of your religion, it’s going to eventually get either really boring or a less-than-mindful habit that you practice by rote. Perhaps comforting, but ultimately meaningless.
Christians do this too, it just isn’t called “ritual”. Go to church, get greeted at the door, chit-chat with a Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other until the service starts, go through the ritual of the service, listening to announcements, standing and sitting, singing, greeting the people around you when you’re told, putting money in a plate, more music, listening to the sermon (maybe even taking notes but more often than not just zoning out), going to Sunday school (or not because it’s boring and you have better things to do), agreeing with the standard party line during class and not asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to…
That’s really tedious as well. No wonder there’s a mad rush to leave for Sunday brunch afterwards and then maybe get in a quick game of golf.
I know you’ve heard this before and I know I’ve said this before in a number of different ways, but it’s one of those messages I believe needs to be repeated often.
Because if decades ago, Rabbi Heschel could recognize this problem, and in this day and age, the problem seems worse than ever, just dropping the message into a single blog post and walking away isn’t going to have much (or any) impact.
Is your church or synagogue boring, not real, irrelevant? Maybe that’s because you are. If you want something more out of your religion, start putting more into it. Stop acting like religion is something you’ve just added to your pre-existing life, and start acting like you can’t live without an active, pulsating, moment-by-moment encounter with God.
Easier said than done, I know.
I can’t tell you exactly how to do all that. I’m still figuring it out for myself. This is as far as I can take you, assuming this is territory you want to explore.
I know what I’m about to say is full of trap doors, but your relationship with God isn’t wholly dependent on ritual and religious celebrations. It’s more about stopping whatever you’re doing right now and turning toward God. Then it’s about doing that again as often as you can.
It’s about seeing human needs all around us as opportunities to serve God in a real, meaningful, and relevant way. Donate food to a food bank and your old clothing to a homeless shelter. Visit a sick friend at their home or in the hospital. Comfort the widow who has just lost her husband. Donate clothing, toys, and any other necessary items to foster children.
If you want your religion to be real and relevant, live a real and relevant life. I said I didn’t know how to take you any further, but all of the suggestions I made in the previous paragraph are based on what the Bible says God wants us to do.
If your religion is boring, it’s because of you. If you’re religion is relevant, same answer. All you have to do is listen to God and your faith will never be boring again.
Our problem is we don’t always listen. For some of us, we listen so infrequently that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) what God’s voice sounds like.
For the past decade, “How Great Is Our God” has been one of the most popular worship songs in the United States.
The song’s success helped to make Chris Tomlin the world’s top worship leader, and turned his co-writer Ed Cash into one of the most sought-after Christian music producers in Nashville.
It also helped launch what former members are calling a cult.
-Bob Smietana, December 14, 2015
“I Am Called a Cult Leader. I Really Don’t Care” Christianity Today
I recently heard a pastor of a large American church say matter-of-factly that the average person in his church attended one out of three Sundays. Sadly, he wasn’t saying it was a problem. He was simply making an observation.
It’s an observation that stands in stark contrast to the admonition in Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
You may be wondering what these two stories have to do with one another. The former (a very long but worthwhile article) describes what most of us would call a “cult,” a domineering religious community run by a single individual who allegedly demands absolute control over his followers’ lives, and the latter, espousing the value in believers regularly gathering with one another to worship God and for mutual edification.
I recently wrote about the good and the bad of religious community. Actually, that blog post was mainly about the bad. The first story about Wayne “Pops” Jolley, “a prosperity gospel preacher with a history of alleged spiritual and sexual abuse,” and sole owner/operator of The Gathering International, is much, much (allegedly) worse than the two Pastors I described in my previous write-up.
He’s (allegedly) a monster and, if the facts in the story are accurate, he should be in prison.
In reading that story, I found myself amazed that anyone would fall for Jolley’s lines and allow themselves to come under his control. The first “red alert” should go off for any Christian right here (on page 2 of the 10 page “Christianity Today” article):
Jolley’s followers are asked to make a lifelong covenant with him and God, where they pledge their obedience and financial support to him as their spiritual father. In exchange, he pledges to pass on God’s messages and blessings. (emph. mine)
Lifelong commitment to God I can understand, but lifelong commitment to obey and throw money at Jolley in exchange for him passing along what God has to say and His blessings to me? That’s outrageous.
There’s a popular meme I sometimes see on Facebook: “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow Christians’ He said ‘follow me’.”
You can click the link I posted above to read all about what “Christianity Today” has to say about Jolley and find out why he (allegedly) makes my skin crawl.
The blurb on the book’s Amazon.com page says in part:
Nothing is more essential than knowing how to worship the God who created us. This book focuses readers on the essentials of God-honoring worship, combining biblical foundations with practical application in a way that works in the real world. The author, a pastor and noted songwriter, skillfully instructs pastors, musicians, and church leaders so that they can root their congregational worship in unchanging scriptural principles, not divisive cultural trends.
I especially took note of the line, “can root their congregational worship in unchanging scriptural principles…” True, a lot of churches are very “program” oriented and seem to be searching for ever more ways to make going to church “popular” if not a thrill-a-minute, but I react to the phrase “unchanging scriptural principles” as written by a Christian, the same way as I do to “sound doctrine”. What you believe the Bible says depends a great deal on your interpretive traditions rather than (necessarily) on objective analysis.
I know that probably sounds harsh, but then again, I’ve participated in the eisegesis wars more than once.
And while I don’t doubt that Kauflin is a good, sincere, devoted, and compassionate disciple of Jesus, he definitely is writing from a highly specific point of view; a very traditionally Evangelical Christian point of view.
You can read his eight reasons why Church attendance isn’t optional by clicking this link. I’ll present my responses here.
1. Jesus came to save a people, not random individuals.
Well, sort of. Jesus came (it’s a lot more complicated than a simple Christian understanding of the purpose of Christ relates) for the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) to call them to repentance because of the “nearness” of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 4:17).
To expand on this a bit, he came at that place and that time to show Israel (the Jewish people) that God’s New Covenant promises (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) were indeed going to come true. He did this by being a living (and dying and then living again) example of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13:17), the forgiveness of sins (Romans 11:25-27), and the resurrection (Colossians 1:18).
Bottom line, Jesus came to herald the emergence of the Messianic Kingdom into our world, dramatically unveiling the redemption of all of Israel. He didn’t so much talk about the rest of the world. Of course, post-ascension, he commissioned Paul with that task (Acts 9).
That means the reason Jesus came had little or nothing to do with going to church each week. That said, in late second Temple Israel, there were the moadim or the times when Israel was to gather in Jerusalem (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and so on), there were specific occasions for offering additional korban at the Temple, and Jews regularly prayed and studied at the Temple and at their local synagogues and study halls. Being a Jew was and is a corporate experience, and Paul did gather the Gentiles together to also worship as specific local groups.
2. We need to rehearse and be reminded of the gospel.
I’d probably expand this to include regularly attending places where the Bible is preached and taught. I love a good sermon, although I have a tendency to write copious notes and then blog my reviews of them, and certainly there is a great advantage to attending Bible classes and being able to discuss views and insights on the scriptures, including the Gospels and other Apostolic Writings.
If I understand Kauflin correctly, he’s also recommending that believers come together to encourage each other to practice the good news by living out lives that reflect the teachings of our Rav and the promises that are sure to come.
3. God’s Word builds us together.
It seems like this is strongly related to item 2 if not just a rewording of the previous rationale for meeting regularly.
Maybe I’m missing something.
4. We were made to serve and care for one another.
I agree that we can serve each other in corporate gathering, but there are just tons and tons of other occasions and venues in which to do this, sometimes ones that are better than church. After all, how better to serve someone than to visit them when their ill in the hospital, when they’re depressed and alone in their homes, when they’re bereaved, and under many other circumstances? You don’t need to regularly meet in church to do this.
5. We become more aware of God’s presence.
I’d agree with this with the caveat that some people have a greater awareness of God when they are alone. Yes, I have felt the presence of God both in church and in the synagogue, but I have also felt it when praying alone, so church isn’t the only place you’ll find God. Sometimes you’ll find him in the most unlikely places.
Also, I find Kauflin’s use of “the Church” being the “new temple in Jesus Christ” to be somewhat limited. We know that Messiah will re-build the actual, physical Temple in Jerusalem and re-establish worship there (Jeremiah 33:18), and Paul referring to the “body of believers” as a “temple,” is more or less metaphor, just as we are also referred to as individual bricks in that temple.
One does not replace the other. I think many Christians take poetic language and try to make it a literal thing in order to map to prevailing Church doctrine which historically, was created to remove the Jews and Judaism from any association with Rav Yeshua (I’m sure Kauflin isn’t deliberately “dissing” Jews and Judaism, merely teaching what he was taught).
We demonstrate our unity in the gospel.
This is basically correct, at least in principle. As I mentioned above, Judaism, both in Rav Yeshua’s day and now, has a strong corporate worship and study component (although today, the home is always the center of a Jews worship of and devotion to Hashem). As Jewish community defines its distinct covenant relationship with the Almighty, you can also say that Christian community defines the non-Jewish disciples of our Rav as those who, even as we are not named participants in the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:27), are nonetheless by God’s grace and mercy, granted many of the blessings of the New Covenant. We also have the promise of the forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the resurrection in the world to come.
However, I do object to the following:
Most of us instinctively (sinfully?) like to be with people who are a lot like us — people who like the same music, eat at the same restaurants, and shop at the same stores. But God is glorified when people who have no visible connection or similarity joyfully meet together week after week. They do it not because they’re all the same, but because the gospel has brought them together (Romans 15:5-7).
At least in my experience, Christians actively seek out churches that are composed of people who are just like them socially, politically, economically, “denominationally,” and in most other ways. It’s not like you could take 100 random Christians gathered from across the country, put them together in a building every Sunday, and have them automatically form a cohesive community of believers. Depending on their theology, doctrine, politics, and such, they’d probably split in a dozen different directions, and heaven help the poor Pastor who tries to preach to this eclectic bunch.
People choose churches in part because the majority of the members/attendees have many interests and perspectives in common.
Of course, this isn’t just a Christian trait, it’s a human trait. In a municipality with a sufficiently large Jewish community, the following joke is applicable:
A [Jewish] man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. The news media, amazed at this feat of survival, ask him to show them his home.
“How did you survive? How did you keep sane?” they ask him, as he shows them around the small island.
“I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come.” He leads them to a small glen, where stands an opulent temple, made entirely from palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The news cameras take pictures of everything – even a torah made from banana leaves and written in octopus ink. “This took me five years to complete.”
“Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?”
“Come with me.” He leads them around to the far side of the island. There, in a shady grove, is an even more beautiful temple. “This one took me twelve years to complete!”
“But sir” asks the reporter, “Why did you build two temples?”
“This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn’t set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!”
My opinion on the Lord’s Supper or Communion is conflicted at best (I’m being polite), and my thoughts on baptism or immersion is that it’s more appropriate and Biblically sustainable when done in a river or other flowing body of water or, if it needs to be conducted indoors, in a mikvah-like environment.
It might be more appropriate to say that Number 7 is to share common ceremonies and traditional praxis. For instance, with Christmas fast approaching, churches all over the U.S. and in other nations are gearing up for their big Christmas presentations and worship services.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but Christmas is a tradition, not a Biblical event. Yes, I am aware that the Rav’s birth is recorded in the Bible, but how the Church celebrates Christmas today, both in individual Christian homes and in corporate assembly, little resembles the scriptural record, nor do we see anything like a directive to actually observe or celebrate Christ’s birth.
8. We magnify God’s glory.
Corporate assembly to lift up our God and to give glory to His Name. I can’t object to this one.
Of course, Kauflin’s bio describes him as “a songwriter, worship pastor, and the director of worship development” (and you can find out even more about him at his blog), so it would seem corporate worship has a special place in his heart. He couldn’t do a lot of what he does without a church full of people.
Also, as I previously mentioned, he wrote a book on the topic, so he’s invested in promoting corporate practice.
Why am I posting a comparison between two widely different men and radically distinct worship venues?
In spite of what Kauflin said in his article, you can’t always find appropriate community just by popping into the first church you see as you’re driving down the street. Certainly doing so by going into Jolley’s group would (allegedly) be a recipe for disaster. There are some places that should never be called a “church”.
But even under more optimal circumstances, in places of worship truly devoted to Christ, it doesn’t mean you’re going to fit in. I can only imagine that Kauflin and I would have a “spirited conversation” if we got together and started talking about the Bible. I’ve already outlined in some detail how I see his reasons for going to church every Sunday to not always hold water.
Also, I’m kind of wary of famous Christians and their books because being a well-known Christian writer just means you’re communicating a popular message to the majority of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Charismatics, or whatever subculture of Christians to which the author belongs.
Which goes right back to what I said before about how Christians will tend to associate with other Christians with whom they have the most in common. I’m not sure how this would have initially played out when the Apostle Paul was “planting churches” in the diaspora, but it’s pretty evident today, at least in the western hemisphere.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt compelled to write all this. The world would go on just fine if I didn’t give expression to these thoughts. I’ve certainly got other things to occupy my time.
I suppose I’m continuing to be a voice for the outliers, the ones who don’t quite fit in to a church…any church. While I find myself sometimes missing certain aspects of going to church (I said I loved a good sermon and I enjoy discussing/debating the Bible, though this almost always gets me in trouble), in addition to how my being a church-goer impacts my Jewish family, even after my two-year sojourn in a church, I never fit in, and both church and I decided to get a semi-amicable divorce.
Kauflin says worship matters. For some of us, it’ll have to matter alone. The alternative spans the range from awkward to ghastly.
Most of all though, I’ve outgrown something that simply no longer feels like love, something I no longer see much of Jesus in.
If religion it is to be worth holding on to, it should be the place were [sic] the marginalized feel the most visible, where the hurting receive the most tender care, where the outsiders find the safest refuge.
It should be the place where diversity is fiercely pursued and equality loudly championed; where all of humanity finds a permanent home and where justice runs the show.
I’ve never heard of this guy before today, but apparently he’s a big deal. Not only is he a blogger, but he’s a blogger with 16,759 followers (as of this writing), one who’s been featured on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed, and just the one missive I quoted from above has garnered (as of this writing) 211 responses (that’s up from 209 when I initially completed reading his blog post).
I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, if you’re an “18-year ministry veteran” and “proudly serve at North Raleigh Community Church” pastoring “people in the Raleigh area and throughout the world,” I suppose having such a large audience attending to your content is a good thing.
On the other hand, even with my very modest experiences in religious blogging, I know that what most often attracts attention in the blogosphere is “blood in the water,” so to speak. In other words, people love to “debate” (argue about) controversy.
You can click the link I provided above to see Pavlovitz’s full write-up. You’ll quickly see, even if you just read the quote at the top of my blog post, that this author has something to say that’s likely to upset more than a few Christians.
However, we should consider…
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
–Luke 19:1-10 (NASB)
And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.
And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
As it turns out, Rav Yeshua (Jesus) really did hang out with marginalized, victimized outsiders. He associated with what was considered the dregs of society in that place at that time. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He was bitterly criticized for it by at least some of the Pharisees.
Granted, it was part of the job of the Pharisees to test the many itinerant Rabbis wandering throughout Judah and the Galilee, questioning their teachings and their understanding of the Torah and traditions. But our Rav never faltered in his convictions. How could he? Yes, as fully human, he could have failed.
But if it was impossible for him to fail, why was he tested?
So we can hardly fault Pavlovitz for wanting to emulate Jesus in also ministering to those who have been rejected by our society, and especially to distance himself from the modern-day equivalents of some of the Pharisees, those whose religion requires they always condemn people who we consider latter-day “tax collectors,” prostitutes, and sinners. People who are gay, transsexuals, drug addicts, HIV positive or who suffer from AIDS. Anyone who is not “us”.
Yeshua didn’t isolate himself from these people and often, he called the religious elite of his day to repent of their sins. But I’m not quite sure Pavlovitz is on the same page as the Rav. Maybe he’s just exchanged one form of religious elitism for another.
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Granted, this is a parable, meaning it’s a metaphorical story that probably isn’t a literal, factual rendition of an event. Nevertheless, it’s intended to teach us a moral and ethical truth. What is that truth?
Which of these two men, after praying, went back down to his house justified? The sinner who sincerely repented, not the one who thought he was already righteous.
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
This is the central message of Rav Yeshua’s ministry. Repent. Without repentance, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, alternately known as the Kingdom of God (which doesn’t mean going to Heaven to be with Jesus when you die, but entering the earthly Kingdom of Messiah when he establishes his throne in Jerusalem).
Heck, I agree with Pavlovitz about “American Christianity”. God isn’t a Republican or Democrat, He doesn’t prefer either Fox News or MSNBC. He loves humanity, all of us, not just those of a certain political or social bias.
But I think that Pavlovitz may have missed that even though God doesn’t use some American political yardstick in order to judge, He does have standards and we are all accountable to them.
All of those tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners didn’t keep on doing business as before when they followed their Rav. They repented and kept repenting. The prostitutes stopped prostituting. The tax collectors stopped extorting money, paid it all back, plus an amount over and above what they took (which was a requirement of thieves in the Torah).
But the man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
Anyone who Jesus helped, anyone he healed and comforted was expected to repent and stop sinning.
I don’t know how Pavlovitz sees his marginalized and outsider populations. I don’t know what he considers sin. It’s possible to be an outcast even after you’ve repented, made a big U-turn, and ceased sinning, so maybe these are the people he means. If so, then more power to him.
I hope that’s what he means. There are quite a number of churches and synagogues in the U.S. and elsewhere that have conformed, not to they hyper-conservative politics of many Evangelical churches, but the more progressive societal norms we see associated with secularism, emphasizing love far, far above obedience to the requirements of God.
I think it’s possible for what’s been referred to as Progressive Christianity to be just as elitist and just as self-righteous as they consider what Pavlovitz calls American Christianity. In responding to one of his critics, Pavlovitz wrote:
Brad, I’ve outgrown responding angrily to those who don’t understand, or wish to attack me from a distance. Take care.
If he’s outgrown so many things, does he believe he’s somehow more righteous than his detractors? Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector again. Who shall we apply the Pharisee role to? I don’t know. I can’t read Pavlovitz’s mind.
I’ve said on more than one occasion that each one of us as people of faith have our hands full taking care of our own behavior, our own battles with sin, our own faults and imperfections to have time (if we’re willing to be honest) to judge others.
I’m just as guilty as the next person of hopping on Facebook or twitter and slamming some politician, social media pundit, or, most recently, matters of safe places and microaggressions we see plastered all over the news.
I admit it.
I also admit, having once again confronted my own personal brand of self-righteousness, that I can’t go back down to my home justified until I leave all that behind and repent, begging God’s forgiveness because I’m a sinner, too.
I really hate admitting that, but it would be far worse for me if I didn’t.
I do believe that we, as believers, are better people when we stop looking at others as “types” and start looking at and treating them as human beings, just as human and flawed and loved by God as we are. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pass on the message of repentance of our Rav to those around us, though. But it does mean we should do our repentance first before asking anyone else to do so.
Jesus loves…but his love isn’t blind. The price of admission into the Kingdom of God always has been repentance. Keep practicing repentance.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman