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.
When He made the world, He made two ways to repair each thing: With harshness or with compassion. With a slap or with a caress. With darkness or with light.
“And G‑d looked at the light and saw that it was good.” Darkness and harsh words may be necessary. But He never called them good.
Even if you could correct another person with harsh words, the One Above receives no pleasure from it. When He sees his creatures heal one another with caring and with kindness, that is when He shines His smile upon us.
—cited from Kedushas Levi on Shabbos Vayechi, 5751
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on the Letters and Talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson Chabad.org
Beginning with Chapter 18: The 21st Century Christian, Pastor Jackson writes:
Do what the occasion requires! This statement comes from the Bible, from the passage when the prophet Samuel gave this command to the newly anointed King Saul (see 1 Samuel 10:7).
The occasion of the 21st century requires a specific response. It requires a specific breed of Christians. The day and age in which we live requires a specific type of church.
The good news is that God has known all along what the specific challenges of each era would be, and He has strategically placed believers in those eras to respond to them.
Jackson also briefly cited Esther 4:14 and other sources, all to say that each of us, you and me, were born and live in this time for a very specific purpose.
That purpose, Jackson says, is to summon revival, which he discussed in a previous chapter. Quoting Romans 8:19-22, Jackson says creation is longing and groaning as if in childbirth.
Of course he means all this starts with the American church and ripples outward, which is Biblically unsustainable. However, it’s his “hook” to engage his reader, to engage us (or them). What he misses (and how would he ever see it?) is that our purpose as believing Gentiles is to encourage Jewish return to Torah observance, to making Aliyah, all in preparation for the return of Messiah and the rise of Israel to the head of the nations.
We can’t simply coexist with the ideologies of our day. We can’t peacefully allow our nation to be overrun and destroyed by demonic strategies.
See what I mean? Oh, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray for our country. We are encouraged to do so in the Bible. But America is not the center of all things. We haven’t replaced Israel. New York, Los Angeles, or Seattle haven’t replaced Jerusalem as the city where the Almighty has placed His Name.
But then Jackson asks an interesting question:
What are some of the specific messages that you were meant to carry?
The response I have in my notes is You have no idea.
The other question, which comes at the end of this chapter is:
Do you believe that God has strategically placed you in this hour of church history?
I don’t know that I’m even part of “church history” or “the Church,” at least as Jackson defines those terms. We search all our lives in an attempt to find purpose and meaning in the world and in God’s plan of redemption. Who is to say for what reason you or I exist at this moment in time?
Moving on to Chapter 19: The 21st Century Church, Jackson continues:
I would like to include a chapter here that slightly detours from specifically discussing you and me as individual believers and instead focuses briefly on the bigger picture of the Church. As we move past the hurts we received in church and resolve to take our place again in God’s plan for His Body, it’s important to recognize what that plan is so we can identify what our role in it might be.
Staying with his focus on the American church, Jackson believes that Christianity has a highly critical role in the history of America right now. Quoting Pastor Jack Hayford of The Church On The Way in Van Nuys, California, Jackson writes:
I perceive “an hour” has arrived. It is an hour of citywide impacting that is beginning to occur in New Testament ways, because New Testament vitality and spiritual penetration is taking place.
I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, even in the larger context of the original quote. Sometimes, Christian Pastors word things rather oddly, at least from my point of view.
In order to describe the church the 21st century needs, he goes through a list of churches we read about in the Apostolic Scriptures, such as those congregations as Ephesus, Colossae, Thessalonica, and Antioch. He also mentioned “other New Testament churches, like the one at Jerusalem.” Really, I was astonished (and so would be James and the Council of Apostles and Elders) that he conceives of the faithful first century Jewish disciples in the Holy City as “a church.” Many of the original communities Paul established in the galut were more synagogues, particularly the ekklesia in Antioch, but modern Christians can’t help revising history to make them “churches.”
I was just as surprised that he cited Numbers 23 and Balaam’s words “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed,” applying them to the Church when clearly Balaam was describing Israel. Has Jackson replaced Israel with the Church? It would seem so.
I know he’s trying to build up his Christian readers and building up the Christian Church in order to convince his audience that it is an institution of destiny and that to be part of that destiny, they must return to their congregations, but in order to do so, he has to bend the meaning of scripture beyond any reasonable bounds.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, Jackson reinvents the “Church” at Antioch to look more like a 21st century Evangelical church. This serves his own perspective and probably the majority of his readers, but I don’t think it serves the Bible or God’s true intent in his redemptive plan for Israel and then the world.
Moving on to Chapter 20: The Life of a Puzzle Piece, we read:
Did you know that you and I are living inside a puzzle box?
Yes, I’ve always suspected as much. Actually, Jackson means a jigsaw puzzle box, with each of us representing one of the pieces. We all have to fit together (he cites 1 Corinthians 1:10 here) in order to see the big picture.
Jackson relates what he calls “The Parable of the Puzzle Piece” to get his point across. From the point of view of the individual puzzle piece, we can’t see the big picture. The puzzle is actually the body of Christ or the unified Christian Church. If we aren’t part of the entire puzzle, then life has no meaning and makes no sense.
Well, that’s not entirely true, since plenty of atheists find meaning, purpose, and direction in life, and there are Christians who aren’t actively part of a local church that have other means of fellowship, and of course, as Jackson says, rely on their relationship with Jesus to help make sense of their lives.
However, returning to the puzzle piece metaphor, he states that although an individual piece can’t see the big picture, it is absolutely essential in order to complete the big picture. If you’ve ever assembled a jigsaw puzzle only to discover that one or more pieces are missing, it can really be annoying.
This is Jackson’s way of saying that each and every individual Christian is important and matters to God. Just like he said earlier that each Christian should be considered God’s favorite.
But each piece only contains a fraction of the whole and will never “fulfill its destiny” if it isn’t correctly put together with the rest of the pieces.
It’s pretty obvious where Jackson is going with all this, but at one point he adds:
Sometimes it takes several attempts for the piece to find its fit.
In other words, if your first church experience doesn’t work out, try, try again. Cute.
Oh, and a puzzle piece usually fits only in one single spot. Trying to fit a puzzle piece in a gap where it doesn’t fit won’t work out well and the piece will end of being mangled if forced.
Be patient, he says. Your place might not become available until other puzzle pieces are put together.
Although he doesn’t quote 1 Corinthians 12, he does say “Don’t get jealous of any other pieces–we’re all equally important.” Equally important but not identical. Each piece is uniquely shaped and will only fit in one location within the puzzle. This might be a message describing the differing roles of Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic movement.
One of his end of chapter questions is:
Do you know that you are crucial for God’s big picture plan?
Even accepting this, as Jackson said before, the individual puzzle piece can’t see the big picture and therefore is unlikely to know where it fits or what it contributes.
Chapter 21: Old People starts out:
Recently, a number of young adults in our church hosted a very special banquet to honor the senior citizens in our congregation. We wanted to treat them to a night of honor and esteem that would send a clear message that we loved and needed them in our church.
This reminded me of the following commandment from the Torah:
‘You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord.’
–Leviticus 19:32 (NASB)
But Jackson was simply leveraging the concept of “the wisdom of the aged” to what he imagines an older might say to a younger one. Advice like “I’m not better than you” and “It’s all about relationship” (his favorite theme). The advice is largely just restating points he made earlier in his book about being transparent, Christianity’s evangelical mission, and “God will come through.”
Chapter 22: The Abundant Life begins:
I think the book of Ecclesiastes is probably one of the most overlooked and underrated books of the Bible…
Well, in the traditional church, that’s probably true.
On the other hand, Jackson also says:
…and then moving on to something easier, like the book of Psalms or the gospel of John…
The Gospel of John may seem deceptively easy, but being that it’s the most mystic of the four gospels, I’d have to say that anyone thinking it’s “easy” hasn’t read it in sufficient depth.
Going back to Ecclesiastes, Jackson attempts to distill some Christian principles from Solomon’s wisdom such as “The perspective that this life is only a pilgrimage–a journey toward eternity” and “Enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.”
The bottom line of this next-to-the-last-chapter of Jackson’s book is in one of his end of chapter questions:
Do you ever consider the fact that this life here on earth is merely the dress rehearsal for your eternal life in heaven with Jesus? How does this change your attitude and perspective?
I assume this is meant to put a life in church community into some sort of positive context with the realization that our earthly life is a test. How we perform on the test determines how or if we share a life “in heaven with Jesus.”
I tend to prefer a more Jewish interpretation of being alive, that what we do is important, not primarily because we will merit a place in the world to come, but because what we do summons or inhibits the return of Messiah. Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) matters because the world matters to God. In fact, it’s to our world that Messiah will return, and it is here, not in Heaven, where we will reside in the Messianic Kingdom.
Last chapter, Chapter 23: Sleeping With Bathsheba…Again.
So, now what? We’ve looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly of church life, and we’ve recognized that, for all of its very human shortcomings, the Church is still the Bride and the Body of Christ. He is still committed as ever to building it into a force that will overthrow hell in every region of society.
Jackson might almost be writing in a foreign language as far as I’m concerned. No, I understand what he’s saying, but it’s just such a different point of view on the purpose and glory of Messiah from the one I hold.
Jackson goes on to say that “we are the Church” and as such, we can’t remove ourselves from church, anymore than we could remove our heart or our lungs and remain alive. In this case, he means spiritual life, of course.
I’m like you-I’m finished with religion that helps only the ultra-disciplined but offers no life for hurting, desperate people.
I know he’s speaking to his target audience, but this is just another slam against ancient and modern Judaism…”religion but no life”. Jackson believes, based on the current “cultural maelstrom,” that we’re “entering the age of the Church,” that the Church is God’s instrument to bring a fallen world back from the brink of disaster. that there will be a great revival in this country (U.S.A), and that we all can be a part of it if we’re a part of the Church (meaning a part of a local church).
Jackson actually brings up a point (you probably know what it is based on the chapter’s title) that I sometimes think about. After David’s sin with Bathsheba, David remains married to her and indeed, she becomes the mother of Solomon, the heir to the Davidic throne and ancestor of Messiah.
If those events were to happen today, let’s say with a President instead of a King, most of us would be appalled and call for this President’s immediate impeachment and imprisonment.
But in this case, Jackson is talking about second chances:
Perhaps there’s a Bathsheba waiting for you. Perhaps there are relationships in your church that ended in pain, and you’ve vowed never to return to them.
In other words, reconsider your decision.
And that’s it. The end of the book. Since this is a pretty long blog post, I’ll save my final conclusions for another time.
The issue is whether or not Christians can take these verses as a general commandment to enter into fellowship with other believers. That is, does Hebrews 10:25 command us to go to church?
Maybe not, at least not exactly.
PL emailed me a detailed translation and explanation of Hebrews 10:23-25 rather than post it in a blog comment because he wasn’t sure how to deal with the needed typography. I think I can represent what he wrote correctly here in WordPress and I think it’s a much-needed perspective on addressing the pesky challenge of whether or not returning to Christian fellowship should be an imperative for me. I’ll continue to review Pastor Chris Jackson’s book Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church, but I thought this particular commentary was a worthy interlude.
@James – Maybe you’ll see a bit more of what I meant in reading the following alternative translation of the Greek text of the Hebrews 10 passage (as I take each verse through the stages of transliteration, literal translation, and colloquial rendition):
Mi egkataleipontes tin episunagogin eauton, kathos ethos tisin, alla parakalountes, kai tosouto mallon, ‘oso blephete engidzousan tin emeran.
not abandoning the gathering-together [under the same roof; around the synagogue] ourselves, just-as/seeing-that custom/ethos/habit/practice [of] some, but summoning/exhorting [one another], and so-much/all-the-more, as-far-as/how-much you see approaching the day.
Not abandoning the synagogue meetings [or the prayer minyans], as some have done, but rather calling and encouraging [one another], all the more, as you see daylight approaching.
[Note that this last phrase is an expression of hope that the situation will improve, possibly even invoking the anticipation of that “day” when Messiah ben-David will appear to set all things right.]
Note that this comes out just a bit different from the NASB rendition you cited.
As you can see, my colloquial rendition represents how I envision a modern MJ reflection of the first-century Jewish readership would perceive this passage. As I see it, the Hebrews writer was not exhorting his readers solely to hang onto their faith in Rav Yeshua as the messiah, but to continue in their Jewish praxis and to similarly encourage other beleaguered messianists to do likewise, because of the promised hope that Rav Yeshua would return to set right all the issues and persecutions they were facing, and that they would be found faithful when he came. I’ll turn your attention to a question that appears in Lk.18:8 – of which I will render the final phrase as: “But when the Son-of-Man comes, will he find faith in the Land [of Israel]?”). Note that while most English translations will say “in the earth”, rendered literally from Greek, the word reflects a cognate in Hebrew between “earth” and “aretz”, both of which may refer to the planet, to dirt, to a plot of land, or to the Land of Israel. Given Rav Yeshua’s dedicated focus on the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (cif:Mt.15:24), I infer that the Land of Israel is the intended primary focus of this question. If he will find faith anywhere on planet earth, Israel is the first place he should be expected to look. It is this question that I believe impels not only the writer of Hebrews but also my inference that the passage was intended to encourage these first-century messianists to remain solid witnesses that their trust in Rav Yeshua as messiah strengthened them as Jews and that they should share this strength and encouragement with fellow Jews who would likewise wish to be found faithful when the messiah should appear in Judgement.
Now, extracting from this exhortation to Jews some sort of generalized principle for non-Jews raises the question about what non-Jewish affiliates should be expected to be doing while awaiting the messiah. Certainly they should be encouraging one another to do good deeds of all kinds, including their support for Jews to “be all they can be”. Of course, the practice of such encouragement is much facilitated by gathering together and interacting for fellowship, for meals, for worship, and for teaching, in whatever venues may be available. This may include virtual ones via the internet, though virtual meal-sharing is rather insipid, and it’s virtually impossible to pass the ‘humus around the table. [J] Nonetheless, one may recognize the truism that sharing such encouragement would tend to protect its participants from growing spiritually weak and falling away in apostasy, hence there is a valuable recommendation to offer against isolation. As you point out, that’s not exactly your problem, since you engage in a great deal of virtual interaction, receiving both encouraging and critical responses. The writer of Hebrews was rather far removed from any ability to comment on the merits or demerits of fellowship that lacks the benefit of ‘humus and falafel. But let’s not whine that we can’t dine together.
Why is it that people who have been wounded in church will still be talking about their wounds years later? Why can people forgive a betraying friend or experience a business meltdown and move on with their life, but if it is a church that fails them, it is nearly impossible to let it go? Have you ever seen this dynamic in others? Have you ever lived it yourself?
Reviewing Pastor Jackson’s book (Here’s the link to Part One) is my way of attempting to respond to what I am calling a pesky challenge to find fellowship and community (or something) with like-minded believers. I’m not sure such a thing is possible for reasons I outlined yesterday, but since a friend asked me to consider it, I suppose I should.
A couple of days ago, Derek Leman wrote the blog post Gentiles Who Feel Left Out which sort of addresses my current situation but not really.
But first things first. To answer Pastor Jackson’s question, a great many Christians who have left the Church and affiliated with Messianic Judaism and/or the Hebrew Roots movements have lived out the dynamic he describes above. And seemingly in response, Leman wrote in the aforementioned blog post:
I also say to disenfranchised non-Jews not to give up on churches. Many have not tried really looking. Some came from churches with certain labels and assume they can only return to those places. Be more open minded. There are churches, often outside of evangelicalism, whose clergy are better educated (evangelicalism is heir to revivalist Christianity and tends to squash intellectual growth).
That may well be true for some Christians and some churches. After all, I’ve read that First Fruits of Zion‘s (FFOZ) HaYesod and Torah Club materials are being taught in churches. I’ve heard that episodes of FFOZ’s television program A Promise of What is to Come are viewed and then discussed in Sunday School classes in some churches. So it’s apparent that there are some Christian churches that are open to this perspective and to “Messianic Gentile” worshipers.
But I’m reviewing Pastor Jackson’s book through the lens of my own experience, so finding “the right church” and fitting in isn’t the entire solution. In fact, it really isn’t a solution at all.
I feel like I’m participating in Pastor Jackson’s statement of talking about my “hurt” months and even years later, but again, I’m only revisiting all this because I was asked. Also, everything has been resolved between me and the church I used to attend to the extent possible. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be reconciliation and return and, relative to my home life, even if I did return, it wouldn’t be helpful.
Pastor Jackson, answering his own question, says “We don’t expect to get hurt in church.” That’s true. At least in an ideal sense, we expect “church” to be a safe place, maybe the safest of places, given how many Christians see secular society as unfriendly or even dangerous to religious people.
I only perceive church as “hazardous” to the degree that, at least in my own recent experience, what I believe is incompatible with how they define “sound doctrine.” Granted, it was only one church, but I do live in a pretty conservative part of the country and religious views in many local churches are also “fundamental”.
Pastor Jackson says one of the problems is that those hurt in churches are never heard. That is, they never get the opportunity to express their side of the story. That’s not the case with me. I had abundant opportunities to be heard by the Head Pastor and he listened to me at length. Jackson asked how there can be healing without closure. I have closure. I made a very definite decision on what to do in leaving church and why I was doing it. The door is closed. It’s over.
The end of chapter questions have to do with being accepting of differences, carrying around anger, and coming to the realization that some of your hurts may be your own doing.
I don’t think I understand the last question:
Do you know that God believes you can make it?
I’m not sure if Jackson means “make it” in life or “make it” in church.
In Chapter 4: The Other Life, Jackson makes an interesting statement:
Religion has left me parched and dry and wondering if it was really what God intended for me when He drew me into the other life.
By “other life,” Jackson means a life of faith and a personal journey with Christ. I find myself closer to God when I’m reading and studying the Bible (or writing this blog), so my “other life” is lived, for the most part, outside of any immediate fellowship. Although I don’t observe a proper Shabbat, I’m usually able to carve out a few hours to study the weekly Torah portion which often is the most rewarding part of my day and week. It’s the closest I come to the “other life”.
I read this next statement of Jackson’s and realized we conceptualize prayer in different ways:
A few weeks ago, I felt like the Lord spoke to me in one of my morning prayer times. I was journaling my thoughts to the Lord and then recording what I felt He was speaking to me in response.
Is that normal? Oh, I get the part about writing my thoughts down. I do that all the time. But writing down what I imagine God is saying back to me? Isn’t that substituting my personality for God?
I’ve never heard audible voices from Heaven but on those occasions when I thought God was trying to tell me something, it was usually through an unusual set of circumstances. That’s what led me to attend that little Baptist church a few miles from my house for two years. I won’t go into the story, but an unlikely set of events occurred that led me to call the Pastor of that church, set up a meeting, and then decide to go to Sunday services. It was so unusual, I just couldn’t chalk it up to coincidence. I felt as if God wanted me to go to that church as a sort of Tent of David experience.
Either I was wrong and God didn’t want me to go to that church or God did want me to go and I blew it. But I’ll never know which one it was.
The Chapter 4 end of chapter questions address hearing the “other life” speaking to you and what it said, whether or not religious life stifled or accentuated that voice, and taking the road less traveled. Nothing that really connected to my experience.
In Chapter 5: Troubled Waters, Jackson says:
A great feeling of personal satisfaction ensures when we are fulfilling the commands of God.
Jackson surely doesn’t realize what a loaded statement that is in Messianic and Hebrew Roots circles when applied to a Christian. He did connect that to “serving our fellow man” which I felt was encouraging, because much of the Biblical message has to do with loving God by serving people. Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world” after all is the Jewish mission and the Church has inherited some of that whether they realize it or not.
Jackson was raised in a Christian home and has fond memories of church:
I know it helped me. I can’t imagine what my life would be like or what temptations I might have fallen into had I not been raised in a Christian home. Church has always been the backdrop of my earliest memories.
I periodically encounter a “life long Christian,” someone who came to faith early in life and who was raised in a Christian home. When I tell them I didn’t come to faith until I was about 40 years old or so, they are almost always astonished. From their point of view, it is inconceivable that someone could live the first half of their life as a “sinner” and then come to faith. It’s funny that Yeshua and Paul never seemed to have an age limit on repentance.
One of my earliest memories was of my parents being water baptized in a swimming pool.
Just thought I’d toss that quote in there.
Jackson includes a number of other pleasant childhood memories about church involvement. He calls it “a flowing current of life that overwhelms us.”
But a few pages later he says:
It’s happening every day, you know. People are leaving the church by the thousands. They’ve tasted what church has to offer and, still dissatisfied, they are abandoning organized Christianity in droves.
Jackson attributes this mass exodus away from local churches to people being mistreated, misunderstood, or just plain bored. He wisely states:
They’re not searching for a different gospel or a different God–they just want more of Him.
“Get to know Jesus better.” That phrase was used to promote the Torah Club a few years back. I think Jackson is right. I think a lot of Christians are reading the Bible for themselves and realizing that the Bible doesn’t say what they’ve been taught it says from the pulpit or in Sunday School.
In that sense, people may not all be leaving church because they’re hurt but because they’re “hungry”. Jackson says, “Jesus didn’t come to earth to institute a religion–He came to reveal God.” True. Jesus didn’t invent Christianity, he practiced a normative Judaism of his day, specifically Pharisaism (I know a lot of Christians who would be really upset at that statement). The invention of Christianity only came later, much later.
Jesus did come as Prophet and Messiah to reveal God, first to the Jews but ultimately, to the rest of the world.
Jackson doesn’t want that message to be contingent upon what the local church does or fails to do. But he also says:
God created us to be part of a community, and from the beginning He determined that it wasn’t good for man to be alone. We need the Church!
Well, that “not good for man to be alone” addressed Adam and having a suitable “helpmate”, not religious community as such. Also, I believe in Messianic Days the Church as most Christians conceptualize it, will cease to exist and be replaced by Messiah’s ekklesia (which does not translate into “Church” in English). Messiah will define the correct sort of community/communities for his Jewish and Gentile subjects.
At the end of this chapter, Jackson asked four questions, but only the last is relevant:
Do you think this is what Jesus wanted?
If he means the Church as it exists today, I’d have to say “yes and no”. I think he wanted communities of disciples who would obey his commandments to love God and to love others, doing good, feeding the hungry, giving hope to the hopeless, visiting the lonely, making peace in the home, which many churches do, but there’s a lot that has happened in the history of the Church he definitely didn’t and doesn’t want.
He absolutely didn’t want all of the crimes Christianity has committed against the Jewish people and Judaism. How could he? The Bible speaks of the Messiah coming (returning) to defeat Israel’s enemies and to judge those who have harmed his beloved Jewish people. Imagine Jesus judging all of the resurrected Christians across the ages who were taught to hate the Jews, who were taught that the Jews killed Jesus, who participated in burning volumes of Talmud, burning Torah scrolls, burning down synagogues, who tortured, maimed, and murdered countless Jewish people whose only crime was to faithfully cleave to the God of their fathers, and who died in pain while singing the Shema.
No, that isn’t want Jesus wanted, and in the resurrection, there are going to be a lot of shocked and dismayed Christians.
I realize this wasn’t what Pastor Jackson meant but his focus and mine are different. He’s talking to Christians who have been hurt by other Christians and who have chosen to respond by leaving community. But when you ask me what Jesus wanted out of “the Church,” I have an entirely different viewpoint.
At the end of Chapter 5, I’m still not finding much of what Jackson is writing that speaks to my own experience. If anything, as good a guy as I think Jackson is, what he has recorded in his book simply emphasizes for me how differently he and I understand God, Messiah, and the Bible.
Every other Sunday, a friend of mine and I have coffee together and talk about whatever. Some of what we discuss is religion (his beliefs are close but not exactly the same as mine), but we talk about everything else under the sun, too. So, as he reminded me, we can’t strictly define our conversations as “fellowship” in the Christian (or Messianic) sense.
A few weeks ago, out of the blue, my wife (who is Jewish, not Messianic, and who does have community) asked if I missed having a congregation to go to (and I am pleased that she seems to be making attending services at Chabad on Shabbat a regular thing). I have no idea what brought that comment up, but I played it off like it wasn’t an issue. Most of the time it’s not, at least consciously, and I relegate the idea to some dark closet in the back of my mind. But then Sunday before last, my friend challenged me over coffee.
He really, really thinks I should be in religious community. He isn’t the only one. I receive emails occasionally from people who believe I should not set aside fellowship indefinitely. In principle, I agree, but as a matter of practicality, I have nowhere to turn for two basic reasons:
I have no idea how to go “church shopping” and the very idea of randomly visiting churches in my area hoping to get lucky and find a theological match is not even slightly attractive.
The effect of my going to church has on my wife.
I sometimes receive what I feel are mixed signals from her. I know that she believes I should be in community too, but she’s already embarrassed by having a Christian husband, and my being in Christian community only makes it worse. I used to struggle within myself every Sunday morning as I got ready to leave for church while she was staying at home and being uncomfortable with the thought of my going (not that she’d say anything about it, of course).
And the one time I went to Easter services just about crushed her. I could see it on her face, in her eyes, as I walked out the door. I guess it would do that to any Jewish wife of a Christian husband.
I’m not doing that to her again.
Which led me to download a book (it was a special deal from Amazon so I got it for free) called Loving God When You Don’t Love The Church by Chris Jackson. Jackson is a Pastor who uses his book as a forum to talk about how damaging church experience can be to some people (including him), and damaging to the degree that people don’t (necessarily) leave the faith, but they do leave their churches in droves.
I can relate.
But I don’t relate to most of the reasons these people are leaving. I wasn’t kicked out, scorned, called a “sinner” or “demonic” or anything like that. The Pastor, who I had become friends with and who knew exactly what my doctrinal position on the Bible was (and is), directly contradicted everything I believe and called a Messianic faith a “misuse of the Law“.
He had to have known how I’d feel listening to his sermon.
(I should note at this point that I have no ill feelings for the Pastor, leadership, or members of the church I used to attend. I met many genuinely kind and caring people, all of whom were serving God and other people in their walk of faith with Christ. But in the end, I was an elephant in a roomful of gazelles. I was never going to fit in.)
I’m only about a quarter of the way through Pastor Jackson’s book, but it’s an easy read. At the end of each chapter there are study questions, so I guess the book can be used in small groups of people who have all felt alienated by their local churches (or “the Church” with a big “C”).
I guess I’m looking to see how others have responded to this situation and I’m finding that (of course) I’m not a typical Christian. It’s not just a matter of being burned by some snobby clique at one local church (although that also happened to me back when I first came to faith). If that were the case, I could just go to another church, since the theological dissonance between me and other Christians would be slight (if it existed at all since I’d be blissfully ignorant of everything I know now).
However, for lack of any other course of action for the reasons I specified above, I’m going to work my way through Pastor Jackson’s book and see if there’s anything he presents that I can somehow adapt. Jackson seems sincere, reasonably transparent, friendly, and approachable. But knowing myself as I do and getting a sense of who he is in his writing and on his blog, I suspect he’d drop me like a hot rock if we ever entered into conversation and I told him exactly what I believe about the New Covenant, the Bible in general, God’s promises to Israel, and the specific sort of “connectedness” we Gentiles have to all that through Messiah (Christ).
I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post called How to Read the Bible if You’re Not Jewish, highlighting the focus of scripture on national Israel and the Jewish people and not so much the rest of the world (that is, the goyim).
The uncomfortable truth of the Bible in general and my faith in particular is that I continue to find myself where I left off at the end of this missive. Both church and synagogue (and I would be fine with Jewish community if it could be with my wife) of any variety are out-of-bounds for me and as concerned as some people are for me because of that, I simply see no viable option.
I’m sorry to keep revisiting old ground. It’s not like I’m the only person without community. Both Gentiles and Jews find themselves in this situation as part of the consequence of being Messianic. I’ll keep reading Pastor Jackson’s book and post my thoughts about it here in the coming days, but this is as much in God’s hands as it is mine. I’m still trying to decide of He’s painting me into a corner or if I’m the one doing it.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
–Genesis 2:18 (NASB)
Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.
–Acts 21:26 (NASB)
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
–Romans 14:5-6 (NASB)
You’re probably wondering what those different portions of scripture have in common. Actually, relative to my experiences last Sunday, quite a lot.
The topic of both the sermon and the Sunday school class at church was Acts 21:15-26. It was a source of a great deal of frustration for me, but I have to be thankful to Pastor Randy for cluing me in about something first.
He reminded his audience of the great accomplishments of the Jewish people and Israel across the centuries, and made sure that we all got the idea that God didn’t do away with the Old Testament (Tanakh), the nation of Israel, and the Jewish people.
He also let us know that, in the debate over whether or not Paul did the right thing by paying the expenses of the four men under a vow at the Temple and offering sacrifices, over half of those historic and modern scholars upon whom Pastor depends for his research strongly believe that not only did Paul make a mistake, but that he sinned by participating in the Temple rites.
Fortunately, Pastor doesn’t agree with that opinion (and neither do I) and in listening to various people conversing after the sermon, I was relieved to hear that most (but not all) of the people around me have the same opinion as Pastor.
But Pastor kept repeating that offering sacrifices doesn’t atone for sins, it never did. This reminded me of time after time during our previous private discussions, when talking about the continuation of Torah observance for the Jewish people including Jewish believers, he kept stressing the same point.
You see, I agree with Pastor that the sacrifices in and of themselves have no power to atone for sins and to save a human being from the consequences of God’s justice. We are only saved through faith and out of that faith, we obey God. That’s what Paul and every other Jew who sincerely participated in the Temple rituals was doing. Obeying God out of faith.
So why beat up the Torah by saying it doesn’t save when I fully agree that simple, mechanical performance of the mitzvot with no intent or faith behind it is just going through the motions?
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
–Acts 15:1 (NASB)
This has alway puzzled me because circumcision (that is, the physical act of being circumcised and then observing the Torah commandments) isn’t what saves a person, and these gentlemen from Judea should have known that. Of course, they should have known that.
But that’s not what they meant.
When an Evangelical Christian reads that verse he or she thinks the Jews involved are saying that performing the mitzvot including the sacrifices in the Temple is what saves. But they were never meant to save. They are the conditions of the covenant relationship with God and that relationship in covenant, through faith, is what saves.
Why didn’t I see this before?
The big hang up Christians have with the Torah is because of a misunderstanding of what the folks they call “Judaizers” were saying (Nanos more aptly refers to them as “influencers” since New Testament scholars can’t seem to agree on exactly who these people were. See The Irony of Galatians).
The “influencers” Paul refers to in his epistle to the Galatians and the Jews we hear from in Acts 15:1 weren’t saying that obeying the mitzvot and making the various sacrifices at the Temple would save the Gentile. They were saying that the Gentiles needed to be in a covenant relationship with God in order to be saved.
Especially for non-Jesus-believing Jews, the New Covenant times weren’t even on the horizon. How could they be? From their perspective, Messiah had not yet come. Thus, the Gentiles had no standing before God unless they became proselytes and entered into the Sinai covenant with God as converts to Judaism. Being a God-fearing Gentile might have been a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t a covenant relationship.
But Paul and many of the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) knew that the New Covenant had been inaugurated with the death and resurrection of the Master, so through faith in Messiah, the Gentiles could be grafted in and benefit from the blessings of that covenant, which had begun to enter the world but had not yet completely arrived.
If you miss the distinction, that it’s being in a covenant relationship with God through faith that saves rather than just the literal behaviors of the conditions of a covenant, you completely misunderstand the Jews advocating for Gentile conversion.
These “Judaizers” or “Influencers” weren’t bad, awful, evil people. They may have had genuine concern for the Gentiles who had attached themselves to the Jewish religious movement of “the Way”. These Jews, some of whom could have been Jesus-believers with an incomplete understanding of the New Covenant blessings upon the Gentiles, may have been authentically puzzled why Paul was treating the Gentiles as if they were equal co-participants, both socially and in covenant, in Jewish religious life. They may have felt that the Gentiles couldn’t participate in covenant blessings without conversion, because they didn’t see any other way to reconcile the Gentiles to God.
Paul understood, but his viewpoint wasn’t always terribly popular with Jewish populations who didn’t apprehend his vision (figuratively and literally).
Once you figure it out, you realize the issue was never that the mitzvot saved, it was Covenant relationship. It always has been and it’s still the issue we struggle to comprehend today. Jews are the focus of almost all of the covenants we see in the Bible including the Sinai and New Covenants. Gentiles are included under a single provision of the Abrahamic covenant and by faith in Jesus, in the blessings of the New Covenant.
And that’s what I got out of last Sunday’s sermon, not that Pastor explained it that way, but by his preaching, I finally made the connection.
Things didn’t go so well in Sunday school. I was determined to make only one statement in class. I could have talked all day long about the Christian traditions that were being imposed on the text resulting in quite a few (in my opinion) erroneous assumptions being made by most of my classmates. One fellow pointblank told me Paul did sin because when Jesus was crucified, the sacrifices ended. I disagreed of course, and gave him a mini-explanation of what the Epistle to the Hebrews was really about, but I knew it was for nothing.
My Sunday school teacher heavily favors the sermons of John MacArthur and it is MacArthur’s opinion that the practice of Judaism by Jesus-believing Jews as we see it in the Book of Acts, was a transitional period between Jewish practice being within the will of God, and it being replaced by the grace of Jesus Christ, effectively extinguishing the “ceremonial laws” in the Torah.
Teacher said it was MacArthur’s opinion that God was being patient and tolerant of the Jesus-believing Jews, including Paul, who continued in devotion to Hashem by davening at the set times of prayer, offering sacrifices in accordance to the commandments, observing Shabbos, keeping kosher, and all of the other portions of the Law that had been “nailed to the cross with Jesus.”
But there’s an apparent contradiction. In Acts, Luke depicts Paul as very pro-Torah, pro-Temple, pro-Jewish people, and pro-Judaism. However, a number of Paul’s letters, principally Galatians, seem to cast Paul in the role of being anti-Torah. That was the foundation for my comment in class when the issue of Romans 14 and the identity of the “weak” and “strong” (basing my opinion on Nanos in The Mystery of Romans) came up.
It was like I was talking in a language no one in the room understood. I saw quite a few blank stares, like no one could figure out what the heck I was talking about. One fellow, who is quite intelligent and well-read (and who holds a highly traditional Evangelical Christian view on the Bible) referenced Romans 14:5-6 to explain that it was (at that time) OK to either observe the Law or not observe the Law as long as it was for the sake of the Lord.
In other words, no one even understood my question and so they had no idea they had completely missed my point.
I let it go rather than continue to be a source of confusion and aggravation and after all, teacher said this was a lesson about unity.
Unity. That totally baffled me until I realized he meant Paul agreed to undergo the Temple ritual and humble himself to James and the Elders in Jerusalem as kind of “going along to get along.” They saw Paul as compromising in order to keep the peace, rather than standing his ground about the lack of validity in Jewish tradition, custom, and observance.
There was no way anyone in the classroom could have possibly imagined that Paul might have wanted to offer sacrifices and looked forward to participating in the Temple ritual, especially during the Holy Festival of Shavuot (although they all acknowledged why Paul should have totally been jazzed about Pentecost…the Acts 2 Pentecost, not the Greek word for the Jewish moed).
I spent the rest of the class time in a forced silence, so I was in a “terrific” mood when I left church and made the ten or fifteen minute drive back home.
When I walked in the kitchen trolling for lunch, my wife made the mistake of asking me how church went, and I made the mistake of telling her.
Then she reminded me of her role according to God:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.”
–Beresheet (Genesis) 2:18
The translation I found at Chabad.org is a bit different than you’ll find in most Christian Bibles, and as I understand it, implies that God created woman to oppose her husband under certain circumstances.
Women can often cut through the fog that surrounds a man’s mind and get to the core of a matter, whether we like it or not.
My wife told me I was being arrogant if I thought I was going to change anyone’s mind, especially if that was any part of the reason I was going to church.
I got mad at first, but spending some time in the backyard pulling weeds gave me time to think.
I have been arrogant. I’ve walked into someone else’s religious and social space with the assumption that I had anything to offer them; that I had anything they wanted at all.
As it turns out, I have nothing to offer and certainly nothing anyone at church wants to hear or learn. I may think what I’m learning and how I understand the Bible is worthwhile and illuminating, but obviously I’m in a world of people who don’t see things like I do.
I kind of thought that was the point, but I’m realizing I’ve been wrong. I have no right to impose my point of view or to disagree with the people who are running the show at church. It’s their church. I’m just a glorified guest. I’m not a member and I couldn’t become a member with my current perspectives and attitudes.
My Sunday school teacher’s emphasis on unity is really the Church’s (big “C”) attitude about community. People must agree with each other for the sake of peace and unity because Christians believe certain things.
Whenever I make some sort of theological statement that conflicts with how my wife sees her convictions, she tells me “what Jews believe,” which largely comes from the local Chabad Rabbi. He tells her what Jews believe and helps orient her to a Jewish religious perspective (not that she in any way is Orthodox). So I should have realized there are certain things Christians believe too, and making some sort of theological statement that conflicts with how people in Sunday school see their convictions elicits the same response from them as I get from my spouse.
I have been arrogant, and naive, and just plain stupid.
I feel like an idiot and I feel ashamed.
I also have to question why I’m going to church, any church. In his book Tent of David, Boaz Michael emphasized that the “Messianic Gentile” must have the right attitude, one of humility and fellowship, when returning to (or staying in) church and being a sort of “light to the nations…uh, Christians.”
But there’s a light you shine to help people see the path, and then there’s the really bright, annoying light you shine in people’s faces until they yell at you to turn the darn thing off.
If the “Tent of David” were inflatable, then I’d be guilty of letting at least some of the air out. I certainly feel deflated.
The Internet went out at my home on Sunday afternoon (long story) so I wasn’t able to write this blog post when my emotions were running high. That’s a good thing. I’ve had a day or so to mull things over and to cool off.
I know I disagree with most (or all) of the people at church about many things, and I have good reasons (whether anyone agrees with those reasons or not) why I believe what I do, but the people around me every Sunday morning are under no obligation whatsoever to care what I think and feel, particularly when it flies in the face of their Biblical and world view.
So I’ve got one of three options as I see it: Do what I’m doing now and continue to be an irritant not to mention desecrating the name of God, continue to go to church while keeping my big mouth shut and not participating in discussions, or leaving church and let bygones be bygones.
Frankly, in the eighteen months or so I’ve been going, I may have contributed a few positive things in church, but for the most part, no one knows what to do with me, or if they’ve made up their minds (and some have), they know they want nothing to do with me.
I’ve ruined more relationships, both face-to-face and online, by spewing my opinions and putting people off.
I’ve been letting the air out of David’s Tent or maybe I’ve been taking tools of mass destruction to it. I was supposed to be inflating it, constructing it, building it up, but now the thing is beginning to collapse around my ears. Maybe it should collapse around my mouth.
No, it’s not my mouth, it’s my attitude. I just got so caught up in what I know, that I forgot about what’s most important.
Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure.
-Pirkei Avot 5:20
"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