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Surprising insights from the uncircumcised
May 04, 2004
By Russell D. Moore, Dean, School of Theology, Southern Seminary
For years Baptist moderates have told us that their authority is not the Bible, but Jesus. Now Jesus isn’t authoritative either -- at least not as an example for evangelism. The problem is He’s just too Jewish.
At issue is a new initiative by liberal Baptist churches and institutions critiquing attempts to evangelize Jews, modeling instead churches that have joint worship services and dialogue conversations with Jewish synagogues. My criticism of the initiative (as seen in the last issue of Towers) brought catcalls of outrage from the Baptist Center for Ethics (BCE) and other sponsoring groups. Much of the reaction was typical moderate Baptist boilerplate -- fundamentalists “fear” what they can’t “control,” and so forth.
But more remarkable was a leading Baptist pastor’s theological defense of dialogue over evangelism. George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, took issue with my argument that Jesus and the apostles were direct and confrontational in calling Jews and Gentiles to faith in Christ. This is a faulty way of looking at our responsibility, Mason charged, since Jesus, Peter and Paul were “Jews speaking to Jews.”
“The tone and temper of family arguments are often louder and greater than conflicts between strangers,” Mason told BCE’s “Ethics Daily” report.
This is astounding, and reveals problems far deeper than relationships between Baptists and Jews. Instead, what is at the root of this argument is a profound revision of the Great Commission and of the New Testament doctrines of Christ and the church.
What Mason fails to see is that New Testament evangelism is not just personal testimonies of experiences with God. Instead, Jesus grants His own authority to His disciples to carry the Gospel to the nations (Matt 28:18-20).
This is where Paul grounds his authority for Gospel preaching, not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles in Rome and beyond. The God of Israel has pronounced Jesus the royal son of David by raising Him from the power of death. Therefore, the apostle calls “all nations” to the obedience of faith (Rom 1:1-6).
When I share the Gospel with a Jewish neighbor, I am not speaking as a Gentile. I am speaking instead as an ambassador of the King of Israel (2 Cor 5:20-21).
If evangelizing outside one’s tribal categories is an affront to civility, the apostles were less than civil. The apostle Paul, for example, was not only direct and confrontational with his fellow Jews, but with Stoics in Athens, silversmiths in Ephesus and hedonists in Corinth. Jesus might have been “loud” in His arguments with His fellow Jews (John 8:39-59). But He was just as “loud” and confrontational with Samaritans (John 4:7-26) and Gentiles (Mark 7:24-30).
Is it considered rude for a Gentile to witness to Jews of the necessity of believing in Jesus? Well, yes. The apostle Paul notes that one of the purposes of God is to prompt Israel to “jealousy” through the inclusion of those were once “not a people” into the people of God (Rom 11:11-15). This is where Baptist liberalism forgets just how Jewish Christianity actually is.
Gentile Christians are not of “another religion” than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, the uncircumcised pagans of the first century who confessed Jesus as Lord were now “in Christ,” and heirs of the promise (Gal 3). They have been “brought near” to the commonwealth of Israel, sharing in the inheritance of her King (Eph 2).
This means that Christians aren’t “dialoging” with the co-religionists of Abraham. Instead, we are pleading with our Jewish friends and neighbors to believe what Abraham himself believed -- that Jesus is Lord (John 8:56). We are pointing them to the location of the final Temple, the crucified body of a resurrected Rabbi. We are introducing them to the final Priest, who stands in the holy place with His own blood before the tribunal of God. We are not saying that Jesus is the “final step” of Jewish identity. We are saying that without Jesus there is no Jewish identity. That’s why Jesus was so quick to point the Samaritan woman away from irrelevant debates about the location of the Temple to Himself -- the only Mediator between God and all nations, Jew and Gentile. That’s why the apostles never established “dialogue symposiums,” but preached a clear Gospel proclamation to both circumcised Jews and uncircumcised pagans.
Are Jewish/Baptist joint services the wave of the future? Can we reach our Jewish friends and neighbors by pretending to worship without a Mediator? If so, cover the crosses and censor the hymnbooks. Just don’t forget to take off your “WWJD” bracelet while you’re at it. It might ruin the dialogue.