Apr 16, 2008

Stealth Christianity

By David Brickner

Quite a bit of controversy has been stirred over the recent publication in the "New York Times" of The Gospel and the Jewish People: An Evangelical Statement sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance. The statement, signed by prominent evangelical leaders, is an irenic open letter denouncing anti-Semitism while supporting direct Jewish evangelism and the rights of Jews who believe in Jesus to identify as Jews.

As you might expect, several Jewish leaders have publicly opposed the statement. The Anti-Defamation League responded to the statement with a
press release in which Abraham Foxman shrilly denounced the statement as "offensive and insulting" while Shmuley Boteach wrote in the Jerusalem Post that "The Jewish community must respectfully but forcefully respond to our Christian brothers and sisters as to why proselytizing Jews is a bad idea." He even went so far as to say that Jesus would want the evangelization of Jews to cease.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency initially filed an even-handed report on the statement, but later issued a critical op-ed piece by Ethan Felson. Felson pointed out what he sees as "a great irony of the modern Jewish-Christian encounter." He noted that while what he termed "mainline protestant neighbors" are "often friends of our faith identity" (meaning they do not actively tell Jews that they need Jesus), they are also often hostile toward the state of Israel. On the other hand, what he termed "our evangelical Protestant neighbors" remain Israel's best friends but they also want to convert Jews to Christianity. This "irony" poses a dilemma for the Jewish community as they try to understand which Christians, if any, are their real friends: those who don't try to convert them but often side against Israel, or those who love Israel but keep trying to tell them they need Jesus.

Some evangelical Christians have offered a third kind of friendship that removes this perceived "dilemma" by supporting Israel while remaining quiet about the need for Jewish people to know Jesus. In so doing, they have allowed friendship to trump evangelism and dialogue to replace proclamation. I have written about this problem before, but was recently stunned to learn from the World Evangelism Alliance how intense and far reaching it is. Some Christian leaders actually mounted a campaign attempting to squelch the publication of the WEA statement, while many simply refused to sign. I've seen some of their responses, and while it would not be proper to publicly identify individuals, I think it is important for you to hear some of the reasons some well-known evangelical Christian leaders gave for not signing. Here are three representative replies:

"While I am in agreement with the content of the statement, I personally will not be able to sign this. I am intensely involved in building relationships with the Jewish community."

"I believe that the work that we have done . . . to build bridges with Israel and the Jewish people might be misunderstood if I signed . . ."

"It is easy to post this message in the New York Times. It is hard to do what I and hundreds of others do, which is the hard work of developing trusting relationships with Jewish people . . ."

How can these well-known Christian leaders have their priorities so askew? Can't they understand that they are sublimating their obedience to the Great Commission for the sake of their so-called friendships? What kind of friendships can flourish in this kind of compromise? What kind of trust is built when people are not open concerning their real convictions, and where are these bridges supposed to lead?

Let me be clear, I do not believe that these leaders have changed their beliefs or their desire to see Jewish people saved. But in building and maintaining the friendships that keep them from openly stating their desire for Jewish people to know Jesus, they are deceived. Maybe they are under the illusion that if they wait, their Jewish friends will move the conversation to a redemptive end. Sadly, that is not likely to happen. To believe that it will is about as sensible as thinking that if you never tell an anorexic why they need food, they will one day ask for a bite of your steak. Or maybe these Christians sincerely think the mere fact that Jewish people know they believe in Jesus suffices for a cogent witness. Following that logic, none of us need share the gospel with anyone unless or until they invite us to. We could simply alert those we meet to the fact that we are followers of Jesus and then secretly hope and pray for our friends to realize they need Jesus too. We would not have to risk the relationship over the uncomfortable truths that we've all sinned and we all need a Savior. But secrecy and silence is clearly contrary to Scripture, which tells us to "preach the Gospel" (Mark 16:15).

Individuals who are less than open about their desire for Jews to know Jesus are practicing a form of stealth Christianity, somehow believing that their private hopes will accomplish the purpose to which Jesus commanded public proclamation. This is not only counter to numerous biblical mandates, but frankly, it is not honest. If I know that something about me might prevent someone from wanting to be my friend, I am obligated to disclose that fact so they can make an informed choice about whether or not to associate with me.

Ironically, while some Christians maintain their friendships with Jewish community leaders by "laying low" concerning facts that might cost them those friendships, they are naïvely unaware that their Jewish friends are doing something very similar.

Jewish leaders wish for Christians to become "enlightened" enough to abandon their efforts to persuade Jews to believe in Jesus. In fact, some friendships are proffered to accomplish that very end. While some Christians may think their silence will eventually make possible their goal of sharing Christ, they don't realize that, for their Jewish friends, that silence is the goal.

Jewish leaders are happy enough for Christians to preach the gospel to non-Jews. But there is a definite effort on the part of many rabbis to help Christians understand why they either should not, or need not, preach the gospel to Jews. And apparently those efforts have seen some success. Some Christian leaders have been so intoxicated by the acceptance and affirmation of Jewish leaders that they have become pupils regarding the gospel, instead of teachers. Odd as it sounds, some Christians become willing to learn about how to do their Christian duty . . . from non-Christians. Whereas any rabbi would be highly offended if a Christian were to tell him how to be a good Jew, some Christians apparently think the wisdom of the rabbis extends far enough to teach them how to be good Christians!

For example, some very knowledgeable, personable Jewish leaders have argued that, since Christians believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit that brings someone to Christ, it would be good and right for them to trust the Holy Spirit to do His work and not seek to evangelize Jewish people at all. Unbelievably, the WEA heard this argument or variations on it from some of the Christian leaders who refused to sign the statement. This is wrong on so many levels—not merely because it distorts New Testament teaching by isolating some passages and ignoring others—but it is wrong because Christians who believe in and have experienced the convicting work of the Holy Spirit ought not allow their understanding of how He works to be reshaped by those who don't believe and have not experienced it.

Finally, I want to address an argument that came from another well-known leader who decided not to sign the WEA statement because he did not want to jeopardize established friendships. He said: "I see no reason for an announcement being made which contains all the features this one does. Evangelicals already know where we stand and non-evangelicals don't care."

He is absolutely wrong. That leader might know where he stands but many Christians who consider themselves evangelical are confused. I know they are confused because I've met them. I speak in churches across the US and around the world, and almost without exception some good, evangelical Christians approach me from the pews with questions and uncertainty. They ask if Jews really need Jesus to be saved, whether they should talk to their Jewish friends about Jesus, or if the best way for them to bless the Jewish people is to give money to support Jewish organizations (that do not believe the gospel).

Whoever says "evangelicals already know where we stand" has underestimated how easy it is for that knowledge and that stance to erode. When leading evangelical Christians publicly endorse and raise funds for Jewish organizations, but refuse to balance those endorsements by openly acknowledging that those whom they endorse still need Christ, they contribute to that erosion. That is why it is so important for highly placed Christians keep that stance a matter of public record. That is why it is not only Jewish people, but also other evangelical Christians who need to hear a forthright articulation like this WEA statement, and who would benefit by it being widely disseminated and thoroughly discussed. I thank God for the many Christian leaders who did sign the statement. I thank God for the courage of the World Evangelical Alliance.