With the re-emergence of Messianic Judaism as a distinct religious tradition toward the end the twentieth century, there has been much debate about the legitimacy of Messianic Jewish identity within the Church and also within the wider Jewish world.
This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.
With the re-emergence of Messianic Judaism as a distinct religious tradition toward the end the twentieth century, there has been much debate about the legitimacy of Messianic Jewish identity within the Church and also within the wider Jewish world. This debate has partly stemmed from the increasing affirmation that Jesus and His disciples were first-century Jews who lived out their faith within the bounds of late Second Temple Judaism. But after gaining this perspective, is it no longer right to say that Jesus and His disciples were “Christians?” Is it better now to refer to them as “Messianic Jews?” If the latter is correct, then should Messianic Judaism be seen as the most authentic or original form of Christian faith? In order to address these issues, it is essential to look at the modern movement of Messianic Judaism and explain its relationship to both Judaism and Christianity as religious traditions. The following paper will survey the major distinctives of the Messianic Jewish movement and contend that the Church should give space for Jewish believers in Jesus to fully express their distinct identities as led by the Holy Spirit.
What is Messianic Judaism?
The famous dictum, “Words create worlds,” is certainly true for those who believe that “by the Word of the Lord the heavens were created” (Psalm 33:6). Human language is teeming with power and meaning. The words we use (on an individual and communal level) shape the content, tone, and meaning of whatever given message we intend to express. There is a reason why we at GCFI intentionally avoid using the titles “Jewish Christians,” “Hebrew Christians,” or “Israelites” when speaking about Jewish followers of Jesus. Each of these terms has its own connotations and history. Likewise, when we speak about “Messianic Judaism” we are referring to something specific and not just using it generally to refer to any form of Christian faith in Jewish attire.
It is not uncommon to hear Jewish believers in Jesus described as “Jewish Christians,” but this terminology actually undermines what some Messianic Jews believe about their own identities. In the designation “Jewish Christian,” the noun is “Christian,” and the adjective is “Jewish.” Thus, a subtle point is made when we call a Jewish believer a “Jewish Christian:” their Christian identity becomes primary while their Jewish identity becomes secondary. You can read more about why this is problematic in our paper on Jewish identity.
Moreover, the words “Messianic Judaism” have a different meaning than the words “Jewish Christianity.” In the case of the former, the genus is “Judaism” rather than “Christianity,” and the species is “Messianic” (Kinzer 2000: 4-5). When the word “Judaism” is made the genus, it communicates that all adherents of Messianic Judaism understand their identity primarily in relation toJudaism rather than Christianity. Mark Kinzer, one of the foremost Messianic Jewish scholars, has even signaled the difference between saying “Messianic movement” and “Messianic Judaism,” since, “The former term can easily denote a Torah-revival among Gentile Christians. The latter term cannot. A Messianic Judaism without Jews is no Judaism at all” (Kinzer 2000: 5). Simply put, utilizing the word “Judaism” emphasizes that Messianic Judaism is a Jewish movement, not a Gentile one.
But not all who identify as Messianic Jews would agree with Kinzer. For example, the Third Annual Borough Park Symposium was convened in 2012 under the rubric of, “How Jewish Should the Messianic Jewish Community Be?” At the symposium, various views were represented, including a paper given by Baruch Maoz in which he explains his preference for the term “Jewish Christian” (contrary to Kinzer) because there can only be one ecclesia made up of those who identify as Christians first and foremost. This kind of diversity of thought continues to exist in a major way throughout the global Messianic movement. We at GCFI often prefer to use the term “Jewish believer in Jesus,” because: (1) it stresses the importance of Jewish belief in Jesus, (2) it can be used accurately to speak of Jewish believers in both antiquity and modernity, and (3) it is also sensitive to Jewish believers who prefer not to use the term “Messianic Jew.”
Nevertheless, the underlying concerns of both Kinzer and Maoz are valid. On the one hand, there is a danger of Messianic Jewish assimilation and the complete loss of Jewish identity and particularity. But on the other hand, there is a danger of Messianic Jewish separatism and the re-erection of the “dividing wall” (Eph 2:14). As will become clear in this paper, at the center of the Messianic debate in terminology is ecclesiology. What is “the Church?” Does it consist only of “Christians?” Or does the Church consist of Jew and Gentile bonded together in the unity of the Spirit? If Jewish believers are to remain distinct within the Church, then how should Jewish identity be ecclesiologically defined? Should Jewish believers be encouraged to establish their own congregations, separate from Gentile believers? How can Messianic Jews participate in the life of the Church and the life of the wider Jewish community simultaneously? These are certainly difficult questions to answer. At Gateway Church, we are on the journey of attempting to balance this unique complexity, with the constant guiding of the Holy Spirit.
A preliminary issue that is latent in the term “Messianic Judaism” is the question of whether or not Jewish believers in Jesus should consider their primary religious affiliation to be under the umbrella of “Judaism” or “Christianity.” It is not simply an issue of labels but is rather one of practical import. For example, should a Jewish believer worship and pray using Christian traditions and liturgies or Jewish traditions and liturgies? Should they celebrate Hannukah, or Christmas—or both? If the Talmud has played such a significant role throughout the history of Judaism, how much of a role should it have in the life of a Messianic Jew? For those who identify primarily with Christianity, Rabbinic tradition is either supplementary, or irrelevant, or even harmful. But for those who seek to identify primarily with Judaism (as defined by the contemporary Jewish community), Rabbinic tradition has a much more significant role to play.
How this issue leads to ecclesiology can be illustrated by the following question: When a Jewish person who has no exposure to the traditions of Christianity or Judaism first hears the gospel and commits to following Jesus, what should they be instructed to do next? Should they join a local synagogue? Should they join a church? Or should they instead be encouraged to find a Messianic congregation to join? It seems likely that the answer has more to do with an individual believer’s calling than anything else (You can read more in our paper on Jewish Identity), but while we at GCFI encourage Jewish believers to join Messianic congregations, the fact that this even is an option is key for the Messianic movement as a whole.
According to the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), Messianic Judaism is itself a congregational movement. The first half of the UMJC’s most recent statement on Messianic Judaism articulates this precisely:
“The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) envisions Messianic Judaism as a movement of Jewish congregations and groups committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.”
“Messianic Judaism is a Biblically based movement of people who, as committed Jews, believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah of Israel of whom the Jewish Law and Prophets spoke.”
Notably, the MJAA uses the word “movement” but stresses that it is “Biblically based” and omits UMJC’s reference to “congregations and groups.” The MJAA definition is thus slightly broader and sensitive to those who identify as Messianic Jews but choose to remain members of churches instead of Messianic congregations.
The congregational subsidiary of MJAA, the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), says the following in their statement on Messianic Judaism:
“We believe that true ‘Biblical Judaism,’ the faith of first century believers, which we seek to practice, acknowledges the continuity of faith in the one true God, revealed throughout the Scriptures, and ultimately manifested in God’s Son, Yeshua the Messiah.”
The IAMCS’s naming of the Judaism of the early followers of Jesus as “Biblical Judaism” is distinct from the UMJC, helping to reveal how both groups relate to Jewish tradition in different ways.
To return to the question posed above about how to instruct a new Jewish believer, Kinzer gives the following guidance:
“If the covenant with Israel remains in effect, if Jewish practice rooted in the Torah constitutes the proper means of expressing that covenant, and if Jewish religious tradition determines the overall shape of that Jewish practice, then the Gentile ekklesia should urge Jews in its midst to fulfill their covenantal responsibilities and live as observant Jews…To return to the assumptions prevailing at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, the churches must go further and assert that Jewish Yeshua-believers are not only free to live as Jews, but obligated to do so…If there is a healthy Messianic Jewish congregation in the vicinity, the church should recommend that Jews in their midst become involved with the congregation” (Kinzer 2005: 308-309).
Kinzer goes on to argue that if there is not a healthy Messianic Jewish congregation nearby, the Jewish believer “will likely conclude that they are unable to practice their Judaism” (309). He remarks that this is the sad reality for many, but he nevertheless urges:
“Churches should not treat such cases as normal, even if they are common, and they should not deny the objective existence of an obligation, even if circumstances in given cases make it inadvisable to fulfill that obligation” (309).
The words, “objective existence of an obligation,” have certainly been seen as provocative or controversial by some other Messianic Jewish leaders. Not all agree that Jewish believers are obligated to practice Judaism—primarily because there is no general consensus on what it even means to “practice Judaism.”
Both the UMJC and the MJAA define Messianic Judaism as a Jewish movement, but it has long been the case that a considerable majority of those involved in Messianic congregations and organizations are Gentile believers—not Jewish—which is a major reason why Kinzer has emphasized the necessity of Jewish participation in the Messianic movement. As we have already quoted above: “A Messianic Judaism without Jews is no Judaism at all.” Along these lines, if Messianic Judaism endeavors to maintain its unique status as a Jewish movement, it only seems logical that the majority of its members be Jewish. The God-ordained distinction between Jew and Gentile begins to fade when Gentiles become a majority in Messianic Jewish congregations.
Moreover, as Kinzer has noted, excessive Gentile involvement in Messianic congregations often devolves into unhealthy expressions of Gentile Torah observance and One Law teaching. You can learn more about this subject in our paper on Unhealthy Theologies of Israel. There are any number of reasons why a Gentile Christian would desire to attend a Messianic congregation and embrace Jewish identity or Jewish tradition. Some believe that Messianic Judaism is somehow a more authentic, unadulterated form of the Christian faith. After all, if Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and His earliest followers could rightly be called “Messianic Jews,” then shouldn’t we all aim to become Messianic Jews? Herein lies a common confusion.
The question of origins is important for all religious traditions. In one sense, Messianic Judaism originates with Jesus and His Jewish followers. But in another sense, it emerges in its current nomenclature only toward the end of the twentieth century (although precursors appear in the eighteenth century). David Rudolph, a leading Messianic Jewish scholar and Director of the Messianic Jewish Studies program at The King’s University, defines Messianic Judaism as: “A religious tradition in which Jews have claimed to follow Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah of Israel while continuing to live within the orbit of Judaism” (Rudolph 2013: 21). According to Rudolph, the earliest followers of Jesus can rightly be called “Messianic Jews” because they were Jews living within the orbit of first-century Judaism who believed that Israel’s promised Messiah had come. In the same way, the term is also applicable for twenty-first century Messianic Jews who live out their devotion to Messiah “within the orbit of Judaism,” albeit within a Judaism that has now undergone two-thousand years of development.
But more to the point, is it right to say that the earliest followers of Jesus were Messianic Jews? If it is meant in the sense that they lived a Jewish life and were thoroughly located “within the orbit of Judaism” as adherents of a first-century Messianic movement, then there is truth in that claim. However, if we ask whether their Judaism could be accurately described as “Messianic Judaism,” we are asking an entirely different question. Further still, if we conclude that their Judaism is what is most important and is what should be prescriptive for all believers, then we quickly find ourselves on a slippery slope. It is this very issue that remains so divisive in the Messianic Jewish movement today.
The notion of first-century Judaism being prescriptive for “all” believers (whether Jew or Gentile) can more easily be challenged by appeal to Scripture; namely, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, which decreed that Gentile believers do not need to become Jewish or practice the same Judaism handed down to the apostles. You can learn more about this topic in our paper on Unhealthy Theologies of Israel. However, whether or not Jewish believers should define Jewish identity primarily according to what the New Testament says (i.e., the “Judaism” handed down to the apostles) is far more difficult to answer. What about the last two thousand years of Jewish history and theological development? While some might object, Kinzer has made his vision of Messianic Judaism clear:
“We are claiming a meaningful relationship to the entirety of the Jewish tradition, not just to a Jewish world which passed away with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and which is now accessible only through the speculative reconstruction of scholars” (Kinzer 2000: 4).
Something similar could also be said of Christianity: the Christian faith is an integration of all of Church history up to the present—not just the New Testament era, which is too often subject to scholarly reconstructions! Therefore, we must be conscious of the complex issues at play, differentiating between first-century and twenty-first century Messianic Jewish identity.
Yet, regardless of how one might be inclined to define Messianic Judaism, it is vital for the Church to see that these decisions are ones that remain internal to the Jewish community itself. In other words, Gentile Christians have no place in attempting to define Jewish halakha (laws of Jewish life) or what it means to be authentically Jewish. The role of the Church is to support Messianic Jews in discovering this on their own, through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Scriptures, and synergistically through their conversation with the wider Jewish world and the historical and theological developments of both Judaism and Christianity over the past two millennia.
In summary, when we ask, “What is Messianic Judaism?” the answer is still somewhat dynamic in nature. Mark Kinzer has rightly pointed out that defining one’s own religious tradition is not just a “descriptive” exercise, but it is also a “prescriptive” one:
“When we ask, ‘What is Messianic Judaism?’ we mean ‘What should Messianic Judaism be?’ We are asking a theological question—what is our divine purpose and what is the purpose of our relationship to the churches and to the wider Jewish community” (Kinzer 2000: 1).
Similarly, we could also consider how one might go about answering the question, “What is Christianity?” Any attempted answer will ultimately fall short of describing the ecumenical whole. It is therefore important for the Church to grasp the diversity that exists within the Messianic movement and to not make assumptions about those who identify as Messianic Jews without engaging with them as individuals first.
The Spectrum of Messianic Jewish Thought
In the words of Richard Harvey, Messianic Judaism is both “a Jewish form of Christianity and a Christian form of Judaism, challenging the boundaries and beliefs of both” (Harvey 2009: 1). Indeed, many Messianic Jews may find themselves in the challenging position of not being Christian enough for Christianity, while also not being Jewish enough for Judaism. The tension arises in the insistence of some Messianic Jews on being a legitimate expression of both. It would be one thing if Messianic Jewish believers were willing to concede that Jesus was not divine or that the Talmud is ultimately more authoritative than the New Testament. But, in general, that is not the case. There seems to exist fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity. Traditional Judaism could be willing to agree that Jesus was once a great rabbi, but it does not accept the later claim of His disciples that He was divine or that the “one” God is Triune. Likewise, traditional Christianity teaches the importance of the written Word of God, but it does not accept the Jewish Oral Torah as divinely sanctioned or authoritative. These and many other significant differences have led some scholars to argue that Judaism and Christianity are ultimately two separate systems of belief.
However, at the same time, there are other scholars who view these issues of so-called separation merely as puzzles that can be solved—especially in view of the Jewish foundation of Christianity. There has been much work done on showing the possibility of divine plurality in early Judaism through such concepts as Wisdom, Logos, Memra, Metatron, or even the divine personification evidenced in later Kabbalistic texts. And many of these same scholars have long labored to correct Christian reductions of Judaism as “works-righteousness” and the myth of a “Law-free” gospel, urging that there is far more in common between Christianity and Judaism than is commonly recognized. The work of Messianic apologist Michael Brown is constructive in this regard (see his series: Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus).
Yet still, to this day, the wider Jewish community seldom recognizes the legitimacy of Messianic Jewish identity. In fact, Messianic Jews often experience hostility from their Jewish brothers and sisters who don’t believe in Jesus precisely because they are viewed as dangerous to Judaism, assumed to be diluting Jewish identity with faith in Jesus and compromising the boundaries between Jewish identity and Christian identity. Likewise, the Gentile Church often views Messianic Jews with equal suspicion, unclear of whether they are modern-day “Judaizers” teaching justification by works and the adoption of Jewish religious practices. Many wonder: “If you believe in Jesus, why don’t you just call yourself a Christian?” If Messianic Judaism lies somewhere between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity on the other, then it is helpful to consider where exactly it diverges from the two in order to better articulate the distinctives of Messianic Jewish identity.
In the first section of this paper, we roughly sketched how the term “Messianic Judaism” could include a range of those who identify more with Christian traditions on one side to those who identify more with Jewish ones on the other. Those positioned at the latter pole argue that Messianic Judaism should be a congregational movement of predominantly Jewish believers in Jesus who exist as a legitimate expression of contemporary Judaism. In this view, the operative word is “Judaism,” which is why they reject the term “Jewish Christianity.” However, those on the other side who identify more with the Christian world typically have no problem with the identifier “Jewish Christian” precisely because they argue that Christian identity is more fundamental and view many segments of contemporary Judaism as an aberration of the true, biblical faith.
In his 2009 survey of Messianic Jewish theology, Richard Harvey goes even further and identifies a total of eight types of Messianic Judaism. But he similarly argues that they can be plotted on a range from “those closest to the Protestant Evangelicalism from which the Messianic movement has emerged” on one end to “those who locate their core identity within ‘Jewish social space’ and Jewish religious and theological norms” on the other end (267). In other words, the various forms of Messianic Judaism can be understood on a range from those which look more like Christianity on one side to those which look more like Judaism on the other—and this is exactly what we have been arguing above.
Harvey suggests that “Protestant Evangelicalism” is the seedbed from which the modern Messianic Jewish movement first emerged. For this reason, there are streams of the Messianic movement that are thoroughly Evangelical in both practice and belief. In Israel, for example, there are some congregations that do not use Jewish tradition or liturgy in their services at all, but instead use contemporary worship music followed by a sermon, as is typical in the average Evangelical church. One of the reasons for this is that the dominant culture in Israel is Jewish, so Messianic communities there must often differentiate themselves from mainstream Jewish worship and liturgical life in ways that diaspora communities typically do not. Indeed, in the diaspora, it is more common to encounter other streams of the Messianic movement whose primary framework for practice and belief comes from traditional Judaism. The most radical of these groups seek to emulate a type of “Judaism plus Jesus,” where one might attend a regular Orthodox synagogue and look and act just like an Orthodox Jew while also believing in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (analogous to some Lubaviticher Chasidim).
Nevertheless, Harvey notes that both of the above extremes are the minority in the global Messianic movement, suggesting that neither of them is representative of the common distinctives of Messianic Jewish identity. Therefore, it seems that somewhere between the two extremes lies what could be termed “normative” Messianic Jewish behavior and identity—although, we should recognize that the word “normative” is not a value judgement, as if some Messianic believers live more authentically than others. In the end, Messianic Jewish identity is a calling that is individually negotiated. The wider Church should recognize the diversity of belief and practice within Messianic Judaism without making blanket statements like, “This is what all Messianic Jews believe.” The boundaries of the spectrum we have outlined above, however, should help pastors and leaders in the Church to better identify the various strands of Messianic Jewish thought they may encounter.
The Distinctives of Messianic Jewish Identity
Both the MJAA and the UMJC believe that the One God of Israel has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinitarian belief is viewed by many in the Christian world as non-negotiable, and this has certainly carried over into mainstream Messianic Judaism. As already stated above, Messianic Judaism is doctrinally aligned with Protestant Evangelicalism in many respects, but the further one progresses along the spectrum toward “Jewish religious and theological norms,” there are noticeable differences that begin to emerge.
One of the centermost claims at the heart of the Messianic movement is that Jewish identity matters. If “Christian” identity was all that mattered, there would be no need for a separate movement. Messianic Jewish congregations came into existence partly as a result of the difficulty of maintaining Jewish identity within the typical Christian church. But the controversial question has always been: what does it mean for a Jewish believer in Jesus to “maintain” Jewish identity? Although there is no unanimous agreement within the Messianic movement, there are still some key identity markers that remain standard by virtue of either their biblical origins or their common acceptance within the wider Jewish world.
First, just as some Christians choose to publicly identify themselves by wearing a cross necklace or fish emblem, there are many outward signs that the Jewish people have used to identify themselves throughout history. The kippah (or yarmulke in Yiddish) is the small round cap worn by many Jewish men and some Jewish women. The tallit (prayer shawl) and tzitzit (fringes) are also customary articles of clothing unique to Judaism. The wearing of tzitzit in particular is commanded in the Torah (Num 15:38; Deut 22:12), and it is likely that Jesus even wore these on His clothing (Matt 9:20). The Star of David is also a symbol used by people who wish to associate themselves with the Jewish people or with the nation of Israel, although it must be noted that it has been co-opted by many different groups throughout history and does not necessarily have the same connotation as the other visual signifiers do.
Apart from physical symbols and articles of clothing, the second way that many Messianic Jews choose to maintain their Jewish identity is by observing certain Jewish customs. Rather than worship on Sunday, Jewish believers in Jesus sometimes choose to worship on Friday night or Saturday (the biblical Sabbath), and rather than keeping Christian holidays (like Easter and Christmas), they sometimes choose to keep the biblical feasts (like Passover and Sukkot). Many Messianic Jews also observe some form of the biblical dietary laws, otherwise known colloquially as “eating Kosher.” It is often believed that the New Testament forbids keeping the dietary laws, but many scholars have recently shown how the issue is much more complex than that. Just as was common practice for first-century Jews, it is most likely that Jesus and His disciples did not partake of any foods that are forbidden in the Torah. Considering this, many Messianic Jewish believers continue to view abstaining from certain foods an important identity marker to maintain. And the same can also be said of circumcision, another major custom that is mentioned frequently in the New Testament and has biblical roots stretching back to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17.
But as one progresses further along the aforementioned spectrum toward “Jewish social space,” it becomes increasingly challenging to maintain Jewish identity in the setting of a typical local church. For example, in the case of someone who decides to worship on Friday night or Saturday instead of Sunday, there are a limited number of churches that offer services on these days. Or in the case of someone who feels convicted to keep the Jewish feasts or to have a bar/bat mitzvah for one of their children, do they do this privately in their own home, or do they seek a setting where they can do this in community with others? As we have already quoted above, this is one reason why Mark Kinzer concludes that many Jewish believers in Jesus may find they are “unable to practice their Judaism” within the setting of a typical church.
Messianic Jewish congregations have therefore emerged as a viable alternative for Jewish believers in Jesus who seek to live out their faith in community with other likeminded believers. Yet, while it may simply be a preference for some, the existence of separate Messianic Jewish congregations is deemed by others to be vital for the witness of the Church. Kinzer argues in support of what he terms “bilateral ecclesiology,” the existence of two branches of the one Church. An early mosaic above the entryway of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest preserved churches in Europe (c. 425 CE), depicts this vision clearly with two women standing opposite one another, the first labeled “Ecclesia ex circumcisione” (church of the circumcision), and the second labeled “Ecclesia ex gentibus” (church of the Gentiles). The two are distinct from one another and yet both constitute the one Body of Messiah.
Kinzer laments the common Christian perception that Messianic Jewish congregations are merely “indigenous expressions” of the gospel, similar to how church plants in various nations or settings tend to reflect the different customs of the cultures in which they are planted (and sometimes intentionally for missiological reasons). Rather, Kinzer argues, the Jewish people are not like any other nation; they are a holy nation with whom God has made an “irrevocable” covenant (Rom 11:29), and this matters for how we ought to understand the being, or ontology, of the Church. Like we have discussed in our paper on the Church and Jewish Identity, the Church can only be the Church when it consists of both Jew and Gentile united together as “one new man” (Eph 2:14). Or as Markus Barth wrote in his commentary on Ephesians, it is not “one new man out of two,” but rather, “one new man consisting of two.” The very nature of the Church’s being, its “ontology,” is that it consists of two groups: Jew and Gentile; Israel and the Nations. The Church must have a Jewish constituency or else it is not fully itself. Indeed, the reconciliation between Israel and the Nations in Messiah is part and parcel of the gospel itself.
It is this very task that many Messianic Jews see themselves as fulfilling. In his book, The Nature of Messianic Judaism, Kinzer quotes the German theologian, Peter von der Osten-Sacken: “Messianic Judaism is the ‘ecclesiological bridge joining Israel and the Gentiles’” (Kinzer 2000: 31). Indeed, that bridge is vital if the Church is to seriously reject the claim that it has replaced or fulfilled Israel. And this leads Kinzer to boldly declare, “Without Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism, the ekklesia is not truly and fully itself” (34). No longer is it enough for Jews to exist as undifferentiated “Christians” within the Church. If Jewish believers in Jesus are the “bridge” between Israel and the Church, they must remain distinctly Jewish—which is one reason why Kinzer aims for Messianic Jewish believers to become more integrated within the wider Jewish community.
Thus, according to the approach of bilateral ecclesiology, Messianic Jewish congregations are more than Christian churches that worship in a “Jewish style.” Rather, they represent a fundamental reality of the Church that cannot be likened to that of any other cultural or “indigenous expression” of the gospel. Kinzer’s on-the-ground application of bilateral ecclesiology (with its delineation of a separate “Jewish ekklesia”) is not accepted wholesale within the Messianic movement, for there are some who feel that he goes too far in his association with Judaism. Nevertheless, the theological insight that underpins his vision demands to be seriously engaged.
We have outlined various approaches to Messianic Judaism above and have attempted to give a balanced look at the movement as a whole, focusing particularly on the spectrum that exists from Protestant Evangelicalism on the one end to Orthodox Judaism on the other. Messianic Jewish identity is a complex issue that must be negotiated within the Messianic movement itself and not imposed from the outside by Gentile Christians. But it is first incumbent upon the Church to affirm that it cannot properly be the Church without the presence of Jewish believers in its midst.
In Kinzer’s vision, Messianic Judaism is not merely a grassroots movement that aims to return to the so-called “authentic” Judaism of Jesus; rather, its central aim is to forge a unique integration of Jewish history and culture, Rabbinic tradition, and faith in Jesus that constitutes a legitimate expression of contemporary Judaism—just as it was in the first century. Other Messianic Jewish leaders are not as comfortable with this definition, preferring instead to locate themselves within the context of Christian tradition while still identifying themselves as Messianic Jews. The Church should give space for Jewish believers in Jesus to be led by the Spirit to adopt whatever level of Jewish expression they feel called to. But in the words of Kinzer, “If the ekklesia is truly the earthly body—or part of the earthly body—of a resurrected Jew, it needs finally to come to terms with the people and tradition to which that Jew belongs” (Kinzer 2005: 25). By building relationships with Messianic Jewish believers and affirming the legitimacy of Messianic Jewish identity, the Church can finally begin “to come to terms” with itself and renew its devotion to the God of Israel and His Son, Jesus, the forever Resurrected Jew.
- Post-missionary Messianic Judaism, Mark Kinzer. Brazos Press, 2005.
- The Nature of Messianic Judaism, Mark Kinzer. Hashivenu Archives, 2000.
- Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach, Richard Harvey. Paternoster Press, 2009.
- Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, edited by David J. Rudolph and Joel Willits. Zondervan, 2013.
- See also the website: www.messianicstudies.com
- See also the website: boroughparksymposium.com