Outreach to the Jewish People
This paper will argue that the good news of Jesus is both relevant and essential for the Jewish people, but a thoughtful, sincere approach to Jewish outreach is also needed.
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.
The following discussion continues from our paper on “To the Jew First.” If we accept the premise that the Jewish people have a distinct, irrevocable calling (Rom 11:29), then a host of complex questions arise. How does Israel’s irrevocable calling exist in relation to the atoning work of Jesus? If their calling continues, does that mean the Jewish people attain eternal salvation apart from Jesus or in a special manner different than any other people group? In that case, is outreach to the Jewish people even necessary? This paper will argue that the good news of Jesus is both relevant and essential for the Jewish people, but a thoughtful, sincere approach to Jewish outreach is also needed.
Only recently have Evangelicals enjoyed a status of welcomed friendship with the Jewish community worldwide. Today, many Christians immediately equate pro-Israel or pro-Jewish sentiment with the modern, western Evangelical movement. It would likely come as a surprise to many Evangelicals, however, to learn that dialogue between the Church and the Jewish people has largely found its home within the Roman Catholic Church in the past fifty years. Therefore, before we jump into constructing a framework for outreach to the Jewish people, it is important to review and understand the broader Church’s engagement in Jewish outreach first.
The subtitle above is Latin for “In our time,” and it serves as the name of a document enacted in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. Although the final draft refers to all “non-Christian” faith traditions, its original purpose was to affirm the Church’s positive relationship with the Jewish people by rejecting any vestiges of antisemitism in the Church’s history. In 2015, on the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (CRRJ) released a report that further reflected on the theological ramifications of the Church’s new stance toward the Jewish people. Recognizing the irrevocability of God’s covenant with Israel, the report grapples with the appropriateness of a “mission” to the Jewish people. The following quote comes from the CRRJ report titled, “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable (Rom 11:29):”
It is easy to understand that the so-called “mission to the Jews” is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. This question also proves to be awkward for Christians, because for them the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance. The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [the Holocaust]. (40).
Although the CRRJ clarifies that the document is not doctrinally binding, it was nevertheless commissioned by the Vatican and represents the stance of key leaders in the Catholic Church. The striking phrase, “a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission,” is balanced by the statement, “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews.” Yet, it is interesting that these words are stated without any further explanation. We are left to wonder: what exactly is an “institutional mission” as opposed to a noninstitutional one? And what does it mean for Christians to “bear witness” to Jewish people in a noninstitutional way?
The rejection of an “institutional Jewish mission” is more directly illustrated through a recent article written in German by the former Pope, Benedict XVI, in which he argues: “Nicht Mission, sondern Dialog.” This can be translated as, “Not mission, but rather dialogue” (Herder Korrespondenz 72, 2018). Benedict XVI explains what he means by saying that a “mission” to the Jewish people has never been necessary, because Israel alone, out of all nations, has known the “unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Instead, he argues, there can only be a “dialogue” with the Jewish people—a conversation about our differences.
Theologian Gavin D’Costa similarly recognizes that a tension exists within the Church’s teaching. On the one hand, “There is a mandate to evangelize all peoples, which includes the Jewish people,” but on the other, “The Jewish people are a special group and thus modifications are to be made to the church’s manner of witness to them” (D’Costa 2019: 151). D’Costa goes on to suggest that the first step in resolving this tension should be a change in terminology: instead of “mission,” we should say “witness.” This is because the word “mission” connotes the dispelling of false gods and idols, which is not fitting in the case of Judaism. In response to Benedict XVI’s statement, “Not mission, but rather dialogue,” it might thus be better to say: “Not mission, but rather witness.” The shift in language is subtle, but it reveals a key aspect concerning the “shared foundation” of Judaism and Christianity that we have written about in our paper on The Jewish Foundation of Christianity.
Irrespective of the CRRJ’s stance, it is true that the Church’s relationship to Israel and the Jewish people is qualitatively different than its relationship to any other nation or people group. The “Christ” in the word “Christianity” has everything to do with the Jewish Messiah that the God of Israel promised for Israel through the Word he entrusted to Israel. The Old Testament is inextricably bound to the New Testament, just as the Church is inextricably bound to Israel. Moreover, through the Incarnation, God has determined to forever be identified with a Jewish man; the God whom Christians worship is the God of Israel who is enfleshed within Israel. Therefore, it is right to say that Christians fundamentally have a unique relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. But what should that uniqueness mean practically for the Church’s approach to Jewish outreach?
In our time, is it right to deny the legitimacy of an “institutional Jewish mission?” If the concept is defined as any formal institution or organized body founded for the particular purpose of Jewish evangelism, then this would immediately discredit numerous well-known organizations that focus upon reaching the Jewish people with the good news of Jesus. Therefore, it is no small matter to argue that the existence of these types of ministries is illegitimate. However, if an “institutional Jewish mission” rather refers to a particular approach to missions, then perhaps D’Costa is right to differentiate between the words “mission” and “witness” as two separate approaches to evangelism.
Within the context of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the words “mission” and “missionary” are typically avoided due to their negative connotations for the Jewish community. Historically, for a Jew to become a Christian meant divorcing oneself from the Jewish community and turning one’s back on the culture and religious traditions that are foundational to Jewish identity. However, within the context of the Church, these same words have value and remain meaningful to many Christians. Therefore, we should not be quick to dismiss their usage, knowing that different contexts sometimes require different vocabularies. We make it our aim to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22), and to “no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Rom 14:13). This means that we might very well need to change our terminology and even some of our practices in order to avoid providing any opportunity for offense or misunderstanding.
The Uniqueness of Jewish Outreach
One of the issues the CRRJ articulates is that there is something inappropriate about the Church evangelizing the Jewish people in the same way it does all other people groups. Given the long history of antisemitism in the Church and Scripture’s affirmation of an “irrevocable calling,” there is now a heightened sense that the Jewish people must protect and preserve their identity as a people, which means that their Jewishness must be maintained and not erased. Qualitatively (and not just quantitatively) the Church consists of both Israel and the Nations: “The ecclesia ex circumcisione and the ecclesia ex gentibus, one Church originating from Judaism, the other from the Gentiles, who however together constituted the one and only Church of Jesus Christ” (CRRJ 2015: 15). This claim has vast implications, challenging us to re-evaluate the methods the Church employs for Jewish outreach.[TK1]
For instance, if Israel is to remain a distinct entity within the Church, the word “conversion” is no longer appropriate. A conversion implies the abandonment of one identity for the adoption of another, but if Jewish identity is not to be abandoned, then how should we understand the process of a Jewish person becoming a Christian? You can read our paper on Messianic Judaism for a fuller discussion of this topic. Whichever way we choose to answer, Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree in Romans 11 is a helpful guide: “For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Rom 11:24). The emphatic possessive phrase “their own” is striking. Just as Paul uses the present tense in Rom 9:4-5 to detail all that belongs to Israel, here he says that the olive tree is their own.
In the time that Paul was writing, it was contrary to nature for Gentiles to worship Israel’s God. But throughout the majority of Church history, the opposite has been true: Jewish people have more often considered conversion to Christianity as contrary to nature. And for good reason! If we continue to use the language of “conversion,” we inadvertently communicate that Jewish identity must be abandoned for a superior “Christian” identity. You can click here to read more about why the terminology of a strictly “Christian” identity is ambiguous and misleading when speaking about Jewish believers in Jesus.
The metaphor in Rom 11 of a “natural” branch being able to graft easier into its own olive tree is a key perspective needed for Jewish outreach. When a Jewish person comes to faith in Jesus, Rom 11 implies that it is meant to be a more natural process than when any non-Jewish person comes to faith. This insight further highlights why the word “conversion” is not fitting in the context of Jewish outreach. Is it accurate to argue that Paul “converted” to Christianity on the road to Damascus? Is it right to say that Jesus was the founder of a new religion? Similarly, what should we say of a Jewish person whose life had always been devoted to the God of Israel? After coming to faith in Jesus, has their devotion to the God of Israel really changed? Certainly, something has changed, but what exactly? All of these questions are related and help to show the uniqueness of the Jewish people as covenantal insiders, not outsiders, positioned before the Church in a way that is different than any other people group. Yet, the evocative question that soon emerges is how their “insider” status relates to their salvation.
All questions of evangelism and outreach inevitably lead back to questions of “soteriology,” which is the theological term for issues related to the subject of salvation—how individuals are “saved” and what it means to be “saved” (even using the past tense verb itself reveals a particular approach to soteriology). One issue that frequently surfaces in Jewish-Christian dialogue involves the soteriological implications of the irrevocability (Rom 11:29) of God’s covenant with Israel. If we accept the premise that there is something unique and special about Israel, as mentioned above in our discussion of the “natural” branches, then we are only one step away from concluding that Israel also has a special way of being saved. On this point, the CRRJ’s report firmly rejects a dual-covenant theology while also appealing to the reality of a wider mystery:
There are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ.” Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind …There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles. Here we confront the mystery of God’s work, which is not a matter of missionary efforts to convert Jews, but rather the expectation that the Lord will bring about the hour when we will all be united .
The CRRJ’s penultimate appeal to mystery in the above quote alludes to a future hope for the salvation of “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). This idea is made clear in the previous paragraph of the document, where a reference to Rom 9–11 and a final quote by Bernard of Clairvaux summarizes the “unfathomable divine mystery” that one day the Jewish people will experience salvation:
That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery. It is therefore no accident that Paul’s soteriological reflections in Romans 9-11 on the irrevocable redemption of Israel against the background of the Christ-mystery culminate in a magnificent doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways” (Rom 11:33). Bernard of Clairvaux (De cons. III/I,3) says that for the Jews “a determined point in time has been fixed which cannot be anticipated” .
No doubt, Rom 11:26 remains a crucial subtext for the CRRJ, just as it was for Bernard of Clairvaux. But if God has promised a “determined time” when all Israel will be saved in the future, then is there any point in trying to proclaim the gospel to the Jewish people in our present time? Does Israel alone have a special way of salvation that does not involve the Church’s engagement? If that is the case, then why did Paul go to such lengths to share the Good News with the Jewish people in his time?
A “Special Way” for Israel?
There are two broad theological approaches for those who deny the validity of Jewish outreach. The first is known as dual-covenant theology, which teaches that the Jewish people are saved through Torah and all other people groups are saved through faith in Jesus. According to this view, if the Jewish people have a separate covenant with God, then there is no need to share the gospel with them. We have already discussed some problems with dual-covenant theology in our position paper on Replacement Theology. But a second related theological approach for those who deny the validity of Jewish outreach is sometimes connected to the term “Sonderweg.” The German word Sonderweg can be translated into English as: a “special way.” Many scholars use the word synonymously with the idea of dual-covenant theology, but according to Michael Vanlaningham (2001), it seems rather to have originated with the German scholar Franz Mussner, who rejected dual-covenant theology. Therefore, it is important to draw a distinction between dual-covenant theology and Sonderweg theology.
Mussner originally developed his notion of a special way of salvation in relation to Paul’s statement in Rom 11:25-26, that even though the majority of Israel remains “hardened,” there will nevertheless be a day when “all Israel will be saved.” It logically follows that if Israel remains “hardened” in the present time, then efforts to evangelize Jewish people could be viewed as unnecessary. God has promised Israel’s salvation, so God will surely bring it about in the future. Christians are thus permitted to take a mostly passive stance toward Jewish outreach, because God has planned a “special way” for Israel to be saved: just as the Apostle Paul believed after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, so also the Jewish people will believe when Jesus is revealed at the Second Coming. The biblical scholar Christopher Zoccali has called this the “eschatological miracle” view, and he clarifies that it is not the same as dual-covenant theology, because salvation for the Jewish people is still understood as happening through Jesus (Zoccali 2008).
A significant implication of the Sonderweg interpretation is that the salvation of the majority of Israel is relegated to a future event. This immediately removes any impetus for Jewish outreach in the present—especially if we accept that the majority of the Jewish people are currently “hardened.” If God has sovereignly preordained for the majority of the Jewish people to be hardened until a certain time in the future, then why would we try to preach the gospel to them? Our words will only fall on divinely calloused hearts and deafened ears; there is little reason to try.
But is it actually the case that God has “hardened” the hearts of the Jewish people? Although the verb “harden” (πωρόω) and the noun “hardness” (πώρωσις) occur in the New Testament, these words have been used in antisemitic ways throughout Church history. The usage in the New Testament reflects intra-Jewish debate: Jews critiquing the faith of other Jews. It is comparable to how the biblical prophets sometimes critiqued Israel and Judah using harsh and condemning rhetoric. However, once this same type of speech is put on the lips of Gentile Christians, it becomes wholly inappropriate. It is important to steer clear of the assertion that God has “hardened” any people group, but we should especially avoid this kind of language in reference to the Jewish people.
In general, it is not constructive to argue that God has divinely willed for a particular person to respond negatively to the gospel. It is even worse to suggest that God has willed for an entire group of people to reject the gospel. At best, this belief promotes passivity: “Whether or not the Jewish people listen is of no concern.” At worst, it promotes aggression, which is exactly how charges of “deicide” have led to violence against the Jewish people throughout history. Alternatively, we should rather affirm with Scripture that no living person can be entirely cut off from God, for there is no height nor depth that His love cannot be found (Psalm 139:7-12; Rom 8:35-39). All human beings have equal access and equal ability to “turn to the Lord” (2 Cor 3:16), for God has given every person a measure of free will to choose life over death and blessings over curses (Deut 30:19).
We cannot pretend to know how divine providence works. Paul echoes the Prophets in saying, “Who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (Rom 9:20-21). God remains sovereign over His creation precisely because He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Col 1:16-17; Isa 45:7-9). Yet even if we cannot know exactly how God sovereignly works in every situation, we nevertheless can know and be assured of the nature of God as disclosed in Jesus: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Messiah died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Messiah died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). The nature of God revealed through Jesus is that of sacrificial love.
It is therefore the sacrificial love of Messiah Jesus that should “compel us” (2 Cor 5:14) not to passivity but to loving action, as the Moravians boldly proclaimed, “To win for the Lamb the reward of His suffering.” For we know that Jesus suffered the shameful death of the cross on our behalf, “because of His great love for us” (Eph 2:4), and because of “the joy set before Him” (Heb 12:2), that we who are His joy would also follow in His footsteps and give our lives for “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). For the Father “was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross” (Col 1:20), in order that we also might be given “the ministry of reconciliation” to compel others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19-20).
Therefore, returning to the topic of a Sonderweg for Israel, we can rightly join with the CRRJ in appealing to the mystery of God’s sovereignty, but we cannot give room for a theology that portrays the Jewish people as temporarily “hardened” or temporarily destined to respond negatively to the gospel. Rather, we should emphasize the possibility of a positive Jewish reception of the gospel—to allow for the words “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) to be achievable within our own generation. The salvation of Israel is not merely an eschatological promise that remains out of reach, but it is one that can be pulled into the present through the active response of all those who live to “hasten the return of the Lord” (2 Pet 3:12; Matt 24:14; Luke 13:35).
From this perspective, the burden of responsibility is shifted away from God and placed upon the Church. We know that God is sovereignly working in the hearts of many people today (the many stories of Muslims seeing visions of Jesus are but one incredible example). We also know that God is on the throne, ordering the events of history and the destinies of nations. However, affirming these facts should not lead us to believe that we have no responsibility or role to play in the Great Commission. We can simultaneously appeal to the mysterious outworking of God’s divine purposes with Israel while also engaging in Jewish outreach. As we have already discussed above, there is a major difference between an appeal to mystery accompanied by action and one accompanied by inaction.
Is there a “special way” that Israel will be saved? Romans 11:25-27 seems to speak of a special process for an eschatological Israel, yet this process is not separated from the Lordship of Jesus as the “only way to the Father” (John 14:6) and the role given to the Gentiles “to provoke Israel to jealousy” (Rom 11:11). Whatever special way that God has reserved for the Jewish people, it does not preclude the Church engaging in Jewish outreach. In fact, it can be argued that God’s plans can only be brought about when the Church takes up its mandate “to provoke Israel to jealousy.” The confounding plan of God revealed in Romans 11 is one of mutual humbling and mutual blessing: “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy” (Rom 11:30-31).
The calling for the Church, then, is to provoke Israel to jealousy through the richness and nourishment of Israel’s “own olive tree” (Rom 11:24). For whom do the Gentiles worship? He is the “Root of Jesse” (Rom 15:12; Isa 11:10); the Redeemer who has come “out of Zion” (Rom 11:26; Isa 59:20); “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1); the one who will be given “the throne of his ancestor David and will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33). Just as Paul first declared the good news of Messiah to the nations, now it is the responsibility of the nations to declare that same good news back to Israel: “to proclaim the endless riches of the Messiah, and to bring to light the plan of the mystery—which for ages was hidden in God, who created all things” (Eph 3:8-9).
If this provocation or “proclamation” actually remains the responsibility of the Gentiles, then it is imperative to consider how this mandate is to be practically carried out. We therefore pick up where we left off earlier with D’Costa’s distinction between “mission” and “witness.” What is the difference between the two approaches? When Paul says that he provokes Israel to jealousy, what exactly does that entail? Are all evangelistic methods that the Church uses for local and international outreach appropriate for Jewish outreach?
The Right Manner, Method, and Motivation
The call for Christians to relate to the Jewish people in a “humble and sensitive manner” has become vital in the tragic wake of the Holocaust. The depths of human depravity and the vileness of theological supersessionism worked hand in hand among many who called themselves “Christians” under the Third Reich. Yet one does not have to scan the history of Christianity very long to find that antisemitism and anti-Judaism have polluted the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people for nearly the entirety of its existence. Long before the Holocaust, in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, countless Jewish people were forced to either convert to Christianity or lose their lives. Anti-Jewish sentiments in the Church have produced wave after wave of colonial missionaries who were taught that every synagogue needed to be fitted with a steeple and every Star of David supplanted by a cross. It is for good reason that language of a “mission to the Jews” should be avoided. In a post-Holocaust world, we recognize that Jewish-Christian dialogue is forever changed and that we must approach these issues with greater sensitivity than ever before. The following section will therefore elaborate upon what a right approach to Jewish outreach might look like by distinguishing between right manners, methods, and motivations.
The Manner of Humility
Douglas Campbell (2020) has keenly argued that Christian theology too often portrays Judaism and Jewish identity in a Box A category, whereas Christianity and Christian identity are portrayed in a Box B category. The notion of a religious “conversion” implies that a Jewish person must progress from Box A to Box B, which leads to the belief that Judaism and Jewish identity are inferior and insufficient, needing to be left behind for the more superior Christian identity. This kind of thinking, however, is a false dilemma. Paul would rather say, “Remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom 11:18). The Gentile Christian approach should be one of humility, recognizing that Jewish identity has deeper and more ancient roots that extend back to the promises God first made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In order to avoid approaching Jewish outreach from a posture of superiority, Gentile believers in Jesus need to be reminded that there is much that our Jewish brothers and sisters can teach us. It is often the case that Christian evangelism becomes an act of condescension: we have something that the other does not have, and they are therefore lesser than we are. The natural tendency is to problematize all non-Christians as those who are broken and in need of fixing. They are outsiders who are lacking, but we happen to be the ones in the superior position who are able to help them become who they were created to be. Along these lines, the language of a Jewish person becoming a “completed Jew” only after professing faith in Jesus is problematic precisely because it labels all other Jewish people who don’t believe in Jesus as “incomplete,” a word that has the connotation of inferiority.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that there is something lacking for those who do not have faith in Jesus. Human beings are hardwired to resolve contradictions, to promote what they believe to be true and reject what they believe to be untrue. We are not suggesting that the “truth” of a person who believes in Jesus is equal to the “truth” of a person who does not believe in Jesus—as if truth were only relative or a matter of personal preference. For in fact, we know and believe that Truth is a proper name (John 14:6). The problem is not in believing that a Jewish person has some kind of lack without Jesus, but rather in the manner in which we perceive and approach that lack.
When outreach is done with an attitude of superiority, mutual understanding and loving relationship are undermined (which is true of outreach to any people group, not just Jewish outreach). Only when we are open to humbly learning from those who are completely different than us can we truly evince the kind of vulnerability that is necessary for a loving relationship to develop and thrive. Gentile believers in Jesus will never be able to reach maturity, “to the measure of the full stature of Messiah,” without the “unity of the faith” that happens when Jew and Gentile are brought together in mutual blessing (Eph 4:13; 2:19-22). We believe the Church can never truly be the Church without the presence and contribution of Jewish believers in Jesus (You can read more in our paper on Jewish Identity and the Church). Therefore, the appropriate manner for Jewish outreach should always be one of deep and sincere humility. In “provoking Israel to jealousy,” it is the prerogative of Gentile believers to simply witness to a rich faith that they have been grafted into, knowing very well the Jewish foundation that the Church has been built upon.
However, if we admit that there will always be an unavoidable sense of perceived “lack” projected onto every person who does not believe in Jesus, then how might we best guard against our natural tendencies toward condescension and superiority? The answer is found in reciprocally maintaining the proper motivations and methods for Jewish outreach; a topic to which we now turn.
The Motivation of Love
The principle, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), is true not just for verbal communication but for all kinds of actions, as Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the issues of life.” Scripture teaches us that once the issues of the heart are set in right alignment, everything else will follow suit. Therefore, in order to sustain the right manner for outreach and before being able to know the right method, we first need to learn the right motivation.
The word “motivation” is used to express the reasons one has for behaving in a particular way. What are the reasons for outreach to the Jewish people? Are they not the same as for any other type of outreach? The reason the Church engages in outreach in general is to the end that every person would hear the gospel and come to the saving and transformative knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. The commission is clear: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). In spite of the fact that both immersion (baptism) and unity in plurality (a precursor to Trinitarian theology) originated in the matrix of Second Temple Judaism, the words of the Great Commission as found in Matthew have now become offensive to many Jewish ears. Therefore, in order to avoid offense, should these and other aspects of the gospel be downplayed for Jewish outreach?
It is certainly possible to promote “dialogue” over against “outreach” in a way that elevates unity at the cost of true witness. But what does it mean to “witness” other than to witness to the truth of who Jesus is? We at GCFI do not think it is wise to only engage in watered-down dialogues where faith is checked at the door, as if Jesus is somehow the Lord of Gentile Christians only and not also of the Jewish people. What is most distinctive about the New Testament’s witness—and thus the Christian witness—is precisely the opposite: Jesus is the God of Israel Incarnate. At the very core of Christian theology, faith, and identity is a distinctly Jewish claim. The ethnic particularity of Jesus, His embodiment as a Jewish man, and the New Testament’s claim that this Man is both Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s God, means that any attempt to discard the relevancy of Jesus for the Jewish people will ultimately contradict itself.
We cannot pretend that unity will be achieved between Jews and Christians by embracing our commonalities without acknowledging our profound differences. The emphasis is sometimes placed on the fact that we both worship “one God.” And this is true. But we as Christians believe that the One God has been fully disclosed to the world in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the one who is forever fully a Jewish man and forever fully the God of Israel. An emphasis on dialogue that ignores this fact—or worse, tries to hide it—only sabotages itself before it begins.
Believing in “the scandal of particularity,” that Jesus is ethnically embodied as the God of Israel, means that there will always be an Israel-shaped hole in the Church and in Christian theology. Like we have argued elsewhere, the Church cannot be the Church unless it is made up of both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Yet we also recognize that faithfulness to Jesus is fundamental to belonging to Jesus; and belonging to Jesus is fundamental to belonging to His Body, the Church. We cannot ignore the burden of Paul who prayed with “unceasing anguish” for the salvation of his people and who daily labored that he might by any means provoke them to jealousy “and thus save some of them” (Rom 9:1-3; 11:13-14). Likewise, with great sensitivity, Christians are called to be burdened for the salvation of Israel. It is not something that should be taken lightly.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some in the Church who adhere to the older perspective on Judaism, emphasizing the incompatibility of Jewish and Christian identity. Rather than water their convictions down, they unashamedly present the gospel as that which is meant to cause offense and be a “stumbling stone” to Israel (Rom 9:34). Understandably, if we redact all the challenging parts of the gospel message in order to avoid any possibility for Jewish offense, then we are ultimately missing what the gospel is all about. The message of Jesus crucified is fundamentally “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). But even still, while this may be true, we cannot overlook the fact that believers in Jesus are still called to be “peacemakers” in the world (Matt 5:9) and to humbly and flexibly become “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22). The two extremes of dialogue without witness and witness without sensitivity must be held in tension together in order to engage rightly in “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).
On the one hand, we are called to bear witness uncompromisingly and to declare with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16). But on the other hand, we must remain sensitive to those around us, resolving to do whatever it takes (short of sin) in order that we might “by any means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). We have Jesus as our example, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-7). What greater example of humility can there be? As God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and humbly reached out to the world through His incarnation, our approach to Jewish outreach must also be loving and incarnational: speaking and acting not on our own terms but on the terms of those we are reaching out to.
In consideration of the right “motivation” for Jewish outreach, the question at hand is: why did Jesus humble Himself in obedience even “to the point of death?” What was the motivating force that drove God to be incarnated, to suffer, and to die? Was it merely something that needed to happen in order to make up for human failure? No. The truth is as we have already said: “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Messiah died for us” (Rom 5:8). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Indeed, the Nicene Creed has declared this truth for nearly two thousand years: “For our sake He was crucified.” What marvelous words, for our sake. How else can we respond but to exclaim with Scripture, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us!” (1 John 3:1).
Therefore, in consideration of the proper motivation for Jewish outreach, we have the sacrificial love of Jesus as our example. Before any talk of method, we must first gain God’s heart for Israel and the Jewish people. Only after having the humility of God as our manner and the love of God as our motivation can the appropriate method for Jewish outreach become possible. Gaining the right manner and the right motivation allows freedom for the right methods to develop.
The Method of Relationship
The difference between a manner and a method is that manner is the attitude or style that something is done with, whereas method implies systems and procedures. The CRRJ’s use of the word “institutional” certainly speaks more to the method of evangelism than anything else (although manner and motivation are also implied). As any local church or missions organization can attest, there are numerous methods that can be used to reach people with the gospel of Jesus. Rather than articulate which methods are and are not helpful for Jewish outreach, we would like to highlight a key foundational principle for judging the appropriateness of any method.
We have already hinted above that the pursuit of “loving relationship” is key for all forms of outreach. If love is the right motivation and humility is the right manner, then it follows that all types of outreach ought to be relationally based. Or, in a phrase: all evangelism should be “friendship evangelism.” A person who doesn’t believe in Jesus is not just another potential convert but is a human being made in the image of God first and foremost. This is especially true in the case of Jewish outreach, as we have already argued above. Following the example of Jesus, we seek to establish loving relationships before anything else. We are not called simply to be marketers or salesmen or saleswomen for the gospel. Rather, “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Without love, any method that the Church attempts will be rendered moot and ultimately amount to “nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).
For those who might doubt the effectiveness of friendship evangelism, only one example should suffice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormonism, or by the acronym LDS) is well known for their door-to-door evangelistic methods. It is widely recognized that the LDS community has an impressive 4% historical yearly growth rate through new conversions. But what is not as commonly known is that only 1 out of every 1,000 of these conversions is the result of their door-to-door efforts. The majority of new converts are close friends and relatives of LDS members, because “friends convert friends” (Campbell 2020: 448-449). God has made human beings relational, in His own Trinitarian image, so it should not be surprising that relational methods are the most effective.
But yet another danger lurks here at this point. The emphasis on pursuing loving relationship should not be allowed to digress into manipulation or deception. It is not a trojan horse strategy to establish friendship for the purpose of conversion. That would not be real friendship (not to mention the problems we have already discussed with the word “conversion”). Therefore, we must consistently check our motives, as Campbell argues: “If we approach people merely as potential converts and lose interest in them if they don’t become actual converts, then we are not valuing them as people. We are valuing them as statistics and as markers of our own piety” (Campbell 2020: 445). Indeed, Campbell calls this the “test” for authentic outreach:
“Do we desire a given relationship if at bottom that person never commits overtly to Jesus? Are we desirous of a friendship—a full, honest, committed friendship—because we value and enjoy the non-Christian person in question? Will we hang out indefinitely with someone who is very different from us in many key respects, not because we are hoping that the person will eventually convert, but because we value that one just as he or she is?…We must be able to answer ‘yes’ to these questions if our missionary work is ultimately to have any integrity, and we must learn to relate to non-Christians primarily on this basis” (Campbell 2020: 446).
This “test” is especially relevant when we consider how the Church should cultivate relationship with the Jewish people. Scripture says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). Is the Church’s mandate to pray for Israel contingent upon Israel’s faithfulness to Messiah? Certainly not! The Church is called to pray for Israel and remain in relationship with the Jewish people regardless of what might transpire. It is comparable to the dynamics of family relationships. In a healthy family, as God intended it, a parent knows that they love their child unconditionally, even if the parent might at times be grieved by the child’s choices. If Jew and Gentile are both siblings in the same family, children of the same Father, then we must cultivate an unconditional relationship between us that must be maintained irrespective of our tendencies to see one another as potential “converts.” The challenge that lies before us is to continually return back to the manner of humility and the motivation of love, so that our relationships can be sensitively cultivated without condescension or manipulative coercion.
Throughout this paper we have tried to articulate a right “approach” to Jewish outreach. We cannot deny the uniqueness of the Church’s relationship to Israel, not just as it relates to the Jewish foundation of Christianity or Scripture’s affirmation of an “irrevocable calling” (Rom 11:29), but also as it relates to the history of Christian antisemitism and replacement theology. The Church must continue to grapple with the appropriate manners, methods, and motivations for outreach to the Jewish people with utmost sensitivity.
Gentiles are those who have “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thes 1:9), but that is not the case for Israel. The message to Israel is not to turn away from false gods but rather to set aside the “veil” in order to see “the glory of God in the face of Messiah Jesus” (2 Cor 3:14-16; 4:6). The good news for Gentiles is that they are invited into relationship with the One True God and made joint-heirs and joint-partakers with Israel (Eph 3:6). But the good news specifically for Israel is that the One True God has been made manifest to establish the throne of David forever (Luke 1:32-33). The Jewish particularity of Jesus confirms the faithfulness of God to Israel in that He has chosen for eternity to live and be embodied as a resurrected Jew. This is the gospel, the “good news,” that remains relevant and essential for the Jewish people to hear.
- “Should the Church Evangelize Israel? A Response to Franz Mussner and Other Sonderweg Proponents,” Michael G. Vanlaningham. Trinity Journal 22NS (2001): 197-217.
- Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People After Vatican II, Gavin D’Costa. Oxford University Press, 2019.
- “To the Jew First: Witnessing to the Jews is Nonnegotiable,” Richard Mouw. Christianity Today, 41.9 (1997): 12-13.
- “Mission as Friendship,” chapter in Pauline Dogmatics, Douglas Campbell. Eerdmans, 2020.