SPREADING THE GOSPEL
MAY 14, 1997
Spreading the gospel, the impact of Southern Baptists' efforts to recruit among Jews. Time Magazine religion correspondent Richard Ostling reports.
JIM LEHRER: Now, spreading the gospel, the impact of Southern Baptists' efforts to recruit among Jews. Time Magazine religion correspondent Richard Ostling reports.
RICHARD OSTLING, Time Magazine: At Congregation Beth Yeshua HaMashiach in Houston worshipers follow Jewish traditions, such as the procession of the sacred Torah Scroll, and they worship on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. But along with various Jewish practices, this congregation meets in a Baptist church and hears the message of Jesus from the Christian New Testament.
SPOKESMAN: Therefore, I tell you, don't worry about your life, what you shall eat or drink.
RICHARD OSTLING: Many Jews may see Jesus as a wise teacher but don't accept him as the Son of God or Messiah. Jews who claim Jesus as their savior usually leave Judaism and join mainstream Christian churches. But these worshipers call themselves "Messianic Jews," part of a movement that blends Jewishness with following Jesus. The Hebrew name of this congregation means "House of Jesus, the Messiah."
SPOKESMAN: He's the King Messiah. He's the Savior of the world. He's the most Jewish person that's ever lived.
RICHARD OSTLING: The leader, Gus Elowitz, calls himself a Messianic rabbi and he's a follower of Jesus. Elowitz was raised Jewish, but he says that during a time of intense searching he found answers through the teachings of Jesus.
GUS ELOWITZ, Beth Yeshua HaMashiach: The word of God was alive and burning. It seemed to burn in my bones that these were truisms that weren't just any person talking and giving their opinion, but this is someone saying, thus sayeth the Lord. And I never experienced that before. And I guess I was hungry for authority, and I went ahead and applied these things to my life. And it made a big difference.
RICHARD OSTLING: There are an estimated 200 Messianic congregations around the country. While groups like Jews for Jesus have long existed, in the past decade the Messianic movement has become part of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Beth Yeshua is one of a dozen such Baptist congregations.
SPOKESMAN: If you vote yes on the motion to accept all resolutions--
RICHARD OSTLING: The Messianic converts became a catalyst for the entire Baptist denomination to evangelize Jews. At its national meeting last year the Southern Baptist Convention issued a declaration of commitment to do this. "Be it finally RESOLVED. That we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people." In addition, a full-time missionary has been appointed who's now developing programs to advise local Baptist churches on how to approach Jews. Jewish organizations called the Baptist action offensive and denigrating, a great setback, disgraceful, destructive, outrageous, and a spiritual attempt at genocide. Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism, has been working with Baptists for two decades, seeking better inter-faith relations and uniting on such matters as support for Israel.
RABBI LEON KLENICKI, Anti-Defamation League: That is taking a step backward to 50 years ago or 100 years ago or the middle ages. And this is sad after so many years--many years of dialogue, and encountering as people have done.
RICHARD OSTLING: Klenicki's organization invited a Southern Baptist leader to its annual meeting to explain why they want to evangelize news. The resolution mystified many in the ADL audience since other Christians have long since abandoned evangelistic efforts, accepting that Jews have an authentic relationship with God. Philip Roberts heads the Baptist Interfaith Witness Office.
PHILIP ROBERTS, Southern Baptist Convention: First of all, let me say candidly that we do believe that the New Testament Commission to evangelize to share the gospel is a command given to the church by the Lord Jesus Christ to be carried out both to the Jewish and to gentile communities.
RICHARD OSTLING: But Rabbi Klenicki quoted the same New Testament to insist there's no need to evangelize Jews.
RABBI LEON KLENICKI: If you remember Romans 10, Verse 13, where Paul says: "Everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved." So then perhaps we don't need to accept a certain figure in history to be saved. We are saved from the beginning. We have been with the Father from the very beginning of creation. Perhaps you needed the Son to reach the Father, but altogether, we are the family of God. So there is no right to obligate us to take a certain trend that is not our reality.
RICHARD OSTLING: Roberts also faced emotional resistance from the audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Your interpretation, as I hear it, believes that grace can only come if I accept your view as to how to accept God or the divinity of Christ. I don't mind you holding that view, but I would like to have some comments and your reflections on the arrogance of that view.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We believe that Jesus was right and correct when He said, "I am the way of the truth and the light."
RICHARD OSTLING: Roberts said the Southern Baptists have past resolutions denouncing anti-Semitism. But that didn't mollify the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman.
ABRAHAM FOXMAN, Director, Anti-Defamation League: But I have to say to you--and I want to do it with as much respect as I know how--it's a sham. It's a sham to proclaim that you are opposed to anti-Semitism when anti-Semitism throughout the ages sometimes was part and parcel of Christianity; sometimes an adjunct of Christianity, whose purpose it was--the non-existence of the Jewish people.
RICHARD OSTLING: Roberts convinced no one and continued to defend his position after the meeting.
PHILIP ROBERTS: Here's the definition of evangelism: sharing your faith in Christ and leaving the results to God. And that is a very popular, widespread definition of evangelism.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's not the goal. The goal is conversion.
PHILIP ROBERTS: Yes, conversion. You're using the term there again. See, the buzzword--is called completion.
MAN: It's the same thing. And by saying that, you're putting us down as second class citizens in God's kingdom.
PHILIP ROBERTS: Explain that further.
MAN: Yes. You are proclaiming that with Christianity--
PHILIP ROBERTS: Jesus is the Messiah.
MAN: Fine. Jesus is the Messiah, and you will reach the fulfilment of God's promise to the people of Sinai and the people of Israel, Sinai, and other covenants, then what you're doing is showing that we are not fulfilled, and we are second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
RICHARD OSTLING: The Baptist emphasis on seeking converts is part of a strong conservative resurgence in the denomination says Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. She's a liberal Southern Baptist who disagrees with the exclusive claims from officials like Roberts.
NANCY AMMERMAN, Hartford Seminary: God's grace is bigger than a single revelation of God. Part of what it means for me to be a believer in Jesus Christ is to believe in the revelation of God in Christ, and, among other things, that revelation is one of God's unbelievable grace and love for all of humanity, and a conviction that that love is probably not restricted simply to people who have found their relationship with God through this particular means. I'm enough of an evangelical, Phil, to believe that it's possible for people to be alienated from God and to be separated from God, and to need to come to some kind of reconciliation. But I'm enough of a heretic of an evangelical to believe that that reconciliation can come in a number of ways.
SPOKESMAN: We ask you to just give us people who have a desire to trust an issue as Lord and Savior.
RICHARD OSTLING: But Messianic Jews, like Elowitz, hold to the conservative Baptist concept that reconciliation comes through Jesus alone. On most Sundays Elowitz and members of his Houston congregation gather across the street from a Jewish community center to spread their message. Elowitz insists belief in Jesus is a fulfillment of Jewish identity and biblical prophecy.
GUS ELOWITZ, Beth Yeshua HaMashiach: It's not a message that you even have to become a Southern Baptist. This is, as far as we're concerned, a form of Judaism, all based on the prophets of the Tenach and the Messiah that they've foretold would come, and he came right on time. And when you come to believe He is the Messiah, then you are faced with having to give Him authority.
RICHARD OSTLING: But if Jews are irritated at Christians who want to convert them, they're far more upset Messianics, who they think are masquerading as Jews. Roberts wants to include the Messianics in future dialogue between Jews and Southern Baptists, but Klenecki rejects the proposal.
RABBI LEON KLENICKI, Anti-Defamation League: I think that that is completely out of place and an insult to me as a Jewish person. I'm not criticizing them, but I don't want them in the dialogue because they are not Jewish and they are not Christian. And they are playing a very confusing theological game.
PHILIP ROBERTS: We would say that for a Jewish person to believe in Jesus as Messiah and savior is not a repudiation of their Jewishness. They still retain that ethnic identity. They often maintain that. In fact, they often maintain a Jewish form and style of worship and of living out this face in Jesus as Messiah.
RICHARD OSTLING: For almost all Jews the essence of Judaism cannot be reconciled with belief in Jesus, but Jewish leaders say the real danger facing them is not Baptist action but secularism.
RABBI LEON KLENICKI: It is my hope that in the years to come we will come to a real, sincere dialogue with the Southern Baptist Convention, respectful of our differences, but very much concerned about secularism, about the question of the religious formation of the new generations, of morality in our country. Those are problems that are very, very urgent for all of us.
RICHARD OSTLING: Both Jews and Baptists say the challenge they face is to present a faith that's relevant to people today and speaks to their personal needs. And on that issue they hope to work together.