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ERLC trip points to complexity in Israel

NASHVILLE (BP) — American Christians need humility and helpful information to think biblically about modern Israel, pastors said after touring the Middle East country as part of a Southern Baptist delegation.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission led the Nov. 9-16 tour to equip Southern Baptist pastors and leaders regarding issues in Israel and to acquaint them with the work of the entity’s new international religious freedom office, which is located in the Middle East. The trip — organized and fully funded by the Philos Project — also included six ERLC staff members in its party of more than 20.

ERLC President Russell Moore described leading the delegation in partnership with the Middle East office as an honor.

“At a time where the lands where our Father Abraham and our Brother Paul once walked are now killing grounds where the people of the cross are being slaughtered, we are determined to be a witness for religious liberty around the world for the sake of the gospel,” Moore told Baptist Press in a written statement.

The trip’s goals included helping participants gain a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis and international religious freedom, according to the ERLC. The tour was filled not only with visits to important religious and national sites but conversations with government authorities and diverse religious leaders.

[QUOTE@right@180=More than being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, Christians must be pro-Jesus as they think about the conflict.” — David Prince] Southern Baptist pastors Nathan Lino and David Prince came away from the trip with a greater appreciation for the complexity of the issues in Israel and for their importance to pastors and churches.

Pastors of Southern Baptist churches “need to be renewed in a proper discipleship of our members regarding Israel and the Middle East,” said Lino, lead pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church.

“The absence of discipleship on this matter has created a void that has been filled with misinformation and unbiblical thinking amongst God’s people,” Lino said in an email interview with BP. “And because the subject of Israel and the Middle East is so central to the Christian narrative, and is by God’s design intricately related to what is happening in the world today, pastors cannot afford to let this subject matter go unaddressed.”

Experiencing the complexities involved in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute was humbling, Prince said in a Nov. 24 post for the ERLC’s Canon & Culture blog.

He realized “the tendency of Americans to watch cable news channels and make snap judgments about what ought to be done in the Middle East conflict is audacious hubris.” said Prince, the pastor for preaching and vision of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
“More than being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, Christians must be pro-Jesus as they think about the conflict,” he wrote, acknowledging, however, that “knowing the best way to be pro-Jesus is not easy.”

“Too often, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, or even pro-Jesus descriptors function merely as shibboleths,” Prince wrote. “This kind of lazy sloganeering does not address any of the real and vital issues. It takes a multilayered complex situation and makes it neat and tidy. Too often this kind of approach is not the fruit of critical thinking and engagement but rather a simplistic way to avoid thinking about the issues.”

Each of the various groups in the region has a “completely opposite story” of those told by other groups, Prince said.

Christians should care about the welfare of God’s image bearers in the Middle East, he wrote.

“Taking ‘every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5) demands being informed and takes deliberate prayerful effort,” said Prince, also associate professor for Christian preaching and pastoral ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The pastors and leaders on the ERLC trip heard from and/or dialogued with a senior peace negotiator with the Israeli government; a former member of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature; Bethlehem Bible College’s president; an Arab Muslim teacher; a Messianic Jew from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice; a Palestinian journalist; and other experts.

The ERLC group also met with David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Saperstein was in Israel during the same time period.

In addition, the trip included Moore teaching at important biblical sites, as well as a briefing on the Syrian civil war at Israel’s border with that country, a visit to a Galilean medical center in which Syrians fleeing the conflict are being treated and meals in homes.

The trip served as part of the ERLC’s effort to help Southern Baptist Convention pastors and leaders gain “a global understanding of the issues facing the church today” and as an opportunity to launch the entity’s international office, said ERLC Executive Vice President Phillip Bethancourt. The leaders on the trip “were able to experience the epicenter of challenges in the Middle East,” he told BP in an email, “while getting exposed to the work” of Travis Wussow, director of international justice and religious freedom in the ERLC’s office in the Middle East.

The trip proved helpful to Wussow. It was a great opportunity to meet with the ERLC team in Israel “to collaborate on strategy for the region and to plan for projects and priorities for the next 12-18 months,” he told BP by email.

The Philos Project is a New York-based organization that attempts to foster constructive Christian engagement in the Middle East. The ERLC tour was among those it organized in its first year of such trips, said Luke Moon, the Philos Project’s deputy director.

The project sponsors the trips by Christian leaders to Israel to enable them to hear from experts with the Jewish left and right, Arab Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others “to help them understand the complexity of what’s going on in Israel” and communicate what they learn to their constituencies, Moon told BP.

Prince’s blog post may be accessed online at http://www.canonandculture.com/pro-jesus-thoughts-about-the-israelpalestinian-conflict/.