NASHVILLE (BP) — With Israel in the news related to Iran nuclear negotiations and the formation of a coalition government following the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March, conservative evangelicals largely agree that Christians should support the Jewish state. But they don’t agree on the reason for that support.
“When you boil it right down, there’s not that much of a difference” in the policies most evangelicals believe the U.S. should adopt relative to Israel, said Chad Brand, editor of “Perspectives on Israel and the Church: Four Views,” published by B&H Academic earlier this year. The book explains four distinct belief systems among evangelicals regarding Israel, and Brand said there are yet others.
The four views identified in Brand’s book are the traditional covenantal view, the traditional dispensational view, the progressive dispensational view and the progressive covenantal view.
Among the debated issues are whether the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people; whether the Jewish people have a God-given right to the land on which the modern state of Israel sits; and whether God will maintain an eternal distinction between Jews and Gentiles.
Evangelicals who believe the Bible is inerrant ascribe to all four views outlined in the book. The labels Brand associates with these views commonly reference theological systems that address multiple issues, but the following descriptions are limited to how the various systems address the specific topic of Israel.
Southern Baptist Convention resolutions have expressed support for the modern state of Israel twice since 2002, but neither resolution addressed whether contemporary Jews are God’s chosen people in the same sense as Old Testament Israel. Southern Baptists repeatedly have affirmed the need to share the Gospel with Jewish men and women, including in a 1996 SBC resolution on Jewish evangelism.
Brand, who has served as a pastor and teaches adjunctively at two Baptist colleges, wrote in the book that the view some call “covenant theology” or “replacement theology” began to emerge by at least A.D. 130. Around that time, a Christian writing known as “The Epistle of Barnabas” argued that “the church, in effect, replaces Israel as the locus of [God’s] covenant, with no indication that Israel is still precious in God’s sight,” Brand wrote.
This view was held by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries, John Calvin in the 16th century and the authors of the Westminster Confession in the 17th century. Many modern proponents of covenant theology — who can be found largely in Presbyterian and Reformed denominations — argue based on Romans 9-11 among other passages that a large number of Jewish people will come to faith in Christ during the last days of human history and be incorporated into the church.
Christians should support Israel, covenant theologians say, only when it behaves in a just and ethical manner, not because it has any continuing right to possess the Old Testament Promised Land. Along with strong support among some evangelicals who back Israel, replacement theology also has proponents among mainline denominations and other groups that tend to criticize Israel.
Ric Worshill, president of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, holds the view commonly labelled dispensationalism. He believes Jews are still God’s chosen people in the same sense they were in the Old Testament and that Christians are required biblically to “bless” the Jewish people.
Dispensationalism, which started to gain popularity in the 19th century, asserts an ongoing distinction between Israel and the church and claims that God’s promise of land to Abraham’s descendants still has a literal fulfillment.
Jews as an ethnic group have been chosen since the time of Abraham “to be a kingdom of priests unto the nations,” Worshill told Baptist Press. And “throughout the ages,” God has used the Jews to illustrate that “without a Savior, no one is able” to follow Him.
Today, Jews and Gentiles alike receive eternal life only by trusting Jesus as their Lord and Messiah, Worshill said. He added that all living Jews will come to faith in Christ during the seven-year period dispensationalists call the Great Tribulation. Jews may continue to play a unique role in God’s economy following Christ’s second coming, Worshill said.
Protecting the modern state of Israel is a matter of obedience to Scripture, Worshill said. “If we don’t, we will be judged for it,” he said.
Brand distinguished between “traditional” and “progressive” dispensationlists, with the latter seeing “some … of the promises of the OT to Israel being applied to the church” and not specifically to modern Israel.
Dispensationalism enjoys broad popularity in America as evidenced by a 2014 Pew Research Center study which found that 55 percent of U.S. Christians believe God gave Israel to the Jews. A full 82 percent of white evangelicals hold that view, according to Pew.
The progressive covenantal view
Baruch Maoz, an American-born Jew who pastored a Baptist church in Israel for more than 30 years, did not attach a label to his view of Israel and the church during an interview with BP but it seemed to reflect what Brand labels “the progressive covenantal view.”
Maoz, who currently is in the United States and has led mini-conferences for Southern Baptist pastors, said God has not “replaced” Israel with the church, but “the church has entered into the blessings that were promised to Israel.” Under the new covenant, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles has been abolished and members of both groups are “gathered into Christ,” Maoz said.
It is an error to believe God has turned His back entirely on the Jewish people, Maoz said, adding that, based on Romans 9-11, he expects “a massive work of grace among the Jewish people in the future.” It is also an error, he said, to support Israel or the Jewish people politically regardless of their actions. Jews are not entitled to the Promised Land but were granted the privilege of living there by grace so long as they continued to trust and obey God.
Jews in Israel “have a society in which abortion and homosexuality are both rife” along with other moral ills, Maoz said. However, Israel’s “conduct in the land, while far from perfect, is such that it justifies the continuing existence of the state of Israel.” There is “moral” but not “theological” reason to support Israel, he said.
Despite their disagreements on theological particulars, Brand, Worshill and Maoz agreed that Christians must reject any view of Israel that claims Jews do not need to believe the Gospel to be saved — a view known as “dual covenant” theology.
“Israel needs the Gospel. And the Gospel has a prior claim upon the Jewish people. As Paul put it, ‘to the Jew first,'” Maoz said, referencing Romans 1:16. “Therefore our deepest longing, our greatest longing as evangelicals, and our greatest endeavor vis-à-vis Israel should be that Israel will come to hear the Gospel … and come to believe.”
As news headlines focus on Israel, Worshill recommended that believers focus on their Bibles and rally around the core beliefs they hold in common.
“If we … love each other enough to hold each other accountable in spite of what difficulties we might run across when we do that, we will all grow in Christ,” Worshill said.