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FIRST-PERSON: Baptists and Jewish evangelism, again

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–“What a friend we have in You Know Who.”

They might not be singing that hymn this Sunday at Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, but they’re not far off. That’s because Southside’s joint “Baptist/Jewish worship services” are the model for a new effort at Baptist/Jewish “dialogue.” Just like Southside, some Baptists have concluded that Jewish/Christian relations are easy, if you just don’t talk about Jesus. In other words, the Jewish evangelism debate is on again.

The Baptist Center for Ethics (BCE) and its executive director, Robert Parham, are once again ballyhooing evangelical prayers and activity for the conversion of the Jewish people to Christ. In the place of evangelism, the BCE proposes a model for “interfaith dialogue” pioneered by a left-leaning Baptist congregation in Alabama. The BCE and its partner churches and schools will kick off the initiative at a luncheon for Baptists and Jews at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly in Birmingham this summer.

In a press release from the BCE, Parham expresses his embarrassment at Southern Baptist attempts to evangelize people — and his disappointment that “moderate” Baptists have been too reticent to speak out against such evangelistic attempts and other expressions of “anti-Semitism.” Parham sees some hopeful signs — like “moderate” Baptist churches that have denounced Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of The Christ.” It is also disappointing, though, to Parham that more Baptists didn’t participate in a Nashville-area reading group of “Constantine’s Sword,” a book by dissident Catholic James Carroll that identifies orthodox Christology and substitutionary atonement as aspects of Christian anti-Semitism.

Instead, the BCE sets forth the example of Birmingham’s Southside Baptist Church and its pastor, Steve Jones, as a “positive and practical model for others.” Southside has shared space with a local Jewish synagogue — and is now joined in regular joint worship services. How did Pastor Jones and the Southside Baptists make their Jewish neighbors feel comfortable in worship? By draping over the crosses in the sanctuary, and leaving the name “Jesus” out of the prayers and hymns. There is no attempt to persuade the Jewish people to embrace Jesus as Messiah.

The Southside model is hardly unique. A symposium at the 2001 CBF General Assembly presented just such a model — with one delegate voicing the opinion that — in a joint worship service with Jewish people — churches don’t need to sing “‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘all that.’”

Is this the way forward for Baptist/Jewish relations? Not if Baptists are to remain obedient to the Great Commission — indeed, not if Baptists wish to remain “Christian” in any historic sense of the word.

The New Testament doesn’t picture two peoples of God. Instead, Jesus and his apostles labor to point out that all people — Jew and Gentile — are under the curse of sin and death (Romans 1-3). All people must therefore come to God through the sacrifice of a Jewish king — Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of David (Galatians 3-4).

It might be considered “anti-Semitic” today to suggest that those who share the faith of Abraham recognize the revelation of God in Christ, but that is precisely what Jesus said to the Jewish religious leaders of His day (John 8:55-58). It would certainly have made Pentecost easier for the apostle Peter if he had spoken in vague terms about God and “faith” — but he insisted on a proclamation of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah. That might not be effective for “dialogue” — but it is the way of salvation.

Likewise, the apostle Paul preached the centrality of Christ in, of all places, the synagogues (Acts 9:20; 13:5). Indeed, the apostle Paul believed his prayers and labors for the conversion of his fellow Jews was an expression of his love for them — knowing that apart from faith in Messiah Jesus they could not inherit the kingdom of God (Romans 10:1-4).

The Bible simply doesn’t picture God as worshipped in the “regular” way, and then a special form of worship for those who do so through Christ. Instead, the New Testament maintains that God is approached only through a Mediator — the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). If we really believe this is true, then to hide it from our Jewish neighbors is a virulent form of anti-Semitism.

And yet, the Southside model is being presented as the way forward — and a whole lot of Baptists are on board. Tables at the CBF luncheon are being sponsored by schools such as Samford University and Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and by churches such as First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tenn., Wilshire Baptist in Dallas, and Trinity Baptist of San Antonio, Texas.

The Baptist left is free, of course, to chart such a course. But don’t be fooled by what a break the Southside model is from historic Christianity. And the cruelty of the whole thing can be seen in the sadly ironic name of Southside Baptist’s partner synagogue — Temple Beth-Emmanuel, the House of God-With-Us. This gathering of Jewish people have named themselves after Isaiah’s ancient prophecy that one day the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be “God with us” in a child born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). A great evangelist to the Jewish people heralded this prophecy to point Israel to her promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 2:23).

Sadly, the Southside Baptists and their kin have decided “dialogue” is more important than evangelism — and polite ceremonies are more important than the redemption of their Jewish neighbors. It doesn’t matter what Baptists who follow this model put on their church sign. They’ve already said all that matters to their Jewish friends: “Immanuel doesn’t live here anymore.”
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway).

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  • Russell D. Moore