DALLAS (BP)–The National Council of Churches has released a brochure castigating Christian Zionism as a dangerous movement that fosters fear and hatred of Muslims and non-Western Christians, as well as endangering peace in the Middle East.
Jim Sibley, a Southern Baptist leader whose career has focused on Baptist-Jewish relations, set forth an opposite view in assessing the brochure: The NCC resorts to caricature and slander, particularly when accusing evangelicals of regarding Jewish people “as pawns in a cosmic drama of divine vengeance and retribution.”
“Why We Should Be Concerned About Christian Zionism,” publicized nationally in a Dec. 12 news release, was developed by the NCC Interfaith Relations Commission. The brochure was introduced during meetings of the National Council of Churches Governing Board and the General Assembly of the NCC and Church World Service in November.
NCC broadly defines Christian Zionism as “any Christian support for the national revival movement of the Jewish people realized through the establishment of the modern State of Israel.” The brochure focuses its warning on a more narrow description of “an ideology grounded in beliefs which consider the State of Israel to be divinely ordained and scripturally determined with a central role in ushering in the end of history.” The commentary caricatures the end-times scenario embraced by many evangelicals “where unconverted Jews and unbelievers (including Christians who are considered to be of questionable status) are judged by God’s wrath.”
The NCC assigns the label of “misguided ideology” to the belief that the state of Israel has a divinely ordained role in ushering in the end of history. “The danger of this ideology is that it is a manipulation of Christian scripture and teaching,” said Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC senior program director for interfaith relations. “Unfortunately it has influence in American churches, to the point where many well-meaning Christians are swayed to support particularly destructive directions in U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Middle East.”
Christian Zionism in its narrowest form, according to the NCC brochure, advocates preserving control of historic Palestine, including Gaza and the West Bank, for the Jewish people alone and rejecting any peace settlement based on a two-state solution. Citing scholars who find no roots in traditional teachings for Christian Zionist ideology, the NCC supports the security needs and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Sibley acknowledged that some Christian Zionists support a two-state solution, but he questioned the viability of that solution as long as the Palestinians and their leaders are committed to terrorism and remain intolerant of Israel. “Certainly progress would be much more rapid were the Palestinians to renounce terrorism and be willing to sit with Israelis in a context of mutual respect,” Sibley said, noting that the Palestinians have not demonstrated the same openness to negotiations and concessions as has Israel.
As the director of Criswell College’s Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies in Dallas, Sibley has written and spoken extensively on relations between Christians and Jews and believes most evangelicals are philo-Semitic (friends of Israel) and support the return of the Jewish people to Israel.
Sibley agreed that questionable positions are held by some within the Christian Zionism movement who give unqualified support for every action taken by the Israeli government. At the same time, others avoid sharing the Gospel with Jewish people for fear of offense, he said, adding, “One should not have to choose between love for the Jewish people and love for the Jewish Messiah.”
The NCC, in accusing Christian Zionism proponents of promoting negative stereotypes of Muslims and Middle Easterners, including Middle Eastern Christians, stated in the brochure, “They often accuse these Christians of siding with Muslims against the U.S. and the State of Israel in a cosmic battle of good and evil, thus questioning their Christian faithfulness.” By encouraging Christians in the United States to harbor suspicion and enmity toward Muslims and non-westernized Christians, “the movement negates Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the NCC charged, quoting Matthew 22:39.
Sibley, who formerly served as a Southern Baptist representative in Israel, said he saw “the true brotherhood of Jewish and Arab Christians” as both came to know the Messiah, the only one through whom true peace can be found. Sibley said he was surprised to find no mention in the NCC brochure of the peace and reconciliation that Jesus brings, nor any reference to Messianic Jews in Israel.
“Palestinian Christians are leaving in droves, not because of Israeli oppression, but because of the intolerance and violence of Palestinian Muslims that has been directed toward them,” Sibley added.
Sibley took particular offense at the NCC’s accusation that Israelis and Palestinians are dehumanized by Christians who hold to the special role of Israel in the end times. As stated in the NCC brochure, “The conclusion of this drama involves the death of all non-Christians, including Jews, through apocalyptic warfare or divine judgment. Given these beliefs, even many Jews wonder if the movement promotes proper Jewish-Christian relationships and question the nature of the movement’s support for Israel.”
Sibley, however, said the love expressed by Christians is based on God’s love for the Jewish people “because the Bible is Jewish, their faith is Jewish and their Savior is the Jewish Messiah.” Educational and social services have been offered by Christians to aid new immigrants to Israel and others, including Palestinians who have been the recipients of Christian compassion, he said.
Rejecting the NCC description of Christian Zionism as a recent innovation, Sibley said it was part of the restorationist movement in England and found among the Moravians in Germany and Holland at least 350 years ago. He charged the NCC with drawing on “replacement theology” for their characterization.
“In this view, Israel has been rejected because of the crucifixion of Jesus and has been replaced by the church,” Sibley said in explaining replacement theology. “Therefore, all of the promises of God to Israel have been transferred to the church.” Sibley turns to Romans 11:1ff to demonstrate the Apostle Paul’s unequivocal denial of that conclusion.
Sibley said he regards replacement theology as a teaching of contempt that has consistently led to anti-Semitism. “This leads to a position regarding Zionism that is very close to that of Islam,” he noted. “In Islam the Jews are destined by Allah to always remain oppressed and in a second-class status. It is therefore an affront to Allah for the state of Israel to exist.”
In contrast, Christian Zionism did not begin with dispensationalism and is broader than any eschatological position, Sibley said, adding, “Certainly it is much older than the liberalism of the National Council of Churches.”
Sibley said the concerns raised by the NCC brochure strike at the very character of God. “Our God is a faithful God who keeps His Word. When He makes an unconditional covenant, He will surely keep His Word. God’s faithfulness to Israel should inspire confidence that God will also keep His promises to Christians, in spite of our sin and unfaithfulness,” Sibley said.
“We should share the Gospel with both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and pray for the day when “all Israel will be saved,” Sibley reminded, quoting Romans 11:26.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN. The brochures can be downloaded and reproduced in English and Spanish for those who wish to know more about the ideology. Go to http://www.ncccusa.org/pdfs/christianzionismbrochure.pdf. For more information and resources from the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies visit www.pascheinstitute.org or call 214-818-1309. Bachelor’s and master’s studies are offered with a minor or major in Jewish studies through the Criswell College.