I read with interest Dennis Prager’s article expressing his sorrow over President Bush’s recent speech at a Jews for Jesus gathering in Texas. While he strongly defended Evangelical Christians in general, Mr. Prager joined virtually every other Jewish writer in denouncing the Messianic Jewish group. I was particularly interested in his observation that to Jews, the claim of Jews for Jesus that they remain Jewish in spite of their Christian beliefs is analogous to Evangelicals’ reaction to Mormons’ claim to be Christians. While the disdain expressed by Jews and some Evangelicals is similar, there is an important difference in the dynamics of those relationships that needs to be clarified in this space.
Whether or not one agrees with Jews in their rejection of Jews for Jesus and other Messianic groups that target Jews for conversion, it’s hard to argue that Jews don’t have the right to determine who is a Jew, at least in the religious sense. If Jewish leaders choose to accept atheists as Jews while rejecting those who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, it is their right and privilege to do so.
A somewhat different dynamic prevails in Christendom. However passionately Evangelicals may promote their form of Christianity, no one has given them the right to be the arbiters of who is and is not a Christian. It’s not like Evangelicals were the original Christians and remained a distinct Christian people for thousands of years until Mormon upstarts got it in their heads to call themselves Christians and then start converting Evangelicals to another faith while claiming to remain Christians. In truth, if we take the conversion of John Wesley in 1738 as the beginning of the Evangelical movement, then Evangelicals have only a 100-year head start on the LDS Church, which of course claims to have been the original Christian Church restored to earth in the last days.
Another difference between the dynamics at play here is that Messianic groups do care in general about what Jews think of their religion; Mormons tend not to be overly concerned about litmus tests that might be applied to their beliefs by other Christians. By way of example, I learned a new Romanian expression this evening when my lovely wife had this to say after I pointed out to her some recent Evangelical statements about LDS theology: “Mă doare în cot (‘It hurts my elbow’).”
While I don’t believe that anyone should be targeting Jews for conversion, in the end it is the responsibility of rabbis and other Jewish leaders to make Judaism so meaningful and relevant to fellow Jews that Messianic Jewish groups will be unable to succeed in their conversion efforts. When the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual conference in Salt Lake City 15 years ago and announced its intention to convert as many Mormons as possible during that week, the LDS Church encouraged its members to open their doors to their Baptist friends and greet them with open arms. I’m not worried at all that Baptists, Evangelicals or other Christians will try to target Mormons for conversion. The fact that Jewish leaders are worried about Jews for Jesus shows that they still have a lot of work to do in the Jewish retention department.