Advocating for Jewish Ethnic Identity Within the Church

Over at First Things Mark Movsesian has responded to my post about the growing support among medical professionals and politicians for a ban on circumcision in Scandinavia. I believe he has not only missed the point of my post, but has falsely characterized my response to him and others like him. I would like to address his response with two points.

First, Movsesian is wrong to characterize me as critical of Christians for speaking out about the ban on non-therapuetic circumcision of boys. Early in his response he quotes my post and after the quotation marks end, he adds an additional statement in the form of a rhetorical question that wrongly insinuates my perspective. Movsesian writes:

Willitts suggests that we are being inconsistent, perhaps even hypocritical. “The Christian tradition has little high ground on which to stand when it comes to the issue of banning Jewish practices,” he writes. After all, the “Gentile church” has prohibited circumcision for millennia as part of its “supersessionistic theology.” Who are Christians to criticize others when they, too, seek to end the practice? (emphasis mine)

I stand by my statement, but I did not say “Who are Christians to criticize others when they too seek to end the practice?” Because in truth, I support what Movsesian and others are doing in their protests of this move on the part of secular human rights advocates. In point of fact, I am in sympathy with his commentary in the original piece.

Second, and most importantly, Movsesian missed the point of the post altogether, and that was possibly as much my fault as his as I made the point perhaps too subtlety. What I keyed in on in the article was Movsesian comment that “Most likely, a ban would simply cause Jews and Muslims to leave Scandinavia in large numbers” (emphasis mine). I totally agree with his assessment of the consequence should this become the law of the land. What happens if an institution like a government bans ethnic identity markers, that ethnic identity at the very least diminishes in that sphere, but more likely, it totally disappears.

My reflection in the post was that this is exactly what happened in the early centuries of the church to Jewish ethnic identity. Christians banned ethnic Jewish identity from the ranks of the Christian faithful. Recently David Rudolph in the book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations wrote this succinct summary of the Gentile Church’s relationship to Jewish identity:

Direct evidence of Jews who practiced Messianic Judaism after the First Council of Nicaea [325] is scant. This is because the view that Jews could not be Christians and remain Jews was backed by Canon law and Constantine’s sword. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 was the first ecumenical council to ban Messianic Jews from the church. Messianic Jews were required to renounce all ties to Judaism through professions of faith like the one from the Church of Constantinople (“I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom”). From the fourth century until the modern period, millions of Jews converted to Christianity and left behind their Jewish identity (25 emphasis mine).

My post was pointing out the irony that we Gentile Christians who banned Jewish identity within our own sphere are now some of the most vocal advocates for the ethnic identity of Jews in another sphere. My post was meant to provoke an introspective dialogue among Christians about the church’s supersessionistic theology that resulted in the disappearance of Jewish identity within the confines of the Messianic faith. In my view, the total absence of Jewish believers in Jesus within the community of Messiah faith was not the inevitable progress of the gospel of grace. In other words, it didn’t have to go that way, and, more than that, it was not meant to go that way!  The church simply got it wrong on the Jewish question.

Movsesian’s claim that “From the apostolic period until today, Christians have regarded baptism as the substitute for ritual circumcision” is simply not true. For the earliest Jewish believers in Messiah from the first (NT period) and even into the fourth and fifth centuries and now again in the modern Messianic Jewish movement, Jewish ethnic identity represented by circumcision, was/is not replaced by a new Christian ethnic identity represented by baptism. As evidence, I note here Acts 21:20-24 which tells the story of Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem. A rumor had circulated that Paul had been teaching Jews in the diaspora “not to circumcise their children”, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, advised Paul to perform a purification ritual, to show “everyone that there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you live in obedience to the law”. Both Paul and James all believers in the Messiah (Jew and non-Jew) were and are to baptized, but that did/does not erase their specific ethnic differences (for a Jew “living in obedience to the law”). Rather baptism reconciled and unified Jew and Gentile under the Lordship of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus (Gal 3:28).

I think this particular circumstance (the potential ban of circumcision and the Christian response – appropriate I would add) reveals a glaring blind spot among most within the Christian tradition that needs to be addressed. I think it is appropriate for Christians to defend the rights of Jews and Muslims in Scandinavia. That wasn’t the point the post. The point I was making was that the church is guilty of banning Jewish ethnic identity and the result was the same. What Mr. Movsesian fails to realize is that Christian Jews, if we call them that, did build and continue to build sukkot in celebration of the festival of Tabernacles in the fall of every year.

The Gentile church needs to notice that it again has Messianic Jews in its midst and must rethink its unreflected presuppostions about Jewish ethnic identity and Christianity. That was the point.

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  • Psutton247

    Well said.

  • LA

    So does the desire to allow for Jewish ethnic identity take precedence over the desire for human rights?

    • Andrew

      It depends on what constitutes a human right. Your question presumes that a Jewish practice conflicts with human rights.