When You Say The Church Has Replaced Israel…

When You Say The Church Has Replaced Israel… June 25, 2013

When I used to hear Christian speakers glibly toss out statements like, “The Church has replaced Israel” as if they were chucking an empty fast food bag into the trash, I would inwardly cringe, but didn’t always have the opportunity to challenge the speaker. The last time I checked,  leaping onto a chair in the middle of a church service,  calling a foul and diving into a theological debate was not socially acceptable. I’m glad to know that Jesus himself challenged a bad idea or two during his ministry, sans the dramatic leap up onto a chair.

This “replacement” language, and the elaborate theological structures that are constructed on top of it, are rarely a blessing to Jewish people, who inevitably come out on the short end of this particular stick. These “replacement” words show up frequently in Christian circles, in all sorts of contexts. I’ve heard them used in messages designed to motivate the Church to action. I’ve found them in lengthy, fringe-y screeds like this. I’ve certainly seen them used with confident precision by those holding to various forms of Covenant theology (click here for a neo-Reformed sample  and here to see a menu of choices from a classic Reformed perspective).

I understand that a few words on a blog rarely have the power to shift a core piece of someone’s theology. But I would like to help you hear what I hear as a Jewish believer in Jesus when some of my brothers and sisters in faith say those words to me. When you say “The Church has replaced Israel”, I hear:

  • It’s OK to treat the salvation story found in the Old Testament as metaphor and preamble.  
  • It’s OK to frame the Jewish Jesus in a Gentile context, and to gloss over the fact that the early Church was predominately Jewish.
  • It’s OK to state that God always keeps his promises, but then turn around and insist that this doesn’t mean he keeps the promises he repeatedly confirmed (including during times of national discipline) to his Chosen People throughout millenia of B.C. history. 
  • It’s OK to redefine Israel, negating the Covenant relationship God has with my people, who’ve survived dispersion, persecution, and a third of our number put to death two generations ago by people who bent your words into the twisted cross of National Socialism. 
  • It’s OK not to engage Jewish believers when these sorts of theological questions arise, as their Jewish identity is a non-issue in your system. 

It’s not OK.

And this is where language on a computer screen falls short. I am not angry, though the replacement words make me sad, and sometimes leave me feeling a little vulnerable in ways the speakers of those words may not understand.

So instead of standing on a chair, I write my response in measured words here in blogland. They are a prayer for the body of Christ, of which I am a grateful member. I remember in this prayer that Jesus sought from his Father incredible mercy to give to those who “didn’t know what they were doing“. And they are a prayer for my people, because reconciliation, not replacement, is God’s desire for them.

For each one of us.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, as well as your questions, challenges to my line of thinking, or even your own addition to the “It’s OK” list, above. 

If you aren’t sure why these words send off warning flares among most Jewish believers, click here for a useful, if lengthy orientation how the various grafted-in branches of the family tree interpret the relationship between the Church and Israel. I don’t necessarily subscribe to every point the author makes in this post, but it’s a helpful intro if you’ve never considered replacement language before. 

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