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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  • Yours is a very helpful perspective, Michelle. The Church needs it, and I’m thankful for voices like yours to challenge the prevailing Western and decidedly Gentile interpretation of Israel. Thanks!

  • Tim

    I can’t understand the replacement mindset when I read passages like John 10:16 – “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
    Jesus says he will have one flock and they will be under one Shepherd, but he doesn’t say that the new sheep constitute a whole new flock in replacement of the old one.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking, Michelle!

  • Pastora Rhonda

    Michelle, thank for your thoughts as a Jewish believer. This is an issue with which I have struggled. Some questions… do you think there are two active covenants now? Is the New Convenant a replacement for the old or a fulfillment…or do you see at as something else??? Do you see a kingdom distinction between you as a Jewish believer and me as a gentile believer? If I have been “grafted in” do the promises of God not extend to me just as if I have Jewish DNA? How are God’s promises to Ancient Israel applicable to today’s Jewish believers….and how to they apply to Jewish people who do not see Christ as Messiah?

    I hear the pain and sorrow you express when you say what you “hear” when someone says that the Church has replaced Israel. Sometimes I feel hurt and sad because I am not Jewish….like I am not “as much” one of God’s chosen as a Jewish believer or even a Jewish person who does not recognize Christ as Messiah. I wonder if I am the only non-Jewish person who feels these things… When I read the OT and the NT I feel connected to the people. I feel like they are “my” people. However, when we begin to look deeper at what applies to Jewish people (believers and non) and separate those things from those “grafted in” (me) I begin to wonder about that connection. If Abraham is my father as he is yours, are we not sisters and joint heirs to God’s promises to him? Am I less “Jewish” than Ruth?

    I realize there are volumes written that attempt to address some of these questions but maybe you could articulate some of the answers in a succinct way that would help me to understand? Text books often seem stale, “high minded” and often lacking in the personal connection made in dialogue. Thanks!

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Pastora Rhonda, I celebrate your Jewish heart! I have known a few others who have expressed the same things you have about longing to be Jewish, and I am SO glad they’re in my life. They are people, like Corrie ten Boom, who would lay down their lives for the Jewish people when most of the rest of the world would turn away or join in persecution. I heard that same deep commitment in your words – the exact kind of commitment Ruth expressed to Naomi! We are indeed sisters in faith, joint heirs with Christ, both connected to the Vine because of his grace towards each of us.

      I do believe the New Covenant is a fulfillment of the Old (First) Covenant. You’re right – dozens and dozens of books have been written on the topic, and I won’t do any of them any justice in this brief comments sections. Here’s a summary of part of a statement I gave to another friend: God gave his chosen people the mission to be lights to the nations (nations = Gentiles) – see. Is. 42:6. Jesus came to embody this calling (John 9:15) and when he reminded his Jewish hearers that they were the light of the world (Mt. 5:14 ff), he was reminding them of who they were called to be. Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus is a fulfillment of the mission and a shared inheritance.

      Are there two Covenants in effect today? No, I do not believe there are. I do, however, believe that Acts 15 gives us a good picture of how we are to live based on the “tongue, tribe and nation” in which he placed us. Acts 15 offers rules for how Gentiles are to live in harmony with their Jewish brothers and sisters in faith. The Jerusalem council in this chapter, however, does not instruct Jewish believers to chuck the life they were living as Jews and start living as Gentiles.

      Does this make sense? What is your understanding of this subject?