Baptists Discuss Ways to Build Bridges to Jews


Conversion should not be a hidden agenda in interfaith friendships between Baptists and Jews, but that does not mean Christians cannot talk about Jesus, said two panelists at a screening of a new Baptist Center for Ethics DVD titled "Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists' Relationships With Jews."

"I find that at least in the case of my friend the Reform Jewish rabbi, he gets that," John Finley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., said of Arnold Belzer, rabbi of Congregation Mickve Israel. "He understands that a part of being a Christian is to want to talk about your faith. He expects Christians to want to talk about Jesus."

Finley said that allows him to talk freely with Belzer, whom he describes as "probably one of my best clergy friends in the city," about "who Jesus Christ is to me and what that is about."

"But we don't have that conversation with a desire on my part to do a number on him," Finley said. "It more freely comes out of our relationship and our conversations. But I think he really does understand there is a missionary component to being a Christian. He would object, as I think most of his congregation would object, if that's done in great violence."

For example, Finley recalled attending a confirmation service for middle school students at the Jewish Temple in which practically every child reported that a Christian friend had said he or she was going to hell.

"That was troubling to me, that that was the only kind of witness that was being offered," Finley said.

Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., is in the process of writing a second book with Rabbi Rami Shapiro. The two met during a community conversation about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

Out of that experience, Smith said, "We decided that he needed to know at least one Christian clergyperson well, and I ought to know at least one Jewish rabbi well."

Smith said he and Shapiro also talk openly about Jesus.

"Rami expects me to be what I am, a Christian," Smith said. "He knows of my confessional commitment to Christ. He knows that I try to find my way in light of Christ, and we talk openly about how I got that way and how others get that way."

"Rami would also be up front to say that 'I will never become a Christian,' which I would expect from Rami," he added. "His agenda is not to make me into a Reform Jew. My agenda really is not to turn him into a Christian, though I may witness to what I believe in the process of our conversation, or there's no honest conversation."

Smith said few Baptists understand the emotional scars left by the Holocaust.

"You cannot imagine what you are uncovering the moment you start acting like a stereotypical American Baptist Christian out to convert someone," Smith said. "On the other hand our friendship, I have no idea where it will lead, and I don't try to control."

"The evangelism that I was taught as a child attempted to control the outcome," he said. "You ask these questions, you send people down this road and you close the sale. I have rejected that method, not only for Jewish friends but for anybody."

Asked if it is appropriate to tell a Jewish person he or she is going to hell, Smith replied: "Quite frankly where I'm at on that question, not only in terms of Jewish friends but anyone, I take very seriously this idea of 'Judge not lest you be judged.' I think it ought to be a controlling maxim for all of us."

"You have to leave some things up to God," Smith said. "Do what you do. Be who you are. Bear a witness to who Jesus is in your life, in your tradition in the church, but I think we exceed the bounds, frankly, of the New Testament when we presume to say that Rami would be going to hell. I just don't think that is explicit in the New Testament. I think the seriousness of deciding how you are going to relate to God and to your neighbor is explicit in the New Testament."

"We Baptists are undoubtedly people who just want to tie it all up in a neat package and have all the answers, but as far as I can tell, 'Judge not lest you be judged' is sort of the preliminary maxim to everything that follows," Smith said.

Otherwise, he said, one runs the risk "of becoming just another self-righteous Christian who thinks they can predict what God is going to do."

"I'll leave it with God," he said.

Smith reminded that "some awful things have been done by Christians to Christians" in the spirit of "I'm just going to save that poor soul from an eternity in hell."

"I don't think we're wise enough to handle it," he said. "Be yourself. Say what you think, and be prepared to deal with the dialogue and consequences that follow as you do it. It doesn't let me off the hook to be a living witness, but it does let me off the hook in terms of determining what might come of that witness. It lets me off the hook of deciding what's going to happen. That's just not my call."

Finley agreed. "I think our Jewish friends expect us to speak about Jesus," he said. "I don't think it's our business to do the work of God or have the mind of God about who is going to heaven or hell."

The screening and discussion were held Thursday during a workshop session of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, Tenn.

"I would love to see this discussion multiplied a thousand-fold, because I think it would be helpful for a lot of churches and individuals and congregations," said Kevin Heifner, chairman of the Baptist Center for Ethics board. "You could basically insert Islam or Hinduism. It doesn't matter in a sense what the other religion is. We need to find a more sane approach coming at it from our Baptist background and then the neighbor part becomes fill-in-the-blank for me.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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