Tom and Jeannie Elliff talk about their passion for strengthening families during the Southern Baptist Convention's first-ever Kingdom Family Rally June 16 in Phoenix. (BP photo by Kent Harville)
A Southern Baptist Convention leader compares the Jewish religion to a "deadly tumor" in an analogy illustrating what he says is a Christian mandate to evangelize Jews.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., says the New Testament is clear that Christians are to proclaim the gospel to Jewish persons. "In the Book of Acts and in the apostolic age and in the opening chapter of Romans, you see there is no question about the necessity of Jewish evangelism," Mohler told a June 16 meeting of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, Baptist Press reported.
While Jewish evangelism is controversial today, Mohler said Christians do Jewish people a disservice by failing to confront them with the gospel. He compared it to a person with a potentially deadly tumor, who would rather have a doctor give a truthful diagnosis than say all is well to avoid offending him.
In the same way, telling a Jewish person she is in danger of hell "is the ultimate act of Christian love," Mohler said.
Muddying the issue of Jewish outreach, Mohler said, is the idea that Jewishness is now seen as an ethnic designation rather than a religious identity, causing some to decry any attempt at Christianizing Jews as "ethnic genocide."
"Judaism has been turned into a folkway, a way of life, and it is now considered impossible in a postmodern society to address Jewish people theologically," Mohler said.
He also decried a declaration by Pope John Paul II that sincere Jews, Muslims, Christians and followers of other monotheistic faiths are saved. "Sincerity is now seen as the entire ground of salvation," he said.
Mohler said whether Christians will evangelize Jews is a simple matter of obeying the Bible. He said Romans description of the gospel as "the power of God unto salvation for the Jew first and then the Greek" not only indicates a mandate to reach Jews, but establishes it as a priority.
But a former Baptist pastor who specializes in Jewish-Christian studies challenged Mohler's reading of the New Testament.
Christianity did not emerge as a movement distinct from Judaism until the second century, said David Yeager, chaplain at HanoverCollege in Indiana. Yeager said the discussion framed in the New Testament is not about Christian evangelization of Jews. It is rather an internal Jewish debate over two questions: the place of Gentiles within the Jesus movement and about which form of Judaism—the Jesus movement or the Pharisees—would survive after the destruction of the JerusalemTemple in 70 A.D.
"It is a misreading of the New Testament to project post-Constantinian Christianity on the words and intentions of the New Testament," Yeager said.
Yeager also said it "seems to serve no good purpose" to describe Judaism as a tumor or in other derogatory ways.
While serving as pastor of a Baptist church in Maryland for 21 years, Yeager began work on a Ph.D. from BaltimoreHebrewUniversity studying Baptist-Jewish relations, which he says may be even worse now than when SBC president Bailey Smith grabbed headlines in 1980 with his infamous quote, "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."
Jewish groups protested loudly in 1996 when the SBC adopted a resolution calling on the denomination to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jews." That same year, the North American Mission Board appointed a home missionary to coordinate outreach among Jewish persons.
In 1999, the SBC International Mission Board distributed a booklet focusing prayers on Jewish evangelism during Judaism's High Holy Days, which Jewish leaders criticized as insensitive and disrespectful. Other prayer booklets also featured prayer for conversion of Hindu and Muslim worshipers during religious holidays.
Mohler, who has been outspoken in his defense of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel on television talk shows, said he recognized the church carries a legacy of anti-Semitism, but he believes faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the Jews will allow Christians to "overcome this ignoble aspect" of history, according to the Baptist Press report.
"If Dr. Mohler thinks that the Christian community can 'overcome its ignoble' history with the Jews only by evangelizing them out of existence, then he has a fairly deficient understanding of the history of Jewish-Christian relations," Yeager said.