Epistle to the Jews

Southern Baptist missionary Jim Sibley's job is to call Jews to Jesus. Is anyone listening?

Yet as lucidly as Sibley explains his life's work, he cannot assuage the outrage he has kicked up in the Jewish community. Professions of Christian goodwill don't cut it, detractors say. While Sibley claims only noble intentions, Rabbi Rudin thinks the message is already becoming warped as it filters down to the pews. Reports of harassment and pressure to convert, Rudin says, have already come from high schools and workplaces, mostly in the South -- for example, he's heard of supervisors inviting Jewish subordinates to "voluntary" prayer sessions at lunch.

Jews, of course, aren't the only group targeted by Southern Baptists. Recently, Southern Baptists launched efforts to evangelize Muslims and Hindus by publishing prayer guides timed to religious holidays, condemning those faiths in even stronger terms than those used in Jewish-themed publications. "More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism," laments one such guide.

Other Christian denominations have blasted Sibley's efforts. In Dallas, a coalition of 16 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim leaders released a letter in January criticizing the Southern Baptist prayer guides. "As Christians, we are taught to love our neighbors," the missive read. "This love is not expressed by referring to the faiths of our neighbors in insulting and hurtful ways." Bill Leonard, the Baptist historian and dean of a nondenominational divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, asks: "Will this be the next issue Southern Baptists have to apologize for?" -- referring to recent Southern Baptist mea culpas over slavery and civil rights. "The issue of evangelism is part of who Baptists are and should be celebrated," Leonard says. "But we must use the same care and compassion of Jesus and learn not to dehumanize others. There's a thin line between evangelical zeal and religious bigotry."

Robin Rose, leader of the small Messianic congregation Adat Shalom, says his group wants to retain the "beautiful richness of Judaism."
Robin Rose, leader of the small Messianic congregation Adat Shalom, says his group wants to retain the "beautiful richness of Judaism."
"It's not easy to forget what Christians have done" to Jews, says Scott Jones, a Methodist minister and evangelism professor at SMU's Perkins School of Theology.
"It's not easy to forget what Christians have done" to Jews, says Scott Jones, a Methodist minister and evangelism professor at SMU's Perkins School of Theology.

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have long reaped criticism by dismissing Judaism. "God does not hear the prayers of Jews," intoned the Reverend Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in Dallas 20 years ago. When he repeated the line in 1987, he got a standing ovation.

More recently, the controversy over Jewish evangelism resurfaced when members of the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Dallas in 1996, passed a resolution to intensify their efforts to evangelize Jews. Three years later, when the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board issued a prayer guide to direct members in prayers for Jews, the controversy boiled over. Titled "Days of Awe: Prayer for Jews," the pocket-size guide encourages readers to pray for Jews during their 10 most significant holy days, from the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Each page of the booklet, which Sibley helped write, covers a different day and features a short profile on Jewish populations of different nations. "As Jewish people contemplate their own sinfulness," it reads, "pray that they will see there is nothing they can do to merit God's forgiveness."

Last year, Jewish leaders reacted with sharp indignation to the new guide. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, decried an "attempt to taint our High Holidays with prayer urging our community to convert."

Sibley's efforts are, to no one's surprise, backed by the Southern Baptist Convention leadership. "We are standing in an open marketplace of religious ideas," wrote the Rev. Patterson, president of the Atlanta-based Convention, in a September letter to Foxman, "where it is perfectly permissible for all people to share their most cherished ideas as long as they do not coerce anyone else to a position."

Jim Sibley is now working on another prayer guide, this one aimed to help Southern Baptists better understand Jewish history and anti-Semitism so they can be more sensitive evangelists.

After three years of discussion and debate within church committees, his "Resolution on Jewish Evangelism" was adopted at the Convention's 1996 annual meeting. It cited "an organized effort...to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved," which refers to post-Holocaust Roman Catholic edicts that the Jewish, pre-Christian covenant with God is still in effect (i.e., no Jesus is necessary for Jews).

A former Southern Baptist missionary to Israel for 13 years, where he planted churches and aided Arab Christians -- and later, Jewish converts to Christianity -- Sibley has, since 1996, coordinated the denomination's "Jewish Missions" office. Before he stepped in, the position had gone unfilled for eight years for budgetary reasons. His job, he explains, is to "motivate and equip Southern Baptists to share their faith with their friends." He goes to conferences and speaks to congregations, seminaries, Bible colleges, and local associations about bringing Jews to Jesus.

Because Sibley has strong roots and family here, the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, based near Atlanta, lets him keep an office in Dallas. As a child, he attended First Baptist, and at 9, he accepted Jesus as his savior. At age 14, he admits he still hadn't met any Jewish people but realized his calling nonetheless after inspiration from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.

"I felt God wanted me to bring the Gospel to the Jewish people," he says, "whether they received it or not."

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