Epistle to the Jews

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

Still, he admits being frustrated by the high-decibel static he gets from the Jewish community. "Homeless people don't get upset when you tell them there's an answer," Sibley gripes, making a strikingly odd comparison. "Secularism and nothingness," he claims, are the bigger threat to Jews than Christian missionaries.

As evidence, he points to record rates of "intermarriage" between Jews and gentiles, a development that groups in the Jewish community, including the American Jewish Committee, have mobilized to reverse by encouraging more activities for Jewish singles and improving religious education.

Mark Briskman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's regional office in Dallas, counters that Sibley is ignorant of a nascent revival in Jewish spiritual life. "There's a dynamic and growing Orthodox community in Dallas," he says, "while enrollment in Jewish day schools is at an all-time high."

Reverend Jim Sibley's resolution to intensify Jewish evangelism efforts passed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996. Now he heads up that cause.
Reverend Jim Sibley's resolution to intensify Jewish evangelism efforts passed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996. Now he heads up that cause.

Do any Jewish leaders support Sibley? He points to one rabbi who defends Southern Baptist efforts. Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and talk-radio host, heads Toward Tradition, a politically conservative Jewish equivalent of the Christian Coalition, based near Seattle. An author who blasts Jewish criticism of evangelicals, Lapin peddles the notion that Jews will be assured freedom only when the United States is a firmly "Christian" nation. His rhetorical style is direct, if specious. During an interview, he asks, "As long as [conversion appeals] are verbal, and do not involve a .357 Magnum pressed to my head, how can I possibly protest?"

Although Sibley doesn't command a crack staff of missionaries, he is far from alone professionally in his vocation. His denomination has 5,000 missionaries in the United States and Canada, as well as 4,000 abroad. There are also several independent Christian ministries devoted to evangelizing Jews, including Chosen People Ministries, Ariel Ministries, and the well-known Jews for Jesus, while many Bible colleges sponsor specific Jewish evangelism programs. Individual Southern Baptists and other Christians donate to these groups, and rhetorical support from Sibley and other Southern Baptist leaders doesn't hurt the cause.

Despite the support, the coalition of groups must continually answer three charges leveled by opponents.

The first deals simply with Sibley's arrogance: Why has the Convention refused to yield or make, at the very least, a cosmetic concession in light of the indignation from Jewish leaders?

Sibley acknowledges that most other groups would wither in the face of charges of arrogance and anti-Semitism. "Baptists have said Scripture is our authority," Sibley says. "No man, no group, no teaching can contradict it. If that's not politically correct, that's really not our problem." He cites a Bible verse, Romans 1:16 in the New Testament, for his non-negotiable stand, which orders the Gospel to be spread "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Romans is a letter from Paul, the "apostle to the gentiles" who spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean during the church's early days.

Sibley splits a theological hair at this point, though. He says he doesn't buy the assertions of some hard-line evangelicals, who, citing the New Testament book of Revelation, believe that Jewish people must be converted to Christianity to bring the second coming of Christ. "There's not something man can do to twist God's arm," he says.

Nevertheless, such thinking is alive in evangelical pockets, where Christians and Messianic Jews talk hopefully of gathering in this day 144,000 Jews from the 12 tribes of Israel to proclaim the message of Jesus, an event prophesied in Revelation's doomsday narrative. One need not be on the far fringe to accept such reasoning: Like many other Christians, Sibley agrees that the birth of the Jewish nation is proof that Biblical "end times" have commenced.

This leads to a second assertion among critics of Jewish evangelism: that lurking deep underneath this apocalyptic worldview is the same old anti-Semitism, which could flare up when most Jews reject Christian evangelists. According to some evangelicals, this would postpone the return of Jesus.

To an extent, Sibley downplays the idea of Jews as a special people with a future role in prophecy. Ultimately, he argues, Jews are merely another people who need to hear the message of the Gospels. "The irony is that if there is any group that is neglected, it is the Jewish people," Sibley says. "Jewish people are in some respects no different than anyone else. They are just as separated from God as anyone else."

Last is the most serious charge leveled by opponents of Jewish evangelism efforts. That is, by targeting Jews for conversion, evangelicals seek to create a world without Jews, which critics like the American Jewish Committee's Rabbi Rudin say amounts to de facto anti-Semitism. (Others, such as Briskman of the Anti-Defamation League, disagree and stop short of the anti-Semitism label, instead calling the practice profoundly insensitive.)

Southern Baptists have a rejoinder. They claim Jewish people can convert but retain their Jewishness by worshipping in so-called Messianic Jewish congregations. Judaism holds that once you accept Jesus, you have severed your tie to the ancient religion, but Sibley and Jewish converts aren't dissuaded. "Most Jewish people who accept Jesus," Sibley asserts, "feel more Jewish than they ever did before."

On Saturday mornings at Baruch Ha Shem, a Messianic congregation on Belt Line Road in North Dallas, smiling door greeters say "Shabbat Shalom" to visitors and the faithful. Outside, a Star of David decorates the street-side sign. The building's Jewish appearance has attracted at least two hate crimes. One Ku Klux Klan member who fired shots at the edifice in 1997 during a Saturday service later expressed remorse for attacking "those good Christians."

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