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Evangelical Call for Conversion of Jews Concerns Jewish Leaders

American Jewish leaders have expressed deep concern about a statement issued by an international evangelical Christian group last month that places priority on the conversion of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called the evangelical statement “a desperate attempt to stop the clock of progress in interreligious relations.”

And Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said the statement was “the worst kind of Christian religious imperialism.”

Both called on Christians to repudiate the statement, and they expressed gratification that many had already done so.

They were reacting to a policy declaration issued by 15 members of the World Evangelical Fellowship, who met in Bermuda from April 26 to 29. It called for “the evangelization of the Jewish people.”

The statement, in particular, endorses the religious duality practiced by Hebrew Christians, known more commonly as “Jews for Jesus.”

It rebuffs those who characterize as “deceptive” the practice of converting Jews to Christianity while encouraging continued observance of Jewish customs.

The declaration, while rejecting “coercive or deceptive proselytizing,” says, “We deny that any inconsistency or deception is involved when Jewish Christians represent themselves as Messianic, completed or fulfilled Jews.”

AGAINST ‘TWO-COVENANT’ THEOLOGY

At the same time, the declaration repudiates anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews.

“Ours is a call to action,” Dr. James Packer said in the prepared news release accompanying the statement. Packer, a theology professor and author, teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Besides enjoining Christians to pursue with heightened vigor the conversion of Jews, the international evangelical body sharply criticizes those Christian churches that have abandoned the gold of Jewish conversion for that of interfaith dialogue based on equality and mutual respect.

Packer voiced particular concern over churches that espouse the “two-covenant” theology, saying it is “galloping” through the larger churches.

In the past few years, statements rejecting a conversion policy in favor of the belief that Jews also have a covenant with God have been released by the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ.

Pope John Paul II has referred to Jews as “our dear elder brothers,” and American Catholic bishops have underlined respect between Judaism and Christianity.

Dr. Vernon Grounds, president emeritus of Denver Seminary, who convened the conference, cited “a New Testament mandate to carry the gospel to all people, including Jews.”

In a telephone interview, Grounds said the declaration was a response to statements issued by a number of Protestant denominations that say “the Jewish people need not be evangelized.

“Our purpose was to discuss the whole issue and to express our concern with the hope that some of these denominational groups will recognize that we have a continuing obligation to preach the Gospel to everyone, but, as the New Testament says, to the Jew first,” he said.

‘MANDATE TO SHARE THE GOSPEL’

“We have a mandate to share the Gospel with all peoples, and certainly with the Jewish people,” he added.

But one evangelical leader who did not attend the Bermuda conference criticized the declaration, calling it “too simplistically worded and certainly far too harshly expressed.”

Dr. Marvin Wilson, a teacher of theology at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., said in a telephone interview that the statement “fails to address sufficiently some of the larger questions that both evangelicals and Jews are faced with today.”

He cited common social action agendas and a study program between evangelicals and Jews in Jerusalem.

Wilson, who has a Ph.D. in Semitic studies from Brandeis University and has co-edited three books on evangelical-Jewish ties, described evangelicals as “people who believe the Gospel message.”

He said evangelicals were to be found in all Christian denominations, including those that have released statements repudiating proselytism.

Asked point-blank if he endorsed the conversion of Jews, Wilson fell silent, then answered cautiously, avoiding a direct response.

“I don’t like to answer questions like that, because answers tend to get misconstrued,” he said. “God is the ultimate judge, and there are scriptures that say we are accountable.”

He cited the responsibility to spread the Gospel “to all people,” including Jews, adding: “Any Christian would be less than honest if he or she did not say that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s grace.”

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