From the perspective of many Jews, it was bad enough when the 15.7 million- member Southern Baptist Convention last week appointed a minister to head up its effort to evangelize the Jews.
But it signaled a new and dangerous era to many in the organized Jewish community when the largest Protestant denomination in America then adopted a resolution singling out the Jewish people as a target for Christian evangelism.
It is now “theological open hunting season on Jews,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs.
He described the development as a “form of spiritual arrogance of the highest order.”
Not everyone agreed that it was cause for alarm.
The resolution adopted by the 14,000 Southern Baptists attending the group’s annual convention, held last week in New Orleans, said, in part: “Our evangelism efforts have largely neglected the Jewish people, both at home and abroad.”
It went on to decry the “dual covenant” position held by Catholicos, most mainstream Protestant denominations and other Christian groups.
These groups believe that God has a unique, irrevocable bond with the Jewish people and as a result, Jews are not required to believe in Jesus as the Messiah to be divinely blessed.
“There has been an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved, or to claim, for whatever reason, that Christians have neither the right nor obligation to proclaim the gospel to the Jewish people,” the resolution said.
The resolution urged Southern Baptists to evangelize Jews and to pray “for the salvation of the Jewish people.”
“There is evidence of growing responsiveness among the Jewish people in some areas of our nation and our world,” the resolution said, referring to the Jews who have converted to Christianity in recent years.
Although no one knows the exact number of conversions, the 1990 National Jewish Population Study found that 20 percent of American Jews integrate Christian practice into their lives to some degree.
At a time of growing assimilation among American Jews, Rudin said the best response the Jewish community could offer is to educate Jews about their heritage.
There has been controversy in the past surrounding the attitude of the Southern Baptists toward Jews. In 1980, Bailey Smith, then president of the denomination, said, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.”
The denomination historically has been a strong supporter of the State of Israel.
However, some experts in interreligious affairs said that support stems from the Southern Baptists’ own theological goal of bringing about Jesus’ second coming.
Among those in the Jewish community expressing serious alarm over the Southern Baptists’ new policy were: leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, which together represent between 85 percent and 90 percent of American Jews; Agudath Israel of America; the Anti-Defamation League; B’nai B’rith International; the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, expressed little more than bemusement.
“We are not exactly losing sleep over this,” he wrote in a statement. “Being perennially optimistic, we look forward to future resolutions from our brethren of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledging the gospel truth that Judaism should be respected and that Jews are not put on earth just to give employment to missionaries.”
Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who founded and runs the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, which tries to build bridges between the evangelical and Jewish communities, said the new policy would probably have little impact on the work the group now does.
“The reality is that there is no difference this week from last on Jewish evangelism,” he said.
“There has been pressure from within the convention against some people who preach the `double covenant’ idea,” he said, adding that “this was intended to reaffirm the commitment to evangelizing all people, including the Jewish people.”
Eckstein said the amount of money they have earmarked for the new policy reflects a superficial effort.
The $100,000 that denomination officials said they plan to spend “within a budget of millions does not indicate anything very serious,” he said. “If the SBC wanted to raise $10 million for Jewish evangelism, they could.”
The Southern Baptist Convention’s new coordinator of Jewish ministries is James Sibley, a minister who has spent the last 13 years in Israel leading several of the about 40 Messianic congregations that exist in the Jewish state.
He authored the new policy about evangelizing Jews. It was passed without discussion by delegates to the group’s annual gathering when time ran short in the resolutions session.
Sibley, who was not born a Jew, said in a telephone interview that his first order of business will be to educate Southern Baptists about Judaism and Jewish sensitivities to terms such as “Christ” and “evangelize.”
Picking up on the success of methods first used by Messianic groups such as Jews for Jesus, which cloak Christian theology in Jewish language and symbols, Sibley said he plans to teach Southern Baptists to use the same techniques. Those techniques are already employed in the 30 Messianic fellowships that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The congregations have thousands of congregants, many of them couples in which one partner is Jewish and the other is not, said Larry Lewis, president of the Southern Baptists’ Home Mission Board, the section in charge of the denomination’s 4,857 North American missionaries.
Of the new effort to target Jews, he said, “If a church is in a community where Jews reside, we’re going to do our best to reach those Jews for Christ.”
“We would make evangelistic efforts proclaiming the Gospel in predominantly Jewish areas, including door-to-door witness in the homes of people, sometimes through television and radio broadcasts, and street corner evangelism,” he said from his office in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.
Since 1857, the denomination has passed 10 resolutions proclaiming the need specifically to evangelize Jews, Lewis said. And Sibley is not the first missionary appointed to work specifically with the Jews.
The first was appointed in 1921, and someone was always working in the role until about eight years ago, when the position was vacated through a retirement and, because of budget cutbacks, left unfilled, Lewis said.
Still, Southern Baptists’ evangelism of Jews has not been as focused as it should have been because “we probably overreacted to the Holocaust and the great sense of concern and gravity over all the atrocities that resulted from the Nazi regime,” Lewis said.
“Perhaps we just for one reason or another felt it might be offensive to make a special effort” to convert Jews.
But the denomination’s leadership has now changed, he said, to one with a more theologically conservative orientation that feels the need to stress the conviction that only through belief in Jesus can anyone have a relationship with God.