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Southern Baptist Evangelism Sparks Religious Leaders’ Debate

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Fireworks exploded at a normally sedate convention of religious leaders when Southern Baptists sparred with Jews and other Christians over a recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution singling out Jews for evangelism.

The 15th National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations, held last week in Stamford, Conn., was the first time that a senior representative of the Southern Baptist Convention met with Jews to discuss the resolution.

Adopted in June by the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the resolution has sparked widespread outrage among Jews and some Christians.

In an interview after the workshop, Philip Roberts, the director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Interfaith Witness Department, charged the Jewish community with “reverse anti-Semitism” for refusing to dialogue with Jews who have converted to belief in Jesus, but who still call themselves Jews.

A panel discussion on Jewish evangelism of Jews was expected to last no more than an hour.

Instead, a passionate and angry debate raged Oct. 29 from 9 p.m. until nearly midnight as Roberts defended the resolution by saying that Baptists evangelize Jews “out of love.”

Many in the room were angered by Roberts’ attempt to include on the panel a man who was born a Jew, converted to Christianity, is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and actively tries to convert Jews.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and a member of the national planning committee for the national workshop, said the workshop’s policy does not allow missionaries of any sort to participate in the biannual event.

“Jews for Jesus have tried to come many times before to present their case, saying that they are the fulfillment of the workshop, which we, both Christians and Jews, do not believe.”

Trying to evangelize people “is not part of the Jewish-Christian dialogue,” he added.

The Jewish participant in the three-person panel, Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said the night was “tumultuous.”

Eugene Fisher, who directs Jewish dialogue for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, was the Catholic panel member.

“There was fury, just fury out there by both Christians and Jews” at the position taken by the Southern Baptist leader, said Rudin.

The Christians rendered “an even sharper critique” of the Southern Baptist position than the Jews did, which was “heartening and validating,” Rudin said.

“From the floor these people — pastors, educators and laity — really spoke out sharply against what they consider a misreading of Christianity,” he said.

But none of the arguments against his theology and his strategy made a dent in the beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention leader.

“It was good for the Jewish people there to vent some of their anger and great for me to be able to respond and say that if we really do believe that Jesus is the way to truth and light we have as much right to share it as others do to reject it,” Roberts said in the interview.

Roberts said the Jewish community’s refusal to meet with so-called Messianic Jews is “intolerant.”

“We sit down with people we consider heretics all the time, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, people who actively proselytize Baptists and say that they are the true Christian Church,” Roberts said.

“I call upon the Jewish community to rethink their whole philosophy because the Messianic movement is here to stay and will be part of American religious life for generations to come.”

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