NEW YORK (JTA) — On the night of Rosh Hashanah, thousands of people will leave work, gather in congregations across the globe and worship God, the ruler of the world. Ten days later they will begin a fast and gather again to pray, this time atoning for their sins.
On both occasions they will praise Jesus Christ and pray for his return.
They are not Jews, nor are they Jews for Jesus. Rather, these congregants are members of an evangelical Christian movement called the Living Church of God. On the days Jews know as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these Christians celebrate what they call the Feast of Trumpets and Day of Atonement.
“We’re not trying to be Jewish,” said Dexter Wakefield, a Living Church minister and the church’s spokesman. “We’re obeying God’s commandments. The holy days have great meaning for the Christians who keep them.”
Living Church of God is one of a few evangelical groups that observe Christianity as they believe Jesus observed it: according to the dictates of the Hebrew Bible. That means no Christmas and no Easter — holidays the church rejects as pagan in origin. It also means that members observe their Sabbath like the Jews: from Friday night to Saturday night. The mainstream Christian custom of observing the Sabbath on Sunday, they believe, is another deviation from the authentic Christianity of Christ.
Though the Living Church of God, which has about 10,000 members, advocates observing the Sabbath on Saturday as well as Jewish holidays, they are not Messianic Jews, who self-identify as Jewish and use Hebrew scripture and liturgy. Nor are they Seventh-day Adventists, who observe a Saturday Sabbath but no other Jewish holidays.
The church has nearly 400 congregations on six continents, and most of its membership is in North America, with headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is governed by a Council of Elders and is an ideological outgrowth of the philosophy of Herbert Armstrong, whose preaching of Old Testament observance inspired several churches that see themselves outside of the evangelical mainstream.
For the Living Church of God, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the former begins this year on the evening of Sept. 20 and the latter at sunset Sept. 29 — are two of seven festivals celebrated across the year. Those festivals correspond to the five Jewish holidays commanded in the Torah – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. The church gets to seven by treating Shemini Atzeret, the holiday at the end of Sukkot, as a separate festival, and by splitting Passover in two – the first day and everything that comes afterward.
“These days were clearly commanded in the Old Testament, and their observance by Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament certainly ratifies them for the Christian Church,” the church’s founder, Roderick Meredith, wrote in a pamphlet. “True Christians are to keep holy the days God made holy. And we are to follow the example of Jesus and the original Apostles in so doing.”
These holidays correspond to the annual agricultural cycle, and have also taken on Jewish historical significance. But for the church, they reflect steps in the second coming of Jesus and the world’s ultimate redemption.
Rather than marking the New Year, Rosh Hashanah — a one-day holiday called the Feast of Trumpets, a reasonably literal translation of its name in the Torah, Yom T’ruah — marks the day when Jesus will appear again hailed by trumpets. Yom Kippur, translated as the Day of Atonement, marks the day when Satan will finally be defeated.
“Can we picture a massive trumpet blast literally shaking the earth to announce Christ’s return as King of Kings?” Meredith’s pamphlet reads. “Can we picture the true saints of God — who follow Him wherever He goes — rising to meet Christ in the air, to join forever with their Savior and assist Him in ruling this rebellious planet? All of these things will be heralded by the seventh trumpet!”
The church celebrates each day with a service – short by Jewish High Holiday standards – that includes a short and long sermon on the theme of the day, bookended by hymns. Like observant Jews, on the Day of Atonement congregants will take the day off and abstain from eating and drinking. But on the High Holidays they dispense with Jewish rituals like dipping apples in honey, wearing white robes known as kittels or blowing a shofar.
Four days after the Day of Atonement, the church’s congregations will leave their homes for a temporary dwelling, as Jews do on Sukkot. But that dwelling will be a resort or motel – not a backyard sukkah made of cloth, wood and branches. The church sees the holiday as a time to leave home and gather in another place, but that place need not be open to the elements.
The church also observes several other Old Testament commandments. Members refrain from eating foods expressly prohibited in the Bible – like shellfish – and abstain from work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, mostly corresponding to the Jewish Shabbat. But there is no set of prohibited practices on Saturday.
“We teach that you do not do your weekly labor,” Wakefield said. “If you work at the factory during the week, you’re not working by sundown Friday.”
While most evangelical groups do not observe the Old Testament like the Living Church of God, many do ascribe significance to some of its commandments. Many evangelical leaders, for example, have cited Leviticus in their opposition to same-sex marriage. And some evangelical groups have voiced support for displaying the Ten Commandments at courthouses.
Cynthia Lindner, director of Ministry Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says Christians are drawn to these verses because they define codes of interpersonal conduct.
“There are [Old Testament] texts that are focused on prescribing behavior far more so than in the New Testament,” she said. “The texts and codes of the Hebrew Bible are easily appropriated when you want to make an argument about behavior.”
In recent years, some evangelical groups have held Passover seders, partly as a re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper, considered to have been itself a seder. Other Christian groups, including some Christian Zionists, have taken on other Jewish rituals, such as wearing a prayer shawl or blowing a shofar.
“I think a lot of Christians have the idea that Judaism is more authentic, more ancient, closer to the will of God than what a lot of the churches have become in modern times,” said Jon Levenson, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School. “There’s this notion that church tradition has gotten farther and farther from the real word of God, and that somehow the Jews and their Bible is closer to the real word of God, and we should start taking those things on.”
There are a few Jewish customs the Living Church of God doesn’t take on. While Jews have special prayer books meant just for the High Holidays, Wakefield said there isn’t a special liturgy for the day.
“Occasionally someone will bring a shofar just for the fun of it,” said Wakefield, who served as a pastor to several Florida churches before moving to work in the church’s headquarters. “It’s not a particular ritual that we do. It’s a delightful thing to do.”