Southern Baptist Convention leaders are recommending the denomination’s two mission boards jointly study the possibility of establishing a formal mission to Jews.
“Inasmuch as we are grabbing the challenge of Acts 1:8–to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth–I move that the convention consider recognition of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship as a formal evangelistic mission entity to the Jewish people worldwide,” Connie Saffle, a member of New Life Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan., said in a motion at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville in June.
On Tuesday, the SBC Executive Committee recommended that next year’s convention commission the North American and International mission boards to “jointly study the possibility” of recognizing the fellowship as “an evangelistic mission to Jewish people in the United States and throughout the world.”
The Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, one of dozens of ethnic/language groups that cooperate with the SBC’s North American Mission Board, includes about 120 pastors, church members, missionaries and parachurch leaders in 40 churches in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and Israel.
The group’s purpose, according to a Web site, is to encourage evangelism of Jewish people and proclaim to “Jewish believers that their ethnic and historical heritage need not be lost upon their commitment to Yeshua (Jesus).”
While some Executive Committee members commented the intent of the motion is unclear, it likely would highlight Romans 1:16 declaring the gospel “for the Jew first” and open the door to funding.
Any sanction of a formal mission targeting Jews would also likely further deteriorate relations between Southern Baptists and the Jewish community, which some observers say are already at an all-time low.
In 1980, SBC president Bailey Smith uttered his famous quote, “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”
In 1996 the SBC passed a resolution calling on the denomination to “direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people,” and hired a full-time home missionary to Jewish people in the U.S.
A 1999 prayer guide by the International Board sought conversion of Jews to Christianity during their High Holy Days, an initiative labeled “offensive and disrespectful” by Jewish leaders.
As recently as 2003, Jewish leaders criticized a Southern Baptist seminary president for using an analogy comparing the mandate to evangelize Jews to a surgeon’s responsibility to inform a patient about the presence of a “deadly tumor.”
Last year, Southern Baptist leaders heaped praise on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” while many Jewish leaders viewed the film as anti-Semitic.
The Southern Baptist Convention established a department of Jewish work in 1921, and appointed Jacob Gartenhaus as a field missionary responsible for evangelizing Jewish people.
A major shift in Baptist/Jewish relations occurred in 1966, when the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) established a department for interfaith witness, shifting emphasis from converting adherents of other faiths to dialogue.
Another shift came following the “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, interfaith witness director George Sheridan resigned under pressure after telling HMB administrators he did not believe Jews need personal faith in Jesus Christ to be saved.
A reorganization of the HMB in 1989 moved interfaith relations from a “missions” department to “evangelism,” signaling a return to emphasizing the conversion of Jews over dialogue.
The 1996 SBC resolution on Jewish evangelism noted that Jesus’ Great Commission began with a call to preach the gospel message “in Jerusalem,” yet lamented, “Our evangelistic efforts have largely neglected the Jewish people, both at home and abroad.”
Citing evidence of “a growing responsiveness among the Jewish people” to Christianity, it urged Southern Baptists to “recommit ourselves to prayer, especially for the salvation of the Jewish people” and “that we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.”
That same year, the SBC Home Mission Board named Jim Sibley, a former missionary to Israel, a home missionary to Jewish people, re-establishing a position suspended in 1989.
Last year Sibley, along with missions professor Todd Bradley, organized the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies at CriswellCollege in Dallas to prepare Baptist leaders for Jewish ministry.
According to Baptist Press, the institute’s founders noted that “several parachurch organizations are doing great work, but few local churches, denominations and affiliated schools have made Jewish ministry the priority that it is in the New Testament.”
The Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship views Jesus of Nazareth as “the true Messiah prophesied in the Torah, the Prophets and the Holy Writings.”
The group’s commitments, according to its Web site, include:
–“The worship of Yeshua Hamashiakh (Jesus Christ) as Lord and Savior.”
–“The evangelism of the world’s Jewish population in the belief that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah as well as the Son of God and Savior.”
–“To encourage planting of Messianic Jewish congregations and fellowships as worship homes for Jewish believers and their families.”
–“To encourage the church to partner with us in evangelizing the Jewish people.”
An ethical statement condemns “anti-Semitism and all derogatory statements or actions against any ethnic, racial, or religious groups” and pledges, “We will abstain from the use of trickery or deception in presenting the message of salvation through Messiah Yeshua.”
Citing a common understanding in the Jewish community that “it is not what you believe that makes you a Jew, but who you are,” the group proclaims, “Those of us who are Jewish and believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the true Messiah of Israel will continue to identify ourselves as Jews.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.