Controversy and Concerns with Avodat Yisrael

a Messianic Jewish Congregation in Philadelphia



Introduction

Recently (editor's note: around 2003), there has been some controversy surrounding a new congregation in Philadelphia, Avodat Yisrael. It is a Messianic congregation which belongs to the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. The odd thing is that it also belongs to the PC(USA), the mainline Presbyterian denomination. I belong to a PC(USA) church, so I feel qualified to say it is odd. As someone who has at one time attended a Messianic Jewish congregation, I once thought that the pressure brought to bear on Jewish believers would keep those congregations orthodox. As you will see in my investigation, I'm not sure this can be assumed any more.

Establishment

I spoke to Rev. David Currie and Rev. Andrew Sparks. Currie heads new church development for the presbytery of Philadelphia. A desire was expressed to the presbytery for a Jewish-friendly congregation. According to Currie this wasn't the presbytery's initiative. This congregation is meant to be a safe place for Jewish Christians who want to retain their Jewish heritage, but they also want have a safe place particularly for the interfaith couples out there and for those who aren't worshiping at a traditional synagogue. Both Currie and Sparks would affirm being Jewish and believing in Jesus.

This is where the problems for them come in. As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, much controversy ensued. Cynthia Jarvis, who is a pastor in the presbytery, has led the efforts to get Avodat Yisrael's funding revoked. Controversy in the Messianic Jewish world is nothing new. However, the article did raise some questions for me.

Concerns

My first concern was that the PC(USA) was supporting this church. As I mentioned previously, I'm a member of this denomination. There are a lot of liberals and a fair number of conservatives too. And a lot of people along for the ride for social or historical reasons. So, frankly, my first question was ?are you sure this wasn't the PCA?? My second was ?how on earth was this approved?? At this point in our denomination's history, a definitive controversial stance that doesn't involve homosexuality is not going to be made by any presbytery.

There were also troubling quotes from the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Avodat Yisrael, Sparks said, is not "going out and trying to get people to leave Judaism." The target audience, he says, is Christian-Jewish couples and secular Jews.




Why don't we want people to leave Judaism? Judaism teaches Jesus (Yeshua) is not Lord and is not the Messiah of Israel. That is not a good thing for people to believe.

Later the article quoted Currie:


"We're not trying to take anybody from a synagogue," he said. "Our feeling is, if you're already worshiping God, that's wonderful."




Why wouldn't we want to take people from a traditional synagogue? Because they are already worshiping God.

I decided to take my concerns to the primary parties involved, and they confirmed and clarified the quotes in the Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Investigation

Currie confirmed that they do not want to evangelize. Street evangelism, etc. is not considered an effective strategy. Those and similar strategies are considered coercive.

When I asked about whether a traditional Jew, one who does not believe in Jesus, can be in good standing with God, Currie affirmed that comment. They can come to terms with God on the basis of the Mosaic covenant or Jesus. Currie recommends Jesus. If you go to the synagogue, that's fine. He further affirmed that they are not trying to take anyone out of the synagogue. They are providing an option and a choice. If Christianity is not a seeker's thing, that is OK with them. Same goes for Gentiles. They want you to make a informed decision.

I interviewed Andrew Sparks as well. He wants a welcoming congregation, where people are invited to explore who Jesus is. He does not want any aggressive proselytization. If anyone uses that word, a red flag goes up in my mind. Why didn't they say ?evangelism?? Prostlyzation has negative connotations, and is generally used by people who do not evangelize. (He also used the word here.)

Do Jews Need Jesus?

I asked him whether he affirms the necessity of Jewish people to believe in Jesus. Sparks told me that he doesn't like to speculate in that area. Who goes to hell is an area for God to determine and God is the judge. I clarified my position. I told him I wasn't asking about determining the fate of a specific individuals but in general. Sparks was still unwilling to make a definitive statements that one needs to trust(believe) in Jesus for salvation. This question was beyond him (that is a paraphrase of his actual words).

Sparks went on to affirm Jews who already attend traditional synagogues. He reiterated that he intends to draw secular Jews and interfaith couples.

When I asked about his current controversy, he stated that this was how it was from the beginning. He affirmed the consistency of being Jewish and believing in Jesus. The two communities just disagree. This controversy has existed from the beginning.

Previously, I read an article on their website about Christian-Jewish relations. Since it interacted very little with Scripture, I asked Sparks about Romans 9-11. Romans 9-11 is the Scripture which most clearly delves into the church-Israel relationship. So much so I'm including an appendix which goes over the passage. Sparks interpreted the passage to say that Gentiles have been grafted into the larger root of Israel. That olive tree mentioned by Paul still includes Jews of all stripes. I asked him who were the branches broken off in this passage. Sparks did not want to talk about one part of this passage apart from its larger context.

Corroboration

After doing these interviews, I began to find corroborating evidence of Andrew Sparks' views.

First, there was an article in the Forward, a publication geared towards Jewish people. In the article, Edward Gehres, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, said, ?this new church ? the way it was presented to the Presbytery ? was on the grounds that it did not intend to evangelize the Jews. This was intended for people in mixed marriages and secular Jews who had no where else to go.? The last part of the statement is the same thing Currie and Sparks told me and was mentioned in the original Philadelphia Inquirer article. At first, I read this quote as saying that Avodat Yisrael and Andrew Sparks gave up a commitment for evangelism in order to get money. I called Edward Gehres in order to confirm his quote. He did make the quote. However, he clarified the context.

Gehres told me that the presbytery simply asked the question of whether Avodat Yisrael was planning to evangelize Jewish people. They replied that they were not planning to prostletize, which is a synonym for evangelism. There is some word issues however. According to Gehres, "evangelism" can mean different things to different people. It could be a call to repentance and to turn to faith in Jesus. Or it could be simply advertising that your church exists. The same with "proselytism". It could mean calling people to faith in Jesus. Or it could mean forceablly converting people. While this may be true within the PC(USA), generally, it commonly means evangelism, especially trying to convince someone of the truth of your religious position with the intent to have them convert. The word definitely means evangelism to the greater Jewish community. "Proselytism" is also understood to mean "evangelism" in most Christian communities. That wording issue aside, Edward Gehres mentioned a statement the presbytery was given a statement that is also on Avodat Yisrael's website. They say "as ambassadors, we reject any notion of trimphalism, confrontational tactics, and proselytization." This seems to say they do not want to evangelize.

Gehres' impression is that at the very least Avodat Yisrael does not intend to evangelize Jews who already belong to a faith community, and this was part of their ongoing discussion. I assume Gehres was using "evangelism" in its most inoffensive sense there. If Avodat Yisrael changed their minds about prostelytizing/evangelizing Jews, he would definitely want to be notified.

Gehres mentioned that Avodat Yisrael said simply they were opening their doors to spiritual seekers. The following activities were activities Avodat Yisrael did not want to participate in: street evangelism, door-to-door evangelism, denigration of traditional forms or beliefs of Judaism, any other confrontational or intruisive activities.

This interview (along with the referenced) webpage seem to confirm that Avodat Yisrael has no committment to evangelize (in the call to repentance and faith in Jesus sense) Jewish people, especially non-secular Jews.

Secondly, there was a brief description of his other ministry, Messiah Now Ministries. Avodat Yisrael's website describes Messiah Now as a non-profit organization for Jewish-Christian relations. Messiah Now, which used to have a different name, was actively involved in evangelism under its previous leaders for a number of years. Now, it is concerned with relations according to Avodat Yisrael. According to Messiah Now's website, the closest behavior to evangelism is providing ?guidance to spiritual seekers.? According to a statement from the chairman of the board of Messiah Now, the board is committed to evangelism. One wonders why this commitment is not clearly stated on their website.

Lastly, the previously mentioned article about Christian-Jewish relations which critiqued the PCA's statement on Jewish evangelism by Avodat Yisrael's scholar-in-residence. Here is the section of PCA's statement which was critiqued:

anyone or everyone Jewish and Gentile who fails to receive Jesus, Messiah of Israel, as Savior and Lord, as taught in the New Covenant, will perish eternally; for Peter, appointed as Apostle to the Jewish people (Galatians 2:7), pleaded with the men of Israel, 'save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'

Which prompted the following critique:

One of the primary operating assumptions of this document is the construction of salvation in a dualistic, saved-unsaved schema. The document uncritically adopts the Medieval and Western Christian conception of salvation as a commodity that can be possessed by the individual. Note that God does not operate soteriologically on the community level but rather restricts salvific activity to saving individuals. Thus, along with the dichotomy of people into categories of saved and unsaved, the individual is the locality of the operative drama of salvation rather than the community. The church does not relate to the Jewish people as a distinct people group but rather as a group made up of a number of individuals who may join the church through faith. The relationship then between Christians and Jews is one in which Christians announce the message of salvation to Jews who are saved as individuals and who are invited to join their new community, the church. (italics theirs)

While I tried to gather a corroboration from the author via email, I have, so far, received none. I wanted to confirm what I was seeing in the language of this paragraph.

Saying "construction of a dualistic saved-unsaved schema" pretty much says to me they don't think a saved-unsaved schema is correct. Especially in the context of Messianic Judaism referring to individual salvation as a ?Medieval and Western Christian? concept implies that this is not a biblical concept. Even though the concept is found in the New Testament (people ask Jesus what must I do to inherit eternal life? in a couple of places), this concept is considered Medieval and Western. To borrow a phrase from Doug Wilson, just because God is interested in omellettes does not mean God is not interested in eggs. The article is upset they are talking about eggs and doesn't like the a concept of eggs and non-eggs. But you can't get omellettes without eggs. While many evangelicals have stressed the individual over the covenant community too much, this doesn't make the saved-unsaved schema wrong. The author is commiting the logical falacy of the false dilemma. Both paradigms can fit. Embracing the individual paradigm does not mean they do not embrace the covenant community paradigm. Schemas are not necessarily wrong, if they are based on the Bible. The fact there is saved and unsaved people is so elementary, I can hardly fathom why they have a problem with it (sheeps and goats?).

Critiquing this schema corresponds with the statements of Andrew Sparks. Why would one evangelize if one does not believe there are saved and unsaved people? Again, from their own website, we have corroboration of a deficient soteriology.

Sparks Opposed by Theological Liberals Within PC(USA)

Of the principals of this controversy, I lastly spoke with Rev. Cynthia Jarvis. She is attempting to pull the funding of Avodat Yisrael from the presbytery. Oddly enough, Jarvis' theology does not stray far from Sparks' theology, at least in their soteriology. Jarvis believes the covenant with Israel still holds and there is no reason for them to believe in Jesus. Jewish rejection of Jesus has allowed Gentiles to come into the faith community. Ultimately, they are children of the same God. Since she brought up Romans 9-11 I asked her who the broken branches were. She didn't know off-hand.

I asked her if there was salvation for non-believing Gentiles. She told me that it wasn't for her to say. She was ?not privy to arrangements others may have? and she does not have the ?whole take on it.? I assumed at this point she was referring to God having the whole picture. According to her, God's self-revelation is not limited to Jesus.

I mentioned to her that both her and Avodat Yisrael seemed to be in agreement in their soteriology. She claimed that they may agree publicly, but she is pretty sure that they disagree. She is afraid of deception about using Jewish symbols and a bait and switch scenario. Jarvis is also afraid that they want to be under the PC(USA)'s umbrella in order to get funding. This church was like having a Roman Catholic PC(USA) church.

Somewhat rudely (sorry Cynthia) I wished her luck in pulling their funding if they were as liberal in their soteriology and bad luck if they were more conservative than her.

Trouble inside the UMJC

While I'm familiar with the fact that this kind of heresy has found a home within the PC(USA), I was unaware of any possible trouble within the UMJC.

In the course of informal conversations, I discovered that Rev. Sparks has worked closely with Tony Eaton, also of the UMJC. A Jewish believer from Yale , Gabriela Karabelnik, recently did an interview with Eaton for her senior thesis. In this interview, many troubling comments came out.

Eaton stated in the interview: "I am utterly convinced that the prayers of all those who love God and are faithful to Him are heard, whether or not they acknowledge exactly the same thing. I'm not talking about people who worship Allah, or Eastern gods, but the God of the Jewish people is the same God that the Christians worship." Eaton implies in this quote, similar to Sparks, that you can be a righteous non-Messianic Jew.

Eaton states that the difference between Messianic Jews and traditional Jews is that Messianic Jews recognize Jesus as their means of atonement. Notice the hole. One may not recognize Jesus and still be saved. Eaton goes on in this thesis:

If Abraham Heschel is not in heaven, I don't belong there either, regardless of what I think about Jesus. This is a person who had a deep personal connection with God. ... The day is going to come in the judgement when all these devout Jews are going to come before the Messiah, and when they approach him they're going to look at him and say, 'Didn't I know you?' and he'll say, 'Yeah, you did, you just didn't know my name.'

Rev. Sparks is not responsible for the heretical statements of Tony Eaton. But all of this raises questions about the UMJC. I've been told by many Messianic Jews that there are many solid congregations in the UMJC. If so, can they exercise discipline with Avodat Yisrael for compromising the gospel? Again, as a member of the PC(USA), I'm honestly sad the PC(USA) will not exercise discipline in this manner.

I wanted to examine Sparks' beliefs against the UMJC's statement of faith, which can be found here. Let us examine their statements that pertain to soteriology.

These statements are perfectly true, but there are problems with them at the same time. The problem is that one can deny the biblical truth that one needs to believe in Jesus for salvation and still affirm these points. One can say, like Eaton, that Jesus died for traditional Jews, but they don't know it yet. This Mack truck-sized hole can allow people to violate the orthodox intention of the writers of the statement of faith while affirming the letter of what they wrote. Orthodox believers (in the non-Jewish Orthodox sense) never can intend for how the unorthodox will try to wiggle out of statements of faith (the Arian heresy being a great example of that, see Appendix B).

My interview with Russ Resnik, the General Secretary of the UMJC, helped to clarify what is happening within that organization. Mr. Resnik said that some ideas are being explored within the UMJC about expceptional cases in regards to individual salvation. The question: does someone need to consciously accept Yeshua to benefit from His atonement? Mr. Resnik assured me that no one is saying that Yeshua's atonement is not necessary.

Resnik told me that there is genuine disagreement about this issue within the UMJC. The UMJC tries to promote an open forum of discussion and an exploration of ideas. More so than many people are comfortable with.

According to Resnik, these views do not necessarily impact evangelism. Some leaders most sensitive to the Jewish perspective support evangelism.

This position is not an official position of the UMJC, and there hasn't been an official response to this position as well. The UMJC is in the process of formulating a more detailed Christological statement, which will hopefully focus these soteriological issues. So far, discusssions on these soteriological views have been informal. Resnik assured me that there were ways to raise issues about serious doctrinal errors of UMJC members and leaders within the organization.

An Outsider Perspective

Since Revs. Currie and Sparks (and Jarvis) take a dim view of evangelizing Jewish people. I thought the best person to analyze the views found in my interviews would be David Brickner, Executive Director of Jews for Jesus. Jews for Jesus does not hesitate to do street evangelism and other forms of evangelism. Obviously, they would affirm the view that Jews need to believe in Jesus for their salvation.

David Brickner said that he does not know Andrew Sparks well. In light of that, I did not want Brickner to comment directly on Rev. Sparks. He mentioned that a number of people in the UMJC would be quite upset about what I found (and others are finding) in the UMJC.

Brickner, on my request, began to analyze the Anonymous Christian theory. This is the theory that Eaton holds. You can be saved by Jesus and not know it. According to Brickner, this theory was developed by Clark Pinnock. The name should sound familiar. Pinnock is a leading proponent of Open Theism, which denies God has foreknowledge of all events.

For David Brickner, the Anonymous Christian theory is easily dealt with. The Lord Himself said if you confess me before men I will confess you before my Father in heaven. If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father in heaven.

Brickner also came to the same conclusion I did, which you will read in the next section. People holding this view treat the holiness of God and sinfulness of sin very lightly. Indeed, they are treating sin very lightly. God's judgement on sin is severe.

According to Brickner, those who leave the question of what needs to be done for salvation (the same question asked Jesus on a few occasion btw) are making the clear unclear. It seems some are uncomfortable with the truth and are abandoning once held positions. I call this "trying to be nicer than God." Brickner was in agreement.

David Brickner quoted Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen. Moishe said, "people treat evangelism as public relation to get people to like God." Evangelism is not that. It is to declare the truth and to let the Holy Spirit work on their hearts.

Brickner then made an excellent point. The Holy Spirit's job is to convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). If there is no judgement, sin, nor righteousness, the Holy Spirit is out of a job. People who compromise the gospel will be held accountable.

Why do they do evangelism? Brickner said that if they were invited to a synagogue to dialogue they would do less street evangelism. But they are in the footsteps of the prophets. They declare His word and go to where the people are. They are just trying to be obedient.

Analysis

While the apparent lack of evangelism at Avodat Yisrael is disheartening, it stems from bad underlying soteriology (beliefs about salvation). In other words, the people around Avodat Yisrael deny the necessity of belief in Jesus. If you aren't sure whether people need to believe in Jesus, is your call to repentance and to faith in Jesus going to be there? Will it be modeled after Paul or Peter who declared "repent and believe"? What is the underlying reason for this deficiency? The doctrine of Total Depravity is also denied.

Calvin so wisely noted that we cannot understand God fully unless we understand ourselves. And we can't understand ourselves unless we understand God. What do we need to understand? God hates sin and will judge it. He is a burning fire. We are very sinful.

Simple Biblical truth? Yes. But it oh so hard to get our minds around these truths. We look at ourselves. We are ugly but we look around at all the other ugly people and think ourselves as beauty queens or plain Janes at best. So we find it hard to actually believe that God judges sinners.

But if there is a consistent message in Scripture it is that. Sinners will be judged. You better have a substitute.

God provided a substitute in Jesus, but some people don't want that substitute. Unfortunately, God's gameplan doesn't have a plan B.

Now, how the atomement is applied is just as important as one's view of what the cross of our Messiah accomplishes. If someone denies the how of salvation, this is still a huge problem. The atonement needs to be properly applied to efficacious for a person. We can both agree on the fact that I have money in bank account, but if I can't access the account it avails me nothing. The consistent teaching of Scripture is that the benefits are for all who are in Yeshua. And the benefits are for those who believe and repent, since those that believe are placed into Jesus. According to Scripture, those who don't believe are condemned already (John 3). Any theory that has people that do not believe in Jesus possibly being saved is not a theory based on Scripture.

Appendix A ? An Overview of Romans 9-11 With a Little Humor Thrown In

In all of this try to answer something my interview subjects couldn't figure out. Who are the broken off branches?

9:2-4 Paul states that he ?has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart. Why? Because Jews are still in covenant with God and they don't need to believe in Jesus. This is so much so that he wishes he was cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish brethren.

9:30 ? 33

What shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness has not obtained it. ... I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.

Ah yes, notice how Israel does not need Jesus.

10:1 Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.

What Paul meant to say was that my desire is not... Must have been a slip of the pen.

10:9 If you confess with your mouth ?Jesus is Lord? and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.

Unless you are a Jew. Moses will work instead.

10:12 ...no difference between Jew and Gentile-the same Lord is Lord of all...

But Jews and Gentiles get different conditions, or I may not be privy to other arrangements. You can never be sure.

Speaking of other arrangements...

10:14-15 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?

Is this a statement of someone who believes there can be other arrangements besides faith in Christ? Does this even allow the possibility of those who are on some island and never heard of Christ to be saved? No. Please trust God that He can actually get His message to those He wants to hear the message.

11:5 Paul describes a chosen Jewish remnant.

11:7 What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain?

11:17 Branches have been broken off.

11:20 Because of unbelief. Due to this action, be afraid.

11:22 God showed ?sternness to those who fell?

11:25 hardening in part has come to Israel



Look at all this. Does this passage make sense in a setting where Jews don't need Jesus? Not in a world where you have to make sense of the text.



Appendix B -- the Arian Heresy in Relation to Confessions

coming sometime in the future. I'm still in the midst of investigating and reading.



Appendix C -- Avodat Yisrael's Article on Christian-Jewish Relations

This article describes their beliefs on Christian-Jewish relations. It does not interact very much with Scripture. It is not an incredibly easy to read document.



Main Page Email Geoff with any Comments