Is Messianic Judaism a good biblical model?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: If there are Messianic Jews, then can there be Messianic practitioners of certain customs of other religions? I know that Santeria is out of the question. However, I remember reading that many Japanese Christians practice the customs of Shinto. To begin with, Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship with Christ. Religion kills, Jesus saves! 

Answer: Thank you for asking such an interesting question. I very much like your tagline, “Religion kills, Jesus saves!” That does at least two things. First, it describes the actual conditions in the world — how people suffer at the hand of religion. Second, it differentiates between the person of Jesus (who saves all who come) and the things done in the name of Jesus… many of which are not on his program at all! (Matthew 7:21-23) However, we part ways if you think that Messianic Jews have a leg up on us mere Christians or that this type of Christianity might be a legitimate model for mixing “reasonable” cultures with the Christ.

(For purposes of this discussion, we will understand Messianic Jews to be persons of Jewish heritage and/or training who claim that Jesus is indeed the Messiah as predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures and revealed in the New Testament Scriptures. So, even though they still call themselves Jews, they are really Christians in belief — just ones that emphasize their Jewish heritage.)

Please understand that I am not saying that Christian persons of the Jewish heritage should not celebrate their culture as it relates to Christ. Indeed, we Christians share a Judeo-Christian heritage with all the Jews in that we both (at least on paper) revere the Old Testament Scriptures. However, most people simply do not understand the Bible; to them the phrase Judeo-Christian is a mere cultural indicator, and they are not necessarily giving credence to biblical tenets by using that phrase. But Messianic Jews go out of their way to differentiate themselves by emphasizing these roots as part of their Christian worship, and this runs counter to our New Testament instructions. For this reason, I would not use them as a biblical model for other cultures.

Am I saying that the traditional American (USA) worship style is the biblical gold standard and that the entire world should stick to that? Far from it. The New Testament gives us some instructions for worship and a few models for the Lord’s Day activities, but we have great flexibility in how we choose to remember Christ’s sacrifice, so please understand that I am not taking anyone’s options away. But I wonder at the wisdom of stepping back in time as a method of remembering the Christ — who suffered many things so we would never have to do that (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We all get this worship thing “wrong”… at least a little, since we all get the Bible thing “wrong,” too… at least a little. Therefore, it is a special kind of arrogance to assume that we of contemporary and Western culture can understand the nuance of an ancient and Eastern culture by insisting that our worship methodologies come right from the Bible. I recommend the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Contemporary Western people interpret many things wrong in the Bible because of our cultural prejudices. I am not saying that Western culture is wholly intrinsically inadequate or that we have the Gospel or Christian orthodoxy wrong, but we misunderstand much — so we should forgive much when we encounter varying particulars of worship — and this I endeavor to do, but there are biblical constraints. Let us look at one.

If ever there was a man who would have a right to claim the particulars of Messianic Jewishness, it was the Apostle Paul. In fact, he makes that very point in his letter to the Philippians. He states his qualifications and tells his history; both are stellar. But, rather than holding these cultural excellencies up as a proposed worship style, he discards them — and insultingly so. He called his heritage and all its accouterments dung — he considers them loss for the sake of Jesus Christ. I must ask, should what Paul counted as loss become something we should count as found… and then lift up in worship? When it comes to worship, the apostle Paul — a Hebrew born from Hebrews — was a Christian born from Christ and not a Messianic Jew.

“…If anyone else thinks to put confidence in the flesh, I can do so more: circumcised on the eighth day, from the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born from Hebrews, according to the law a Pharisee, according to zeal persecuting the church, according to the righteousness in the law being blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, these things I have considered loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider all things to be loss because of the surpassing greatness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for the sake of whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and consider them dung, in order that I may gain Christ and may be found in him, not having my righteousness which is from the law, but which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith,” (Philippians 3:4–9, LEB)

I realize that my opinions on Messianic Judaism do not necessarily reflect those of many other ministries. But since your question assumes the biblical legitimacy (and perhaps even the superiority) of that movement, I could not proceed without personal comment. To sum up my stand, few would argue that it would now be an insult to remember Christ’s sacrifice by performing animal sacrifices at worship services (Hebrews 6:1-6). So, why go anywhere near the old stuff?

At this point, I have established that I give no weight to Messianic Judaism (except to say that there are true believers in the fold). So, I cannot connect any of the assertions that underpin your question. For instance, although Santeria might not be a good candidate as per your question, it already does have elements from the Christian culture — from Roman Catholicism, to be specific. I do not speak for the Vatican, but I doubt that they are happy when a native culture blends Roman Catholic rituals into their pagan rites. Haitian Voodooism reflects influences from many religions, Roman Catholicism among them. Please note that I am not asserting that this is what Messianic Judaism does, but I am emphasizing that mixing truth with error always favors error — and that mixing the purest truth with anything else (even a godly heritage) is mixing none the less. So, why bother?

Additionally, there is an item from logic that we must consider: adding a wrong answer to a right answer makes the right answer wrong. I realize that in school you might get partial credit for an answer that has some correct and some incorrect elements. But I’m talking about what the Bible says, and there are some topics in which God does not give partial credit. The Bible is emphatic that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). What this means is ignoring Jesus is eternally fatal, skewing Jesus is eternally fatal and adding to Jesus is eternally fatal. When it comes to salvation any mixed message is categorically fatal.

For example, if a person gives lip service to Christianity by saying that he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of mankind (which is a stellar statement), but then mixes that with non-truth by insisting that there are other elements also necessary for salvation (like good works or sacraments), or that Jesus is one among several valid options for salvation, then he has added non-truth to truth — making the true statement false and creating a path to destruction. This is not what Messianic Judaism does specifically (I believe them to be earnest followers of Christ as am I), but at what point are we adding on things that needn’t be — and that what point do we cross over from faith-based salvation into works-based salvation… or even into idol worship! This is what we tickle when anything (and this includes worship methodology) is preferred above the Christ.

I know nothing of Japanese Christians practicing the customs of Shinto, but whether or not this is true is beside the point, for the reasons already discussed. Shintoism is a polytheistic religion; placing Jesus on a shelf with other cultural bric-a-brac does not make him equal, and it certainly makes no one a Christian. Compared to the biblically revealed Christ, there is nothing else positive—not Messianic Judaism (replete with true Christians), nor Shintoism (replete with its natural gods), nor any other construct. Christians should spend their time learning about the true Christ, the biblically revealed Christ. Or else, we are just making stuff up.

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