Messianic Jews: Recognition by the Church

The Importance for the Messianic Jews for recognition by the Church

The latest development with the making public of a key paper from the dialogue corresponds to a deep desire in the Messianic team for recognition by the Churches. From the start of this dialogue, the Catholic team’s main questions were “Who are you?” and “What do you believe?” (a very Gentile focus). The Messianic team’s basic question was: “How can we be recognized by the Catholic Church?” It is this question that I want to pursue more in this talk, because similar questions face you in the Orthodox Church.

Naturally, the Catholic team made distinctions. What does recognition by the Church mean? Recognition has various levels and stages. It is not a “once-off” thing. Either you are recognized or not. No. First, there is an initial level of recognition in the mere holding of this dialogue. The dialogue is a statement to the Messianic Jews that the Catholic Church is ready – in its highest representatives at least – to recognize that the Messianic Jewish movement is a significant development that the Church cannot ignore. It is not just a sect. It is not just a deviation. It has a significance in God’s sight. It seems to me that in one sense this process has already begun in the Orthodox Church with the holding of these conferences. This is so particularly because of the strong corporate sense of the Catholic Church. Your leaders and people can never act just as individuals. But obviously such a recognition of basic significance increases as more representatives of the Orthodox Church take part or such conferences are also developed elsewhere.

The publication of the Messianic paper from the Catholic dialogue is intended to promote wider discussion in the Catholic Church of the Messianic Jewish movement and the issues it raises for the Church. For as the Catholics have told the Messianic participants several times, a fuller recognition is impossible without a wider Catholic knowledge of the Messianic movement. So the Catholic team has accepted a responsibility to make the Messianic Jews more widely known in the Catholic Church. At present even most Catholic bishops know very little about the Messianic movement, and many have never heard of it.

I can say that the Catholic team in the Dialogue has accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish expression of the Church and virtually all agree that such an expression is necessary.

Obviously the Messianic Jews want more than the recognition that their movement has a significance in God’s sight. In particular, they first seek a recognition by the Church of their fundamental legitimacy. That is to say, they want the Church to recognize that it is both first legitimate for there to be an explicitly Jewish expression of the ekklesia and second it is necessary that such an expression should exist and be encouraged. This is in fact one of the elements central to the vision of the Toward Jerusalem Council II initiative, though which Johannes Fichtenbauer and I have come to know and appreciate Fr Vasile Mihoc. I can say that the Catholic team in the Dialogue has accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish expression of the Church and virtually all agree that such an expression is necessary. But we would all add that the Messianic Jewish movement in its present form cannot be the only possible valid Jewish expression. Some of the Catholic team have had close links with the Hebrew Catholics, who are Catholics from the Jewish people seeking to develop a Jewish identity in some way within the Catholic tradition and communion. One member in particular has links with Russia and contacts with the Orthodox Church there, particularly with the followers of Fr Alexander Men, among whom there are numerous believers of Jewish descent. So this question also faces the Orthodox Church. Apart from your response to the Messianic movement, can you recognize a distinct place and calling within the Orthodox Church for believers who affirm their continuing Jewishness.

But of course the Messianic Jews also want to know how we regard their ministries. Can there be a possibility that the Church recognizes a validity in the ministry of Messianic Jewish leaders and pastors? If we can accept that their movement has a significance in the sight of God, is it possible that their ministries mean nothing and achieve nothing? Of course, a major question raised by the Catholics here is: How do you understand and how do you celebrate the eucharist? (though most Messianic Jews would not use that term). But with a greater emphasis in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council on the liturgy of the Word and the foundational role of preaching the Gospel, there is emerging in Catholic theology the recognition that we can more easily recognize in some way the ministry of the Word in Christian communities lacking the apostolic succession of bishops than we can their ministry of the Eucharist. Though of course we also insist that the first is ordered towards the second, an emphasis which does not deny a validity to this distinction.

In a moment I am going to make some comments that are more critical of the Evangelical and free church influences on the Messianic Jews. I do not want these comments to be received as a general criticism and rejection of our brothers in the free churches. They have many gifts and they have been used by the Lord in the raising up of the Messianic Jewish movement. With their love of the Scriptures and their heart for evangelism, they have impacted the Messianic movement very positively. They are one reason why the Messianic movement is strongly evangelistic and has spread so rapidly in recent times. So when I talk of negative influences from Evangelical Christians, do not forget the positive!

While the Messianic Jews who seek recognition will naturally ask about their ministry, the Orthodox and the Catholic question will ask about their liturgy, particularly the eucharistic liturgy. In general, the ecumenical dialogue has brought a greater realism to our theological reflections. That is to say, the best theologians do not make the presence or absence of ministers ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession the only question to examine, which often made the theological evaluation basically legalistic. We also need to study how each community celebrates the eucharist, how they understand it and how important it is for them. Here it has to be said that from our point of view the practice and understanding of the Eucharist or the Lord’s supper in the Messianic movement appears to be weak and undeveloped. There is no regular pattern as to how often Messianic Jews keep this commandment of the Lord, “Do this in memory of me”. Some regularly, some maybe four times a year, a few only as Passover. Most have no liturgical form, no structure of prayer to the Father, no anamnesis of the Lord’s acts and no epiclesis. The patterns are often characteristic of charismatic free churches where there is often a casualness about the celebration. In our dialogue Dr Dan Juster, a Messianic Jewish scholar, has been very critical of these patterns. But as the Messianic movement seeks to become more authentically Jewish, there is a tendency for more Messianic congregations to introduce more liturgical forms. This tendency leads to more frequent celebration of the Lord’s supper and a greater dignity of celebration. Among the few Messianic congregations for whom the Eucharist has become very important, and that believe in the presence of the Lord in the elements, is that led by our brother Benjamin Berger and his brother Reuven in the old city of Jerusalem. Obviously further steps towards a historic church recognition of the Messianic Jewish movement require further progress in this area.

But it needs to be added that the rise of the Messianic Jewish movement raises some new dimensions for this debate. The Messianic Jews remind us forcibly that the twelve apostles were all Jews, that the eucharist was instituted during a Jewish ritual celebration, that of Pesach or Passover, that Jesus presented the eschatological fulfilment in a very Jewish way as a celebratory banquet: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Issac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8: 11).

Part 3 of this article coming soon…


  1. Don Boyle

    The open spirit to write about the Eucharist is very refreshing and I, for one, would like to explore this topic more, especicially as one who has a profound love for the Eucharist.

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