For a number of years now, a dispute has been going on in the subculture of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots movements. The topic that has been so polarizing is whether Gentile believers are obligated to keep all the laws of the Torah in the same manner as Jews— or not.
This question may seem so “out there” in wider Christian circles that we might be tempted to just ignore it as “not even wrong”. But, perhaps we should give consideration to the topic, assuming that the people on both sides of the argument are sincere and are seeking to serve God. The Messianic and “Roots” people on both sides of the argument have already taken a bold step away from the dominant Christian paradigm on the law— they disagree that the Law of Moses has been abolished. They believe that the Mosaic Law is still relevant. In this regard, they would both tend to follow at least some aspects of Jewish understanding and customs with regard to the Torah.
On one side of the dispute is the “One-Law” camp who believe that Gentile believers are obligated to keep all the laws of the Torah in the same manner as Jews. They believe that the Laws of Moses apply equally and without distinction to both Jews and Gentiles. Those outside the One-Law camp believe that some of the Laws are for Jews only, while other Laws are also for the “stranger” or foreigner or Gentile. It is important to understand that both groups in this dispute agree with the continued validity of the Law— they just disagree about whether every aspect of the Law of Moses applies to all people.
A completely opposite point of view would be the abolished-law beliefs of mainstream Christianity— which would consider the Torah to be non binding for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. “Mainstream” Messianic Judaism upholds the validity of the Torah for Jews, including Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah, but would reject the idea that Gentiles are required to observe everything in the Torah. So, we actually have three categories of belief on this topic among followers of Jesus.
- most Christians— the Laws of Moses have been abolished and are no longer in effect
- most Messianic Jews— the Torah remains valid but only parts of the Law are universal
- One-Law advocates— all the Torah applies to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike
Seventh-day Adventist belief doesn’t exactly fit in any of these categories— informally we tend to agree that the Laws of Moses are no longer in effect, but we believe that the Ten Commandments are still binding and that the principles of some of the dietary laws are still relevant. We disagree with the anti-law perspective of the larger part of the Christian world and we generally disagree with the One-Law perspective in the less common occasions when we encounter it.
The One-Law label is probably not well known within Adventism. But we do have some Adventists who are advocating that position— even if they are not using that label. The people who are agitating for obligatory feast-keeping are advocating from a One-Law perspective. There is a very small number of Adventists dressing up in a Jewish manner (tzitzit, kippah, etc.) even though they are not Jewish and have no Jewish heritage; they are probably holding to some form of One-Law belief. Even though most of us may not be aware of the One-Law dispute in the Messianic-Roots communities, it is still a controversy that touches Adventism even if it is just at the fringes. It is probably a bigger issue than most of us realize.
This is not the place to repeat the arguments for a continued validity of the Laws of Moses. We need only recognize that this dispute is a re-enactment of the Acts 15 controversy in order to see that the disagreement is at least one for which we have a Biblical precedent. Since the Jerusalem Council did not make a ruling about the Law itself or about Jewish observance of the Law, I will assume the general continuity and validity of the Torah in this discussion. I recognize that this is not the usual Adventist understanding, but I believe that the “middle” position held by most Messianic Jews is generally compatible with Adventist concerns about continued universal validity of the Sabbath— we are both on the Sabbath-keeping side.
The question is then nearly identical to the question that the Acts 15 Jerusalem council considered. Perhaps those on the One-Law side— those whose believe that identical laws are binding on both Jews and Gentiles with no distinction— are uncomfortable with the antinomianism (anti-Law beliefs) of wider Christianity. Those leaning towards One-Law can not accept a completely abolished Law. Is it possible that they see the Acts 15 as the first step towards anti-Law error? Have they overlooked the possibility that the Council’s decision was consistent with Torah teachings with regard to foreigners (Gentiles) in community with Israel? I can sympathize with their concerns as I too object to the anti-Law perspective— but can we then just completely ignore Acts 15? I don’t think so.
If we consider the landscape of this discussion using the old “ditches by the road” analogy— we have two logical extremes represented by the two ditches. On the one side we have those who want to have us all practicing obligatory feast-keeping, etc., and on the other side we have those who see the Laws of Moses as obsolete and, in fact, incompatible with belief in Jesus. I will examine each extreme and where it logically leads.
If we take the position that the Laws of Moses— found in the Torah— are obsolete and that continued observance of those Laws in the manner of Judaism is incompatible with belief in Jesus, where does that lead us? As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior for all humanity. It follows that we would consider it a good thing if all people came to believe in Jesus. We believe in the vision portrayed in Revelation of a great multitude from all peoples.
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9 NRSV)
Yet, if we take the antinomian point of view to its logical extreme, there is one people group who is missing from that great multitude before the throne. If we believe that a continued practice of the Laws of Moses is incompatible with our most important salvational beliefs, then we are saying there is no place for Jews— as Jews— among that great multitude. Do we really want a world without Passover? Would the world really be a better place if we all forgot Shavuot and Sukkot? Should the Talmud and Sidur be long forgotten relics of a distant past? Should kippah, tzitzit, tallit and tefillin be found only in a museum? Do we really want a world without a living Hebrew language? I hope that we can emphatically say no to all of those questions because to say otherwise is to be participants in the anti-Semitic vision in all its ugliness. We forget the debt that we owe Israel— there would be no Messiah without Israel. There would be no Hebrew Scriptures without a people to preserve them. There would be no holy day— Sabbath— without a distinct, separate “holy nation” that preserved it. (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9)
In his book Israel and the Church, Jacques Doukhan describes the unfortunate dilemma that the church forces upon a Jewish person who comes to believe in Jesus.
“In order to become a Christian, Jews are told that they have to abandon their Jewish identity. They have to adopt another culture, another religious language, other forms of worship and prayer, another literature, another lifestyle, another food, even another history, and forget about their own glorious history and the reference to their fathers and their traditional wisdom. In early Christianity, the question was debated whether a Gentile had to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. And the heart of the discussion recorded in Acts 15 shows how serious the dilemma was. The paradox is that now this question is not even debated: the Jew must become a Gentile in order to become a Christian.” (Israel and the Church, p. 75)
Unexpectedly, If we take the One-Law position to its logical end we find, that we arrive at a similar disturbing conclusion. In a world where we all hold to a One-Law point of view, there is no distinct, separate “holy nation”; to quote Korah, “all the congregation are holy, everyone of them.” (Numbers 16:3 NRSV) In the One-Law world there is no distinct Jewish people as their distinctive traits have been absorbed (and diluted) into universal practices.
A Gentile believer who takes on a One-Law perspective is on a course in conflict with Judaism. To be clear, this is not about a person who is joining Judaism, but someone who is taking on (some) Jewish traits but apart from Judaism. The outcome is that these Gentiles practice an idiosyncratic interpretation of Torah that is distinct from Jewish custom; they inevitably try to tell Jews how to do Judaism.
The resulting message— found in both ditches— can be summarized in this statement from Israel and the Church.
Since I am the true Israel— that is, what you think you are— you should therefore be no longer what you are, but become what I am. (p. 76)
Boaz Michael has written at length on the problems with the One-Law point of view.
“… we have also found that many Hebrew roots Gentiles still object to the idea that the Torah was given to the Jewish people and that they are uniquely and covenantally bound to it (and especially to certain, distinct commandments) in a way that believing Gentiles are not. At the core of this disconnect is the issue of Jewish identity. Many Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots movement do not recognize that Jews have a unique identity that is separate from the identity of a believer in Yeshua. Rather, they believe that all of God’s people are lumped together in one homogenous mass in which Jews lose their distinct identity…”
“This … is reflected in the common term “Hebrew roots.” This term is preferred in many circles over “Jewish roots” or “Messianic Judaism” because many people want nothing to do with authentic Judaism or with the Jewish people. Rather, they want the ability and authority to dictate how the Torah is interpreted and applied, apart from any stream of tradition. Thus they simultaneously usurp and erase the traditional role of the Jewish people.”
[In this paradigm, they] “essentially convey the message: “In our movement, no one would ever know you’re Jewish. In a few generations, there won’t even be Jews here any more.””
(Reconsidering the One-Law, Two-House Trajectories, Boaz Michael)
I don’t want to re-argue the points that Boaz Michael made in his One-Law Trajectories paper. We don’t even need to completely agree with his perspective to recognize that the issue of Jewish Identity and the identity of Israel is still a current issue that remains as difficult as it was for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. It is an unresolved problem.
My purpose for writing this is to advocate the middle way. In Deuteronomy a question is asked about the Law, “And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8 NRSV) The Psalms are is filled with superlatives about the Law.
- “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalms 19:7 NRSV)
- “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalms 119:18 NRSV)
- “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my misery.” (Psalms 119:92 NRSV)
- “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” (Psalms 119:97 NRSV)
- “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” (Psalms 119:165 NRSV)
There is no indication in the New Testament that the Jewish people felt that the Torah was a burden that they wanted to cast off. Why would we seek to separate the Jewish people from the blessings of this heritage? Why would we speak against the “wondrous things” in the law? Surely we don’t want to be on the side that teaches against such a gift.
On the other hand, why would we ignore the teachings of Acts 15 and Paul’s message in Romans 9-11? There is no question that Acts 15 teaches that Jews and Gentiles have distinct gifts and requirements— but that both groups are “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”. Paul teaches us “do not be arrogant toward the branches” (Romans 11:18 ESV). We should respect the different gifts that have been given to different peoples— there are different gifts but all serve the same Lord.
Following is a link to the Boaz Michael paper that discusses some of the problems that he has observed with the One-Law point of view.
Reconsidering the One-Law, Two-House Trajectories