My thanks to longtime reader Pooka who, commenting on my post about Hasidic Judaism (Jewish pietism), called my attention to an essay on the Reformed site Green Baggins about the Messianic movements which have been popular since the late 1970s.

The Revd Lane Keister is the principal author of Green Baggins, ably supported by the Revd Reed DePace.

Keister’s post — to which my reader referred — is called ‘The Hebrew Roots Movement’. I’ll leave it for you to read, including the comments, however, he notes a trend among certain former members of Reformed (Calvinist) churches:

There is a movement afoot (small, but rather persistent) to return to the Old Testament way of doing things (and they would argue that the New Testament changes pretty much nothing). This (usually) involves a return to Saturday Sabbath, celebration of the Old Testament feasts (and even non-OT feasts like Hanukkah!), and observance of the Old Testament dietary laws. There have been Messianic Jews around for quite a while, but what is happening now is that previously Reformed people are becoming persuaded by this viewpoint. What I want to do in this post is examine some of the architectonic issues at play, and then respond to some specific things in the blog post linked above.

Back in the 1980s, I knew a young couple who were part of a Jews for Jesus type church. The man was Jewish and his wife had attended a small Protestant fundamentalist church where she grew up. As adolescents and young adults, the two — who did not know each other at the time — drifted into substance abuse, the occult, numerology and mysticism. Each was living on the margins when they met.

The young woman had damaged her mind with the drugs she had previously taken. It was a struggle for her to put thoughts together and articulate them. It was equally a strain for those of us who watched and listened to her struggle with communication. Please don’t let this happen to you or your children — the damage is permanent. (Lest anyone think this is a one-off example, I also had a customer in the early 1980s (in a retail environment) who was practically incoherent. I’ve written about her before, but, one day, it took her about five minutes to eventually explain her drugs story which lasted a few years and included hallucinogens, tablets and dope. She took these so that her boyfriend wouldn’t leave her. He left, and she ended up brain-damaged — unemployable.)

However, I digress. My point was to establish a hypothesis that people who gravitate towards legalistic movements have suffered some trauma early in life, whether in childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. In order to ‘repent’, as it were, they turn to fundamentalism and error.

The young couple seemed to exemplify this. They rejected an orthodox (i.e. based on creeds, confessions and doctrine) Christianity for a legalistic hybrid — based on the Judaizers of the Apostles’ time — of Mosaic law and tenuous belief in Jesus Christ.

Keister points out (emphases in bold mine):

Jesus says that there are weightier matters of the law. He castigates the Pharisees for harping on the minor matters, while ignoring the heavier ones. This indicates a distinction within the OT laws. The fact that the Ten Commandments were written by God’s finger on tablets of stone, whereas the rest of the law was written by Moses on more perishable materials also indicates that the Ten Commandments are the most important section of the law, as reflecting the very character of God. The reason this issue is important is that the HRM (Hebrew roots movement) puts all laws in the same category of permanence. There is no such thing, in their minds, as a built-in expiration date of a law. For them, anyone who changes the law is automatically abrogating the law. For them, there is no possibility that there might be underlying principles (general equity) that carries over, but appears in different form in the NT. However, if the three-fold division of the law is an appropriately biblical way of thinking (and see this book for an excellent argument in this direction), then we are not in fact forbidden to wear 50% polyester 50% cotton shirts (two different kinds of threads), nor are we anymore forbidden to take the mother with the eggs. The principles underlying these laws continue today (be discerning about what is holy and what is not, what is conducive for spiritual growth and what is not: don’t mix the world and the church). But they do not apply in the same way today as they did in OT times.

Offshoots for these Judaizing movements such as Jews for Jesus include Completed Jews and the Sacred Name Movement. All refer to Jesus as Yeshua and God as YHWH and G-d. The Jews for Jesus do not consider the offshoots to be part of their movement, but to mainstream Christians the groups appear indistinguishable.

Reed DePace wrote a follow-up post to Lane Keister’s. It is called ‘Hebrew Roots, Unhelpful Fruits’. A family friend, he says, has drifted into Messianic Christianity. DePace explains this phenomenon among Christians:

I’ve concluded that MOST of the folks involved with what Lane has aptly titled the Hebrew Roots Movement are dissatisfied Protestants looking for THE explanation/interpretation that will bring to life the full realization of the promises for the Christian Life taught in the Scriptures. Rightly NOT satisfied with the experience of ordinary Evan-jellyfish Christianity that makes a great blasting trumpet sound but has no extraordinary follow through, these folks, motivated by a sincere desire to believe Christ, are looking for the answer somewhere other than the tradition they’ve come out of.

Thus they follow in a long line of similar seekers of the fulfillment of what Calvin called “Golden Jewish Dreams.” They are the descendants of the Anabaptists, the various movements into spiritualism, mysticism and pietism. They are the next heirs of the higher life movement, the Pentecostals, and late born cousins of Dispensationalism and prosperity gospel preachers. Like all such movements, they claim a “New” understanding of the gospel that is also recovery of the gospel as taught in the Early Church.

He goes on to call our attention to the error of Hebrew Roots Movement belief, derived from heresy:

… They are indeed a new expression of the old Judaizers. Like some of the early profession-making Pharisees (the party of James), these folks in the end teach a Jesus + Talmudic-Torah-observance, a Jesus + the necessity of some sort of a Jewish informed lifestyle.

They don’t realize that they are making (at least) two tragic mistakes. First, like most imbalanced Jesus + something else movements, they have an over-realized eschatology [salvation theology]. They are expecting the experience of things now that are reserved for the eternal state. Specifically they are expecting a fleshly experience of what is only a spiritual experience of the Christian life now. They mistakenly think that fleshly practices in some way secure the dramatically powerful experience of the Spirit’s work in day to day life. In this they are no better than the forms of Evan-jellyfish they left behind. Missing that the ordinary experience of the Christian life is one marked by fleshly suffering and weakness this side of eternity, they are pursuing just another expression of the “Kingdom NOW” lie so common in the Church today.

Second, these Hebrew Roots Movement folks unwisely are adopting practices and habits, accoutrements of a “Jewish” lifestyle that actually are derived from a heretical source. These folks do not seem to realize that with the destruction of the Temple the practice of a Jewish form of Christianity ceased to be an option. The core of OT worship was the sacrifices; all of Leviticus, the key book in terms of Jewish life and worship (i.e., life = worship, worship is life), is built around the sacrifices. They were essential to the maintenance of even the smallest component of the law of cleanliness, etc.. Without sacrifice one CANNOT rightly practice any of the OT worship system.

And when the Temple was destroyed – that was it. All that was left was the Pharisaical/Rabbinical traditions

DePace concludes:

The Hebrew Roots Movement, Messianic Christianity, while well intentioned, is yet another deflection from the simple, pure gospel of Jesus Christ. It is based on the heresy of rabbinic Judaism, NOT first century Jewish Christianity. It in the end, like all forms of Jesus + me Christianity, teaches a defective gospel.

He reminds us of what Christ said:

And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” (Luke 11:46)

and

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-1)

There is nothing light about legalism. Furthermore, nowhere did Jesus or the Apostles preach it.

So-called Christians — legalists, pietists and Messianic types — make a mockery of the Crucifixion, the ultimate and sufficient holy sacrifice, by adhering to such error.

Please join me in praying for these people and their families so that we may all share eternal life together with the living, loving God and His Son, our only Mediator, Jesus Christ.

Tomorrow: Ministering to Christians in the Messianic movements