“See, this day I present before you a blessing and a curse: the blessing when you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God…and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments.” (Deut.11:26-29)

Does this verse, and others like it, apply only to Jews? Many would answer yes. Among those who would are the people who subscribe to the theory of Bilateral Ecclesiology.

Bilateral ecclesiology is the theory that Israel and the nations have distinct paths to a secure relationship with God. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that Israel is secured through covenant, regardless of any Christian supersessionist claims to the contrary, and that the nations have their own “path” to God, exclusively through Yeshua (Jesus).

Given the fact that God only has made covenants with Israel in the Bible (other than the covenant with Noah), this theory, when it was first presented, provided a major paradigm challenge to traditional Replacement Theology, which is the default narrative of the Christian Church, regardless of protests to the contrary (no Christian ever admits to subscribing to Replacement Theology, even while the content of their church services screams it from the rooftops).

But…what if it can be shown that the apostles taught a doctrine that is consistent with this passage in our parsha, as well as the rest of the Torah? What if the apostles actually taught obedience to the commandments; the very same commandments that many say apply only to Jews in the context of the covenant at Sinai? Would this not undermine the Bilateral position? I would think so, at least in terms of Covenantal Nomism.

In spite of the positive aspects of the theory of Bilateral Ecclesiology, and it’s sibling, Covenantal Nomism, the truth is that the theory, at its very inception, is a circumlocution of the Bible’s message, for the sake of politics, and not for the sake of truth. It serves to muddy what should be clear water concerning the simple message of Torah, righteousness and salvation.

How so?

For a more thorough treatment of the shortfalls of Bilateral Ecclesiology, please consider this piece I wrote which deals specifically with this topic: Jesus, the Jews and the path of Salvation

Bilateral Ecclesiology is a convenient view for many, because it leaves fully intact the current establishment of Jewish and Christian structures: The Catholic Church and Protestantism have their own respective narratives and superstructures regarding faith and salvation, which are distinct from Rabbinic Judaism on many points, even though both traditions share many of the same scriptures.

In promoting Bilateral Ecclesiology, one avoids most conflicts which naturally arise when the differing views of each religious system collide: There is often no need to reconcile them.

I’m sure I don’t need to point out the fact that the apostles were all Jewish men and that they preached a gospel of repentance and salvation to Jews, primarily. These Jews were expected to respond to the message, not brush it off since they were “in covenant“. Also in view were Gentiles who were voluntarily taking on varying levels of Torah observance in order to be in community with Jews and to practice the biblical monotheism presented by Jewish teachers.

The common ground between the message of the apostles (the writers of the Christian New Testament) and the traditional Jewish understanding is repentance. Turning back to God’s commandments. Teshuvah in Hebrew.

However, in truth, the Church has long-since abandoned this message, in favor of deifying Jesus and focusing the religion on worshiping him, rather than the original apostolic gospel of repentance and turning from idolatry and wickedness.

This is where Bilateral Ecclesiology gets its legs, actually. The current state of the Church puts Christianity on an entirely different foundation than Judaism, whereas the actual writers of the New Testament practiced Judaism. Lacking this information, Bilateral Ecclesiology makes sense. But, when we locate the New Testament writings within the Judaism(s) of the day, as a form of apocalyptic messianism, then Bilateral Ecclesiology makes little to no sense at all. In fact, as I have stated before, it actually reduces the apostolic testimony to nothing more than the proclamations of a group of extremists wearing proverbial sandwich boards on the street corner, declaring that the sky is falling. It doesn’t work.

In my opinion, the Bilateral view is a theory that could only exist in an arena in which the theology of the Bible is not the chief consideration. Rather, it chiefly is deferential to  political realities. And such is the case.

Whereas Christianity is largely based upon a confession of certain beliefs and dogmas, Judaism is a religion that overlaps with an ethnicity and a tribal affiliation. A person can practice the religion of Judaism without actually being part of the nation, ethnically. At least, to a certain level they can. They cannot do so entirely. Likewise, a person may be legally Jewish and yet have very little to do with the religion of the Jews. This is more common than uncommon, of course. Therein lies the political tension, and the incentive to maintain boundary distinctions. There are certain points of distinction that the Bible marks between the people of Israel and the nations, respectively. This is very clear. But, today, there are certain political considerations that create an atmosphere of hyperbole and paranoia concerning cultural distinctions. This paranoia was present in the First Century (see Gal.2), and it is likewise present today. I think that Bilateral Ecclesiology is partly an overreaction to these tensions.

However, there are also those people who choose, voluntarily, to cast their lot in with the Jewish people and dwell among them, which traditionally would be a Ger Toshav, or resident alien; a non-Jew who dwells among, and lives like, a Jew. Are they Jewish, in spirit? Or is this moniker off-limits?

Politically, the Ger Toshav is rather controversial, chiefly because of the rise of the Messianic movement of the past 40 years. The rise of interest among non-Jews (and Jews!) in the Messianic Jewish movement has challenged the political and social structures of traditional Jewish space to respond and deal with in ways that satisfy their constituents. All in all, the brackish water of the mash-up between the people groups has resulted in a massive amount of theological confusion and a great deal of identity questions.

But this is only the case because of how Christianity has developed, and also because of how Judaism has responded to these developments.

I ask the question: “What if the apostles never meant to form Christianity? What if their message was a Jewish message that was consistent with Judaism, and preached from within it?”

I believe a strong case can be made for this, and I also believe that the modern Orthodox view of this issue simplifies the state of things considerably, if we will only listen.

In a recent conversation with a Hasidic Orthodox rabbi, I was pleasantly surprised and also pleased to hear his summary of the situation regarding Gentiles drawing near to Torah and to Israel. In his view, it was not complicated at all. He viewed five categories of people in his ministry:  1) Observant Jews and their families  2) Non-observant Jews and Gentile spouses of Jews  3) Non-Jews  4) Noahides, or non-Jews who walked in the righteousness incumbent upon the nations 5) The Ger, or non-Jew who had a Jewish soul that was “waking up”.

His chief responsibility, in his view, was to minister to Jews. However, like most Orthodox, he also took seriously the task of teaching the nations (non-Jews) to be observant of the 7 Noahide commandments and their subset categories, chief of which was to repent of idolatry, sexual immorality and wickedness, and to promote justice for all. However, as he told me, the Jewish world recognized that, for various reasons (such as assimilation, intermarriage and persecution), there were many Jews through the centuries who had lost touch with who they were and no longer knew they were Jewish.

The people in this last category identified themselves by virtue of their tireless pursuit of Judaism. It was, in his view, an inner pull that would only cause deep frustration if the individual ignored it.

This explanation serves, among other things, to explain the phenomenon that happens when a person converts to Judaism. They are not referred to as “converts”, since they are believed to be discovering who they are, not changing who they are. This is a very significant thing to bear in mind.

Like Paul, this rabbi would, by default, discourage a person who was interested from attempting to take on the full weight of commandments. Paul called this “putting oneself under the Law”. The reason is that it is a serious commitment and not one to be taken lightly or in a flush of emotion. It is a decision (becoming Jewish) which takes long thought and careful and diligent study over time. But for the right person, it was undeniably the proper path.

Without getting into the eschatological aspects of Paul’s view of Gentiles coming into Jewish space, which is worthy of several blog posts on its own merits, let’s revisit the passage quoted above:

     “See, this day I present before you a blessing and a curse: the blessing when you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God…and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments.” (Deut.11:26-29)

I contend that Yeshua, Paul and the rest of the apostles taught this to Gentiles as well as Jews, since both groups were in Jewish space. Proof? Consider this:

    “He will render to each one according to his works: To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” (Rom.2:6-11)

Or this:

    “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” (1 Cor.7:19)

You might say, keeping the passage in context (1 Cor.7), that Paul here discourages his converts to the Messianic faith in Yeshua from converting at all, but I contend that his main point is to uphold the validity of all the people of the earth practicing righteousness, as defined in the Torah, regardless of their ethnic status.

That’s the point; to obey God. Paul is actually, in my reading, refuting the theory of Bilateral Ecclesiology, not supporting it.

I have had several people in my circle remind me of “Paul’s rule for all the churches”, stated in this passage; that all people in Messiah remain in that state in which they are called. However, are we to think that Paul is overthrowing the Torah with his “rule”? Heaven forbid! The Torah makes provision for conversion, and so would Paul, in my estimation. As already stated, I believe his point is not to discourage conversion, any more than a modern rabbi’s point is to discourage conversion. Rather, it is to discourage converting for the wrong reasons. Paul also advises that people not get married, but remain single like him, and devote themselves to the Lord. Again, this is an eschatological priority of view, since if all his converts to the faith actually took his advice on this matter, there would have been no generational transfer.

(We really need to stop and think about what we’re saying sometimes, and refrain from parroting other’s thoughts about unstable and ill-advised doctrinal interpretations.)

The Orthodox rabbi would say the same as Paul: In his words, ‘There is nothing a non-Jew cannot do that a Jew can do except for a few clear boundaries. All the righteousness of Torah is available to him. One gains nothing before God as a Jew, in terms of one’s status in the World to Come; that is available to all who practice righteousness. God is not partial.’….However, he continued, ‘But the person who has discovered a Jewish soul within them, they should convert. It’s their path.’

I believe that Paul’s distinction is locally oriented and based upon the circumstances of his day. If Paul had written more, and we had more of his testimony to go by, I believe we would discover a Paul who would articulate the matter in much the same way as the modern Hasidic rabbi.

It’s simple, not complicated. The path to salvation has never changed since the beginning of the Bible.

Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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