One of America’s most liberal, mainstream Christian denominations is stirring controversy with its support for a congregation in suburban Philadelphia devoted to what it terms “Messianic Judaism.”
Congregation Avodat Yisrael, which blends Christian worship with Jewish traditions such as Friday-night services and High Holy Day observance, held its first services on Rosh Hashana with generous funding from the local, state and national bodies of the normally buttoned-down Presbyterian Church (USA).
The Church’s support for Avodat Yisrael and its controversial leader has raised the hackles of Jewish organizations, but it has also drawn fire from within the Presbyterian community.
In the last 30 years, over 400 churches that target Christian beliefs to a Jewish audience have sprung up, and Philadelphia has been the epicenter of this activity. The headquarters of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America is in Philadelphia, as is Beth Yeshua, one of the largest Hebrew-Christian congregations in the world. Traditionally, these congregations have been supported by the more conservative and evangelizing Christian denominations like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God (USA), which support ministries such as Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries.
“This is the first time we have a highly respectable, highly mainstream church, that is usually liberal, accepting and promoting this experiment,” said Yaakov Ariel, a professor in the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who specializes in Evangelical Christians and Jews.
Officials at the national and state bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) insist that Avodat Yisrael will not be like other Messianic Jewish congregations, which focus on the conversion of Jews.
Edward Gehres, the executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which provided the largest chunk of money to Avodat Yisrael — $145,000 — insisted that “this new church — the way it was presented to the Presbytery — was on the grounds that it did not intend to evangelize the Jews. This was intended for people in mixed marriages and secular Jews who had no where else to go.”
The director of new church development at the Presbyterian Church (USA), Chuck Denison, was more blunt: “It was not intended as a Jews for Jesus-like evangelical group.”
But Jewish leaders say that even without explicit evangelizing, the design of Avodat Yisrael is deceptive.
“They don’t have a right to pretend they are a Jewish congregation and then present Christian beliefs,” said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.
Interestingly, some of the congregation’s fiercest critics have emerged from within the Presbyterian Church (USA), including Cynthia Jarvis, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia.
“Messianic Judaism is neither rightly representing Christianity nor Judaism,” Jarvis said. “It’s creating a third thing that is misrepresenting both of us.”
Historically, the Presbyterian Church (USA) was involved in the conversion of Jews to Christianity. In the 1930s and 1940s they were leaders in Jewish evangelical work, and there are still two or three Hebrew-Christian congregations affiliated with the Church that are left over from these older times.
But in the 1960s, the church moved away from evangelizing the Jews, instead adopting an agenda of interfaith dialogue and mutual respect with other religions. Partially because of this shift, a conservative wing of the church split off in 1973 to form the new Presbyterian Church in America, which has been responsible for most Presbyterian evangelizing in the United States.
Many people both in and outside of the church say that the desire to fund Avodat Yisrael points to yet another split within the Presbyterian Church (USA), one in which an emerging wing is attempting to push the traditionally liberal church back toward its more conservative stance.
“The Presbyterian church is dominated by more mainstream or moderate members who want to keep to themselves,” said Tovia Singer, founder of Outreach Judaism, which monitors missionary groups. “But then there is the more traditional wing that is into evangelizing the Jews, and they are pushing hard right now.”
The founding of Avodat Yisrael, according to Singer, represents a victory for that side of the denomination, and it has shined a spotlight on the congregation’s controversial leader, Andrew Sparks.
According to Sparks, a converted Jew, he is merely following a historic precedent.
“In the first and second century Jews and gentiles related to each other in mutually beneficial terms, in relation to Jesus,” said Sparks in an interview with the Forward. “We imagined this congregation could function in a similar way to that historical precedent.”
But critics says that Sparks’s past evangelical activities make it hard to believe that his congregation will be the place for cross-cultural dialogue described in his proposal to the Presbyterian church.
Last spring in Orlando, Fla., Sparks spoke about Jewish ministry at the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, a task force devoted to the proselytizing of Jews. According to Singer, Sparks has also been involved in street evangelism and other activities with the group Chaim, a Philadelphia ministry affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America whose primary goal is to evangelize Jews.
Responding to this past behavior, Sparks was tight-lipped, but said, “What we’re doing here with this Messianic congregation is a wholly different thing.”
The larger Presbyterian bodies seem to be realizing that Avodat Yisrael is not exactly what they had bargained for.
“The church was a test case,” said Denison of the national Presbyterian body. “The big question is, have we misstepped? Have we been insensitive?”
Gehres, of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, had a simple answer to these questions: “I can assure you that there is no plan to duplicate this.”