To Convert or Not To Convert,
That Is The Question
by Chaim Urbach
DEFINING THE ISSUES:
The question sounds at first blush, well, so academic. You might picture a roomful of Messianic mavens, arguing over finer points of Messianic Halachah. Conversion of Gentile believers to Judaism is by no means an ivory-tower issue— it often comes connected with tremendous emotional and spiritual freight. All of us know Gentile believers who have struggled with this issue. Much rides on a balanced understanding of Scripture, which will steer us through this potential minefield.
Let us define the issues. In this article I take for granted two basic assumptions:
1. Conversion of Gentile believers cannot be mandatory, either for the sake of relationship with the Lord or fellowship with fellow believers. Acts 15 (1, 20) and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Gal. 5:4) clearly base our spiritual life on Yeshua's atonement alone.
2. A Gentile believer should not convert to rabbinic tradition. According to tradition, a bona fide conversion demands that potential converts renounce their previous faith completely. Maurice Lamm, a distinguished professor of rabbinics at Yeshivah University, describes the convert as "a newborn child, not only in spiritual-emotional terms, but also in legal and technical terms." Can a believer, invalidate his new birth, and renounce his Messiah by submitting to such a conversion? Even in the rare cases where the converting rabbi did not require a renunciation, the conversion is no more justified. Whether or not this is acknowledged, a believer adopts a belief system that defines itself by the rejection of Yeshua.
The issue under the microscope in this article is this, "Should it be possible for willing Gentile believers to identify more closely with the Jewish people by voluntarily converting to Messianic Judaism." 2
CONVERSIONS TO JUDAISM
ARE UNNECESSARY FOR FELLOWSHIP… Acts 15:1-28 I Corinthians 9:19-23:
The ruling of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-28) made it clear that Gentile believers were excused from taking on the entire yoke of Torah (i.e. conversion) but instead were prohibited from four things: food offered to idols, fornication, meat strangled and blood (Acts 15:20, 29). Yet, it has been argued that the ruling actually encouraged Gentile believers towards a more Torah-observant life style and left room for voluntary conversion. For instance, Patrice Fischer states that the majority of Gentile believers at this point were Jews in all but name. 3
G-d fearers were every bit as Jewishly observant as
their Jewish friends....
Secondly, the context of Acts 10-15 defines the ruling in Acts 15 as strongly related to the social interaction between Jews and Gentiles--both fellowship and outreach--not one of greater identification. The four prohibitions mentioned in Acts 15 certainly point us in that direction. 5 The first pair of prohibitions--avoiding food offered to idols and fornication--was associated with festivals (often orgies), held in honor of the gods (e.g. I Corinthians 8:7, 10; Numbers 25:1-3). The second pair--the prohibitions against eating flesh from animals that were killed by strangulation and drinking blood--was based on laws of Kashrut spelled out in the Torah (in this case Leviticus 17:10-14). An observant Jew would be repulsed by and consider unclean anyone who transgressed all of these prohibitions-- those dealing with Kashrut as well as idolatry/fornication. For instance, Peter had to overcome his deeply-ingrained squeamishness towards coming into Cornelius' house, thereby putting himself at the risk of becoming (tameh) ritually unclean (Acts 10:28; 11:3).
Outside the book of Acts, only the prohibition against fornication (Acts 15:20, 29), is repeated again (Romans 13:13; I Corinthians 6:18; 7:2; 10:8; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:13; Colossians 3:5 etc.). Where ritual matters are mentioned (I Corinthians 10; 27-30; Romans 14:1-6, 10-14; Colossians 2:16), they are presented as matters where the believer has freedom of choice. For instance, eating food offered to idols is spiritually neutral unless it takes place as part of idol worship, or unless they significantly undermine the faith of another believer. 6 One has to conclude that the other requirements were not (are not) absolute requirements for Gentile believers. Rather, they were issued to remove potential hindrances to fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. While Acts 15 did not explicitly forbid Gentiles from converting to Judaism, discouraging conversions certainly was a given at the council.
CONVERSIONS TO JUDAISM
ARE UNNECESSARY FOR IDENTIFICATION… I Corinthians 9:19-23:
Does identifying with someone require our changing our identity through conversion? Arnold Fruchtenbaum argues that Scripture provides a different kind of a model for identification (I Corinthians 9:19-23). 7
biblical means of identification is by acculturation [i.e. adopting cultural
Fruchtenbaum goes on to show that using this logic, Jewish believers should convert and become Gentiles in order to more effectively share Yeshua with Gentile friends. This is the farthest thing from Paul's mind in this passage. The underlying principle is our need to restrict our freedom for the sake of others by adopting their cultural norms. For instance, we find Paul's approach to sharing Yeshua varied as his audience changed. In the synagogue of Psidian Antioch, he shared Yeshua through the Tanakh (Acts 13:15); in Lystra, he began by referring to the true God versus Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:15) and in Athens, he referred to their customs (altar to the unknown God) and their poets (Acts 17:23, 28). The same principle was applied sharing meals with Gentiles. From his instructions to the Corinthian believers we see that he was willing to temporarily lay aside his convictions about kashrut in order to share a meal with Gentiles (I Corinthians 10:27; Galatians 2:11-14). Paul identified with his Gentile audiences but remained a Torah-observant Jew (Acts 21:21).
Finally, when we see individuals in Scripture who underwent conversions, they are not presented as "Jews" but retain their former identify (e.g. Ruth the Moabitess, Rahab the prostitute, Nicholas the proselyte etc.).
DOES SCRIPTURE PERMIT
VOLUNTARY CONVERSIONS… I Corinthians 7:18-24?
Does the New Covenant speak to those who wish to convert voluntarily? David Stern, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary affirms that it does. 8:
if a Gentile Christian wants to identify fully with
the Jewish people,
Stern, then states that practical considerations would make these conversations difficult at best. Does in fact the New Testament permit a Gentile believer to do so? Unlike Acts 15 where the issue is dealt with implicitly, in I Corinthians 7 it is addressed explicitly and forcefully. This chapter discusses different aspects of marriage for believers. Flowing out of this discussion about marriage, Paul lays down a basic principle (1 Corinthians 7:17), which is then repeated twice (7:20, 24).
1 Corinthians 7:17 .....each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.
This principle is illustrated by two examples-- circumcision and slavery. What did Paul mean by the principle and how does circumcision fits into it?
The believers in Corinth did not understand that their relationship to Messiah was compatible with whatever social position or occupation they were in at the time they came to faith. 9 Much of what he tells them is colored by his conviction that the Lord's coming is imminent and the then-raging persecution of believers (7:26, 26, 31). In view of that reality, believers' attention needs to be more sharply focused on furthering the Kingdom of Heaven. As Stern points out, his concern is that Gentile believers at Corinth should not waste precious resources in the effort to change their circumstances". 10 Remaining in our assignment is the appropriate response in view of the Lord's imminent coming.
Paul uses two different words "called" and "assigned", to define believers' relationship to the Lord. Our call refers to our salvation, whereas the second term refers to our assigned task within the kingdom of God. Grammatically, the terms "called" and "assigned" are the same type of clause (Hosea meaning "as") governed by the same subject-- the Lord. 11 The thought is the same in both-- our salvation and our place of service were given to us by the Lord and are under His control. There are times when believers feel that the only way they can serve the Lord effectively is in a role other that the one they are in. His message to all of us is clear but often challenging-- "Remain faithful in the role assigned to you." The Lord may lead a believer into a different assignment, but until there is a re-assignment, he or she must remain and serve faithfully.
Paul illustrates the principle, by referring to circumcision. For the Gentile majority in the Corinthian congregation, circumcision probably meant little. 12 But for a Jew, Paul's statement that "circumcision is nothing" would have provoked outrage. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant and the relationship with God. The fact that Paul, a Torah-observant Jew, would make such an extreme statement puts his case in neon lights. For a believer, circumcision, uncircumcision, one's marital status, or whether one is free or enslaved-- none of those matter as far as our salvation is concerned. Yet, while circumcision (i.e. conversion) is irrelevant as far as salvation is concerned, that does not mean that it is a matter of personal discretion. 3
It is true that Paul does not condemn circumcision of Gentile believers with the same degree of passion as he did with the Galatian believers. The stakes were far higher there but that does not mean that he makes allowance for it here. When we view this verse (7:18), we most often focus on part b, "was a man uncircumcised," yet this verse comprises a couplet. It forbids Gentile men from becoming circumcised and Jewish men from seeking to become "uncircumcised." Becoming uncircumcised is not as far fetched as it sounds. From the time of the Maccabees on, there were Jews who underwent a surgical procedure called “epipasm” that made them appear to be uncircumcised. 14 Paul would have viewed either branch of the pair (7:18a or 7:18b) as equally unacceptable. Just as a Jewish believer should not undergo epipasm, neither should a Gentile believer undergo circumcision.
For the second illustration, slavery, Paul adds an exception--a believer in bondage may become free if the Lord gives him or her the means to do so. The same applies to the question of marriage, where a believer has some measure of individual freedom. Yet, there is no such exception given in the case of conversion because of what it represents, regardless of an individual's inner motivation, or whether this is a "deep longing." 15 A Gentile believer who wants to convert for the "right reasons" is not free to do so. Conversion of a Gentile believer makes a clear public statement-- Yeshua's sacrifice is not sufficient (Gal. 5:2-6; 6:15).16 Stern argues that Paul's words should not be construed as an absolute prohibition, but rather offered in the vein of a rabbi discouraging a Gentile from converting out of convenience or based on transitory emotion. 17 There are two basic observations to make on this score. There is no clear consensus on just when rabbinic tradition began to discourage potential converts. If anything, the evidence favors the view that during the first century the rabbis welcomed proselytes wholeheartedly.
.....it is obvious that proselytism was widespread among the ordinary people....
the near pride in which the rabbis took in the claim that some of their greatest figures were
descended from proselytes point to an openhanded policy toward their acceptance.... 18
The more germane issue is the fact that Paul applies his apostolic authority in this case, as he does later in the epistle (I Corinthians 14:33, 37) and elsewhere. What he is saying is not a suggestion, to be followed or ignored. Rather, it is a principle to be followed universally. In the letter to the Galatian believers (5:6; 6:15), the circumcision of Gentiles is clearly forbidden. There is no reason to assume that prohibition has been modified, despite the fact that Paul's tone here is not polemical (I Corinthians 7:19-20).
SCRIPTURE HAS NO MODELS
FOR THE CONVERSION OF GENTILE BELIEVERS:
The Tanakh makes provision for Gentiles to convert to Judaism-- Rahab, Ruth, and foreigners who were circumcised as a prerequisite for celebrating the Passover (Exodus 12:48). These, examples cannot be applied to Gentile believers who are fellow-heirs of salvation (Ephesians 3:16). In the New Testament, we find the example of Timothy being circumcised (Acts 16:1-3). Can that be used as a valid model for conversion of Gentile believers as John Fischer claims? 19
In the first century, since receiving circumcision indicated one's obligation and intention
to keep the Law of Moses, Rav Shaul's circumcision of Timothy may be regarded as the
conversion of the non-Jew to Judaism. Thus we may have a precedent in the
B'rit Hadasha for such a modern-day practice.
In considering Timothy's example, two issues present themselves: was Timothy considered a Gentile in the eyes of the Jewish community? Directly connected is another question-- why was he circumcised? In this narrative, Luke attached an explanatory note suggesting that Paul had Timothy circumcised "because of the Jews....[who] knew that his father was a Greek," (Acts 16:3). What precisely did Luke mean by this comment?
If Timothy was considered a Gentile like his father, circumcision would have been a non-issue. Timothy would have been welcomed as another God-fearing Gentile (Acts 13:26; 13:50; 17:14, 17) wherever he and Paul traveled. The fact that it was an issue at all reflects the sentiment among the Jewish people that Timothy should have been circumcised but had not been because of his Greek father. Timothy was considered to be a Jew, albeit a "bad Jew" because he had not been circumcised in compliance with the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis. 17:10) and the Torah (Leviticus 12:2-3).20
Circumcising Timothy was done to facilitate the spread of the Gospel, based on Paul's stated principle that we should do everything possible to eliminate barriers to the Gospel (I Corinthians 9:20-22). The Message of the Gospel should be the only stumbling block presented (I Corinthians 1:23). Yet, this action was not undertaken merely for the sake of expedience. Longenecker explains the relationship between expedience (for the sake of sharing the Gospel) and principle (living a Torah-observant lifestyle).
But while Paul stoutly resisted any imposition of circumcision and the [Torah]
upon his Gentile converts, he himself continued to live as an observant Jew and urged
his converts to express their [faith] through the cultural forms they had inherited....
Therefore, it was both proper and [italics mine] expedient for Paul to circumcise him.....21
The false teachers who dogged Paul's trail attempted to spread rumors that he had taught Jewish believers to discontinue their adherence to the Torah (including circumcision of their sons). The leadership at Jerusalem encouraged Paul to squelch publicly those rumors (Acts 21:21).
Unlike Timothy, Titus provides us with a clear model of how circumcision impacted a Gentile believer in the New Covenant. Titus was unambiguously a Gentile ("a Greek," Galatians 2:3). Paul took him to Jerusalem as part of a trip to meet with the pillars of the congregation (i.e. apostles). As we read between the lines, a battle had been brewing between Paul and the "false brethren" who insisted that Gentiles should be circumcised. 22 Titus was a very visible point man around which the battle swirled-- if he would be compelled to be circumcised, then all Gentile believers should be pressured to do the same. For Paul, giving in on this issue was tantamount to his declaring that the message of the Gospel was insufficient to save, and for that reason, he dug in his heels-- Titus would not be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5). 23
1. Part of the underlying message Scripture conveys to Gentile believers and indeed to all of us is this-- "Learn to be content with who you are (Psalms 139:13-14), regardless of “deep longings” to the contrary." The Lord's choosing us and selecting an assignment for us is a choice blessing (I Corinthians 7:18).
2. Conversion of Gentile believers conveys the wrong message to Gentile believers in a Messianic Jewish congregation-- "You are a second-class citizen unless you become Jewish," (i.e. convert). It makes a mockery of the principle of unity in diversity (Ephesians 2:12-19).
3. Conversion of Gentile believers to Messianic Judaism is unacceptable (invalid) among Jewish people here and abroad (especially in Israel). It is strictly an "in-house" exercise and what's worse, it re-enforces the perception in the Jewish community that we as a movement are "na-arish"-- we cannot be taken seriously. While rejection by the Jewish community is part of our cost of discipleship, our rejection should be for Yeshua's sake only.
4. The nuances of the conversion of Gentile believers would be lost on the rest of the Body of Messiah, who would view this as a re-occurrence of the Galatian heresy. We cannot delineate theology on the basis of whether it is understood by other believers. Yet alienating fellow believers elsewhere for the sake of a practice that is questionable at best, unnecessarily squanders precious goodwill we have earned among other believers.
1. Conversion of Gentile believers is not necessary for the
sake of fellowship with Jewish believers or more effective sharing of Yeshua
with the Jewish community (Acts 1:1-28; I Corinthians 9:19-23).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chaim Urbach was born in Israel and has been a believer since age 13. He has considerable experience in Jewish evangelism and the Messianic Jewish movement. Chaim and his family reside in Denver, Colorado and he is the Messianic leader of Congregation Yeshuat Tsion, P.O. Box 22272 Denver, CO 80222-0272 Mr. Urbach can also be reached
ENDNOTES: (NOTE THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN KESHER
A Journal of Messianic Judaism, ISSUE 6, 1998.)
1 Becoming a Jew, (Middle Village, NY:
Jonathan David Publishers, 1991), pp. 73-74.
5 It is possible that the four
prohibitions were an abbreviated form of the Noahide
laws-- seven rules for Gentiles expanded the covenant with Noah in Gen.
9:1-17-- practicing justice, avoiding blasphemy, idolatry, adultery,
bloodshed, robbery, flesh and blood from a live animal
7 Hebrew Christianity: Its theology,
history & philosophy (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1992), p.113.
9 Simon J. Kistemaker,
I Corinthians, NTC, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,
1993), pp. 230; (7:5)see Gordon D. Fee's discussion in The First
Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 280-283.
11 I Corinthians, Hans Conzelman, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 125.
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