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Persecution: Jewish and Christian

Religious persecution must be distinguished from moral prosecution. It is important to make this distinction in an age like ours which greases squeaky wheels by conferring on them the coveted status of "victim."

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Religious persecution must be distinguished from moral prosecution. It is important to make this distinction in an age like ours which greases squeaky wheels by conferring on them the coveted status of "victim." Deviants today routinely bypass the question of the lawfulness of their perversions, and put the godly on the defensive, by claiming that they are being improperly persecuted when they are actually being properly prosecuted. Moral prosecution seeks to hold people accountable in the civil realm for certain behaviors; religious persecution seeks to punish people in the civil realm for certain beliefs.

Christian societies — and especially those which can claim filiation with the Reformed Faith — can be swift to punish evildoers and, at the same time, religiously tolerant. McFetridge has rightly observed that "as regards the sacred rights and privileges of men, Calvinism is one of the most tolerant and liberal of all systems of belief. Intolerance is no part of our creed." The sword in the hands of the magistrate is God's instrument to punish evil deeds, not evil or errant thoughts. It is the truth which has been appointed the governor of error, and it has been entrusted to the covenant people of God that they might first of all live it, and then bring it to bear in every realm of life through proclamation, example, and persuasion. "For not with swords loud clashing, or roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes."

When I was a child in Hebrew school I was told a story about Abraham. A certain traveler was being entertained by Abraham when (so the legend goes) aveenu Avraham (our father Abraham) inquired of him as to his manner of worship. When the pagan freely admitted to being a worshiper of idols, Abraham unceremoniously tossed him out on his tuchas. The Lord asked Abraham how long he had been in the company of the pagan. Abraham replied, "Less than an hour."Then the Lord said, "I have borne with this man and his idolatries all these many years, yet you could not bear with him for an hour."We were told that Abraham was greatly ashamed and ran after the man, seeking his forgiveness. He then patiently bore with and bore witness to the man, telling him of the one true God who made heaven and earth.

This rabbinic tale is reminiscent of an actual occurrence in the ministry of our Lord: When his disciples James and John saw that the Samaritans did not receive him, they said, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did? "But he turned and rebuked them, and said, "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them" (Lk. 9:51-56).

Far from being given a license to persecute others, Scripture teaches covenant-keepers to pray for those who persecute them! Our Lord Jesus Christ plainly rebuked the persecutory spirit so common in man, for religious persecution is, in fact, a manifestation of unbelief.

After all, we confess that it is the Lord God alone who searches and rules the hearts of men, the Lord God alone who grants faith and salvation to men, the Lord God alone who is and will be the Judge of all men. How, in view of these indisputable facts, could those in covenant be so arrogant and presumptuous as to persecute others for their shades of unbelief?

Yet, it has happened, and it has always been and ever will be a manifestation of unbelief, no matter how pious the rhetoric which accompanies the persecution. For-it must be repeated — if God alone can touch the heart, and God alone saves, and God alone is Judge — who is man to persecute another for his lack of true faith?

In the first decades of the post-Pentecost church, covenant-keepers (believing Jews) were most sharply distinguished from covenant-breakers (unbelieving Jews) in this: the breakers persecuted the keepers. St. Paul explained it this way:

I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Ac. 26:9-11).

In fact, it was while recalling himself as once "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor" that Paul powerfully set forth the contrast between the forgiving grace of God and himself, the "chief of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:13-15).

The persecutorial spirit is a characteristic not of righteousness but of unbelief. Thus, while we might not be surprised at the persecution of first-century Jewish Christians at the hands of unbelievers, how do we explain the centuries of persecution of Jews by professing Christians? The first thing we must do, when considering this question, is refuse to yield: the persecutorial spirit is one always detached from the Spirit of the Living God.

That being said is hardly sufficient, however. The centuries-long oppression of the Jewish people by the institution known as the Christian church has causes deep and complex. It appears to this writer that the principal theological error which led to and sustained anti-Semitism was a failure to comprehend the shape of God's plan for the ages and the peculiar eschatological hope held out for the Jews, particularly in Romans 9-11.

In that passage Paul teaches that grace, prior to the first century, had largely been confined to the Jewish people. After Pentecost, the Jews' corporate unbelief was a pivot in having this grace encompass the Gentiles. But the question arises, since the grace of God has come to the Gentiles, what place is occupied by that mass of Jews remaining in unbelief? Paul answers this question in a two-fold manner in Romans 11. In verses 1-10 he argues that the elective principle, operating on individuals, finds that God is still very much faithful to the promises of the covenant. "Did God reject His people?,"Paul asks rhetorically. "God forbid,"says he; "I am a Jew and I believe. The promises are fulfilled in all believing Jews."

But in verse 11 he asks a different question. Failure to detect this shift has resulted in unspeakable tragedies. Paul changes the subject from the individual Jews who believe to the body of Jews who disbelieve. He is asking if the elective principle, in respect to the nation of Israel, is terminated. Notice: "I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall [beyond recovery]?"He is no longer proving that God is faithful to his promises by saving individuals out of Israel; he now asks if the stumbling (unbelief) of Israel is such as to put them out of reach of national recovery. This question is immediately answered in the emphatic negative: "God forbid!"He then goes on to show that Israel's corporate unbelief has become the occasion by which grace is to encompass the Gentiles. Strikingly, Paul then argues that if the unbelief of Israel has resulted in good for the Gentiles, will not their restoration yield even greater good?

Thus, there is set before the minds and hearts of Christians a hope and a burden for the physical seed of Abraham. "If the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?" Recognizing this as the plan of God would keep the church from adopting the same arrogant posture toward the Jews that the unbelieving Jews once had toward the Gentiles (11:17-22). (Righteous, covenant-keeping Jews always entertained an attitude of hope toward the Gentiles; witness Simeon in Luke 2:28-32.)

Paul's theology of the rejection of Israel, then, can be comprehended in two short phrases found in verse 25: The hardening which had come to Israel was partial (cf. 11:1-10), and temporary (cf. 11:11-32). It was in part, until.

Failing to see this contour of God's redemptive dealings, the post-apostolic church sought in vain to account for Israel's continued existence; for apart from what we are taught in Romans 11, their continuity was enigmatic. After all, the church was clearly now heir to the covenants and the promises (Eph. 2). If no hope of future ingrafting of the Jews was cherished, the church's posture toward them would inevitably become hostile. The church and the synagogue would be seen as rivals to the death, each claiming to be the proper heir of the covenant God made with the fathers. It is thus that prominent churchmen, in an effort to account for the mere existence of unbelieving Israel, suggested that it was only for the purpose of showing in history what misery must befall Christ-rejecters. And they often took it on themselves to heap that misery on the Jews, teaching that the Jews have been "condemned to perpetual servitude."

It is interesting to consider that "Old Testament"Israel, as the bride of Jehovah, might properly be regarded as "the mother"of Christ. This, after all, is just another way of saying what Paul wrote in Romans 9:5, that it was from Israel, "of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is God over all."Mary is the particular of what Israel was (and was to be, in humble, Scripture-saturated, servant-faith) in general. But as physical Israel was being unduly denigrated and despised in the eyes of the church, Mary was simultaneously being unduly exalted and adored. It is interesting, I say, that the portion of the Jews in Christian lands was terrifying so long as the teaching of Romans 11 was ignored and the ancestry of Messiah was disproportionately particularized (and Gentile-ized) in Mary.

Where such ignorance and error reigned, the Jews were terrorized, consigned to ghettos, made to wear distinctive clothing, restricted in their choice of profession, subject to whimsical, evil edicts and the confiscation of goods and lands, forcibly baptized, blamed for virtually every misfortune (from the disappearance or death of a Christian child to the plague), banished from one nation after another and, too often, slaughtered.

But when, at the Reformation, the teaching of Romans 11 was recovered, and Mary brought back to her proper station, the portion of the Jews was radically altered. Ironically, this is sometimes perceived more clearly by Jews than Christians. An article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica notes that "the role played by the Old Testament in Calvinism led the Puritan sects to identify themselves with the Jews of the Bible and reflected favorably on their attitude toward contemporary Jewry. The French Calvinists were a special case . . . their sympathies were traditionally pro-Jewish, an outlook retained to a considerable extent to the present day."

What Ian Murray termed "The Puritan Hope"was, for the Jews in Protestant Christendom, a virtual emancipation. For example, the first general expulsion of Jews in the Middle Ages was from England in 1290; under the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, they were readmitted (in 1656). No greater contrast could be drawn than that between the thousand-plus years of Christianity's "Let us despise the Jews,"and the recovered, Biblical Christianity of the Reformation, out of which Thomas Collier wrote, "Oh, let us respect them. Our salvation has come from them! Our Jesus was of them! We are gotten into their promises and privileges! The natural branches were cut off, that we might be grafted in! Oh, let us not be high-minded, but fear. Let us not, for God's sake, be unmerciful to them!"The Directory for the Public Worship of God (in Presbyterian churches) called for prayer before the sermon "for the conversion of the Jews."And the first item on the Covenanters' prayer list was "That the old off-casten Israel for unbelief would never be forgotten. That the promised day of their ingrafting again by faith may be hastened."

Much water has passed under the bridge since the Reformation. While Calvinistic theology has resulted in unprecedented civil blessing for the Jews, Luther's distorted Law/Grace antithesis paved the way for a virulent anti-Semitism in Germany which (along with other factors) culminated in the Holocaust.

But the Holocaust itself resulted, in God's providence, in the rebirth of the political state of Israel, an event which just 100 years prior was regarded as unimaginable by virtually all, except postmillennial Protestants. And now with the Jews once again in a homeland, their unbelief is sadly beginning to manifest itself in various forms of anti-Christianity. I do not here refer to the suppression of Arabic Christians, though some unthinking Western Christians make this error. The suppression of Arabic Christians by Israel has everything to do with their being Arabs, and little or nothing to do with their being Christian.

Certain forces in Israel, however, are actively seeking to suppress evangelical Christianity. Knesset Bill "174C," known as "The Prohibition of Persuasion to a Change of Religion," seeks to suppress the Gospel by making the mailing of literature which, directly or indirectly, seeks to persuade the recipient to change religions, punishable by imprisonment. How should we react to such measures?

May I suggest that we react thoughtfully? First, let us understand that the greater portion of church/synagogue history gives unbelieving Jews little reason to regard Christianity as friendly toward them, and not just in ancient times. This article is written the day after the Vatican repented to the Jews for their silence during World War II. Second, recognize that they are ever- conscious of having lost an amazing percentage of world-Jewry in the last war.

The success of the gospel among Jews worldwide (there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish Christians out of 18 million Jews), while a cause for rejoicing for those with the grace of faith, is understandably viewed as a threat by those without faith. Third, bear in mind that many Christian Reconstructionists have repeatedly suggested that, if they had their way in a Christian State, they'd follow the very procedure now being considered in Israel: they'd allow other religions to be privately held but not publicly propagated.

If I had my way, I'd deal with Israel's new and disturbing posture very simply. One, declare America to be a Christian nation, and two, forbid even ten cents of this nation's money to be given to any nation which restricts the free proclamation of the gospel.

Short of that, I'd caution Christians not to overreact, but to remember that religious persecution is always a fruit of unbelief. We must fully recognize a disturbing cycle: in the first century, Christians were persecuted by unbelieving Jews; for centuries afterward, Jews were persecuted by unbelieving and ignorant/arrogant "Christians"; now, Jews are making disturbing moves to once again oppress Christians in Israel.

But while we recognize this cycle, we must not forget the other "cycle," that spoken of by Paul in Romans: that the gospel began among the Jews, would progress through all nations and, when "the fullness of the Gentiles be come in," the gospel will then be victorious among this ancient people. And so, whatever intermediate strategies one may envision to deal with this or that contingency, true freedom from persecution will come about only as a result of conversion — of the nations, and of Israel, too.

May God grant that the nations would be gathered to the feet of the Messiah, and that "Joseph's brothers" would soon join them there, in repentance, praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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