Messianic Judaism: Church, Denomination, Sect, or Cult?

By Samuelson, Francine K. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Messianic Judaism: Church, Denomination, Sect, or Cult?


Samuelson, Francine K., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


PRECIS

This investigation seeks to categorize Messianic Judaism and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations both sociologically and theologically. It accomplishes this by briefly reviewing the history of Messianic Judaism and by providing the author's personal experiences with the U.M.J.C., particularly through their nineteenth annual conference held In 1998. Next, to put the movement into some kind of perspective, this investigation briefly reviews the definitions of church, denomination, sect, and cult. This Is particularly Important because some Jews believe Messianic Judaism to be a cult or cult-like. In a further effort to place Messianic Judaism and the U.M.J.C. In the context of American religion, the author interviewed persons representing the views of Jews, Christians, and Messianic Jews, as well as examining documents that shed light on the nature of the movement. Finally, the author attempts to give an operational definition of Messianic Judaism and the U.M.J.C. In light of the church-sect typology, concluding that, however it is classified, Messianic Judaism is still a highly controversial topic for both Christians and Jews.

"Shema Yisroel, Adonoi Elohainu, Adonoi Echad!" (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!). This clarion call, the closest thing Judaism has to a creed, rang out 1,000 voices strong in the large room devoted to the Shabbat morning service. However, this was no ordinary Jewish service. Rather, it was a gathering of Messianic Jews from the Union of Messianic Congregations at their nineteenth annual conference in Washington, DC, on August 1, 1998. The service was a surprise to me. While I had been watching the Messianic movement with interest for over ten years and had expected an evangelical, charismatic service with a few Hebrew prayers and phrases thrown in, Messianic Judaism had obviously changed in those ten years. As I had expected, the service started with about forty-five minutes of praise worship, with the words to songs projected on a screen, as in a charismatic or Pentecostal service, with people clapping, raising hands, banging tambourines, and dancing in the aisles. However, this worsh ip was not followed by a long sermon and extemporaneous prayers as at Messianic services I had attended in the past. Instead, it was followed by a very traditionally Jewish Torah service, complete with readers chanting from a Torah scroll in Hebrew and the reading of the Haftorah portion, a selection from Isaiah. The only things that indicated that this was a Messianic service were the invocation of Yeshua's (Jesus') name after the Shema, and the inclusion of a reading from Acts as part of the Torah service.

Although the congregation did not use a Siddur (Jewish prayer book), the leaders of the service did, as they led many of the traditional Jewish prayers. Also, all of the leaders wore kippot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls), as did some of the members of the congregation. If I did not know where I was and what I was participating in, I would have been very confused.

Who are these Messianic Jews, and what are they trying to do? This question has faced me for ten years, as I have sought to understand the movement, a perplexing mixture of Judaism and Christianity. In this examination, I will seek to discuss where Messianic Judaism has come from and where it is now. I will focus on the U.M.J.C., the oldest (although not the largest) organized group of Messianic Jewish congregations. In order to put the movement into some kind of perspective, I will briefly review definitions of church, denomination, sect, and cult from both a theological and a sociological viewpoint. I will then attempt to integrate what I have discovered about Messianic Judaism, and the U.M.J.C. in particular, with the standard typologies. I will conclude with my own definition of Messianic Judaism and the U.M.J.C.

I.

Messianic Jews today identify themselves with the earliest Jewish Christians, known as the Nazarenes. …

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