We had just finished an after-service fellowship dinner. I was the church’s guest speaker that Sunday, and I had spoken on the topic of God’s unique relationship with Israel. As attendees finished their lunch and sipped their coffee, I went to the podium to take questions from the audience. The first few were general questions about theology and Jewish history. But then a man raised his hand to say something, and what he said changed the entire tenor of the afternoon.
“I’m not anti-Semitic,” he said, “but the fact is, Jews do have all the money and the power in society today.”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Jews. They have all the money and power in our society,” he said, again.
“Excuse me, but I’m going to stop you right there,” I said. “That’s not true.”
“Well, we’ll have to disagree,” he said. “They do have all the money.”
“So?” I asked. “Even if that were true, and it’s not, why would that be a problem?”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” he said. “It’s just a fact.”
“It’s not a fact,” I said. “But what you are asserting is that Jews have money and power, and you are insinuating that that is somehow a bad thing.”
The man looked offended.
“I’m not anti-Semitic!” he said defensively.
“You may not think what you are saying is anti-Semitic,” I said, “but I’m telling you it is. In fact, if any of my Jewish friends were here today, they would find what you are saying extremely offensive.”
“If any of my Jewish friends were here today, they would find what you are saying extremely offensive.”
I wish I could say that this type of exchange is rare, but it isn’t. I have spoken in countless evangelical churches—churches that rightly exalt Jesus as Lord and Savior, that have right doctrine, that state boldly in their doctrinal statements that they believe God has a special relationship with Israel. Inevitably, however, someone will come up after the service, thank me for my message, then proceed to repeat anti-Semitic stereotypes and jokes, or to share personal anecdotes that disparage Jewish people.
Anti-Semitism is a sin that, though present, is not usually recognized within the evangelical church. It is a sin for which we must confess and repent. But in order for this to happen, evangelical anti-Semitism must first be identified and refuted.
What Is Anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism is not disliking a person who happens to be Jewish. It is disliking a person because they are Jewish. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”
According to the IHRA, anti-Semitism often takes the form of “mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective —such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
Particularly among evangelicals, anti-Semitism falls into one of three categories: political/economic, social, or theological. Let’s consider each of these categories and how they manifest themselves within the evangelical church.
For some evangelicals, like the man at the church fellowship dinner, the significant role the Jewish people play in our society presents a problem. They view the relative financial success and influence of the American Jewish community, particularly, as sinister—evidence, even, of a conspiracy to control the country and the world.
When I am confronted with anti-Semitic statements centered on the supposed wealth of Jewish people, I often share the following story. A few years ago, a ministry colleague and I were asked to meet with a Jewish man who had fallen on hard times. He was sleeping at a 7-Eleven at night and hanging out in the sportsbook at a nearby casino by day. The man had not one penny to his name, one of the poorest people I had ever met.
That very evening, I attended a banquet at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. I was the guest of the hotel’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish casino magnate and philanthropist, who was, at the time, the 18th wealthiest person on Earth. In one day, I was with the poorest man and the richest man I had ever met, both of them Jewish. This does not exactly match the monolithic picture many anti-Semites have of Jewish people.
How, then, should a Christian understand the relative success and influence of the Jewish people? Frankly, we ought to celebrate it. Scripture makes it clear that all good things come from the Lord (Matthew 5:45; James 1:17). This is especially true of the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, whom God promised not only to bless, but to use to bless the entire world (Genesis 12:2–3). If the Lord has chosen to bless His Chosen People with political and financial success, the Christian has no right to question His choice or to harbor feelings of envy. Rather, they should thank God for His goodness to the Jewish people and be grateful that in them, all the families of the earth have been blessed.
We should also understand that just as our churches are composed of people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, so too is the Jewish community. No people group is monolithic.
While some evangelicals hold anti-Semitic views along political and economic lines, others’ anti-Semitism is based on personal encounters with Jewish people. Often, the anti-Semitism I find in evangelical churches falls into this category. A person recounts a negative interaction with a Jewish person—“This Jewish guy at work was so rude to me once!”—and then extrapolates that encounter to all Jewish people in all places at all times—“Jewish people are rude!”
Such extrapolations are no fairer than saying that all white people are racists, that all capitalists are greedy thieves, or that all evangelicals are judgmental hypocrites. We rightly bristle at such generalizations and stereotypes because, as students of the Scriptures, we know that sin takes place in the individual hearts of men, not in groups. Why, then, do some evangelicals make an exception for blanket criticisms of the Jewish people?
When people sin against us, they do so not because of their ethnicity or cultural background, but because of their sinful heart.
The biblical response involves understanding that when people sin against us, they do so not because of their ethnicity or cultural background, but because of their sinful heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Indeed, sin is the domain of only one race—the human race.
While all categories of anti-Semitism are repugnant, that which is fueled by theology is, to my thinking, the most heinous of all. How can those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah—the Jewish Messiah of Israel—at the same time reject His people? But that is exactly what some within the evangelical church have done.
One of the most pernicious anti-Semitic theologies is that of Supersessionism, popularly termed Replacement Theology. On this topic, Michael Vlach writes,
Supersessionism… is the view that the New Testament church is the new and/or true Israel that has forever superseded the nation Israel as the people of God. The result is that the church has become the sole inheritor of God’s covenant blessings originally promised to national Israel in the OT. This rules out a future restoration of the nation Israel with a unique identity, role, and purpose that is distinct in any way from the Christian church.
Supersessionism, though unbiblical, has been around since the first centuries of the church’s existence. Early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr (AD 100–165), Tertullian (AD 145–220), and Cyprian (AD 195–258), fueled in part by animosity against the Jewish people, popularized the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which allowed them to alter the Bible’s references from the Jewish people as Israel to the church. In their view, the Jewish people, in their rejection of Jesus, had forfeited their rights as God’s Chosen People.
Unfortunately, this theological concept did not die with its developers. In their book, The Reduction of Christianity, Christian thinkers Gary DeMar and Peter Leithart espouse this poisonous idea for a modern audience. They write,
…ethnic Israel was excommunicated for its apostasy and will never again be God’s Kingdom. …The Bible does not tell of any future plan for Israel as a special nation. The Church is now that new nation (Matthew 21:43) which is why Christ destroyed the Jewish state. In destroying Israel, Christ transferred the blessings of the kingdom from Israel to His new people, the Church.
Are those who hold to Supersessionism anti-Semites? Most of them are not. Still, the concept to which they hold is intrinsically anti-Semitic, the product of anti-Semitic Christians of the past.
Another example of theological anti-Semitism within evangelicalism is the view that the Jewish people are uniquely responsible for the death of Jesus. An elderly Jewish friend, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, remembers the taunts he faced from Gentile children in Budapest. “Christ-killer! Christ-killer!” they shouted at him. Although more than 80 years had passed when he told me about those epithets, they impacted him nonetheless. He was amazed that I, a Christian, loved the Jewish people. “I thought you hated us,” he said.
While most evangelicals do not scream anti-Semitic slurs at Jewish people today, some continue to harbor animosity against Jewish people for the death of Jesus. As one lady said to me at a church, “I just don’t understand how they could kill the Savior!”
If we are thinking biblically about the question of who killed Christ, however, we have to admit that saying that the Jewish people are at fault for the death of Jesus is not accurate. While it is true that the Jewish leadership led the nation in rejecting Jesus and calling for His crucifixion, it is unconscionable to assume that this means every Jewish person of every generation since that time has blood on his or her hands.
If we are going to blame the Jewish people for the death of Christ in perpetuity, we must also blame the Gentiles, because those who nailed Him to the cross were Romans.
Additionally, if we are going to blame the Jewish people for the death of Christ in perpetuity, we must also blame the Gentiles, because those who nailed Him to the cross were Romans.
In truth, no single ethnic group is responsible for Jesus’ death; we are all responsible. It was our sin debt for which He died on the cross, making it possible for all people to be saved from the power and penalty of sin by faith in Him, “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
What is the solution to evangelical anti-Semitism? I think the answer can be illustrated in an interaction I had with a man at a little Baptist church in the West.
After I finished speaking to the church about God’s love for the Jewish people, the man stood up and said, “Ty, I have a confession to make, one I am not proud about. I am anti-Semitic; I know I am. I have been for a long time for a variety of reasons. But I now see how wrong that is.”
This man recognized his sin for what it was, confessed it, and asked the Lord to help him not to harbor hatred in his heart, especially toward God’s Chosen People.
The answer to evangelical anti-Semitism is the same as any other sin. It requires that we acknowledge it as sin, confess it to the Lord, and through the grace of God, allow Him to work in our hearts to root it out and to heal. May each of us examine ourselves and ask the Lord to give us the same heart He has for His dear Chosen People.