Sanity and Religious Practice

Out at the prison Bible study we were beginning a study of the book of Galatians. As an introduction to the book, we spent time in Acts 10 and 15, discussing how the early church had to make some discernments about if newly converted Gentiles should be circumcised and become Torah-observant. 

This is a delicate conversation in the study. There are many Christians out at the unit who have embraced Jewish practice. Sociologically, there is a trend in evangelicalism where some Protestants take a deep dive into Judaism, often "converting" to (or creating wholesale) a type of Messianic Judaism. There are, of course, Messianic Jews, ethnic Jews who confess that Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah. What I'm talking about are Gentile Christians who become "Messianic Jews" or, rather, invent a "Messianic Judaism" of their own devising. This is a thing. These are Christians who get deeply interested in Jewish observance and practice who begin to adopt these practices on their own, as Christians, without any contact or involvement with the Jewish community. You've likely seen some of this syncretism on display with evangelical Christians wearing tassels, calling Jesus "Yeshua," and blowing shofars.

The reason this is a delicate conversation out at the prison is that there are a quite a few of these Gentile Christians identifying as "Messianic Jews," which is precisely the sort of thing that that Paul was pushing back against in his letter: As Gentiles you don't need to become Jews. Gentile believers in Jesus do not need to become circumcised or Torah-observant. You don't need to eat kosher or observe Jewish holy days. And yet, there are many Gentile Christians, both inside and outside the prison, who do precisely that.

(In many ways, this is a good thing. Given the history of antisemitism in Christianity, this embrace and reverence of Judaism is a welcome change. My worry, however, is how this embrace of Judaism among evangelical Christians is wrapped up in dispensational theology, where the state of Israel plays a key role in End Times scenarios.) 

Back to my study on Galatians...

Knowing I had some of the Gentile "Messianic Jews" in the study, I wanted to frame their choices in regards religious observance carefully and pastorally. I didn't want to send them the message, "What you are doing isn't needed or necessary." So, for better or worse, here's what I said:

When Paul says things like "circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing" (1 Cor. 7:19), he's not disparaging the practice of circumcision or any other sort of Jewish observance. His point is that these practices, in themselves, have no salvific power. Only the Lord Jesus can save us. Choosing to eat kosher, for example, or follow any other sorts of Jewish observance, doesn't affect you status before God which is only secured by the faithfulness of Jesus. 

Does that mean, then, that these practices are empty and irrelevant? Are you wasting your time and effort in trying to eat kosher or celebrate Jewish holy days? No, these practices are both holy and helpful. 

Here's the key point I wanted to make: We engage in these practices not to save ourselves but to keep ourselves sane. So, if you want to engage in Jewish practices to keep your heart and mind sane, clear, and directed toward God, do that. Most other Gentile Christians won't, but we have to do other things to keep ourselves sane. We have to pray, study the Bible, and go to church on Sundays. And that is what I think Paul means by saying "circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing." As a Christian, you are free to engage in either practice because the point of these practices isn't salvation, but sanity. Use any sort of practice or observance that keeps your heart and mind clear and pure. And if Jewish observance helps you achieve that, use it. And if not, find other practices. We pray, recite the Shema, eat kosher, or sing praise songs on a Sunday morning all for the same reason. To keep ourselves sane in this mad world.  

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