Israel and Persuasion: A Friendly Response to Martin Charlesworth
The context was the annual Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) conference, hosted in Eastbourne, and the speaker was fellow Newfrontiers pastor, formidably knowledgeable teacher and personal friend of mine, Martin Charlesworth. Having spent a day debating the place of Israel with me (and several other Think Theology writers), I’m sure Martin would not be surprised to hear that he hasn’t yet convinced me, and nor do I imagine he’s particularly worried by that. But he did give me plenty of food for thought - and not least on the question of how I, as someone who influences a number of people outside of my local church, should encourage people to handle issues over which they disagree with their elders.
Martin unashamedly encourages people to try and change the minds of local church leaders, yet in a sympathetic way; he even has a seven point plan for doing it. I’m more cautious than that, I think, and would advise church members to be more influenced by their elders - whom they know, whom they can observe through the trials of life, and to whose leadership they have submitted themselves - and if relevant by their confessions, than by conference speakers, writers or bloggers. (Personally, I would see the alternative approach as unwittingly responsible for a lot of confusion and even division, not just on this issue, but on any issue about which a small but committed group of church members attempts to change the position of the local church.) Nevertheless, it was a thought provoking pair of talks, and Martin is a wonderful example of how to disentangle a passion for the modern nation of Israel from (a) right-wing politics (he is more actively engaged with the poor than almost any pastor I know, and his new book on the subject has just come out), and (b) the single-issue-ism that, as he rightly points out, can characterise some on this topic.
I’ll comment on his first session, in which he made the biblical argument for his position, in a moment. In his second session, he began by describing the various contexts that Israel enthusiasts needed to bear in mind when talking to their pastors about Israel - many pastors are overstretched, confused by the media, theologically nervous about division, liable to lump “friends of Israel” in with end time nuts, and affected by the same insecurities as everyone else - and then suggested seven things he thought CFI delegates could do in response:
1 Provide good, solid biblical foundations for your position.
2 Distinguish yourself from the extreme trends with which you are sometimes associated.
3 Provide historical narrative (Martin says of the Holocaust, for example, “we can never tell that story enough.”)
4 Communicate true spiritual passion for Israel in prayer, mission & social justice.
5 Give prophetic insight into contemporary political trends (antisemitism and Islam are two obvious examples).
6 Be careful not to get too deep into specifics with those who aren’t convinced of the whole picture.
7 Be strategic in raising up young leaders.
For my part, whether the issue on the table is Israel, gender roles, the ordo salutis, eschatology or anything else, several of these are just good advice. Everyone who holds to a theological position should ensure it has solid biblical foundations (#1), and be careful not to identify too closely with those who agree with their position but express it unhelpfully (#2), or get embroiled in controversial specifics with those who have more fundamental disagreements (#6). I particularly like #4: nothing is more likely to incline a pastor to your position than seeing it work out in your life through prayer, gospel preaching and social justice. (I’m not aware of any pastor who would be anything other than delighted if people from his church were sharing the gospel with Jews, serving the poor in Israel and Palestine, or praying about planting a church there, for example.) I have some concern about #7, if it’s taken to mean that the raising up of leaders within the “friends of Israel” movement should happen outside of the local church (which may not be what Martin means here), and rather more concern about #5 (which, to their great credit, the Israel enthusiasts in our church have always avoided). But most of his advice is reasonably helpful for anyone holding a minority position.
What is missing, however, although in the circumstances it was almost bound to be, is any advice that allows for the fact that the individual(s) might be wrong. For instance:
8 Listen carefully and respectfully to the opposing argument in its strongest form, adjusting your views where necessary.
9 Seek the unity of the church more than the acceptance of your particular perspective.
10 If you and your elders continue to disagree, then accept that God has given them responsibility for teaching sound doctrine in the church, and submit to their leadership joyfully.
It may be that Martin would see these things as being so obvious as to not need mentioning, and certainly my experience in Eastbourne has been that “friends of Israel” have done them all admirably, for which I continue to remain hugely grateful. It may also be an occupational hazard: if you’re preaching to the choir you don’t want to imply that they might be out of tune, and my guess is that nobody at Together for the Gospel talked much about how to submit joyfully to an Arminian, egalitarian eldership. And yet, in the spirit of friendly dialogue, I still feel the omission is significant - especially when, as it was in this case, it occurred within a message that made several references to the fact that pastors who disagree might lack courage, insight or enlightenment. For what it may be worth, when asked this sort of question (as I often am) - “I’m in a church where the leaders don’t seem to realise X, Y or Z, like you and me, so what should I do about it?” - I try to make a point of stressing #8-10, even when I thoroughly agree with X, Y and Z.
In this particular case, I think it is also worth mentioning because #8 is so difficult. Martin’s own sketch of the view I hold used both a label (supercessionism) and a description (ethnic Israel has no ongoing significance, either with respect to the land or her final ingathering) that I would never defend, far less use to describe myself - and my guess is that if that’s true of Martin, with whom I’ve spent a fair while discussing these issues, it’s also true of a good many CFI delegates. (I should immediately point out, to balance the books, that he has experienced exactly the same misunderstanding himself, not least in the day-long discussion I referred to earlier; both the Zionist label and the strident approach of writers like Stephen Sizer must be difficult to hear, especially when you’re doing your best to be exegetically and pastorally careful.) Personally, I read Romans 11 almost exactly like Tom Schreiner, whom Martin quoted very favourably in his message, and conclude that (a) the church has not replaced Israel, but rather that believing Gentiles have been grafted into Israel, (b) there will be a huge ingathering of ethnic Jews in preparation for the return of the Messiah, (c) that Abraham’s seed, and the heir to the Abrahamic promise, is now the Messiah, and thereby all who are in him by faith, and (d) that consequently modern secular Jews have no more right to the physical land of Israel/Palestine than anyone else. I’m not saying that I’m certainly right about all of these things; I obviously believe I am, but that’s a subject for another day. I’m simply saying that you wouldn’t know such a position existed - even though it may well be the most common position amongst Reformed interpreters - from hearing Martin’s summary (and, as I say, he has no doubt experienced the same frustration many times, probably including from me!) So: engaging with opposing views in their strongest form is difficult. But it’s also incredibly important, especially when you’re talking to church members about how to disagree with their elders.
As I hope is clear, I am still somewhat in awe of Martin’s grasp of the historical, theological, cultural, pastoral, missional and geographical issues on this subject, and parts of his message (particularly his summary of the recent history) were masterful in their conciseness, insight and clarity. If he had simply spoken on that, I very much doubt I’d be saying anything here, other than encouraging you to get the CDs. But his advice on how to engage elders in discussion, for obvious reasons (including the fact that CFI are based and the conference was hosted in my home town), piqued my interest. So let me close, if I may, with a question. If you were asked to speak at a conference, on the subject of how to engage your leaders theologically in something that they disagreed with you on, how would you do it?