Only rarely does the publication of a prayer guide incite a conflagration, but this time the Southern Baptists have hit a nerve. Americans are accustomed to controversies over public prayer. But now, a controversy has erupted over private prayer-Christian prayer for the conversion of Jews.
The origin of the controversy is simple enough. The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board has published a prayer guide intended to assist Baptists in praying for the conversion of their Jewish friends. The guide was released in time for the Jewish High Holy Days, and Baptists were encouraged to pray that their Jewish friends would believe in Christ as the Messiah.
“We are deeply offended by the decision of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling on their members to pray for Jews to convert to Christianity during the High Holiday season,” said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Within days, the furor hit the nation’s news media and editorial pages.
What is going on here? This prayer guide is clearly out of step with postmodern culture. As a matter of fact, it is off the charts on the scale of political incorrectness. Nevertheless, it is deeply rooted in Southern Baptists’ passion to see all persons come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The same passion was reflected in the denomination’s 1996 statement by which it resolved to “direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.”
While liberal churches have largely abandoned all conversionist missions, evangelical Christians remain committed to tell all persons, regardless of racial, ethnic, or religious background, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the great evangelistic mission of Christianity, and it is as old as Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.
Southern Baptists have not singled out the Jews as more needful of the gospel than others. But this prayer guide reminds Christians that the Jewish people are not less needful of the gospel than others. While more liberal denominations are embarrassed by a call for conversion, Jewish or otherwise, Southern Baptists continue to call upon all persons to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.
Cries of “theological hatred” are unfair and out of place. Southern Baptists have not launched a crusade to coerce conversions. Instead, the denomination is simply bearing witness to the gospel as revealed in the New Testament. No less than the Apostle Paul, who identified himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” reminded the Christians in Rome that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentiles.
Having felt the sting of persecution, Baptists are staunch defenders of religious liberty. But this liberty does not mean that it is “intolerant” or “imperialistic” to tell others the best news we know. The real enemy of Judaism is not Christian evangelism, but the corrosive secularism that has so poisoned American culture.
Jewish protests against this prayer guide ring hollow when a majority of American Jews no longer express belief in a personal God. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has warned that Judaism could effectively disappear in the next century-not because of conversion to Christianity, but due to Jewish assimilation into the secular culture.
While sharing an impromptu breakfast at (of all places) the U. S. Supreme Court, an attorney for one of the most influential Jewish organizations told me that he had the right to expect that his young son would never be exposed to the Christian gospel. That is not the American vision of religious liberty. That is a balkanized America where the First Amendment has been cancelled.
Evangelicals are among the strongest supporters of Israel, and we rightly honor the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Jewish leaders should respect our right to witness to the Christian gospel. What have they to fear? As Rabbi Daniel Lapin has asked, why should Jews “protest against Christianity’s internal doctrine?”
The greatest act of love a Christian can extend to any non-Christian is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are firmly convinced that there is salvation in no other name, but we are also convinced that all those who call upon the Lord shall be saved. We have no right to exclude Jewish persons from the promise of the gospel.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, argues that it is “pure arrogance” for any religion to claim to know “the truth.” But this is the heart of the Christian claim, politically incorrect as it may be. After all, we are followers of the one who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.”