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In the case of Jews, that presents a fundamental and almost absurd challenge: getting people whose modern-day faith is built upon the tenet that Jesus was not the Messiah to accept Jesus as the Messiah -- and then, with a modern-day twist endorsed by Sibley, still call themselves Jewish. That challenge notwithstanding, Sibley says Christians have an undeniable obligation to share their faith with Jews since Christianity's roots are in Judaism.
So it's no surprise that Sibley is the flash point for debate on the whole idea of converting Jews, a national controversy that has aroused massive outrage and offense among Jewish leaders. They don't appreciate, as they put it, being aggressively "targeted" by the denomination, which refuses to back down from its call to intensify efforts to evangelize Jews and people of other "futile" religions, such as Hinduism and Islam. Jewish leaders point out that not all evangelicals are fans of Jewish evangelism: Maryland Baptists have denounced the effort, while Billy Graham, the world-famous evangelist, has also frowned on the concept. But these Jewish leaders say Sibley and other Southern Baptists sin by identifying in particular Judaism and Jewish people as ripe for conversion efforts. "It shows theological contempt for Judaism," says Rabbi James Rudin, national inter-religious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee. "I find it religiously and personally insulting, and I think I speak for most American Jews."
Their focus, then, is on counteracting the work of Sibley, a formidable adversary. Sibley, 52, has spent nearly a lifetime ministering to Jewish people: Growing up in Dallas, he says, he knew even as a teenager that he was destined to save Jews. He has helped write pamphlets guiding Southern Baptists in prayers to speed the conversion of Jews; he endorses a controversial but growing network of hundreds of so-called Messianic Jewish congregations (of Jews who believe in Jesus and gentiles interested in Hebrew worship and ritual), four of which are in the Dallas area; and he is impervious to criticism, because he believes there can be no right way to witness except by declaring that the only way to God is through Jesus. Everyone must yield to this truth, be they confused Jewish people in Cincinnati or 12-year-old boys planning their bar mitzvahs.
"If it's to express love for the Jewish people that we allow them to go to hell, no, I don't think so," he says. "The most loving, the most compassionate thing we can do for the Jewish people is introduce them to their Messiah."
The intensity of Sibley's rivals is also, of course, rooted in the fundamental difference between Christian and Jewish faiths. Jews are still waiting for their Messiah as foretold in the Old Testament. They see Jesus as human, a man whose arrival didn't bring peace to earth. The broad band of Christian denominations believes that Jesus was the savior, or Messiah, the human part of a divine trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Belief in him wipes away sin and offers salvation and eternal life.
Further, the New Testament predicts Jesus will eventually return and bring peace to the world. When this Second Coming will occur is a subject of much debate. While some denominations have stopped trying to pinpoint the "end times," many evangelicals think the Second Coming will happen relatively soon. They see the founding of Israel and the return of Jewish "exiles" as the fulfillment of prophecy, which also predicts mass conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Certitude that end times are here lends urgency to Jewish evangelism efforts among Sibley's troops. But such an outlook toward Judaism is increasingly unusual in other Western religious groups. Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-'60s, the Catholic Church has recognized that the Jews' covenant with God is still in effect, a thesis known as dual covenant theology. The Holocaust also led Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline denominations to change their outlook toward Judaism. "I don't witness to Jews, and that's my point," says Bill Leonard. The Baptist historian and former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, left the denomination in 1991 when "moderates" were pressured to leave the seminary. "We have to be sensitive to a people we have tended to dismiss, run off or kill."
The historical import of all this -- during the past two millennia, many Jewish conversion efforts have culminated in persecution and slaughter -- is why Sibley and other Southern Baptists have come under such heavy fire. But to the faithful, the excesses of the past don't negate the power of the Gospel today. Indeed, Sibley insists his labor is one of Christian love, and at once blames "intolerance" of evangelicals and allegedly "anti-Christian" sentiment for the criticism, while admitting his own fixed position. "We're much more narrow-minded than most of our opponents," he says. "If Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus had to die to provide atonement for people, there can be no other way.The essence of Christian faith is to be shared with everybody."