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"Over the telephone I had the opportunity to answer his questions and share the Scriptures with him," explains Sibley, a soft-spoken evangelical minister. Having severed the tie to the faith of his birth, the Jewish man from Cincinnati now believes in the Christian Messiah. It is another victory in Sibley's controversial quest, endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention and condemned by Jewish and other Christian leaders, to bring Jews worldwide to faith in Jesus.
As head of the Southern Baptist efforts to bring the Gospel to the Jews of North America, Sibley doesn't usually spend his days taking calls from potential converts, or even ministering to ordinary Jewish people out on the street. "Those opportunities are pretty rare," he says. After all, how does one pick out a Jewish person? And preaching the Gospel in front of a synagogue wouldn't be well received, either.
Rather, Sibley works with fellow Southern Baptists to convince them, in millions of uncoordinated transactions, to share their faith one-on-one with Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues. Because there are nearly 16 million Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and vanguard of the American evangelical movement, his work has the potential to reach vast segments of American Jewry, particularly in the South.
On a recent weekday morning, Sibley, who has stiffly combed gray hair and a serene manner and bears a vague resemblance to PBS journalist Bill Moyers, wore a businesslike gray suit with one flourish: a dark red tie featuring many names for Jesus in stylish lettering. Lamb of God. Light of the World. Wonderful Counselor.
In person, Sibley exudes sincerity and affability. He's learned: He has traveled the world and speaks fluent Hebrew. To aid him in his mission, Sibley has studied Jewish culture, history and religion. In his office at Criswell College, a Southern Baptist-affiliated Bible college in Dallas where he also serves as an adjunct professor, several shelves hold books about Jewish history, faith and culture. There's a history of Jews in the Caribbean, another of Jews in Los Angeles, and several volumes about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. On another shelf sits an edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Several shelves feature literature on Jewish evangelism, including a book titled Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.
Against the opposite wall rests a display case holding Israeli lamps dating back thousands of years, antiquities that Sibley purchased during his time as a missionary there. Showing a visitor his books and collections, Sibley takes a moment to say he rejects stereotypes of evangelicals. "If the perception," he says, "is Southern Baptists are a bunch of redneck yahoos who don't understand a thing about the Jews, that certainly isn't where I'm coming from."
Where he's coming from, where he is, then, is at ground zero in the campaign to bring Jews to Jesus, or Yeshua, the translated Hebrew name that some converted Jews use. Despite the gallons of newspaper ink and hours of talk-show time devoted to the issue of Jewish evangelism, Sibley says his work isn't as well funded as some detractors may imagine. "This is it," he says, waving an arm at the walls in his office. "That's the extent of Southern Baptists' attempts to reach the Jews of North America." The mission board, Sibley says, also chips in for photocopying, office supplies and other administrative costs. But Sibley is not without resources, since willing congregations, not deep pockets, are the key to his success or failure, and several other private ministries are devoted to the same cause.
So far the message seems to be making headway. Evangelical efforts to spur Jewish conversions have intensified since 1996, when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution offered by Sibley to step up Jewish evangelism efforts. A "prayer guide," released last fall so Southern Baptists could pray for the conversion of Jews, has also brought attention -- and notoriety -- to the cause. Yet even though Sibley's advocacy of Jewish evangelism has sparked a national debate, Sibley doesn't believe he has really started yet. "For most evangelicals, the Jewish people are not even on their radar screens," he says.
This may be an understatement. While perhaps some laymen haven't received the message yet, Sibley has received outspoken support from top Southern Baptist leaders, endorsements that have received wide publicity. "We do have an obligation to the Jewish people forever and forever, because the Gospel came to us through the Jewish people," said Paige Patterson, president of the convention, at a conference last September in New York.
Despite the intense criticism from Jewish leaders, Sibley says flatly that devoted Christians really don't have a choice. Southern Baptists, he explains, believe that witnessing is an important part of their faith, and that means they must try not only to live a godly life, but also to convince others -- be they atheists, agnostics or people of other religions -- to accept Jesus.
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."
Yet as lucidly as Sibley explains his life's work, he cannot assuage the outrage he has kicked up in the Jewish community. Professions of Christian goodwill don't cut it, detractors say. While Sibley claims only noble intentions, Rabbi Rudin thinks the message is already becoming warped as it filters down to the pews. Reports of harassment and pressure to convert, Rudin says, have already come from high schools and workplaces, mostly in the South. For example, he has heard of supervisors inviting Jewish subordinates to "voluntary" prayer sessions at lunch.
Jews, of course, aren't the only group targeted by Southern Baptists. Recently Southern Baptists launched efforts to evangelize Muslims and Hindus by publishing prayer guides timed to religious holidays, condemning those faiths in even stronger terms than those used in Jewish-themed publications. "More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism," laments one such guide.
Other Christian denominations have blasted Sibley's efforts. In Dallas, a coalition of 16 Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim leaders released a letter in January criticizing the Southern Baptist prayer guides. "As Christians, we are taught to love our neighbors," the missive read. "This love is not expressed by referring to the faiths of our neighbors in insulting and hurtful ways." Bill Leonard, dean of a nondenominational divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, asks: "Will this be the next issue Southern Baptists have to apologize for?" referring to recent Southern Baptist mea culpas over slavery and civil rights. "The issue of evangelism is part of who Baptists are and should be celebrated," Leonard says. "But we must use the same care and compassion of Jesus and learn not to dehumanize others. There's a thin line between evangelical zeal and religious bigotry."
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have long reaped criticism by dismissing Judaism. "God does not hear the prayers of Jews," intoned the Reverend Bailey Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in Dallas 20 years ago. When he repeated the line in 1987, he got a standing ovation.
More recently the controversy over Jewish evangelism resurfaced when members of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996 passed a resolution to intensify their efforts to evangelize Jews. Three years later, when the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board issued a prayer guide to direct members in prayers for Jews, the controversy boiled over. Titled Days of Awe: Prayer for Jews, the pocket-size guide encourages readers to pray for Jews during their ten most significant holy days, from the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each page of the booklet, which Sibley helped write, covers a different day and features a short profile on Jewish populations of different nations. "As Jewish people contemplate their own sinfulness," it reads, "pray that they will see there is nothing they can do to merit God's forgiveness."
Last year Jewish leaders reacted with sharp indignation to the new guide. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, decried an "attempt to taint our High Holidays with prayer urging our community to convert."
Sibley's efforts are, to no one's surprise, backed by the Southern Baptist Convention leadership. "We are standing in an open marketplace of religious ideas," wrote Patterson, president of the Atlanta-based convention, in a September letter to Foxman, "where it is perfectly permissible for all people to share their most cherished ideas as long as they do not coerce anyone else to a position."
After three years of discussion and debate within church committees, his "Resolution on Jewish Evangelism" was adopted at the convention's 1996 meeting. It cited "an organized effort to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved." It refers to post-Holocaust Roman Catholic edicts that the Jewish, pre-Christian covenant with God is still in effect (i.e., no Jesus is necessary for Jews).
A former Southern Baptist missionary to Israel for 13 years, where he planted churches and aided Arab Christians -- and later, Jewish converts to Christianity -- Sibley has coordinated the denomination's Jewish Missions office since 1996. Before he stepped in, the position had gone unfilled for eight years for budgetary reasons. His job, he explains, is to "motivate and equip Southern Baptists to share their faith with their friends." He goes to conferences and speaks to congregations, seminaries, Bible colleges and local associations about bringing Jews to Jesus.
Because Sibley has strong roots and family in Dallas, the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, based near Atlanta, lets him keep an office there. As a child, he attended First Baptist, and at nine, he accepted Jesus as his savior. At age 14, he admits, he still hadn't met any Jewish people but realized his calling nonetheless after inspiration from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.
"I felt God wanted me to bring the Gospel to the Jewish people," he says, "whether they received it or not."
Still, he admits being frustrated by the high-decibel static he gets from the Jewish community. "Homeless people don't get upset when you tell them there's an answer," Sibley gripes, making a strikingly odd comparison. "Secularism and nothingness," he claims, are a bigger threat to Jews than Christian missionaries.
As evidence, he points to record rates of "intermarriage" between Jews and gentiles. Groups in the Jewish community, including the American Jewish Committee, have mobilized to reverse that trend by encouraging more activities for Jewish singles and improving religious education.
Mark Briskman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's regional office in Dallas, counters that Sibley is ignorant of a nascent revival in Jewish spiritual life. "There's a dynamic and growing Orthodox community in Dallas," he says, "while enrollment in Jewish day schools is at an all-time high."
Do any Jewish leaders support Sibley? He points to one rabbi who defends Southern Baptist efforts. Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and talk-radio host, heads Seattle-based Toward Tradition, a politically conservative Jewish equivalent of the Christian Coalition. An author who blasts Jewish criticism of evangelicals, Lapin peddles the notion that Jews will be assured freedom only when the United States is a firmly "Christian" nation. His rhetorical style is direct, if specious. During an interview, he asks, "As long as [conversion appeals] are verbal, and do not involve a .357 Magnum pressed to my head, how can I possibly protest?"
Despite the support, the coalition of groups must continually answer three charges leveled by opponents.
The first deals simply with Sibley's arrogance: Why has the convention refused to yield or make, at the very least, a cosmetic concession in light of the indignation from Jewish leaders?
Sibley acknowledges that most other groups would wither in the face of charges of arrogance and anti-Semitism. "Baptists have said Scripture is our authority," Sibley says. "No man, no group, no teaching can contradict it. If that's not politically correct, that's really not our problem." He cites a Bible verse, Romans 1:16 in the New Testament, for his non-negotiable stand, which orders the Gospel to be spread "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Romans is a letter from Paul, the "apostle to the gentiles," who spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean during the church's early days.
Sibley splits a theological hair at this point, though. He says he doesn't buy the assertions of some hard-line evangelicals, who, citing the New Testament book of Revelation, believe that Jewish people must be converted to Christianity to bring the Second Coming of Christ. "There's not something man can do to twist God's arm," he says.
Nevertheless, such thinking is alive in evangelical pockets, where Christians and Messianic Jews talk hopefully of gathering in this day 144,000 Jews from the 12 tribes of Israel to proclaim the message of Jesus, an event prophesied in Revelation's doomsday narrative. One need not be on the far fringe to accept such reasoning: Like many other Christians, Sibley agrees that the birth of the Jewish nation is proof that biblical end times have commenced.
This leads to a second assertion among critics of Jewish evangelism: that lurking deep underneath this apocalyptic worldview is the same old anti-Semitism, which could flare up when most Jews reject Christian evangelists. According to some evangelicals, this would postpone the return of Jesus.
To an extent, Sibley downplays the idea of Jews as a special people with a future role in prophecy. Ultimately, he argues, Jews are merely another people who need to hear the message of the Gospels. "The irony is that if there is any group that is neglected, it is the Jewish people," Sibley says. "Jewish people are in some respects no different than anyone else. They are just as separated from God as anyone else."
Last is the most serious charge leveled by opponents of Jewish evangelism efforts. That is, by targeting Jews for conversion, evangelicals seek to create a world without Jews, which critics like Rudin say amounts to de facto anti-Semitism. (Others, such as Briskman of the Anti-Defamation League, disagree and stop short of the anti-Semitism label, instead calling the practice profoundly insensitive.)
Southern Baptists have a rejoinder. They claim Jewish people can convert but retain their Jewishness by worshiping in Messianic Jewish congregations. Judaism holds that once you accept Jesus, you have severed your tie to the ancient religion, but Sibley and Jewish converts aren't dissuaded. "Most Jewish people who accept Jesus," Sibley asserts, "feel more Jewish than they ever did before."
Southern Baptist churches sponsor at least 12 Messianic congregations, Sibley says, including Adat Shalom, a small congregation of about 30 believers that meets at Preston Highlands Baptist Church in North Dallas. Most, however, are independent. Nationwide there are at least 200 congregations of Messianic believers, including Dallas's Baruch Ha Shem, one of the nation's largest.
Even if converts who attend Messianic congregations don't fill Southern Baptist pews on Sunday or display the universal Christian symbol of the cross, Sibley is a full-fledged supporter of them. "We are not interested in bringing Jewish people to Christianity," Sibley says. "We're interested in bringing them to their Messiah."
The readiness of evangelicals to discard age-old terminology may be surprising to some, but then again, evangelicals have never been big on pomp and ceremony, discarding liturgy and other elements not biblically rooted in Christianity.
"Use terminology that emphasizes the Jewishness of our faith," Sibley wrote in an April 1999 article for the Baptist Press, the denomination's official news service. "For example, instead of 'Christ,' which is based on the Greek word for 'the Anointed One,' use 'Messiah,' which is based on the Hebrew. Instead of the 'Old Testament,' refer to the 'Hebrew Scriptures.' "
Estimated to number anywhere from 10,000 to 132,000 worldwide, Messianic Jews have made the strongest inroads in the United States, mostly since the 1960s (there are about 5.6 million Jews nationwide).
Messianics profess resistance to assimilating into mainstream Christianity. "We want to retain feasts and holidays, the beautiful richness of Judaism," says Robin Rose, congregational leader of Adat Shalom.
But Jewish critics say Messianic Judaism flunks the truth-in-advertising test because it's designed to lull Jews into a false sense that they can accept Jesus and still be Jewish. "These folks are Christian," argues Rudin. "They don't have the right to distort my symbols, my text, my holidays, my sacred objects."
Inside, Baruch Ha Shem looks like a regular synagogue. There are no representations of Christ on the cross, but there are 12 colorful banners signifying the 12 tribes of Israel from Asher to Zebulun, plus two extra banners for Goyim, the Hebrew word for the gentiles, and the Lamb, for Jesus. On a recent Saturday, the 300-capacity building filled rapidly. About two-thirds are gentile, congregational leader Marty Waldman later says, and overall the congregation is quite diverse by age and ethnicity.
Today Sisson is reading from the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, written in Hebrew and preserved on scrolls in a synagogue's "ark." Every Shabbat, Jews in synagogues across the world read the same Torah portions in Hebrew. (Pressure by mainstream Jewish groups has forced Baruch Ha Shem and other Messianic congregations to stop calling themselves synagogues, and their leaders to stop calling themselves rabbi.)
Most Jews would find Sisson's reading of the Torah bizarre, since the Torah consists largely of laws handed down by God to only the Jews. What do other Christians think of him attending Saturday Shabbat services? "I have generally found Christians to be very receptive to us," he says. "They understand that one day the Jews will come to faith in Jesus Christ."
Sisson says he believes he's doing God's work by helping bring Jews to Christianity. He mentions his belief that the Second Coming will be on hold until the Jews are converted. Well, shouldn't you get busy, then? "To phrase it like that, it sounds like I do it for selfish reasons," he answers. "My life is richer and fuller and more meaningful because I know Jesus, and my incentive is I want others to know the same joy."
A few days later congregational leader Waldman proudly shows off Baruch Ha Shem's Torah. From behind the ark's red curtains he takes out the scrolls. He bought it used, and markings on it appear to indicate it's from Europe and is at least 65 years old, he says.
Why so many gentiles in the flock? He says most Messianic congregations are more than half ethnic Jewish, but Bible Belt congregations attract more gentiles because of greater interest in the Old Testament. "Many Christians don't understand they believe in the same God as Israel," he explains.
A thin, middle-aged man with gray-speckled hair and a mustache, Waldman founded Baruch Ha Shem in 1984, and since then it has become the area's largest Messianic Jewish congregation. And it's expected to mushroom further. This summer, Waldman says, the congregation will break ground on a series of expansions that will result in a maximum capacity of 1,100, making it the largest Messianic congregation in the Southwest.
Waldman's parents are Holocaust survivors, and he was born in New York, a locus of Jewish-American life. But he converted 25 years ago when a friend told him about Jesus. "That bothered me so much, I decided to go out, get some books and do some research to prove him wrong." But the study session had the opposite effect. "It was like the scales fell from my eyes," he recalls.
When Waldman told his parents about his new faith, his mother yelled at him and called him a traitor, while his father didn't talk to him for more than a year. But he later reconciled with his parents, and his mother once told him that Baruch Ha Shem was the greatest synagogue she had ever been to.
Waldman draws a distinction between Southern Baptists and outfits such as Jews for Jesus: His flock doesn't aggressively hit the streets to evangelize Jews. "They do things that bring fear and offense, and that brings up the history we have already lived through," he says.
Indeed, pastors such as Waldman must walk a fine line to keep the few friends Messianic churches have while distancing himself from their more egregious excesses. When apprised of Sibley's quote that Jews who don't accept Jesus are going to hell, he deems the admonition out of line. "He has a heart and wants to reach us. But it's not up to anybody to determine whether someone's going to hell. It's up to God."
Despite the congregation's more moderate outlook, past Baruch Ha Shem outreach efforts have earned Waldman full-blown scorn from the local Jewish community, which has ostracized him. Several years ago he sought to build ties with the Dallas community's small population of elderly Russian immigrant Jews. "We visited them with food and literature," he says. "They took all of it."
But local Jewish leaders, who charge Waldman with misrepresentation, quickly scotched that effort, complaining that it was unfair to evangelize people who, because of decades of Soviet-sponsored atheism, know little about their own heritage. "The immigrants have difficulty understanding [that Messianics] aren't real Jews," says Darrel Strelitz, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Dallas office.
Since then, Baruch Ha Shem has kept to itself, content to fill its pews quietly. "It's not worth the heartache and headache," Waldman says.
Anti-Semitism, explains the Anti-Defamation League's Briskman, is largely the legacy of centuries of Catholic conversion efforts manifested in the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the practice of Judaism was considered an affront to Christianity and church authority. But Jewish leaders are elated that Catholic authorities have thrown anti-Semitism's underpinnings out of the church by making it a sin.
Meanwhile, the controversy over Jewish evangelism has hit home. In Dallas the Jewish community is steeling itself against evangelism after an incident in which a 12-year-old boy, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, told his mother he'd been saved by Jesus.
Last November the boy was invited to a youth event at First Baptist Church of Allen that supposedly didn't involve evangelism. He had a good time and went back again.
On his second visit, a man asked him and several other boys if they wanted their sins erased. At first, the boy claims, he didn't sense a conversion effort, but before the night was over, he signed a card stating he had accepted Jesus.
Later he told his mother she should do the same -- or risk going to hell. "I felt like this was child abuse," the boy's mother angrily told The Dallas Morning News. "It's about like drugging somebody. They seduce you with the food and the music, and all your friends are there."
The boy has since returned to Judaism, and his bar mitzvah has been rescheduled. For now, the episode illustrates a vexing dilemma for Jews who consider their faith important but don't want to wall themselves off from the outside world. "We want to build bridges of respect and understanding," says Rivka Arad, director of religious education at Temple Shalom.
Meanwhile, Rudin of the American Jewish Committee looks at the Jewish evangelism push by Sibley and others from a historical perspective -- and to some observers, an optimistic one. "I see it as the last hurrah of Christian triumphalism," he says.
But Sibley and the Southern Baptist Convention soldier on in their mission to guide Jews to faith in the Christian Messiah, undeterred and resolute. After all, he says, Jesus was crucified for his beliefs. "We get as much hostility from liberal Christians as we do from liberal Jews," Sibley says. "Within some of those denominations, there are those who are still conservative and believe what the Scripture teaches."