A Bridge Too Far? GOD TV and the journey of Christian-Jewish relations

The row between Israeli authorities and GOD TV over its new license to broadcast Gospel programming in Hebrew on HOT cable is a story that is not going away soon, and many are now joining the fray. It is a dispute that is beginning to tear at decades of efforts to build bridges between pro-Israel Christians and their Jewish friends. Now that the facts are a little clearer, it is time to weigh in on the matter, appeal for calm, and seek to preserve those hard-won advances in Jewish-Christian relations.

The story broke several weeks ago when Ward Simpson, CEO of GOD TV, announced in an online video that Israeli authorities had approved their new channel for carrying the message of Yeshua to the Israeli people, while also appealing for donations to support the new channel. Facing a sudden public outcry, the heads of HOT and Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council both tried to plead that they were misled and to deflect blame.

Thus the initial media reports suggested that GOD TV may have misled the Council about its intentions to evangelize on air when applying for a license to broadcast its new Hebrew channel Shelanu (“Ours”) on HOT. But the station’s local Messianic Jewish leaders are now insisting that they were clear about their plans with HOT representatives, who nonetheless offered to draft and submit a license application on their behalf and came back with the license without ever showing the Shelanu team exactly what was submitted to the Council.

The Council is scheduled to meet next week to review the license application and decide whether to revoke it for violating Israeli laws against proselytizing. Shelanu has retained legal counsel to assert its democratic rights to free speech and salvage its seven-year contract with HOT, the largest cable provider in Israel. The most severe measure would likely be that this new channel will wind up behind some sort of parental code restriction, for reasons stated later.

A Hot Button Issue

As that bureaucratic process runs its course, many Christians and Jews are voicing their positions on this sensitive issue of missionizing in Israel. Some of the reactions have been measured, reasoned and constructive; others have been heated, alarmist and way off-topic.

Many of the Jewish contributors to the debate have said this episode has confirmed their suspicions that pro-Israel Evangelicals were hiding their real intentions all along. They also have accused Messianic Jews in particular of using deceptive tactics to blur the differences between Judaism and Christianity.

On the Christian side, a surprising number of Evangelical leaders have openly called for an end to any preaching of the Gospel to Jews, due to either the history of Christian antisemitism, the teaching of Replacement theology, or their belief that the Jewish people have their own covenant of salvation. One leading pro-Israel Evangelical activist even wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to ban the channel from broadcasting missionary content in Israel.

One of the most thoughtful, balanced responses overall came from Jonathan S. Tobin, the veteran American Jewish journalist who currently serves as editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Service. Writing in Haaretz this week (“Evangelicals Trying to Convert Jews: A Fair Price for Christian Support for Israel?” – 11 May 2020), Tobin laid out the pros and cons of accepting Evangelical support for Israel and then concluded: “If Jews, whether they are settlers or liberals, are genuinely alarmed about Christians seeking converts, they should compete against them in a free market of ideas rather than just fume about the sinister nature of missionizing.”

Here, Tobin touches on the real heart of the issue at hand – the tension of Israel being both a democratic and a Jewish state.

A Delicate Balancing Act

As Christians, we regularly and robustly defend Israel as the only true democracy in the Middle East, and rightfully so. This necessarily includes the right of all Israelis to free speech – including its Messianic Jewish citizens. Yet weighed against this is the Jewish vision that the restored nation of Israel would serve as a safe haven from all the abuses and atrocities the Jewish people faced out among the nations – especially in Christian lands. This includes an expectation to never be bothered again by any attempts to convert them to another religion.

Now for whatever reason, there is a broad misperception that missionary activity is completely banned in Israel. It is true that there is a strong cultural stigma against proselytizing here, but so far the Knesset has enacted only two laws regulating this area. One makes it a crime to offer material inducements to persuade someone to change their religion, while the other forbids proselytizing a minor (under 18) without the consent of their parents. These are both reasonable measures. And there have been few criminal prosecutions and no successful convictions yet under either law.

There have been other legislative efforts to significantly broaden the legal limits on missionizing in Israel. The most serious attempt came in 1998 after a prominent Pentecostal minister mailed an evangelistic book in Hebrew to nearly one million Israeli homes. In response, a bill was introduced in the Knesset which would have effectively made it illegal to possess the New Testament in Israel. The proposed law was a clear overreach for a democratic country, and it was eventually withdrawn amid fruitful dialogue efforts between Christian and Jewish clergy in Jerusalem.

Meantime, in a more recent test of the limits of Israel’s anti-missionary restrictions, the Supreme Court upheld the religious freedoms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a public event in Raanana after the city sought to close it down for fear of proselytizing.

Thus, it is clear that one is fairly free to share one’s faith in Israel. You just have to stay within the confines of the two relevant laws while also being prepared to face some form of societal backlash, such as eggs and tomatoes thrown by haredi youths. In fact, there have been violent demonstrations in front of Messianic congregations, and some Christians have encountered visa problems at the Ministry of Interior due to zealous lobbying by anti-missionary groups. Or a state broadcasting board might try to withdraw your cable license under public pressure.

Even so, Christians also must take into account the uniqueness of Israel as the Jewish nation, First, we owe Israel a generous measure of humility and respect in light of the unavoidable, undeniable history of Christian antisemitism. To exercise the right of free speech here without any regard for that history or the Jewish sensitives against missionizing would be a callous misuse of that right.

In addition, the Jewish people are not just like any other nation or people who need to hear the Good News, since it was through them that faith in the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, came to the Gentile nations. The very first missionaries to bring the Gospel to Greek and Barbarian lands were what we would today call “Messianic Jews,” who within a generation or so had turned multitudes in the Greco-Roman world into believers in a loving and redeeming God.

The Evangelical Approach 

With these truths in mind, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem was founded on a biblical mandate to acknowledge, repent of and redress the wrongs and deep wounds inflicted on Jews in the name of Christ by our forebearers in the faith down through the centuries. We are primarily evangelical Christians who have been working for forty years now to remove this greatest of stains on the Church and to establish a new attitude towards Israel within churches worldwide. In addition, we believe that the modern-day restoration of Israel is in line with ancient biblical promises that God would restore His people back to their land one day.

It is true to say that leading Evangelical figures openly advocated for a future restoration of the Jewish people back to their homeland even before the emergence of Jewish political Zionism.

Our Jewish friends also should remember that in the 500-year history of the Evangelical movement, there is little record of antisemitic violence or hostilities against Jews. There have been some Evangelical proponents of anti-Jewish beliefs and Replacement teachings as well as the lamentable failings and silence of Christians in general during the Holocaust. But there are no instances of forced conversions, inquisitions or pogroms carried out by Evangelical Christians. These things indeed happened to the Jews! We acknowledge them, we regret them, and we willingly take responsibility for repairing their damage as best we can. But we Evangelicals did not commit them ourselves. Thus it is wrong for Jews to project onto their Evangelical friends the fears they still harbor of religious coercion which arose out of the abuses committed by other Christian traditions in the past.

The core of Evangelical belief is a personal relationship with God, rather than belonging to a state religion or denomination. We view faith as precious and something which can only be received freely by a willing heart. We agree that no one can or should be compelled to believe something contrary to their conscience. Thus, we do not practice coercion. Rather we believe that faith is ultimately a gift from God and our calling is merely to share that Good News with others.

Furthermore, we have never tried to hide who we are. We are Christians who believe Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah, and that we received the message and gift of salvation from the Jewish people. Much like the Hebrew Bible, even our New Testament was written by Jewish apostles who arose in Israel. The command to share our faith with the entire world is a major tenet of Christianity. To demand that we refrain from giving witness to our faith is like asking the Jewish people not to keep Shabbat. And yet through this very command of the Great Commission, faith in the God of Israel has reached literally to the ends of the earth. The consequence is that Israel today has faithful friends in every country of the world.

Yet because of the long, painful history of Christian antisemitism, the ICEJ has made a voluntary commitment not to engage in missionary activity towards the Jewish people, and this we have faithfully kept for the past four decades. Our support for Israel is not contingent on Jews accepting our beliefs as to who the Messiah is, but rather we stand with Israel and fight antisemitism around the world because Israel is the “apple of God’s eye” (Zechariah 2:8). The Apostle Paul even instructs all Christians to love and bless the Jewish people. because they remain “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28).

At the same time, we cannot demand that all Christians refrain from sharing the Gospel with Jews. Nor will we disassociate ourselves from our Messianic Jewish brethren. Those Christians who are doing so in response to the GOD TV controversy not only contradict Christian teaching but also risk becoming outcasts from the mainstream Evangelical movement. Rather, we must strive to forge an honest, genuine friendship with the Jewish people, even while never removing the tension of Jesus from between us.

We fully understand that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism each have a different “end of history.” But ever since the nadir of Auschwitz, many Jews and Christians have come to realize that we need to build secure bridges between our faiths without any hidden agendas. This historic shift has meant that there are now hundreds of millions of Christians who feel immense gratitude towards the Jewish people and are even more impassioned to express it because their Messiah declared that salvation has come from the Jews (John 4:22).

We can and must continue to build strong, lasting relations between Christians and Jews, while doing so along clearly understood parameters. Evangelicals should never condition our support for Israel and the Jewish people on whether they will allow us to preach the Gospel to them. By the same token, our Jewish colleagues in this endeavor cannot expect Christians to affirm their rejection of Jesus as a condition of our friendship.

I firmly believe that the bridges built between Jews and Christians over recent decades is a remarkable historic phenomenon orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. This new-found relationship is a fascinating and enriching journey for both sides. And I am confident it will survive the current dust-up over GOD TV. It is not a bridge too far.

This article originally appeared on ICEJ, May 15, 2020, and reposted with permission.