Messianic Judaism and the Hebrew Roots movement are decentralized and disorganized, yet they are also zealous and fast-growing. To their credit, these communities shun many of paganized Christianity’s inventions and some even have an appearance that can seem close to early New Testament Christianity. But what is their history? What are some of their beliefs? And most significantly, are the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots communities truly closer to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3)?
From the earliest New Testament times, we know that the Gospel went first to the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel; first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Matthew 10:5–6; John 1:41; Acts 18:2, 24; Romans 1:16; 2:9–11). But does this mean that God desires Christians to “get back to their Hebrew roots”? Quite the contrary. As we will see, although there has been some doctrinal progress in recent decades, Messianic Judaism and its sister, the Hebrew Roots movement, are not a continuation of the Church that Jesus Christ built (Matthew 16:18). They are actually modern phenomena, practicing doctrines very different from “the faith once delivered.”
Founded by Protestants
Messianic Judaism, in fact, originated in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, most prominently through the efforts of men such as Carl Schwartz (1817–1870), a Presbyterian minister and Polish-Jewish convert to “Christianity” who worked from Britain; Arno Gaebelein (1861–1945), a Methodist pastor who worked from New York; and David Bronstein (1886–1961), a Presbyterian minister and Jewish convert who worked from Chicago. The movement spread among Protestant congregations in Britain and the United States, leading to the creation of new associations such as “The Hebrew Christian Alliance” in the United Kingdom (formed in 1866) and “The Hebrew Christian Alliance of America” (formed in 1915).
By the early 1900s, Arno Gaebelein had become a prolific writer and internationally influential theologian. By 1934, David Bronstein had established one of the first “Hebrew Christian” congregations in America. Decades later, Time Magazine reported on one of Bronstein’s Sunday services and described it as following a “Protestant order,” writing, “David Bronstein is no rabbi, but a pastor, and the 100-odd members of his Chicago congregation, almost all of them born Jews, call themselves Hebrew Christians. Their group is the first of five organized Hebrew Christian churches in the U.S….. In 1934 David Bronstein founded the Chicago church—not formally affiliated with the others—out of a feeling that ‘I was chosen to bring the Jewish people to Christ’” (“Religion: Hebrew Christians,” Time Magazine, December 30, 1957).
Good intentions aside, Bronstein—like his U.S. contemporary Gaebelein, and also like Schwartz in Britain, who slightly preceded them—remained Protestant Sunday preachers. Furthermore, these men were influenced by leading Protestant theologians of their time, particularly John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843–1921), whose theology remains a great influence on Messianic Jewish doctrine. This is important to understand if we are to understand “Messianic Jewish theology.”
Heavily Influenced by Protestant Theology
The extremely influential C. I. Scofield was a trinitarian, Sunday-keeping Presbyterian who authored the Scofield Reference Bible. Likewise, John Nelson Darby was an enormously influential British Protestant theologian. It was Darby who originated the doctrine that Christ would, invisibly and without warning, secretly “rapture” Christians to heaven before the Great Tribulation, which would end the current “Church age dispensation” and be followed by the literal return of Christ and the thousand-year Millennium, ushering in the next “dispensation” when the Old Testament prophecies regarding physical Israel would recommence.
Darby’s teaching on the “secret rapture” and his struggle with “dispensationalism” greatly influenced how Gaebelein, Bronstein, Scofield, and many others understood the Old and New Covenants, biblical prophecy, how God was working with the Jews in the “Church age,” and more. These men embedded many of their misunderstandings deep into the fabric of Messianic Judaism.
Although dynamic leaders, none of these men were part of the actual Church of God, which had maintained “the faith once delivered” through the centuries. Notwithstanding their noble desire to “reconcile their Jewish and Protestant converts,” or, as Bronstein stated, to “bring the Jewish people to Christ,” the founders of the modern Messianic Jewish movement simply did not and could not understand much of the fundamental truth that a converted member of the Church of God understands. Why? Because God gives His Holy Spirit—which is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isaiah 11:2)—to “those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32), i.e., to those who keep His commandments (Psalm 111:10). God does not give His Holy Spirit to those who have replaced the Sabbath with Sunday, who teach and observe pagan holidays, or who teach the pagan doctrine of a triune God.
However, interestingly, it was around David Bronstein’s time that God began calling someone who would obey Him and to whom He would give understanding. It was around this time that God began calling Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong (1892–1986).
Messianic Judaism or the Church of God?
In 1926, God prompted Mr. Armstrong’s theological studies in response to his wife Loma’s decision to begin keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. Mr. Armstrong, resistant to the idea, was forced to prove the Sabbath, the Holy Days, and many other doctrines. God then brought him into contact with the remnant of His faithful Church—the Church of God. While a study of the history of the New Testament Church is beyond the scope of this article, what God had led Herbert Armstrong to was, in fact, the small, Sardis-era, Sabbath-keeping remnant of His faithful Church, as described in Revelation 3:1–6, headquartered at the time in Stanberry, Missouri.
God soon made it clear that Mr. Armstrong should be ordained into the ministry. And so, as with all biblical examples of ordination, in 1931, Church leadership prayed and laid hands on him, and he was ordained a “minister, and apostle of the true primitive faith” in the Church of God. For more about the history of the New Testament Church, Mr. Armstrong’s calling and ordination, and how God used him to raise up the Philadelphian era (Revelation 3:7–13), you can review God’s Church Through the Ages and the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, Volume 1.
As we have alluded to, it is also vitally important to note that God called Mr. Armstrong into His true Church not only practicing right doctrine, but also practicing right government—organized, centralized, hierarchical, and with appointment by ordination. This also stands in stark contrast to the unbiblical, decentralized, and electoral approach—the “self-appointment” so common in the Protestant and “Messianic” worlds, which has even tempted some of God’s people in more recent times. (For a more detailed study about the type of government consistently established in God’s Church—in both the Old Testament and the New Testament—you can review “Righteous Government: From Ephod to Ekklesia in the July-August 2013 Living Church News.)
Because Mr. Armstrong was willing to reject false Christianity and fully submit to Jesus Christ, God gave him discernment that the Protestant founders of “Messianic Judaism” simply never had.
Messianic Doctrinal Disunity
While the Church of God was growing and God was blessing its efforts to preach the Gospel to the world, the Messianic Jewish movement was also growing, and many congregations began to shed some of their Protestant trappings, mainly by replacing Sunday worship with Sabbath worship. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Messianic Judaism began to experience explosive growth amid a new enthusiasm for all things Judaic. However, the Messianic movement remained—and remains—decentralized, disorganized, and doctrinally errant.
Of course, the fundamental disagreement that various Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements have with traditional Judaism is that traditional Judaism does not believe that the Word emptied Himself and became flesh (cf. Philippians 2:6–7; John 1:14). But while Messianic Jews accept that Jesus is the Messiah, they remain in serious error in many other ways.
For example, as will be expounded later, most Messianic Jewish congregations remain trinitarian. Many Messianic congregations accept the apocrypha (non-scriptural, non-canonical writings), while other Messianic Jews question the authenticity of the New Testament gospels. (For more on the preservation and canonization of the Bible, you can review “How Did we Get the Old Testament?” in the January–February 2000 LCN, “How Did We Get the New Testament?” in the July–August 1999 LCN, and “Your Inerrant Bible” in the January–February 2011 LCN).
Others, carrying over wrong “dispensationalist” ideas, believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but only for non-Jews. But the truth is entirely the contrary. For more on how the original New Testament Church was composed of both Jew and Gentile and how Jesus is the Messiah for all, you can review Restoring Original Christianity—and to quote Dr. Meredith from that booklet, “If you could somehow ‘look in on’ true Christianity during the first century and even beyond, what would you see? You would see a group of dedicated believers in Jesus as the promised Messiah” (pp. 16–17).
Many Messianic Jews believe that God is pleased with Gentile Christians observing Sunday and the typical, paganized “Christian holidays,” which, of course, God says He hates (cf. Amos 5:21). Others argue that ethnic Jews must make aliyah—move to Jerusalem. Some believe that the Feast of Tabernacles must be observed in traditional succoths, while others believe that the Feast of Tabernacles can only be properly observed in Jerusalem. Some congregations—typically those with Pentecostal lineage—are becoming increasingly “charismatic” and there is a growing “speaking in tongues” debate within the community. (For more on the gift of speaking in tongues, see “The Purpose of Speaking in Tongues” in the May–June 2022 LCN and “Fruits of the Spirit” in the May–June 2014 LCN)
These are just some examples of the chaos and error within the Messianic and Hebrew Roots communities. Yet we know that “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33) and that His Church should not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men,” but should instead exhibit “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13–14).
The 613 Ordinances?
Many Sabbath-keeping “Hebrew Roots” congregations contend that they practice “the faith of the early Church,” basing this claim on their supposed keeping of the 613 mitzvot and arguing that statements such as “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4) require adherence to these 613 manmade rabbinic ordinances. But, again, this is false.
What are the 613 mitzvot? First, it is helpful to explain what they are not. The 613 mitzvot are not the law of God—they are not the Ten Commandments or the Holy Days, nor are they even the sacrificial system or the Old Covenant. The 613 mitzvot are simply a multitude of rabbinic ordinances (in Greek, dogma) based on human interpretations of Scripture, which in some cases are valid instruction for right worship, but in other instances are instruction only for a temporary time or situation. In other instances, they are misinterpretations of Scripture, and in still other instances they are part of “the law”—not the Ten Commandments, but the lower-case law, which included the “tutor.” This, as Paul noted in Galatians 3:23–25, was superseded by the New Covenant.
For example, mitzvot 87, based on Exodus 23:12, says to rest on the Sabbath, and mitzvot 91, based on Exodus 20:8, says to sanctify the Sabbath from beginning to end. These are both valid instruction for right worship—not because they are rabbinic ordinances, but because whether under the Old Covenant or the New Covenant, the seventh-day Sabbath is holy time and a commanded, sacred assembly (Leviticus 23:3; Hebrews 10:25). Observing the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8), and Jesus Christ kept the Sabbath holy (Luke 4:16), as did His apostles (Acts 13:42–44).
However, mitzvot 90, based on Exodus 16:29, says not to walk outside the city boundary on the Sabbath, which was an interpretation of God’s instruction for a temporary time or situation. That this was not meant as a perpetual ordinance should have been blatantly obvious to the so-called rabbinic experts, since later, God Himself commanded Israel to walk around the entire city of Jericho for seven days, which would have included at least one Sabbath (Joshua 6:3–4). And these were likely the seven days of Unleavened Bread, thus making “the seventh day,” when Israel walked around Jericho seven times, a high Sabbath. If this is not sufficient proof that mitzvot 90 is in error, then consider that Jesus Christ Himself utterly cast down the supposed “authority” of these additional, rabbinic ordinances when He and His disciples departed the city and “went through the grainfields” plucking and eating heads of grain (Luke 6:1), which would have violated mitzvot 88. The Pharisees then accused Him of “doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (v. 2)—but Jesus Christ never broke the Sabbath. He was simply demonstrating the error of these additional, manmade, rabbinic dogma.
Mitzvot 84 is based on Numbers 15:38, which required tassels on all four-cornered garments. Verse 39 explains the purpose of the tassels—so that people may look at them “and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.” Similarly, mitzvot 79 is based on Deuteronomy 6:8, which required phylacteries on the head. Both tassels and phylacteries were an added but temporary ritual under the Old Covenant tutor. Under the Old Covenant, with very few exceptions, the people had hard hearts that had not been converted by the Holy Spirit, so they did not remember and did not keep God’s law (cf. Zechariah 7:12; Ezekiel 11:19). Jesus Christ did not destroy the law or do away with the Ten Commandments (Matthew 5:17), but He did establish the New Covenant (Hebrews 7:12; 8:6). So, since Pentecost 31 AD, our hearts can be converted from “hearts of stone” to “hearts of flesh” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of tassels and phylacteries as part of the temporary tutor helping us remember the law, the law is now written in the hearts of God’s saints (Ezekiel 11:19; 2 Corinthians 3:2–3).
As Mr. Gerald Weston has explained, “Ritual practices were given as temporary reminders, as a schoolmaster or tutor to teach God’s ways to those without His Spirit (Galatians 3:23–25). But without the Holy Spirit, Israel remained carnal in thinking and action. Phylacteries, tassels, and animal sacrifices were not enough. God is not interested in these outward displays. What delights Him is a changed heart. God gives us the Holy Spirit to transform us, to make us different from our worldly neighbors” (“Better than Phylacteries,” The Living Church News, May–June 2022).
Others of the various 613 mitzvot can also be easily demonstrated as either obsolete or erroneous. For example, mitzvot 380, based on Numbers 28:9, is to bring two additional lambs as burnt offerings on the Sabbath—but the entire sacrificial system was rendered obsolete by Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11–28). And while mitzvot 6 and 7 (based on Leviticus 22:32), mitzvot 10 (based on Exodus 20:7), and others give valid caution to honor God’s name, many Messianic Jews mistakenly believe that these require people to use Hebrew words for the names of God. Although usually done with sincerity, this demonstrates ignorance—and sometimes vanity. For a deeper study about “sacred names,” you can review the Living Church News articles “How God’s Names Reveal His Nature and Power” (May–June 2011) and “The Truth About Sacred Names” (July–August 2000).
Ironically, the Messianic and Hebrew Roots communities are rebuilding the very “wall of separation” between Jew and Gentile that Jesus Christ tore down. Again, while Christ never abolished the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath, or the biblical Holy Days, He has abolished “the law of commandments contained in ordinances,” as Ephesians 2:14–15 explains. The “ordinances” spoken of in this passage are the Greek dogma, which can refer to civil decrees of men, as commentaries such as Expositor’s Bible Commentary rightly point out. (For a thorough study on how Ephesians 2:14–15 reveals that the Messiah has provided for reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, see “The Peace and Reconciliation of Ephesians 2:14” in the July–August 2018 LCN.)
The original New Testament Church did not follow the 613 mitzvot, and Jesus does not require us to do so. In fact, Jesus provided for the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, in part by abolishing many of the very rabbinic ordinances to which Messianic Jews are returning.
What About the Trinity?
With their roots in traditional Protestantism, it should be no surprise that most Messianic Jews accept some form of the false Trinity doctrine. For example, in their article “Is the Trinity in the Hebrew Scriptures?,” the international Messianic group Jews for Jesus states, “There is clear evidence that three personalities are referred to as divine and as being God” (April 27, 2018). And, according to Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, “Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity” (“What is Messianic Judaism?,” CARM.org, October 14, 2013).
According to the Congregation Shema Yisrael, founded in Detroit in 1986, “The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian Faith…. The knowledge of the HaSheeloosh HaKadosh (the Holy Trinity) does not come from nature, but from divine revelation. Reason may lead us to believe in the oneness of God, but it takes God’s self-disclosure to reveal His Tri-unity, His Three-in-Oneness…. Since God has revealed His unique Triune nature, it is essential that we think of God as He is or suffer the most dire consequences” (“The Jewishness of the Trinity,” Shema.com, October 11, 2012).
And finally, recall the First Hebrew Christian Church of Chicago, mentioned in the 1957 Time article. Like many, they have also migrated from Sunday worship to Sabbath worship and have changed their name to sound more “Jewish,” but still teach the Trinity. According to their official website, “Adat was founded by David and Ester Bronstein in 1934, as the First Hebrew Christian Church of Chicago…. The name was changed to Adat Hatikvah in 1974” (AdatHatkivah.org, accessed January 2023). Additionally, according to their Statement of Faith, “We believe in one God, creator of all things, infinitely perfect, all knowing, all powerful, ever present, eternally existent in three persons, Abba (Father), Ben (Son), and Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).”
But is belief in a “triune God” biblical? As Mr. Gerald Weston wrote in John 3:16: Hidden Truths of the Golden Verse, “Now, consider—if the Holy Spirit is a person, then who would Jesus’ Father be? The Holy Spirit would be Jesus’ Father! But we know this cannot be. Thus, we can see the fallacy of the Trinity teaching. Of course, when Trinity-believers are confronted with this passage, one will often hear the response, ‘You don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity.’ But that is okay, because neither does the person who responds this way” (p. 5).
Honest historians admit that the concept of a triune Godhead was not a doctrine of the original New Testament Church. As Harvard theologian and scholar Alvan Lamson summarized, “The modern doctrine of the Trinity is not found in any document or relic belonging to the Church of the first three centuries…. There is nowhere among these remains a coequal trinity…. It was of later origin” (The Church of the First Three Centuries, 1860, pp. 341–342).
True Christians Worship in Spirit and Truth
“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). They must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The fact of the matter is that the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, while perhaps having good intentions, contain much confusion and error. Those tempted by their teachings should heed God’s warning: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32; cf. Revelation 22:18–19). They need to obey the authority of Jesus Christ—not only as the One who gave the law (1 Corinthians 10:4), but also as the One with the authority to institute the New Covenant and instruct us in how to observe the law (John 5:22–27).
We are thankful for Jesus, our Savior and Elder Brother, who is “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1) and “the Messiah” (John 1:41). We are thankful that our loving God has preserved His inerrant word throughout the ages and has guided His Church to teach right doctrine, practice right government, and focus on preaching the true Gospel as “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). And we pray that God will call many more into His Church: the Church of God.