Church of England repents over antisemitic past

Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford (PHOTO: gilbertscott.org)

Gateway News UK correspondent Charles Gardner reflects on the complicated historical relationship between Israel and the Church and argues that it is time for the hearts of many Christ followers to change

Much of the blame for the current Middle East conflict should be laid squarely at the door – not of Israel, but the Church.

It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that the Church of England is holding a service of repentance for historic anti-Semitism at Oxford Cathedral on May 8.

For it was at the Synod of Oxford in 1222 (800 years ago) that laws were passed which ultimately led to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. 

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It was nearly 400 years before they were welcomed back by Cromwell, a period comparable to their enslavement in ancient Egypt; except that it was our ancestors who insulted God by keeping his own people – and all the blessings they could have offered – exiled from this green and pleasant land.

As it happens, it was also at Oxford during that time where Christian martyrs were burnt at the stake for the sake of the gospel brought to them by Jewish people.

The cause of church-based anti-Semitism was not just our sinful, hateful hearts, but bad theology going all the way back to the second century, now acknowledged in part by the established church.

It was shortly after the Apostles died that the so-called Church Fathers began the process of disassociating Christianity from its Judaic foundations by marking the Sabbath on a different day and separating Passover from Easter. All of which boosted the idea of the Jews, as ‘Christ-killers’, being our enemy.

Yes, the Jewish leaders did conspire to crucify Christ, but the other side of the same coin is that it was meant to happen, as Jesus was the ultimate Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of both Jew and Gentile (see Isaiah 53:10). In that sense, we are all responsible for nailing Christ to the cross.

St Paul explains how Jewish hearts (apart from those who founded the Church, of course) were hardened for a time for our sakes so that Gentiles too could taste the sweet salvation of sins forgiven. (Rom 11:25)

But God has not forgotten his ancient people, who have repeatedly felt the sting of his severe discipline. As a loving Father, he will never forsake them. In fact, he loves them with “an everlasting love” (Jer 31.3) and there is coming a day when “all Israel” will have their eyes opened to their Messiah (Rom 11.26).

Indeed, there is coming a time (and in some respects it has already come) when Jerusalem will no longer be trampled upon by Gentiles in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy (Luke 21:24). There are parts of the city – particularly the Temple Mount – still under Gentile control. But this will soon end, which is why there is such a furious battle over this piece of real estate.

It is, after all, God’s ‘holy mountain’ (Psalm 48:1, Ezekiel 43:6f) – but the devil, the “prince of this world”, is holding on to it for as long as he can. However, the King is coming to reign from this mount, and there will be no doubt over who is God. Idolatry will cease as Jesus sets up his kingdom for a thousand years.

The distancing from Judaism encouraged by the likes of Constantine and the Church Fathers went hand in hand with the heretical notion that Christians had replaced Israel in God’s affections. This effectively meant that wherever we read ‘Israel’ in the Bible, we should think ‘Church’.

Such denial of the Father’s love for Jews spread like cancer through Christ’s ‘body’ on earth and also infected much of the political realm. Luther was an obvious example of this, with his anti-Semitic writings providing the religious defence for Nazism 400 years later.

Julius Streicher cited Luther’s book The Jews and their Lies as part of his defence at the Nuremberg Trials, declaring: “Dr Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today if this book had been taken into consideration by the prosecution.”

But as in all things in a world created by a loving God, there is a strong correlation between the physical and the spiritual. Denying God’s favour for the Jewish people will undoubtedly lead to denial of their right to the land, which is the default position of so many churches today. They refuse to see the marvellous miracle of Jewish restoration as part of God’s plan in spite of the plethora of Scriptures referring to it.

Jeremiah, who constantly castigated his people for their idolatry, nevertheless prophesied that their return from the far corners of the earth would be a greater miracle than the crossing of the Red Sea. (Jer 16:14f)

Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley and Bishop J C Ryle were among the great evangelical preachers of the past who clearly saw this.

If you are a Bible believer, Jewish entitlement to the land of Israel is surely a given. And when they are back in the land, according to Ezekiel, they will also turn back to the Lord as they are given a ‘new heart’ (chapter 36:24-26).

But how ridiculous that they are not even allowed to silently mouth a prayer on their holiest of sites (the Temple Mount, under Jordanian control – it’s a long and complex story) where only Muslims can pray.

When they come to know the Lord, however, as many are doing these days, they are able to pray to him anywhere.

The Good Samaritan parable could well apply to organisations today such as Christian Friends of Israel who are busy dressing the wounds of the injured victim on the roadside while many religious people walk by on the other side.

It’s time we returned the favour the Jewish people lavished on us with their precious Scriptures, their patriarchs, their prophets and their Saviour. For everything we do, or fail to do, hinges on our response to a Jew, whose name is Jesus.

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