Grace And Truth Christian Congregation Israel.
When Grace and Truth Christian Congregation was founded, most local congregations were still known by the name of their “leader”. We were concerned over this trend because we believed that they gave prominence to an individual Christian rather than to Christ. In addition, we were increasingly unhappy with the tendency toward semantics of disassociation: “Christian” was no longer to be used in any language but Hebrew. Instead, “Messianic” was preferred, completely ignoring the fact that the Hebrew term “Meshichi”. normally translated “Messianic” actually included all evangelical believers, whether Jewish or otherwise. We wanted to think wider than how one name or another would affect us in our immediate environment in order to convey a message both to the church worldwide and to our nation.
We therefore preferred to choose for ourselves a name that would express something of the aspirations of our congregation and of intended distinctives. We also decided to include in the English translation of our name the honourable title “Christian” and became known first as “Grace and Truth Christian Assembly” and now as “Grace and Truth Christian Congregation”. It was with measurable satisfaction that we discovered that our insistence paid off. Other churches began choosing their own names: Israel’s Hope, The Trumpet of Salvation, The Spring, The Lord is my Shepherd etc.
THE BASIS OF CHURCH LIFE
In those days, churches came into being simply because a group of Israeli believers living in a given location began meeting together for worship. Patterns evolved, leadership emerged, doctrines were taken for granted and, when challenged, became bones of contention. Aspiring leaders clashed with those already established, budgets were not the practice, congregations among the Jews had no legal standing and their bank accounts were run through the private accounts in whoever happened to be in the lead.
We believed, as we do to this day, that churches should be formed on an agreed doctrinal basis; that their church order should be as much the product of a careful consideration of biblical data as should be their doctrine, that biblical standards of leadership should be taught and maintained; and that finances should be handled at the very least in full accordance with the law. We wanted to think wider than our own comfort and the circumstances of the day. So we spent two long years in confessional and constitutional discussions, insisted on registering as a legal entity, the creation of a budget, the rendering of audited accounts long before the law required this of us.
We are pleased to know that a number of new congregations have adopted similar measures of accountability.
APPOINTING A PASTOR
We all know that vacuums cannot exist in a relatively normal world. They draw into their void whatever is within reach. So too churches cannot normally function without a Pastor, the primary Teaching Elder who through the authority vested in his teaching office and his function as the primary teacher of the church, provides the congregation with most of its sense of direction and drive.
We had written into our Constitution the role of a Pastor and, as soon as we thought we were ready, appointed one such, who has served us since 1976. Now we are at the stage when we are ready to set yet another precedent. Our constitution requires the Pastor to resign at the age of 65. The Pastor is soon to be 62 and, having determined to our regret that we will not find in our midst a suitable candidate, we have begun the search for a pastoral replacement.
Our present Pastor will remain at his post until the new man has sufficient Hebrew to preach and counsel in that language, after which he will be inducted. At that stage the present Pastor will resign and leave the country for an extended period in order to allow the new man sufficient elbow room to establish himself.
Other churches have followed our train and established Pastors. When the time comes, we hope they will also follow in establishing and implementing a proper procedure for their present Pastor’s replacement.
THE RIGHT TO CONGREGATE
We’ve always tried to aim wider than our own congregational interests. For that reason we always sought to conduct our congregational life in the presence of our brethren. When the church was constituted as a church in Christ, we invited all the evangelical churches of Israel to witness the establishing of the covenant which bound individuals together as a body of believers in love and obedience to God according to his word. Our desire was to aim wider than just those who served and worshiped with us.
When our right to use a building for worship was challenged, it would have been much easier and considerably cheaper for us simply to seek another location. But we aimed wider: it was obvious that here was an opportunity to establish the right of Israeli Christians to congregate publicly and to use a suitable part of an existing building for that purpose. After all, there were no churches in Jewish areas, and most of us were Jewish Christians who lived and worked among our own people.
For three years we met in the woods, in parks and small, crowded apartments and paid rent for a facility which the Court forbade us to use while we conducted a legal struggle against the Orthodox community in our city and against City Hall. After three long years, God accorded us a victory: the Court ruled in our favour, thus establishing a legal precedent. At once we let the facility go, rented a location more suited to our growing needs and discovered to our joy that other congregations followed suit, now that they were protected by the precedent established.
A short while later, we were able to relocate in an industrial area, having obtained a permit on the strength of the earlier Court ruling. This was the first time a Christian congregation rented a property for its congregational use in an industrial area. Seeing that our permit was not challenged, other congregations likewise bought or rented properties in such areas.
SYSTEMATIC, DOCTRINALLAY-INFORMED EXPOSITORY PREACHING.
It is our conviction that most preaching in the church should be of the kind that the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon despised. We affirm the importance of systematic expository preaching of whole books. In addition, every 5-6 years we had had a series of sermons on the church confession and various topics dealt with as time arose. Our Sabbath School has dealt with topics such a early church history, biblical geography, the fear of God, prayer, family life, bringing up children and church life. Rarely will we have a message on isolated topics, although there have been occasions for that kind of preaching as well.
<br.Thinking wider, we are now working to have our preaching produced in book form, published and distributed to as many as possible. Responses received are extremely encouraging.
From time to time, when the religious Orthodox parties consider themselves politically secure, there is an attempt to legislate against freedom of religious expression in Israel, with a special focus on the right to speak of one’s faith to others. A few years ago, when such an attempt was made, we were forced to think wider than our own security or congregational interests. Immediately we embarked onto what became a world-wide campaign to stymie this formidable legislative effort.
Very much conscious of the fact that we were not acting on our own behalf, we convened a meeting of all interested local congregations and Christian or missionary organisations in the country to take counsel and to appoint an ad hoc committee to lead the campaign and to render account to the wider body of Christ in the country. It was an honour to have one of our number appointed to that committee and to serve as its chairperson until the proposed bill was rejected.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE AND THE UNITY OF THE BODY OF CHRIST
Churches among the Jews in Israel tended to be isolated and to operate as if they existed on an island, with no other churches within reach or in view. As a result, when and if church discipline was enacted, all the disciplined party needed to do was to move to the congregation next door. We thought this was improper. It emasculated church discipline and robbed those disciplined of the benefits they could and should have enjoyed from their fellow believers’ faithfulness to them and to the word of God.
Thinking wider than our own congregation, we therefore implemented a policy according to which we would inform other churches of the circumstances of significant church discipline, so they could support us in our efforts to bring a brother or a sister to repentance, to labour for the purity of the church and to protect other congregations from infective sin. It is with pleasure and gratitude that we note that our policy has been adopted by a growing number of churches in the country and that cooperation over issues of discipline is increasing.
On the other hand, we have been cognizant of improper use of church authority, facing us with embarrassing situations when a congregant disciplined by another church appeared at our door and inquiry led us to wonder as to the grounds and mode of the discipline imposed. In one case, thinking wider, we turned to other congregations in the area and together commenced discussion with the disciplining congregation. Those discussions ultimately concluded with a joint statement by the congregations in the area to the said body of Christians, calling them to abide by more biblical standards, and a joint refusal to abide by the unbiblical discipline administered.
In an effort to break the isolation under which most congregations chose to operate, we initiated the Inter-congregational Fellowship of Hebrew Speaking Congregations which assembled Elders for study, prayer, discussion, and fellowship bi-annually. One of our number served for almost a decade in the various Organising Committees of this Conference. Another of our number is presently serving in the same capacity, while a third serves for many years as a member of the National Evangelistic Committee, also founded at our initiative in order to promote a responsible mode of evangelism subject to the scrutiny of the body of Christ.
At one stage we were commissioned to prepare a draft Statement of Faith and Constitution for a more formal, binding Fellowship. We nursed the process through consecutive conferences for the duration of some 24 months, up to its final ratification, scheduled for early 1990. Each member church was to retain its distinctive identity and its independence while giving tangible expression to the fact that it was a part of a whole in truly biblical tension. To our surprise and dismay, the very brethren who ratified each portion along the way refused to give the Covenant their final assent for fear of losing their affirmed biblical independence.
Still thinking wider many years later, in 2001, we commenced another effort to create some framework of cooperative fellowship between churches. This effort resulted in a pact between various congregations in central Israel who now meet together to consult and cooperate in matters of inter and intra church discipline. Our cooperation has already borne tangible fruit in drawing us closer together without compromise on the varying views of truth we each hold. We have learned from each other, exhorted and corrected each other and worked cooperatively to render church discipline more biblical and, consequently, more effective.
A NEW VENTURE
Some 15 years ago we began to think wider in terms of a multi-functional congregational building that will serve our congregation and the broader body of Christ in Israel. We established a Building Fund, but every time we thought we had accumulated enough, the price of property rose, surpassing our means. Our original intention was to buy an existing facility. We considered the purchase of whole story’s in mixed commercial and light industrial buildings, a dilapidated cinema house, a sea front restaurant, never finding something remotely suitable and within our means. Finally, a well to do friend offered to pay the difference between what we had on hand and the cost involved on condition that we purchased land and built. We reluctantly agreed and 3,500 square meters (about 3/4 of an acre) of land were purchased.
We could have built a simple, unimposing building that would draw less attention and less opposition. But we believed ourselves obliged to think wider than our own congregational interests. This would be the first time a Christian congregation among the Jews in Israel constructed its own facility in a Jewish area of the country. Here was an opportunity to make a statement and to forge the way ahead for other congregations. We therefore instructed our architect: the building was to appear larger than it will actually be; it was to make a statement and to indicate an imposing presence, as if to say, “We Israeli Christians are here, and will no longer hide or seek to shrink into the shadows of Israeli society. Give note to the message we proclaim”.
The semi-governmental, Orthodox organisation, Yad Le’Achim, took full notice, and commenced a lengthy and costly legal battle that challenged the grounds of our building permit. To that end they hired one of Israel’s best trial lawyers. The case was taken to Israel’s Southern Regional Court. President of the court, Judge Gileadi, ruled in our favour and castigated the Orthodox both for religious persecution and for seeking to restrict democratic liberties in the land. A highly significant legal precedent had been established, following which other congregations in Israel follow suit, seeking land and planning to build.
ABSORBING THOSE WHO DIFFER
In the late 1980’s God opened the doors of the former Soviet Union. Thousands poured into the country, including Christians. We, they and other congregations in Israel faced a new challenge: were these believers to establish their own Russian speaking congregations, or would they be absorbed by existing, Hebrew speaking communities? Some local churches, understandably concerned over a likely loss of cultural identity in a situation where their right to belong to Israeli society was in question in the first place, expended themselves to a sincere but limited extent.
We, too, were challenged. Our church is built on the foundation of a Statement of Faith which we knew the newcomers did not share. We too were a minority in our society. But we were also Christians, committed to the witness and welfare of the body of Christ. We had seen language-based congregations in Israel. These normally existed for a single generation. Their young people often tore themselves away from the faith of their parents in order to belong to the society in which they studied, worked and lived. We determined to do all in our God-given power to avoid this and to try and absorb the believing immigrants.
It was a difficult time, for us and for the immigrants, but God has brought us through with flying colours. We are now a united congregation, sharing the same Faith, and in the process of regaining much of the cultural ground sacrificed when the newcomers were welcomed. Little conscious effort is invested in the process of re-acculturation. It is a natural process. The theological journey many of the immigrants underwent was, on the other hand, consciously painful. We give God thanks for his blessing to us as a church.
It was because we chose to think wider that when a deaf couple walked into our church, we responded by creating what has now become our work among the deaf in our city and the surrounding area.
NOT A MESSIANIC CONGREGATION
One aspect of Israeli churches’ desire to find acceptance in society is their reticence to openly describe themselves as Christian. For that reason, they prefer to be known in English as “Messianic” congregations. We certainly do not enjoy any rejection faced from Israeli society and have never courted such rejection. But we do understand that, so long as we profess Jesus to be the one and only saviour and affirm his equal deity with God the Father, rejection is part of the price we have to pay. We do not wish to obscure our message, nor to render non-Jewish congregants second class. We believe that the body of Christ is one and that, as much as is possible, local congregations should reflect that oneness. This means that Jews and Arabs should be worshiping together.
To that end we proposed that the Intercongregational Conference would not be that of the Hebrew speaking congregations alone, but of all local evangelical churches, including those in which Arabic is the spoken language. We greatly regret that our proposal was not accepted.
THE RIGHT TO EMPLOYMENT
One of our congregants, Ze’ev Bern, serves as a Deacon and for some time served as Chairman of the Diaconal Committee. The Orthodox, as is their wont in many cases, sent an agent provocateur into our midst. She posed as a convert, was baptised, became a member of the church and, for two years, collected information and pseudo-information about congregants. With her cooperation, Yad LeAchim, put pressure on Ze’ev’s employer to fire him. After a short while, the employer complied. Similar efforts had been made with employers of other congregants both from Grace and Truth and many other congregations.
For some time we had been lying in wait. Aiming wider than at our own congregational concerns, we believed the time had come to defend Israeli Christians’ right to employment. An opportune case fell into our hands. With our encouragement and funding, Ze’ev took his employer to court for unlawful dismissal on the grounds of his religious faith. The judge was antagonistic toward our cause, but we were ably represented and an air tight case was presented. The court sought to bring the two sides to a compromise, but we wanted to establish a legal precedent that would serve the wider body of believers in the country. The court was forced to give a ruling and ruled in our favour, intimating the baneful role that Yad Le’Achim had played.
We are now looking at the prospects of taking Yad Le’Achim to court for its role in Ze’ev’s dismissal. Be it in this instance or in another, we are determined to find a suitable opportunity to expose this semi-governmental organisation and its consistent efforts against the liberties and peace of Israeli Christians. A victory here would be a very substantial contribution to the life and witness of many evangelical churches in this country and our interests remain much wider than those relating to our congregation alone.
A WIDER READERSHIP
For years we had hoped to produce a Russian language Christian magazine. Then opportunity presented itself through the generosity of Dutch friends. But what shall we produce? Our aims were wider than Israel: there are countless hundreds of thousands of Russian speaking evangelicals around the world, primarily in the former USSR. Cults are rampant in those countries, anti-Semitism rife and its converse, a growing Messianic attraction, common. Ought we not try and reach as many of them as possible, and at the same time promote and encourage the evangelisation of our people? So, we commenced Milost i Istina (Grace and Truth). Our first issue was of 1,500 copies. Within two years we have over 25,000 potential readers clamouring for the magazine and, we estimate, that we could easily reach 100,000 readers within the next 5 years if we were able to meet the need.
Most of the projects in which we or CWI have been involved in Israel are long term projects, the product of a wider view and wider goals. The Modern Children’s Bible in Hebrew, produced by CWI with the aid of other support bodies, is an ambitious project into which we have invested about a decade. Two volumes have been produced and a third is well on its way to production. In all, the project is planned to incorporate five volumes – the first and only Modern Hebrew Bible available!
Keren Tkuma, the National Social Aid Fund, is another example of wider, longer-range aims. Surprised by large gifts that came in to our church in response to the needs of the immigrants in late 1980’s and early 1990’s, we handed the full sum over to a newly established National Charity whose Board is made up of individuals from various congregations in the country. Keren Tkuma now offers low-interest loans to assist Israeli believers (Jewish or Arab) to establish themselves in the land through the purchase of homes. So far we have been able to assist close to sixty families purchase their residences and three to obtain a professional education.
This is one aspect of the ministry in which we are involved. We are grateful to the many who have made our wider aims possible, and especially to those who taught us and exemplified to us such wider aims. May the Lord ever broaden our vision, and lead us to serve him wisely, faithfully, carefully and effectively, to his glory, the salvation of souls and the sanctification of all who call on his name.
MaozNews A periodic report from Israel.
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