In a move that American Jewish leaders assailed as a "spiritual declaration of war," the Southern Baptist Convention this week launched a drive to convert Jews to the Christian faith.
Meeting in New Orleans, delegates to the annual meeting of the 15.6-million-member denomination--the nation's largest Protestant group--approved a resolution to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jews."
At the same time, the Baptist denomination disclosed that its Home Mission Board has appointed a missionary, Criswell College professor Jim Sibley, to lead the conversion efforts.
The move is a dramatic departure from the approach taken by other old-line Protestant denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, which have opted for dialogue with Jews and have all but forsworn organized conversion efforts.
But the Baptist resolution said that such efforts limited to dialogue "deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved." The resolution denounced those churches that believe "that Christians have neither right nor obligation to proclaim the Gospel to the Jewish people."
Jewish reaction to the Baptist action was angry and swift.
"Have we learned nothing from history? At a time when people of faith are being challenged by bigots burning down houses of worship . . . how tragic and arrogant is the decision of a major faith group to target members of the Jewish faith," the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a prepared statement.
"It's a kind of spiritual declaration of war," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in an interview.
He predicted that it would affect not only Jewish relations with Southern Baptists, but with Christians in general.
The American Jewish Committee called the Baptist action "an extreme form of spiritual arrogance." The committee's inter-religious affairs director, Rabbi A. James Rudin, said: "Making Jews a special target flies in the face of many extraordinary, constructive efforts of Christians of goodwill throughout the world to reverse 1,900 years of hostility toward Jews and Judaism."
Equally angry comments were issued by other Jewish groups in New York. The Anti-Defamation League called the resolution an "insult to the Jewish people and a setback for the cause of interfaith dialogue and understanding."
The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council charged the resolution is "disrespectful of the integrity and legitimacy of Judaism."
And the American Jewish Congress said the resolution "smacks of a kind of offensive doctrinal arrogance."
"They have a right to believe it. We have a right to disbelieve it," said Phil Baum, executive director of the congress. "We are not exactly losing sleep over this new initiative by the Southern Baptist Convention," he added. "The sturdiness and stamina of Jewish religious commitment has been demonstrated over the millennia, in the face of even more enticing invitations to disappear, and there is no doubt that this most recent mission of the Southern Baptist Convention is doomed to failure."
Because local Baptist congregations are autonomous from any state or national umbrella organization, the resolution approved in New Orleans is not binding on individual members or congregations. There are about 450,000 Southern Baptists and 1,650 local churches in California.
Still, a spokesman for the California Southern Baptist Convention headquartered in Fresno said Friday that the conversion of Jews is a natural outgrowth of not only Baptist belief but Christian theology.
"From any Christian perspective I think . . . because of our belief in Jesus Christ and his being the Savior of the world, that it's a natural expression that we would want to evangelize everybody," said Terry Barone, director of public relations.
Shortly before the convention vote, one Jewish convert and proponent of the resolution was quoted by the denomination's news service, Baptist Press, as saying that the Jewish belief that Jews enjoyed a special covenant with God had been superseded by the Christian New Testament.
"We believe the [Christian] Scriptures, the words of the Lord, are clear. Our people will not get to heaven by any other covenant [except belief in Jesus as Lord] (John 14:6)," said Gus Elowitz of Houston, congregational leader of the first Southern Baptist messianic congregation, which was established in 1985.
The view that God's covenant with the "chosen people" of Israel has been abrogated by the New Testament was rejected by the Roman Catholic Church in 1965 when it issued a document, called "Nostra Aetate," which says: "The Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues."
In Washington, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Catholic Jewish Relations said Catholics decided in 1978 not to directly single out Jews for proselytization.
"Certainly the proclamation of Jesus Christ by the Roman Catholic Church is universal. Jesus' death and Resurrection are of universal salvific significance," Gene Fisher, associate director of the office, said Friday.
In New York, the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group representing 33 Protestant and Orthodox denominations with 52 million members, said they have taken a similar position.
"The most likely effect of such an organization given the sad and tragic history [of Christian anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust] would be to chill the freedom of faith of the Jewish people by instilling fear and concerns and the memories of this tragic past," Fisher said.