Pastor Rich Nathan of Vineyard vs Christian Zionism

(January 25, 2010) While surfing the web I came across an email that Pastor Rich Nathan of the Vineyard Columbus church sent to his congregation in 2006. It concerned the Middle East peace process and the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have visited Pastor Nathan’s church a few times and was impressed by the work that he and his congregation are doing to help those in need and their desire to further the kingdom of God. However, the one area of disagreement I have with Pastor Nathan is in the realm of biblical prophecy and the nation of Israel. The email he sent to his congregation highlights some of the areas of this disagreement. Therefore I will respond to the various points discussed in this email, some of which I agree with and others I don’t. I will post the entire email below with my responses interspersed in blue font.

Congregational Email – October 2006
By Rich Nathan

Can There Be Peace In The Middle East?

Recent events in the Middle East have led many to wonder whether there can be any framework for peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly made controversial statements questioning the Holocaust, and criticized European laws against Holocaust denial. According to numerous media reports, he stated that “they have invented a myth that Jews were massacred.”

In July, Hezbollah para-military forces fired rockets and mortars into Israel resulting in the death of eight Israeli soldiers. Another Hezbollah unit crossed the border and seized two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with massive air strikes killing over a thousand people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and displacing nearly one million Lebanese citizens. At the end of July, Israeli air strikes hit an apartment building in Qana. Human Rights Watch later confirmed that at least 28 died, of which 16 were children, with 13 more still missing.

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians continues unabated. The Palestinians interpreted Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (accompanied by a thousand police officers) as an act of extreme provocation. It became the event which sparked the second Intifada in which Palestinians took this to the streets in protest. These protests became more and more violent in the ensuing months with a series of suicide bombings.

Both Jews and Arabs can cite a laundry list of injustices suffered at the hands of the other side. Both have become so vividly identified with their own sufferings that they have become blinded to the very real pain suffered by the other. Indeed, it has become a litmus test of allegiance to one’s own side to minimize, ignore, or distort the other side’s pain and to deny the other side’s right to exist as a nation.

Can Christians inside and outside of the Middle East play a role in bringing peace? We who follow the Prince of Peace must first publicly repent of our own complicity in the terrible tragedy that has befallen Jews and Muslims. Before the Christian church will have any credibility in speaking a word of reconciliation, the church must take the massive log out of our own eye. Only then will we see clearly enough to take the splinter out of the eyes of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

Where shall we begin? Each church must examine its own history and ask forgiveness from Jews and Muslims for the crimes perpetuated against these two great peoples. Regarding the Jews, the Eastern Orthodox Church might declare a day of mourning and repentance for the numerous anti-Semitic statements by the fourth century patriarch John Chrysostom, who among other things, said this about the Jews: The Jews are the most worthless of all men – they are lecherous, greedy, rapacious – they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness…the Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance and the Jews must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews and whoever has intercourse with the Jews will be rejected on Judgment Day. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews.

Lutherans could join in that day of mourning and repentance for statements made by Martin Luther in which he said: [We must] set their synagogues on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it…in order that God may see that we are Christians…their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed…they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds…their rabbis must be forbidden to teach under the threat of death.

And Roman Catholics could certainly join in mourning and repentance for their long history of anti-Semitism. Consider this statement by Thomas Aquinas: It would be perfectly licit to hold the Jews, because of their crucifying the Lord, in perpetual servitude.

Of course, since the Holocaust, Jews have ceased to take the moral credibility of the church seriously. 90% of Germans before the war and in all probability, an even larger proportion of Poles, attended church weekly. Yet it is a tragic fact of history that many of these churchgoers participated in the extermination of European Jewry and very, very few raised a voice of protest or actually engaged in the rescue and protection of Jews.

And it would be fitting regarding this day of Christian repentance and mourning to confess and grieve over the church’s treatment of Muslims for the past thousand years. Where shall we begin in our repentance regarding Muslims?

The Crusades wouldn’t be a bad starting point. When Christian knights from Western Europe recaptured Jerusalem from the Muslims, they massacred the entire population of the city, both Muslims and Jews. Muslims were burned alive in mosques during the retaking of the Holy Land.

I agree that Christians should ask for forgiveness for the sins committed in the name of Jesus Christ throughout history against other peoples and races. If we are sincere then some may come to understand the love of Christ. I also respect Pastor Nathan’s heart in this matter.

More recently, the world stood by silently as tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in the former Yugoslavia. Following 9/11, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians showed remarkable insensitivity to Muslim sensibilities, almost going out of their way to offend and provoke Muslims. Thus, Franklin Graham said: “I believe Islam is a very evil and wicked religion.” Benny Hinn said, concerning the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: “We are on God’s side. This is not a war between Arabs and Jews. It is a war between God and the devil. Jerry Falwell called the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, a “terrorist” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Pat Robertson said that Islam is “a monumental scam,” and claimed the prophet Muhammad was “an absolutely wild-eyed fanatic…a robber and brigand…a killer.” And, of course, Christian Zionists refuse to acknowledge that Palestinians have any legitimate claim to any part of the Holy Land thus eliminating their role as impartial mediators of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

The issue concerning the nature of other religions is a little more complex. Jesus Christ said that He was the only way to salvation (John 14:6). Thus, if a religion keeps people from obtaining salvation, who benefits from that? Certainly not the adherents of these non-Christian religions. Conversely, getting in people’s faces as some of these quotes do is not helpful in furthering the kingdom of God. Showing them the better way of the love of Christ towards them and helping them understand the love of a personal God through the sacrifice of His Son will bear good fruit.

Following repentance, we Christians must reject a false interpretation of the ancient promises made by God to Abraham. It is simply not the case that the promises made to Abraham implies the biblical right of Jews to control the entirety of the Holy Land in the 21st century. God’s gift of the land to Abraham, according to the Old and New Testaments, was made with a view of God revealing himself eventually to the whole human race. The gift of the land was not an end in itself, but a means of God extending his love to the ends of the earth (for more on this huge issue, see Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis Over Israel and Palestine by Colin Chapman). It is entirely biblical to promote a two-sided partition of the Holy Land, with Jews and Muslims living side-by-side in peace.

Here I disagree with not only the premise of Pastor Nathan’s position but also with the tenor of it. He declares that Christians must reject a false interpretation of the ancient promises…in the 21st century. It comes across to me that he is saying prophecies written 2500 years ago have little validity in our modern age. I have heard unbelievers similarly say the Bible is antiquated and no longer relevant. Biblical prophecy was relevant leading up to the first coming of Jesus and is just as relevant leading up to His second coming. If I misunderstood his tone then why did he use the adjective “ancient” in conjunction with the word “prophecies” and then follow it up with a reference to the “21st century”? As far as the false interpretations, God’s word could not be more clear when it comes to the land of Israel. He declares that He gave the land to the Jews for an everlasting covenant at the beginning of Jewish history with His chosen ones Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their Jewish descendants. He said in the Torah that if the Jews obeyed Him they would remain in the land of Israel. If they disobeyed Him He would remove them from the land. He declares that His eyes are always on the land of Israel and that He has chosen it for His habitation. In the Prophets God states that in the future He will bring the Jews back to the land and they will never be plucked out of it again. The prophet Daniel says that God sets up and brings down rulers and nations. How then did the Jews regain the land of Israel without God’s approval since He is the one who decides when they are removed from the land or when they return to it? I’m not sure why Pastor Nathan is unclear on what the Bible says concerning this issue. The heart of a Christian should never trump the truth of God’s word no matter how good their intentions may be.

We Christians must renounce the unwise view that more weapons and a greater military buildup in the Middle East will somehow bring peace to that region. We Christians must humbly invite Jews and Muslims to acknowledge the suffering and the pain each has caused the other. We must further encourage the view that the land belongs to God and not to the Jews or to the Muslims.

I agree that weapons will not bring peace to the Middle East. Pastor Nathan rightly states that the land of Israel belongs to God. And God declares in His word that He gave it to the Jews for an everlasting covenant.

One of the most helpful perspectives on this conflict was offered by Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian priest. Father Ateek said this:

The Palestinians need to become conscious of and sensitive to the horror of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s attempt to exterminate the Jews. Granted the Holocaust was not a Middle Eastern phenomenon, and the Palestinians had nothing to do with it; nevertheless, we need to understand the extent of the trauma for the Jews…we as Palestinians have refused to accept, much less to internalize, the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust. We have resisted even acknowledging it, believing that we have been subjected to our own Holocaust at the hands of the Jews. As we adopt a new attitude vis-a-vis the Holocaust…we may candidly acknowledge that the only justification that the Palestinians will accept for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine is the Holocaust. It was the Holocaust and only the Holocaust that necessitated a home for the Jews. The Palestinians have to come to accept giving the Jews the best part of Palestine (Western Palestine), not because they had any right to it, not because of the Balfour Declaration, and not even because of anti-Semitism, but because of the Holocaust.

However, Palestinian Christians should be open to the fact that God’s word declares the land belongs to the Jews. To not do so is to deny the truth of the Scriptures that proclaim their Savior.

Father Ateek went on to address the Jews saying:

Jews in Israel must approach the Palestinians saying: “We are sorry that we came to you with arrogance and a feeling of superiority. We came with good and not so good reasons. But we are now here in the land. Forgive us for the wrong and the injustice that we have caused you. We took part of your country. We ignored you. We pretended that you did not exist, or even worse, that you did not matter. We stereotyped you, convincing others that you are all terrorists. We have refused to recognize that you have any rights, while we have insisted that you should recognize and legitimate our right to your land. We have insisted and convinced the United States and others to insist that you recognize our claim to your land. We have wronged you. Your own country of Palestine used to be our country 2000 years ago. We still have many cherished historic memories that keep pulling us to it. It is ‘our Holy Land’ too, our ‘Promised Land’ also. But there is room for both of us here, both Jews and Arabs.”

God commanded the Jews to take the land of Canaan from the people who had lived there for hundreds of years. Was God wrong for doing this? If you are a Christian you would have to answer no He was not wrong. As stated above God decides when the Jews live in the land. Is it possible that it is God’s will for the land to return to the Jews? If it is then is He wrong for doing it again at the expense of others? Having said that though Jews should not be mistreating Arabs and Arabs should not be mistreating Jews.

Is there any hope for peace in the Middle East? I believe there is. But the conditions for peace have plainly been laid out by the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Messiah. There can be no peace until individuals, religions and nations are willing to acknowledge not only their own pain and their own injustices suffered, but the pain and injustice suffered by their enemies, as well as the pain and suffering perpetuated at our own hands. A willingness to acknowledge the pain of the other is the first step towards creating a just and lasting peace.

I too believe there will be peace in the Middle East. But it won’t happen until Jesus comes again to set up His kingdom on earth and reign from Jerusalem. Hamas and Hezbollah leaders have stated they will never recognize the state of Israel. Thus the Jews will keep fighting for their survival. The Bible says that by mercy and truth” iniquity is purged. Christians’ hearts should be merciful towards others but also truthful even if we may not like the outcome of such truths. Pastor Nathan has a heart for God as is evidenced by his and his church’s outreach to the lost. On the subject of who the land belongs to however, I believe he is misguided. I discuss the subject of the land of Israel in several articles on my website. You can read them here:

Does the land of Israel belong to the Jews?

Christian Zionism: Christians and the Jews

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