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The Conflict Between Israel and the Church

Part 3 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

Sometimes you have to go through a conflict with each other in order to move forward. From the history of the Christian Church I would like to present evidence for this statement. If we take an honest look at our own history, we have to acknowledge that we are rooted in conflict!

The Christian Church: born out of the conflict with Israel 

The Book of Acts clearly shows that at the outset of the Christian Church there was also a conflict, namely the conflict with Israel. The community of Christ-believers created by the Spirit on the day of Pentecost did not from the outset consider itself to be a strictly separate group from Israel. Concerning the members of the first church, we read: ‘They were constantly united in the temple every day’ (Acts 2:46). They did not go to the temple like Baptists did to the fairground, as a good place to evangelise. ‘Peter and John went to the temple at the hour of prayer’ (Acts 3:1). After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, along with the other Jews, continued to pray in the temple. They basically saw themselves as part of Israel. For the first Christians, going to the temple was an expression of a deeply experienced, fundamental connection with Israel and the Old Testament. They could not separate faith in Christ from fellowship with Israel and the faith of their fathers. It was only the persecution by the Jewish Supreme Court that tore the primeval Christian community and Israel apart (Acts 4:1-31; 5:17-42; 7:1–8:3). A conflict separated Israel and the Church. Can you say of this conflict between the Church and Israel that it is a path that both had to take? Yes, if I understand Paul correctly.

The nature of the conflict: denial of the common dependence on God’s grace

The conflict between Israel and the Christian Church is about the core of the gospel, i.e. the justification by faith. Both Israel and the Gentiles must learn that God justifies a person only through faith in Jesus Christ. ‘Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, obtained righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith, but Israel, though it pursued a law unto righteousness, did not come to that law, because it did not proceed from faith, but from supposed works’ (Rom 9:30-32). When it comes to the heart of the gospel, it is also about people’s hearts. It is by nature difficult for a person to accept that they have the right to exist because God gives it to them out of grace. We prefer to have this right ourselves, based on who we are and what we achieve. Here lies the seed of the conflict between Israel and the Gentile Church. Israel has been chosen by God from among the nations to bless those nations (Gen 12:1-3). But beware: the special place of the chosen Israel is marked by the fundamental unity between Israel and the nations. The point is that the nations will be blessed by Israel as Israel herself has been blessed. Elect Israel and the Gentiles fundamentally belong together in view of God’s blessing. Their connectedness lies in common dependence on God’s grace, which is received by faith. 

The proud human heart, of both Jews and Gentiles, has sought to deny this dependence on grace by boasting with God of its own superiority in the mutual conflict. It began with the chosen Israel putting its election and the law on God’s table as proof of its own quality. This superior Israel thought that they could claim the right to exist with God! After the crucifixion of Jesus, it was the turn of the Gentiles to magnify themselves before God, at the expense of Israel. Christians from the Gentile nations are tempted to point the finger to Israel: the Jews in their unbelief crucified the Messiah! Paul counters: ‘Do not boast against the branches [i.e., the Israelites]’ (Rom 11:17). Thus the election degenerated into a conflict between Israel and the Gentiles. The two sides deny their fundamental connectedness in common dependence on the God who justifies people by grace and faith. Thus this conflict reveals the unconverted heart of both Israel and of the Gentile Christian Church. 

Conflict as the way for Israel and the Church

When Israel and the Christian Church go their separate ways in the conflict, they discover the poverty of that way. That is the divine irony of the conflict between Israel and the Church which has been going on for two thousand years: they cannot live without each other! In a bitterly paradoxical way, even in the persecutions – first of the Christians by the Jews, and later and for a much longer period the persecution of Jews by Christians – it becomes clear that they cannot exist without each other. They need each other to get the worst of the poverty of their own way. Just as divorced spouses sometimes continue to need each other to get angry with, because of the failed happiness. 

Paul sees the conflict between Israel and the Church as a redemptive-historical necessity. ‘By their fall [that of the Jews] salvation has come to the Gentiles’ (Rom 11:11). The Church cannot do without Israel; cannot even do without Israel and its rejection of the Messiah! And conversely, Israel cannot do without the Church. ‘And these [the Jews] have become disobedient, that by the mercy shown to you [the Gentiles] they also might now find mercy’ (Rom 11:31). In the conflict between Israel and the Church, both parties are painfully confronted with the impossibility of this conflict, in order to repent of their own proud heart in this conflict.

Commit to taking the conflict seriously

The Christian Church, in its separation from Israel, has its roots in the conflict with Israel. There are two aspects to the form of the Christian Church: 1) The church has a different role and function in salvation history than Israel; 2) the church’s own stature is partly marked by the conflict with Israel. Part of our Christian existence is conflict with Israel, our partner in salvation! That should humble us as Christians. We cannot explain away the conflict from our Christian existence. We are obliged to take the conflict very seriously as part of the way of the Christian Church.

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation

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