The Israelification of the Church:
False Traditions We Cling To
by Gerald R. Thompson*
I have made the case that Israel and the Church are the opposite of each other in every possible way. And yet, very many church traditions, undoubtedly some of which are practiced in your very own church, constantly revert back to the ways the ancient Jews did things under the law of Moses. So instead of maintaining a clear distinction between the Church and Israel, the outward form of church worship and practice is made to resemble the worship and practice of Judaism. These beliefs and practices are necessarily false. I don’t like it any more than you do – I’m just pointing it out.
A large part of these corruptions betray an adherence to theological beliefs which confuse or blend Israel with the Church. They are the result of erroneous biblical interpretations made manifest in outward practices. Granted, many Christians and even church leaders are merely doing what they were taught, or are following the example set by other churches, but this is no excuse.
Unfortunately, these errant practices are not only nearly universally observed, they are deeply entrenched traditions, viewed by many as constituting orthodoxy, (just another name for other people’s opinions). Despite anyone’s best intentions, these traditions have been entirely created by men, not God. Rather than continuing to be embraced, they need to be rooted out and cast off.
1. Dominion and Sovereignty. The Church is not a nation, but an invisible body in the nature of a worldwide association. But I challenge you to look at the track record of organized Christianity and tell me that it has not, every step of the way, tried to establish a Christian dominion on earth, and to become a kingdom of this world. The accumulation of wealth and property, i.e., earthly dominion, in the name of Christianity is just staggering.
The most obvious example is Vatican City, which has a physical territory with a border, and the Catholic church in general which has amassed great wealth. The Holy See claims a sovereignty that gives it the status of a Non-Member State at the United Nations. Biblically, however, no church is any kind of sovereign territory at all. Just because Jesus will have a worldwide dominion in the future does not mean the Church has it now. But the Vatican is not alone. There is a nearly universal belief among Christians that every church is an autonomous sovereignty.
Sometimes it takes the form of claiming certain physical spaces are sacred spaces or holy ground. Commonly, it manifests in the belief that churches enjoy a certain immunity from regular civil laws, which undergirds the historic concept of sanctuary – an obvious throwback to the Mosaic law of sanctuary cities. More often, it manifests as an assertion that a religious organization engaged in “the Lord’s work” is accountable solely to God and not to men, allowing it to ignore certain civil laws. Specifically, this is one basis asserted for the tax exemption of churches and religious ministries.
Those who attempt to justify such things often point to Eph. 2:19 and Php. 3:20, where believers are referred to as citizens of heaven. This word citizen is often misinterpreted as implying an autonomous sovereignty, when that is not what it means at all. Citizenship in heaven is spiritual only, to secure our salvation and bodily redemption. It is not something which can be recognized on earth for civil purposes. It does not carve the Church out from regular civil society.
To desire such things (sacred spaces, wealth and property, immunity from civil laws, tax exemption) is to desire to be like Israel, which was subject to no laws except those which came directly from God. Yet, every church does it, and it is universally justified as being not merely a good thing, but absolutely necessary to honoring God and keeping the Church unstained by the world. Oh, the irony! I will explain why this is so unbiblical when we examine traditional tax exemption, below.
2. Temples, Sanctuaries and Altars. The Church, in a biblical sense, is the people who are members of the body of Christ, whose bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking, the Church is not a place. A church building is merely a place where members of the body of Christ meet – there is nothing special or holy about any building. There are no holy places in Christianity. Do you really think God is glorified by cathedrals? They may be beautiful architecture, but spiritually they are meaningless. So why do so many churches build grandiose buildings?
Why do so many churches use the words temple or tabernacle in their names? What possible purpose can this serve, except to appropriate an aspect of Judaism to give the false impression that God’s presence is more tangible there compared to other places? The same is true for the extremely widespread use of the phrases, house of God, house of worship, or the Lord’s house to refer to a church building. God is not glorified by the use of these phrases, because it minimizes the extent of His presence elsewhere in the world.
This temple mentality is closely aligned with the almost universal practice among churches to call their main meeting room a sanctuary,’ when it is merely an auditorium. But calling it a sanctuary makes it sound so much more spiritual, doesn’t it? So much more like a Jewish temple. Almost as though it is a place where people go to meet God. Not in the Church Age, it isn’t. And how many times have you been admonished to follow the example of David, who said “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the LORD!'” (Ps. 122:1). However, David was talking about the Jewish tabernacle, not a church. For shame.
But if there are no temples in Christianity, neither are there any of the things in Judaism which only existed in the temple, and nowhere else. Does the stage on which the worship team and the preacher stand also double as an altar? Have you sacrificed any lambs or goats there recently? Does your church have holy spaces, where only clergy may go? Two pulpits, with one reserved for clergy? Holy objects, or holy water? Special robes for special people? All of these things are an appropriation of Jewish religious practices into Christianity where they do not belong.
3. Return of the Priesthood. The whole point of Jesus being a high priest on the order of Melchizedek and the elimination of all human priests in the Church was to avoid the importation of anything like the Levitical priesthood into Christianity. Equality is the rule within the body of Christ. Every believer has equal access to God – no one has any special or greater access, and no one is a conduit of God’s grace to another person. Without a physical temple, sacraments or a ceremonial law, there is no need to qualify and select certain people to supervise such things, like Israel did.
Yet, churches today are almost universally led by clergy, who perform these very services, and who claim that their participation and oversight is not merely optional, but necessary. In very many churches, they actually call themselves priests, but even in churches where that term is avoided in favor of pastor or minister, they function as priests and regard themselves as priests. You would likely be surprised by how many Protestant denominations, in their internal governing documents, explicitly refer to pastors and ministers as serving a priestly function.
That there should be anyone in any church to routinely hear the confession of sins by other believers, unavoidably brings to mind a comparison with the Levitical priests who interceded on behalf of other Jews before God. When the scripture commends us to confess our sins to one another, it is for the purpose of healing relationships between people – not for obtaining forgiveness from God. The very idea, that any person can declare a forgiveness of the sins of another person is a gross perversion. It’s a good thing Protestant churches don’t do anything like that. Oh wait – does your church engage in pastoral counseling? Hmmm.
This idea has even filtered down to the way most churches do worship. Only a clergyman can set or approve the order of worship, only a clergyman can preside over a corporate worship service, and with rare exceptions only a clergyman can preach a sermon. Even the sacrifice of praise’ all believers are to practice has been perverted to mean that what you do at home or privately doesn’t count – only praise uttered in corporate worship counts, and only songs sung under the direction of a worship leader. However, scripture nowhere says believers are supposed to be led in worship, as opposed to doing it on their own. Much less is anyone in the Church designated as a worship leader in scripture. Anyone can lead worship – this isn’t ancient Israel, after all.
4. Ecclesiastical Hierarchies. No one is in charge of the Church other than Jesus Christ. The idea that any person could be the Vicar of Christ – head spokesman for Jesus to the entire worldwide body of believers – is a lie. But so is the idea that individual churches themselves are part of some larger hierarchy. There is no earthly church hierarchy ordained by God – all churches are equal with each other. Every church on earth has the same authority as any other church. It is not the right of any church to claim it is the only true church, to refuse to extend fellowship to believers from other churches, or to claim that human excommunication changes any person’s relationship to God.
Similarly, within each individual church, all believers are equal. There is no pecking order, no chain of command or authority structure, ordained by God for any church. All believers stand in equal relation to Christ, no one higher or lower than all others, that there may be unity in the body. Thus, when God appoints apostles, prophets and teachers, etc. as per 1 Cor. 12:28 and Eph 4:11, no one is put in charge, and no one is at the top. The scripture never even indicates, in these places or elsewhere, what the authority of an apostle is, what the authority of a pastor is, what the authority of a teacher is, etc. Much less are pastors ever put in charge of every local church. Really, really.
Now if God did not institute a priesthood or clergy within the Church, how could there possibly be a hierarchy of clergy ordained by Him? It is nonsense. Yet, nearly every church has a diocese, a presbytery, or something similar, which is an organization of clergy within the denomination, and which is separate from any denominational church. In very many denominations, clergymen aren’t even members of the local church where they work, their membership lies exclusively with fellow clergy. They are merely assigned to a local church until they are assigned elsewhere. Oh excuse me, I mean called – called to another church. But all such things are of men, not God.
Also, throughout the New Testament, the Church is continually referred to as having members. The body of Christ is defined by its members, not by its leaders. And when the N.T. writers referred to brothers, it is a reference to fellow believers as equals – not a reference to pastors, ministers, clergy or leaders. Yet, the vast majority of denominations only accept member churches which have an approved leadership structure (i.e., an ecclesiastical hierarchy) in place, as if a church is defined by its leaders, not its members. There is also an alarming trend today where churches are incorporating themselves as directorship corporations, which means they have a governing board (i.e., leaders), but no members for legal purposes. Keep these things in mind when we look at tax exemption.
Hierarchies of churches, and hierarchies of clergy. Churches organized and defined top-down (based on leadership), rather than bottom-up (based on members). Church practices and procedures run by an elite group (clergy), with control centralized rather than diffused among the people. Instead of church leaders equipping the saints (i.e., members), the members are encouraged to equip and support their pastors for more effective leadership. Yep, all the things ancient Israel had in its religious system. This whole scenario smacks of having a plan. The question is, whose plan?
5. Return of the Ceremonial Law. The ceremonial law in Israel was the product of having a physical temple, a mandated human priesthood, legally regulated religious practices, and only a temporary covering for sins. None of which exist in Christianity. Therefore, there is no need (nor any desire) to replicate those things, because they were merely a shadow of things to come. The things God gave the Church are governed by grace and liberty, not law or rules of requirement.
Consider communion, a/k/a the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. The Jewish sacraments were all prescribed as to where, when, how and by whom they were to be observed. But there are no similar requirements for communion. Jesus said only, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Which is the functional equivalent of “Do this whenever you feel like it.” No, I’m not being smug – there are no time, place or manner restrictions. The same thing is true for baptism, and any other sacrament you have been led to believe the Church must observe. There are no prescribed rules for observance, nor any special people needed to make it “official.”
There is not even any biblical command to observe any sacraments. Sure, the early Church adopted certain regular practices, but their example does not bind us today. Don’t fall for that old “approved practices found in scripture” crap. Just because someone did something one time that God approved, does not make that a universal rule. There is no such thing as making rules by example. That is simply not where rules come from. Think of all the rules in your life, and name one that came solely from someone else’s example – you can’t.
Similarly, there is no regulative principle of worship for Christians. This supposed principle holds that God commands churches to conduct corporate worship services using certain distinct elements affirmatively found in scripture, and conversely, that God prohibits any and all other practices. In other words, allegedly, God has a ceremonial law that Christians should observe in corporate worship. But there is no verse in scripture saying these things. This so-called principle is derived from “approved practices” and “godly examples,” which can never form the basis of a command.
And no, communion and baptism are not ordinances of the Church. Ordinance is just another word for a law, and the Church has no laws. Nothing in the N.T. ever says anything like, “this shall be a statute for you throughout your generations.” God, as the supreme lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), certainly knows how to make a law, and He did so many times in the Old Testament. But no person of the holy trinity ever went into lawgiver mode in the N.T. The only time the word ordinance is used in the New Testament, it either refers to the laws of Caesar, or the ordinances of God which were laid down at creation. In other words, no new ordinances of God after the birth of Christ.
Look, celebrate Christmas and Easter if you want – or don’t. Nothing in scripture makes those high holy days by God’s decree. Be baptized and observe communion if you want – or not. Nothing in scripture requires that you do them. You are authorized to do them, but not required. You want to observe Advent, or Lent? Fine, but those are just made up seasons, carried on by human tradition – they mean nothing to God. Why submit to a works-based religion, like the Jews were under?
6. His Tithes and Our Offerings. If you ever want to do a deep dive into how and why tithing was made a part of Jewish law and practice, read Numbers, ch. 3 and 18. Here’s the short version: After the descendants of Aaron (a Levite) were set aside to function as priests before God in the tabernacle and eventually the temple, the rest of the tribe of Levi was set apart to assist them and care for the temple. All the priests and Levites were legally disabled by God’s command from owning land or engaging in any other occupation. In order to provide for their physical needs, the system of tithing was set up, where the other tribes of Israel contributed 10% of their material increase (i.e., newborn animals and newly harvested crops) to the priests and Levites.
In other words (short, short version), tithing assumed a physical temple and physical sacrifices which required a full-time staff to tend to. These people never chose to go into this service, but were born into it on the basis of family ancestry. And they were prohibited by law from doing anything else. None of which things even remotely exist in Christianity. Although Christians should care for each other, no one in particular is a designated recipient or a designated donor of charity. Jesus left not one stone upon which a system of tithing could be rebuilt in the Church. Tithing is not God’s plan for financing the Church. Even the word offerings is a throwback to Judaism.
The statement “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14) did not bring tithing into the Church. That statement, a reference to Mt. 10:10, only meant that preachers of the gospel be paid by contributions as they go from place to place. The only rule for believers is this: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7). No fixed percentages, no predetermined recipients, no stipulated purposes, and no moral or legal obligations.
The people of God ought to know that temples, priesthoods and separated classes are not only unnecessary to the work and purpose of the Church, they are its greatest liabilities. By reinstituting the tithe, Christians implicitly affirm that the things Christ did to eliminate the Levitical system either didn’t work, or were undesirable, thereby subverting the work of Christ. No church would need tithes if it didn’t have an unnecessary and bloated bureaucracy (with health benefits and a pension plan). Only by functioning as the body of Christ without division can this be done.
7. The Family of God. You might think, given that Israel was/is an entity defined exclusively by physical ancestry, and the Church is defined exclusively by an exercise of faith, that people would easily keep these things entirely separate and not confuse them. Not so, unfortunately. The Catholic Church to this days clings to the myth that each pope is the inheritor of a spiritual legacy from the apostle Peter. However, Peter possessed nothing which could be inherited or obtained by others, either as to spiritual status, or as to leadership position. Whatever Peter had was his own, and he could not bestow it on another.
People make the same kind of mistake talking about the line of Seth and the line of Cain, as if those things have any meaning. There are no godly lines of ancestry or descendants in the human race. Every single person, without exception, is born into sin and separated from God at birth. All are born ungodly, none are born godly, to an equal degree. The one and only spiritual quality that can be inherited, and it is inherited by everyone, is the sin nature imparted to all descendants of Adam by reason of the Fall. Neither righteousness nor anything spiritual can ever be inherited.
Now consider infant baptism, the christening of children, and the like. What are these ceremonies, except an attempt by the church (with parents as willing dupes) to induct a child into the body of Christ at an age when they completely lack the capacity to choose Christ on the basis of individual faith? Such maneuvers are often performed with reference to the household of faith’ or the family of God’ – terms which, in their original contexts, only referred to other believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, a purely spiritual relationship. But the terms have been corrupted to refer to earthly families where at least one parent is a Christian – a purely physical relationship between people which, coincidentally, mirrors the Jewish model.
Truth be told, it is an attempt to replicate circumcision, except (hooray!) it also applies to girls, by denoting the child as a Christian by the will of their parents. However, no one can choose salvation for another person. Nothing in Christianity can be passed down from one generation to the next except knowledge. Circumcision only applied to the Jews. There are no authorizations in scripture to baptize or christen infants. “Let the children come unto me” is not such an authorization. So-called child dedication is no better, as it attempts to make an entire church congregation responsible for a child’s spiritual upbringing, when God only ever gave that responsibility to the parents. It is a naked attempt by a church to assert control over a child before the child can choose the church.
8. Corporate Christianity. Given that salvation is based on individual choice, and since the main point of ministry is to equip individual believers (Eph. 4:12), it is odd that nearly all churches place a great deal of emphasis on corporate worship. Yes, Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But this was said specifically in the limited context of church discipline (Mt. 18:15-20), and was merely an example of believers putting into practice the biblical principle to let every fact be confirmed by two or three witnesses. Jesus never said He would be with a group of Christians more than He would with an individual believer, or that there is something special – extra spiritual – about corporate worship.
I can find no command or rule that believers should engage in regular corporate worship. And no, Heb. 10:25 is not such a rule (“don’t neglect to meet together”). There are no time, place or manner restrictions – how and when people meet together is a matter of individual discretion. Neither is there a suggestion anywhere in scripture that a meeting must be officiated (i.e., led by clergy). In fact, Paul’s admonition to the early church sounds very much like a meeting of equals, where no one is in charge (which is exactly what we would expect). “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1Cor. 14:26). In fact, I believe this is the very opposite of an “order of worship” which is predetermined, but is rather spontaneous and organic.
Just think logically. If Jesus is among two or three people gathered in His name, then when you and a friend go to lunch and pray over your food or discuss biblical topics, that’s Church. If you and a friend travel by car and pray for a safe journey, that’s Church. Nothing says you have to listen to a sermon, or sing praise and worship songs for it to be official.’ Nothing says you need a worship leader who is ordained. Two or three people, whenever and wherever, is all it takes. The only people urging you to regularly attend a formal church service are the people whose livelihoods depend on you being there. Doesn’t our modern conception of corporate worship sound exactly like a holy convocation of the ancient Jews found in the Old Testament? Coincidence?
Now shift gears for a moment. The fact that God chose the Jews in the time of Abraham, well over 400 years in advance, means that no individual Jew decided to be one of God’s chosen people – the choice was made by God. Isn’t that exactly what the doctrine of predestination is? That before the foundation of the world (well over 400 years ago), God chose believers as a group, you did not choose Him? It is taking the way God chose Israel and applying that concept to the Church. The Israelification of the Church, in a nutshell. Not surprisingly, many who believe in predestination also believe that Israel has lost its chosenness. I wonder why …
9. Physical Blessings for All. We have already seen that the blessings Jesus promised to His Church are exclusively spiritual, not material. Yet Christians, being imaginative people, have devised a number of ways in which to appropriate material blessings for the spiritually minded.
First, there is the Prosperity Gospel, or the Word of Faith movement, which makes the claim that God wants His people to prosper, and that God rewards increases in faith with increases in health and/or wealth. However, if you look into the biblical evidence used to support such claims, you will find a heavy reliance on O.T. scriptures specifically directed towards the Jews, which are taken as applicable to any believer in God, when that is not the context in which they were given.
Though not part of the Prosperity Gospel, per se, a common misinterpretation of Mal. 3:10 is quite similar. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” It seems innocuous to believe that people who tithe will receive a material blessing, but tithing never applied to the Church. Distinctions matter.
Second, there is Replacement Theology, also known as supersessionism, which essentially teaches that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan. Adherents of replacement theology believe the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people, and God does not have specific future plans for the nation of Israel. The result of which is that the promises of material blessings to Israel can only be fulfilled with respect to the Church. I will examine this claim in more detail below.
Third, there is Anglo-Israelism, a/k/a British Israelism, which holds that the Anglo-Saxon peoples (coincidentally, who settled primarily in Britain and the United States) are genetically, racially, and linguistically the direct descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of ancient Israel. Of course, the fallacy here is that the northern ten tribes of Israel were ever really “lost.” But then, miraculously, these dispersed tribes all supposedly migrated together to northern Europe, which contradicts the fact that God dispersed them. But in truth, most of the ten tribes actually migrated south into Judah, and joined the rest of the Jews until the whole lot of them were scattered around the world later. (See, 2 Ch 11:13-16; 15:9).
Similarly, the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) teaches that its members are either by genealogy or by adoption all made members of the tribe of Ephraim (one of the “lost ten tribes”). My advice: don’t get suckered by any of these false theologies.
10. Diminishing Prophetic Israel. Let’s now take a closer look at Replacement Theology, or supersessionism. Supposedly, the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people, and God does not have specific unfulfilled plans for the nation of Israel. In effect, this renders Israel irrelevant and unnecessary in the future. It also holds that many of the things making Israel unique have been transferred to the Church, so that Israel has in a sense been swallowed up by the Church. Which helps explain why these churches have adopted many Jewish religious practices as their own.
According to this view, the reconstituting of Israel as a nation state in 1948 was purely the act of men, not God, leading some to conclude the modern nation of Israel “isn’t really the Jewish people.” The net effect of which is to hold, as a doctrinal position, that the original promise of God to Abraham in Gen. 12:3 – “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you” – no longer literally applies to the Jews. Obviously, not all churches fall into this category, as many churches that have the trappings of Judaistic practices in their own forms of worship nonetheless support modern Israel. But it helps explain why some churches take that position.
Closely aligned with supersessionism are the end-times prophecy positions known as amillennialism and post-millennialism. Both hold there will never be a physical and political Millennial kingdom of Christ here on earth before eternity sets in, in which He will rule the world from a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Both views preclude the possibility that Israel will be physically restored in the future. So the promises of restoration given to Israel are necessarily read only in a spiritual or allegorical sense as being fulfilled with respect to the Church. Thus, the hallmark of Replacement Theology is an allegorical, rather than a literal, reading of scripture. And among all Christian churches worldwide, this is the most common view.
It is therefore no accident that churches holding these views have appropriated attributes of Judaism and to model themselves after that pattern. For if Israel is biblically irrelevant, there is no reason for maintaining a strict separation between it and the Church. [It’s not like, as I believe, Israel as a nation is still a living and active entity, the Jews are still a chosen people of God, and the Mosaic law and Abrahamic covenant are still in effect.] The whole idea of supersessionism is that the Church has subsumed Israel, in other words, the Church has encompassed Israel as a subordinate or component element, i.e., Israel has been made a part of the Church. Why shouldn’t they be like each other?
Because of the prominence of these views among many Christians, and the wide-ranging effects on Christian practice, we’ll continue to examine them in the next section.
Twin Sons of Different Mothers
Perhaps you have been taught to believe that when the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and introduced it into the Roman Empire nearly 300 years after Christ, this was a good thing. It would be naïve to think that this actually made true believers in Christ out of the mass of people in Europe. Most people simply adopted the religion of the emperor in its outward form and became nominal Christians (that is, Christians in name only). The true effect of the “Christianization” of the Roman empire was to make the Church a kingdom of this world by vesting it with civil powers. And not a godly kingdom, for the Roman empire is repeatedly viewed in biblical prophecy as an example of the kingdom of Satan.
Sad to say, the Reformation did little, ultimately, to keep the Protestant churches from adopting the same Israelifications of the Church that the Roman Catholics had adopted. Maybe Protestants don’t have a pope, a college of bishops, or call their ministers priests, but they still have a clergy and an ecclesiastical hierarchy that are functionally equivalent. Protestants still preach and practice tithing, perform sacraments, observe holy days, and call their church building God’s house. And Protestants are every bit as adept at claiming tax exemption and autonomous sovereignty as Catholics. So it’s not as if the Reformation started things with a clean slate – most of the crud carried over.
At what point do the trappings of church religious practice become not merely minor errant practices or denominational quirks and inconsistencies, but full blown denials of true Christian doctrine and subversive of true Christian belief? On what basis can anyone claim that the matter of temples and altars, a human priesthood, religious ceremonial law, tithing or infant baptism are small matters of minor importance? Things over which reasonable Christians may disagree? Non-essentials? These things cut straight to the heart of what Christianity is and is not. Is remaking the Church in the image of Israel advancing the gospel, or is it negating the work that Christ intended to do?
I suggest that the pattern which is evident here – converting the Church into a likeness of ancient Israel – is too consistent, too pervasive, and too longstanding, to be merely random or accidental. There is a method behind this madness, which I will begin to probe next. Meanwhile, the scriptures speak about the Church falling away from the true faith, or becoming apostate, in the time of the end. (Mt. 24:10; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Th. 2:3.) Friends, is there any doubt this has already happened?