Redressing the balance
Israel is a fascinating, frustrating, friendly and sometimes plain mad place to live! The fascination comes from living within the pages of the Bible. The frustration arises from Middle Eastern attitudes to life.
The madness stems from the clash of cultures between Arabs and Jews, and the rightward shift of Israeli politics. Over 1.5 million Russians have immigrated following the fall of the Iron Curtain and these are often more influenced by Russian autocracy than by Israel’s western democratic tradition.
There are now more Russians than Arab Israelis and they generally do not like each other, a worrying trend when Israel lives under the constant threat of a new war with the surrounding Arab nations.
Israel presents some unique challenges for mission. The 6 million Jewish citizens generally regard Christianity as their historic enemy. The 1.5 million Arab citizens (another 3 million live in the Palestinian territories without citizenship) are mainly Muslims, who believe that Arab Christianity is a betrayal of Arab identity and should not exist.
Consequently, Christian faith is no easy option, yet it exists in the remnants of the ancient Arab Christian community that dates from the Roman era, numbering today just 150,000 people.
Of that number, only around 5000 are associated with the evangelical faith and maybe 1500 of those are committed church members. Most of them are Baptists, whose witness began 100 years ago through a Palestinian who was converted while visiting America.
A century on, there are still only 16 Arab Baptist churches and four that cater for other people groups. Their Association of Baptist Churches is exclusively evangelical, with a confession of faith similar to that of the FIEC.
Evangelical work in Arab Israel is hard. To begin with, it is widely distrusted as ‘an American import’. Second, evangelicals are often accused by the traditional churches of being closer to Jehovah’s Witnesses than to the historic Christian faith. Third, family solidarity works against people from traditional churches changing their allegiance.
Within the evangelical churches there are other problems. American missionaries have generally taught dispensationalism, but its authenticity is now debated, with amillennialism growing in popularity. It is not simply a doctrinal debate, because it goes to the heart of national as much as evangelical identity.
A further issue concerns the generally poor understanding of doctrine and church practice. Pastors are often inadequately trained, so that church life can be shallow and easily disrupted. In fact, the Baptists are as well known for splits as for their belief in the authority of the Bible.
You might be forgiven for thinking, after all this, that a British couple don’t have much scope for effective ministry, but you would be wrong!
Angela and I serve on the staff of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary, founded in 2007 by the Baptists to serve the whole evangelical community, in order to provide a solid evangelical theological education through internationally accredited first and second degrees alongside spiritual leadership training.
Angela is the college bursar and also organises a sabbatical in English for visiting pastors and church leaders — a one month programme entitled ‘Come and see’.
This provides an introduction to social justice issues in the Middle East from an evangelical and biblically faithful perspective, as well as opportunities to explore issues concerning Israel in biblical theology.
My role is to teach church history, church principles, leadership skills and preaching. As a faith mission, the college works on a limited budget, so that I also supervise the library. I doubled its size by donating my own collection of 2000 books, and it is now around 5000 volumes, but we need at least 10,000 to support our courses effectively.
Alongside all this work, I am now on the executive committee of the Baptist denomination with special responsibility for training. I also care for non-Arab churches, an area likely to expand as expatriate congregations are multiplying.
In addition, a year ago I became the pastor of the local Baptist church in Nazareth. In my ‘spare time’, I have just completed an MPhil about modern Baptist evangelicalism in Britain.
Funds permitting, I shall continue to a doctorate to be fully qualified as a seminary teacher of first and second degrees. As the saying goes, ‘It is better to burn out than to rust out’!
We work with a vision — to produce able and evangelical leaders who will place evangelism and church-planting at the heart of their calling. To achieve this, I not only teach these things but model them in a pastorate.
The college also seeks to model to the whole believing community in Israel the New Testament teaching that there is ‘one new man in Christ’. Our (largely unpaid) staff includes Messianics, Arabs and expatriates, who see each other as brothers and sisters who are one in Christ, whether we call him Yeshua, Iesou, or Jesus.
Alongside the 5000 Arab evangelicals there are estimated to be 10-15,000 Messianic Jews among the 6 million Jewish citizens of Israel.
These miniscule numbers mean that outside help is urgently needed and vital for both communities, to empower local believers without colonising them. Yet the sad truth is that each year, while millions of evangelical dollars are sent to ‘bless Israel’, little practical help is given to bless them with the gospel through indigenous believers.
Messianic groups attract some attention, but virtually no interest is shown in the Arab evangelicals. Our presence here is one small act of redress in the name of western evangelicalism.
We hope it will also be a spur to others, whose almost total neglect is made more shameful by the multitudes of Bible-believing Christians who visit Israel without even meeting, let alone supporting, their beleaguered brothers and sisters in Christ.
I think God will pardon my misuse of a biblical text that I recall when I watch the tourist buses drive through Nazareth: ‘Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?’
This article was first published in 4 Corners, the magazine of UFM Worldwide and used by permission. For further information about Phil and Angela Hill’s ministry or about the ‘Come and see’ sabbatical, contact UFM Worldwide at www.ufm.org.uk
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