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Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

Baptists Move on Two Fronts In New Effort to Convert Jews

By Gustav Niebuhr, The New York Times, June 14, 1996

The Southern Baptist Convention today adopted a resolution calling for efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. And, for the first time in many decades, the denomination's domestic missionary agency has appointed a missionary to undertake such work.

Early reaction to the Southern Baptists' resolution, adopted by nearly 14,000 delegates at the close of their three-day annual meeting here, suggested that it was certain to strain relations with Jewish groups.

The resolution said the 15.6-million-member denomination, the largest in American Protestantism, would "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jews."

And a Baptist spokesman, Herb Hollinger, said that just before the meeting, the denomination's Home Mission Board, based in Atlanta, had appointed a missionary to work among Jews in the United States.

Resolutions of the convention are advisory rather than being binding on any of the denomination's 37,000 congregations, which are largely autonomous. But both this resolution and the missionary appointment put the Southern Baptists at odds with several other major Protestant denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, all of which encourage dialogue between Christians and Jews while strongly discouraging efforts at conversion.

News of the resolution, and of the missionary appointment, brought criticism in interviews with two leading Jewish specialists in interreligious relations.

"My reaction is this is a great setback," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee. "By singling out Jews as a target for conversions, it's a great disservice not just to Baptist-Jewish relations but to Christian-Jewish relations."

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interfaith affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said he felt "very sad" about the resolution. "Especially after the Holocaust, Christians have no right to talk about a mission to the Jews," Rabbi Klenicki said. "They should talk about a mission to the Christians, because it was in Christian Europe that the Holocaust occurred."

The Southern Baptists' resolution noted the emphasis among other Christian groups on seeking dialogue with Jews rather than their conversion. It called this "an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved; or to claim, for whatever reason, that Christians have neither right nor obligation to proclaim the Gospel to the Jewish people."

Because the convention adjourned shortly after the resolution had been adopted, no leading Baptist officials involved in drawing it up could be reached for comment. But The Associated Baptist Press, an independent religious news service, quoted Michael Smith, an Ohio lawyer who is president of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, as saying his group had pushed for four years to get the resolution considered.

The agency also quoted Mr. Smith as saying that some of the resolution's language was a response to a statement calling for dialogue with Jews, rather than conversion, that was adopted two years ago by the Alliance of Baptists, a small group formed to protest the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention

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