Nehemiah Restoration Fellowship • December 20, 2021
In a recent sermon series, I (Jonathan) made a comment in brief about weaponizing the Torah. I wanted to expand on this a bit but without derailing too much of the teaching. (For those interested, I mentioned this in my Introduction to the book of Galatians, which can be found here).
I like to begin this topic with a quote from Pirkei Avot, a minor text from the Mishnah containing mostly ethical teachings and words of wisdom:
Rabbi Zadok said, “Do not make [the commandments] into a crown for self-exaltation, nor a spade with which to dig.” So too Hillel used to say, “And he that puts the crown to his own use shall perish.” – Pirkei Avot 4:5 
This quote means: do not use your own Torah-keeping as a means of self-aggrandizing, of patting yourself on the back for how holy and pious you are. The second phrase “nor a spade with which to dig” means not to turn the Torah into a weapon against others. I like this quote because it summarizes exactly what is happening, and on both fronts: using the Torah for self-exaltation and using the Torah to tear others down. Both of these defy the purpose of the Torah.
Herein lies – largely – the problem we see in much of the Torah-keeping movement: weaponized Torah. I have seen it time and time again, congregations – often led by heavy-handed authoritarians in positions of self-appointed leadership – will use the Torah to exclude people from covenant with God. This I will explain with a short illustration.
When a teacher and leader of a congregation declares that “Your Christian friends and family in the Church, that want to eat ham and work on Shabbat, will not be in the Kingdom because they are not in covenant with God,” we are witnessing the weaponizing of the Torah.
I have heard it said (though admittedly, I do not recall the speaker; it may have been Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast), “If works didn’t earn your salvation, then works won’t lose them.” I like this quote. Axiomatic as it may be, I think it sums up the point very well. There is no amount of Torah-keeping that can obligate God to save you. God sent the savior in His Son, Yeshua, our Messiah. Yeshua accomplished that work, not our own Torah observance. So let me say this emphatically: Torah is not your savior. The Law is powerless to save you, as Paul says explicitly:
3For what was impossible for the Torah—since it was weakened on account of the flesh—God has done. Sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, He condemned sin in the flesh— 4so that the requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Ruach. – Romans 8:3-4 
See, the Torah was never meant to pay for your sins. It was never meant to suffer, die, be buried, be raised from the dead, and ascend to sit on the right hand of power. Only Messiah Yeshua was ever supposed to meet those requirements. To be sure, the Torah is beautiful and wonderful. As Paul declares:
“So then, the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” – Rom. 7:12 TLV
The Torah is holy, it is righteous, and it is good. It is beautiful, as we need only read Psalm 119 to see. God gave us commandments by which we should live, and we should live them in such a way as to be lights to others. God expects us to obey Him, and He expects those that love Him to keep His commandments.
But the Torah must be used legitimately, that is, lawfully. We cannot force the Torah to become something it was never meant to do, ie.: become a savior.
6Some, having missed the mark, have turned away to fruitless discussion— 7wanting to be teachers of Torah, even though they do not understand what they keep saying or what they so dogmatically assert. 8But we know that the Torah is good if one uses it legitimately, 9knowing that the Torah is not given for a tzaddik but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and worldly, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10the sexually immoral, homosexuals, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and for anything else that opposes sound teaching— 11in keeping with what was entrusted to me, the glorious Good News of the blessed God. – 1 Timothy 1:6-11 (TLV)
We see this exact same thing happening now in the Torah/Messianic/Hebraic movement: people that want to be teachers of Torah that do not understand the things they assert so dogmatically. That is, they are not nearly as educated as they fancy themselves, yet what they teach they claim is "true, Biblical doctrine."
These teachers often have the goal in mind of heavily promoting Torah observance. For that, I applaud them. But unfortunately, for so many, it has become a new sort of exclusivism, where believers in Yeshua won’t be saved on the basis of their faith (read: loyalty) in Yeshua. Instead, they must first keep some number of commandments. Which seems arbitrary in the groups that I have seen promote this approach. Often, this means strict Sabbath observance (by, once again, arbitrary standards), as well as observance of the dietary laws, and wearing tsitsiyot (at the very least for men).
All of those are good things, and all of those things should be followed and obeyed by believers (yes, I'm also a stickler for wearing tsitsiyot even when you're not wearing a tallit, even on days other than Shabbat). But none of them are the deciding factor for whether or not a person can be saved, or will be in the Kingdom.
I have yet to ever get a true, honest, and contextually-derived answer from someone when I ask why they don’t have a fence around their roof (per Deut. 22:8), and whether their neglect of this commandment will keep them out of the Kingdom.
The biggest problem with all of this is that it serves to accomplish the exact same thing the Apostle Paul was so vehemently against in his letter to the Galatians: it shrinks the Kingdom of God and excludes people for whom Messiah died.
The common belief in the First Century was that Israel would be saved. (Which is true, as Scripture prophesies such and Paul quotes the very prophecy in his letter to the Romans). This led then to the issue of the mechanism for Israel’s salvation, which was largely tied to ideas of ethnicity. That is, it was believed that one was saved on the basis of one’s Jewishness. To be saved, then, it was taught that one must ritually convert to Judaism, one must “become a Jew.” This is Paul’s major issue in Galatians. This is the very thing I see being resurrected among some exclusivist groups.
It is being taught that Torah-keeping (or, again, some arbitrary subset thereof) is the “identifier” for those that are true believers. Just as some Jewish teachers expected ritualistic conversion, so too do these teachers expect mechanical law-keeping. Both result in the same: excluding people from the Kingdom who do not fit our own notions of status in God’s covenant.
In short, I urge people who are of such a mind to stop weaponizing the Torah against others. Stop abusing the Torah to suit one’s own purposes of self-exaltation (by making oneself out to be part of an exclusive Law-keeping group). To do so is an illegitimate, unlawful use of the Torah (see again 1 Tim. 1:6-11).
Be sure to catch our new series on Galatians as we step verse-by-verse through these and similar such concepts.
--Jonathan Brown | Messianic Pastor
Nehemiah Restoration Fellowship
 To quote the late Brad Scott, “When do I quote the Rabbis? When they agree with me.” Also, this source can be read on Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.4.5?lang=bi
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes taken from the Tree of Life Version (TLV). Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society, Holy Scriptures: Tree of Life Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).
 Mckee, J.K. Galatians for the Practical Messianic. 66.
Nehemiah Restoration Fellowship • June 02, 2021
Written By — David Wilber
In recent decades, Christians around the world have been coming to realize that the Torah is still relevant to them today. Some call this growing movement within Christianity the “Messianic Movement,” while others more recently have referred to it as simply “pronomian (pro-law) theology.” Regardless of which label you prefer, all who have embraced this movement have had to revisit some doctrines they were taught previously in their Christian upbringing.
For instance, we’ve realized that we should observe the weekly Sabbath and that it’s not on Sunday but Saturday. We’ve also discovered that Yeshua did not abolish God’s laws against eating pork and shellfish. Moreover, we’ve seen that Yeshua and the apostles observed the feast days—and there is no indication in Scripture that they ever stopped—so we observe them too. Among a few other things, these are some ways our theology differs from “mainstream” Christianity.
There really isn’t much of a difference between ordinary Christians and us Torah lovers when you think about it. However, that hasn’t stopped some people from exploiting God’s beautiful Torah and turning it into a platform from which to exalt themselves and look down on others. Some have even gone so far as to question the salvation of Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as they do! As an example of this type of erroneous thinking, here is how one teacher put it:
“Covenant is always the key element of the relationship between the Creator and His children … Are Christians covenanted? No! … Look, they’re not covenanted. They’re confused because they’ve been lied to.”
Later, he elaborates that Christians are not in covenant with God because they are not in a covenant of “Torah keeping.” So, according to this teacher, Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as he does are excluded from the covenant people of God. “Only me and my followers get to enjoy a covenant relationship with the Creator because we’re so smart and special,” the haughty teacher proclaims on YouTube while turning up his nose at most Christians throughout history worldwide (countless who were martyred for their faithfulness to the Messiah).
Needless to say, this is a grievous error that needs to be addressed. There are two things I want to say in response.
First, as you might have suspected from seeing my scare quotes in this article, it’s inaccurate to say that ordinary Christians don’t “keep Torah.” If they are genuine followers of the Messiah, they do. While they might not recognize the validity of some parts of the Torah, like the seventh-day Sabbath and dietary laws, they do keep much of it.
For instance, all genuine Christians believe in following at least nine of the Ten Commandments. They all believe in giving to the poor. They all adhere to Torah-based sexual ethics and much of the holiness code. In reality, there are only a few things they are missing. Who is anyone to say that such Christians aren’t in covenant relationship with God?
Additionally, many ordinary Christians, in fact, keep more Torah than those who profess to be Torah keepers! I’ve personally met numerous Christians who didn’t recognize the validity of commandments like the Sabbath. Yet, they “kept Torah” in other ways better than myself and every other Messianic I know.
You think that just because someone doesn’t get that slice of ham on their Subway sandwich that they’re a super holy Torah keeper? What if they neglect to minister to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-41)? What if they fail to love their neighbor as themselves by looking down on them with unrighteous judgment? There are many “Messianics” like that. Can they really be called Torah keepers in any meaningful way?
Once again, the fact that someone doesn’t recognize the validity of commands like the Sabbath does not necessarily mean that they don’t “keep Torah.” The fact that some people do recognize such commandments as valid does not necessarily mean that they do “keep Torah.” This dichotomy that some people have created is overly simplistic and unfounded.
As followers of Yeshua, we have a responsibility to be faithful to God and obedient to the best of our knowledge. Every genuine Christian does their best with what they know. I think the Sabbath, feasts, and dietary laws are important, but we should not be looking down on other faithful Christians just because their eyes have not yet been opened to the relevance of those few additional laws.
The second thing I want to say in response to this error is that our covenant relationship with God is not based on our Torah observance.
This fact was made evident during the Jerusalem Council. Some Jews at the time believed that Gentiles could be “saved” only by becoming Jews via ritual conversion (Acts 15:1). Ritual conversion was a man-made formula by which Gentiles were received as covenant members with Israel. This formula involved adhering to certain Torah commandments, like circumcision, as a prerequisite to covenant membership.
The idea of ritual conversion as a prerequisite to being received as a covenant member of God’s people was entirely man-made. As Tim Hegg explains, “Nowhere in God’s word is there a ceremony outlined for a Gentile to become a proselyte. In fact, the Torah is quite specific that the resident non-Jew was to be received as just that—a non-Jewish person who had attached himself to Israel and to her God.” The Torah doesn’t exclude believing Gentiles or demand that they fulfill certain commandments before being received as covenant members (they had to get circumcised if they wanted to eat the Passover, but that’s it). After all, Abraham himself was received as a covenant member by faith—long before God eventually commanded him to be circumcised.
On the basis of the Torah and Prophets, the apostles recognized that it was wrong to place the yoke of man-made ritual conversion upon the Gentile believers (Acts 15:10). As scholar J. K. McKee explains:
“The yoke being placed upon these non-Jewish Believers in the Messiah was a legalistic perversion of the Torah which demanded that if you do not observe it and convert to Judaism (perhaps according to the particular sect represented) you cannot be saved. It is a yoke that keeps people out of God’s intention, rather than one that welcomes them in.”
The apostles taught that Gentile believers are saved no differently than Jews are saved: by grace through faith in the Messiah (Acts 15:11). They argued that covenant membership is not something that is gained through ritual conversion, Torah keeping, or any other type of human effort. Covenant membership is based upon putting one’s faith in the Messiah.
Indeed, after hearing all the arguments, James stood up and proclaimed that Gentile inclusion into the covenant community was prophesied in Scripture and that “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19). In other words, the Gentile believers were not to be pressured into getting circumcised and taking on the weight of the entire Torah all at once (contra the Pharisees in Acts 15:5). Instead, they were to be received as covenant members based on their faith in Messiah. They were to start with four Torah-based instructions to reassure their Jewish brothers that they had fully renounced idolatry (Acts 15:20) and then continue their journey of learning the Torah as they attended synagogue services every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).
Thus, in principle, Acts 15 proves that one can be a covenant member without having “kept Torah.” Thank God that He receives us on the basis of faith. Thank God that He is continually patient with us as we strive to serve him to the best of our knowledge.
In conclusion, yes, Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as Messianics do are in covenant with God. We know this because every genuine Christian does keep Torah to the best of their knowledge as evidence of their faith, even if they don’t recognize some commandments as valid for today. In fact, many of these Christians “keep Torah” better than professing Torah keepers in other ways. Also, according to Scripture, covenant membership is not based on Torah observance anyway. It’s based on faith. So, it’s silly to think that any genuine Christian (someone who has put their faith in Christ by definition) is not in covenant with God.
I think most Christians are wrong about the relevance of commandments like the Sabbath, feasts, and dietary laws. I think keeping such commandments is part of walking out our faith as believers. But that doesn't change the fact that our foundation—the Gospel—is the same. We are all saved by faith, not works. None of us can boast. And indeed, there would be more opportunities for fruitful dialogue regarding some of our differences if we united on the foundation instead of dividing from each other.
- Steve Berkson, “First Look – CC101: Are You Covenanted? Part 13.” https://youtu.be/7_7K3Tiw3k0
- Tim Hegg, The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective, 2nd ed. (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2008), 236
- Does that mean men need to get physically circumcised to partake in a modern-day “Passover seder”? No. To find out why, see Caleb Hegg’s excellent article on the topic here: https://nrfcommunity.org/blogs/3379113--do-i-need-to-be-circumcised-to-keep-passover
- J. K. McKee, Acts 15 for the Practical Messianic (McKinney, TX: Messianic Apologetics, 2010), 53
David Wilber is a popular author, speaker and teacher. He has written works such as Is God a Misogynist and A Christian Guide to the Biblical Feasts. Check out davidwilber.com to find out more about David Wilber and his ministry.
Nehemiah Restoration Fellowship • May 13, 2021
Written by — Caleb Hegg
About two months ago I received a phone call from someone who had questions about the festival of Passover. The biblical holiday was just around the corner and I was getting daily calls and emails from people asking about observance, traditions, and order of service. As the call began to wrap up the man on the other end of the phone made an interesting statement. He said, “I won’t be celebrating Passover this year, but I want to be prepared for next year.” This was perplexing as we had just talked about Passover for about 10 minutes and he seemed excited about the festival. “Why aren’t you going to celebrate Passover this year?” I asked. “Well, I’m not circumcised so I know the Scriptures say I can’t celebrate the holiday.”
Such a view comes from a cursory reading of Exodus 12 which states:
“This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat it. (Exodus 12:43-48)
Certainly, if the biblical text says it, we should obey it. But in our time celebrating Passover in your home with friends and family does not require circumcision.
Circumcision and Passover
One of the more interesting aspects of the Passover narrative is the continued emphasis on circumcision. When Moses is sent by God to speak to Pharoah, the narrative breaks, and suddenly God seeks to kill Moses because one of his sons is not circumcised (Ex. 4:24-26). Likewise, in the passage cited above, we see that no male servant is allowed to eat the Passover without being circumcised.
Circumcision is so closely intertwined with the Passover seder because circumcision symbolizes the miracle of the virgin birth, the deity of our Lord, and the promise of the Messiah that would die for the sins of His people. Passover is a celebration of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, but it is also a prophecy of every believer’s personal story of salvation in Christ. We can see the themes of redemption and the cross throughout the Exodus story.
Those who would be considered covenant members and enter the congregation of Israel were expected to celebrate the covenantal rituals prescribed in the Torah. The mark of the Abrahamic covenant was the circumcision of the males. Passover marks the first sacred day in the cycle of festivals for the entire year. What is more, it was the holiday that told the story of God’s redemption of His people from enslavement to an oppressive nation. It was at the core of Israel’s identity and their service to the redeemer.
You could not be a covenant member without being circumcised and you could not keep the Passover without being a covenant member. Now we can see why some believe they should not celebrate Passover without being circumcised first. But is this actually what the text implies?
What Does “Keep the Passover” Mean?
The question we need to ask is, what does the Exodus text mean when it says “keep the Passover”? From the Exodus text itself, we can see that the celebration of the Passover centers around the sacrificial lamb. Israel was directed to sacrifice a lamb, and after the temple was built this task could only be done within its walls:
But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around so that you live in safety, then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the LORD… Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you. (Deuteronomy 12:10-11, 13–14 ESV)
The celebration of the Passover had to take place within the walls of Jerusalem and the lamb had to be sacrificed at the temple. This is why Passover is known as one of the pilgrimage festivals, those who would celebrate it had to travel from wherever they were to Jerusalem:
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, (Deuteronomy 16:16 ESV)
This may seem like good news for those who live close to Jerusalem, but we can’t forget about that lamb. The Exodus 12 text continues to talk about “eating” the lamb. We are told that slaves are able to “eat of it” but that “no uncircumcised person shall eat it.” Within the text, “keeping” and “eating” the Passover are inseparable.
Can We Truly Keep the Passover?
In order for anyone in our modern-day to keep the Passover they would need to:
1. Go to Jerusalem.
2. Go to a temple that is not currently standing.
3. Bring a lamb to an established priesthood in said temple.
4. Have a lamb slaughtered by the priest.
5. Take your lamb and roast it over an open fire
The basic point here is that no one in the world today can keep the Passover. Celebrating the Exodus from Egypt on Nisan 14 in your home with friends and family does not require circumcision. Nor does celebrating Passover with a new focus of Christ’s death and resurrection. Contrary to what some may believe, circumcision is not required for entrance into the covenant people of God. Abraham became a covenant member when he had faith and was declared righteous. Only then was he commanded to be circumcised.
If you are a believer in Yeshua and have accepted Him as your savior, you are a covenant member. If you are a male that believes in the risen Lord and have not been circumcised, I believe you should consider taking on this mark in the flesh that proclaims the Messiah. And if the temple is rebuilt and you want to go to Jerusalem to sacrifice a Passover lamb and observe the Passover, then you will need to be circumcised first. But, if you simply want to celebrate the exodus and the death and resurrection of our Lord with your family on Nisan 14-15, you do not need to go through the physical act of circumcision first.
Caleb Hegg is Director of Operations at Torah Resource Institute and Founder of Growing in Messiah alongside his wife, Lacacia. To learn more about Caleb and Lacacia's ministry, check out growinginmessiah.com.
Jonathan Brown • May 10, 2021
This brief article will introduce a topic that we will be discussing in multiple parts. In this part, I'll be introducing and - I believe you'll agree - diagnosing one of the most pressing issues and biggest problems in Torah Observant communities: leadership. Whether by the misuse of authority, or the lack thereof, many well-meaning congregations of believers fail to thrive because of improper leadership. Or worse, people suffer spiritual abuse from improper leadership.
There are, by my estimation, three different primary veins of this Torah Observant, Messianic, Hebrew Roots walk (whatever the preferred nomenclature of the day happens to be). Now I'm not talking denominationally-speaking (such as the differences between these three aforementioned terms). No, that will be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes here, I'm talking about structure as it pertains to leadership within the congregation.
You have your “traditional model” approach. This is where you have a head pastor or Rabbi that is tasked with being in charge of almost everything. There may be elders or overseers and/or deacons that report to him, but for the most part, this person is the ultimate authority. He makes all the decisions, assigns all the tasks, and is the ultimate authority in every instance where authority is invoked.
Many people in this walk have rightly questioned and even opposed this sort of one-man show, recognizing that the Biblical precedent for leadership in the Assembly is supposed to be plural. Paul gives instructions in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 (which are, I believe, based on Deut. 1) for establishing leaders and setting up leadership structure in the various believing communities. In all of his directions and qualifications that he presents to Timothy and Titus, nowhere do we find any indication of the expectation of a head pastor or Rabbi. Rather, we see elder (or overseer) and deacon (attendant / servant). These positions are established in the sense of plurality. Paul offers no instruction on how to organize a hierarchy of elders over deacons, and both of them over the laity (community). What the evangelical Church has largely done – and indeed persists into many Torah-Keeping groups as well – has been to take one of the elders and put him above the others, to make him the head pastor.
This has, at times, worked out decently; especially when that person is able to dedicate himself to ministry to full time. However, it also opens the door for abuse. From large international Christian ministries whose president engages in some sort of deviant behavior, to smaller Torah Observant ones who turn their well-meaning congregation into a cult of their own making, there are numerous examples of what can go wrong with a lack of accountability. Now to be sure, whether a congregation has 1 elder or 50, the possibility of abuse is always there. But the more checks and balances, the better. A plurality of leadership can better rein in one rogue agent than a congregation suffering under the tyranny of a single heavy-handed leader.
Because of the reaction to the first method, we come to the second method: the "mutual congregational model." This has led many people to reject leadership roles altogether. I have personally been part of groups in the past where there is no recognized leadership. All the adults in the group met together, worshipped together, studied together. Just like the prior model, this model can also work decently. It allows for a more tight-knit community. This less formal structure is more comfortable and, to many people, seems more “authentic” to what we see described in the Epistles, especially Paul's letters.
These “house churches” are not unique to the Torah Observant / Pronomian sphere, however. Many nondenominational churches operate as a group of home fellowships. While the strong bonds of community nourished by a mutual congregational model are good – and definitely an improvement over a domineering self-appointed Rabbi – they are nonetheless also deficient. Issues will, inevitably, arise. Who will address them? Who will confront the unruly person, or the brother or sister that has fallen into egregious sin? Surely not everyone present is qualified to be in that role (again, see 1 Tim. 3).
Plurality of Elders Model
The third and final model is that of a plurality of leadership, the “plural elder model.” This model has a leadership structure that recognizes the need for appointed / ordained leaders. Leaders that are not those that simply appoint themselves because they like being in charge, or because they are the smartest person (read: most arrogant) in the room, or the most compelling speaker. Rather, leaders that are recognized and known by the congregation, those that are supported and endorsed by their own community, that meet the qualifications laid out for us in Scripture.
In Deut. 1, Moses recounts that the people of each tribe selected their own elders / chiefs, and he appointed them over their respective tribes. That's the basis for Paul's model. Paul did not instruct Timothy to take people that he trusted from Rome, and put them in charge of the congregation in Ephesus. Rather, the leaders were supposed to be known among their own community. In James 5:14, he instructs his readers to “call for the elders of the assembly” when someone is sick. If there are no elders, no one in leadership, this cannot happen. In Acts 20, Paul “called for the elders of the assembly” to speak a word to them. Again, this cannot happen if there are no recognized leaders. The question would be asked by the congregants, “Whose an elder? Me? You? All of us?”
To remedy this, I propose the following steps be taken:
If you are a singular leader, look for those in your community – and indeed, ask the community to look among themselves – that are equipped and qualified to be in an eldership role. Don't treat this person as someone subservient to you, but rather as an equal co-laborer, whose job it is to serve and equip the body. You need to not be the only one in charge. It didn't work for Moses (hence his father-in-law's advice to appoint various other leaders), and it won't serve the body as well as a plurality.
If you are part of a group that doesn't have any structured leadership, open the dialogue. Share this article with them, pray with them, and read the Scriptures referenced. Talk amongst yourselves and discuss the qualifications. If you need one, NRF will happily provide our template of Eldership questionnaire, which lists the qualifications we require in order to be ordained and appointed as an elder / overseer.
Ultimately, if the goal is to preserve one's own ego, he/she will be opposed to this idea. But if we approach this with humility and with the understanding that there is a higher standard and level of responsibility for those in leadership, we must come to accept that Godly leaders are necessary for the healthy function of a congregation.
If you need to reach us with additional clarifying questions, or to request a digital copy of our eldership evaluation, you may reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I pray this has blessed you.
Jeff Young • May 04, 2021
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the ekklessia of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:28 NASB
Virtually all cult psychologists will tell you that there is one thing every cult has in common, and no, it isn’t an appetite for kool-aid. It’s control. Control is the common denominator in all cults and the distinguishing variable that makes them what they are. People categorize others with strange beliefs as cults, but truth be told, simply having a strange belief system doesn’t mean you’re part of a cult (it might make you weird though). However, if you’re trying to decide if a congregation is a cult, look at the control aspect.
Now, you might be wondering, “Jeff, why are you writing about this?” Well, there’s a very simple reason for this, my inquisitive friend. The reason is our Messianic/Pro-Law Movement is having a cult infestation issue. Cults are multiplying in this movement like rabbits, and not the soft and plushy kind of rabbit either, but more like a genetically mutated nightmare rabbit that eats all the vegetables in your garden and then eats all your chickens too. I’ve seen my fair share of people get wrapped up in these groups thinking that these are normal churches or synagogues, and not realizing they’ve been swept up in a full blown cult. There seems to be a lack of discernment, and part of that may be due to a lack of education on the subject. In the end, the people leaving these groups are damaged, traumatized, and some walk away from their faith altogether. I’m writing this in an attempt to assist and educate anyone who may have gotten entangled in a hebrew roots cult or messianic cult.
So now you may be wondering, “how do I know if I’m in a cult?” Let’s walk through a few identifiers to help you determine whether you’re part of one. It’s important to remember that cult identifiers aren’t an all or nothing circumstance. Cult behavior exists on a spectrum. Some cults can be incredibly subtle and seemingly innocuous with their control, and others can be overt and dangerous.
This is more than just telling someone, “Stop sinning.” (Seriously though, you should stop sinning.) Encouraging people to turn away from clear sinful behavior is normal Christian practice. There’s nothing cult-like about admonishing people to abstain from destructive behavior. No, we’re talking about intending to control people’s individual and family decisions in a manner that has nothing to do with clear Biblical teaching. Sometimes cult leaders will attempt to convince their followers that the issue is a matter of sin, when in reality this is simply a tactic to assume control over a person’s decision on any given topic. They often obscure texts of Scripture to justify their mandates and to further their agenda. Here are some examples of the kinds of behaviors cult leaders like to control:
- Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
- Control types of clothing and hairstyles
- Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
- Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
- Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
- Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
- Permission required for major decisions
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
- Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
- Impose rigid rules and regulations
- Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
- Instill dependency and obedience
- Separation of Families
- Mandating parents maintain certain disciplinary attitudes and actions for their children
- Interrupting a family unit by asserting authority over members of the family
- Manipulating or expecting followers to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship
One objective cult leaders employ to assume control over their followers is to isolate them from any information that might cause them to question the teachings of the cult. They often strongly discourage or forbid any follower to listen to certain people and certain information. Any outside information is a threat to their ability to control and manipulate those devoted to the official teaching of the cult. Often, this information is substituted with only information approved by the cult or the leader. In many cases, the information presented is a distortion of the facts or a flat lie. Here are examples of the ways a cult leader might be utilizing information to manipulate you:
- Deliberately withhold information
- Distort information to make it more acceptable
- Systematically lie to the cult member
Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
- Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
- Critical information
- Former members
- Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
- Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
- Ensure that information is not freely accessible
- Control information at different levels and missions within group
- Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
Encourage spying on other members
- Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
- Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
- Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
- Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
- Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
Unethical use of confession
- Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
- Withholding forgiveness or absolution
- Manipulation of memory, possible false memories
In a cult, independent thought is greatly discouraged. Conformity to the group is an expectation in a cult, and independent and critical thought is disparaged. Offering explanations of an idea that contradicts the group narrative is frowned upon and is typically discouraged by some form of manipulation. Sometimes the manipulation is overt and egregious such as corporal punishment, but in many cases the manipulation is as subtle as a denigrating remark, silent treatment, social isolation, removal from a position, or simply being treated like a second class member of the cult. Thought control is absolutely essential for a cult to effectively maintain authority over its followers. Here are some methods cults employ to control the thought life of a follower:
Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
- Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
- Instill black and white thinking
- Decide between good vs. evil
- Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
Change person’s name and identity
Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
- Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
- Thought-Interrupting Prayers
- Thought-Interrupting Singing or humming
Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
Habitually labeling certain doctrines and people within orthodox systems as illegitimate and evil
Instill new “map of reality”
This one is sneaky and is hard to spot if the cult leader is effective. Cult leaders and cults often will do very subtle things to manipulate the emotions of its followers. These can come in the form of small remarks and simple actions. The leader knows when to manipulate a follower with joy and excitement, or shame and fear. This manipulation creates lasting damage to the emotional wellbeing of a follower after they have left and can necessitate counseling to undo the emotional programming by the cult. Here’s the kinds of manipulation you ought to be looking for:
Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
- Identity guilt
- You are not living up to your potential
- Your family is deficient
- Your past is suspect
- Your affiliations are unwise
- Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
- Social guilt
- Historical guilt
Instill fear, such as fear of:
- Thinking independently
- The outside world
- Losing one’s salvation
- Leaving or being shunned by the group
- Other’s disapproval
- Historical guilt
Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
- No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
- Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
- Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
- Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
- Threats of harm to ex-member and family
It’s Isn’t Always Jonestown
Cults don’t always slip drugs in your drink when you’re not looking. People have this idea that to be in a cult means you must be in physical danger, and that just isn’t true. The typical hebrew roots cult or messianic cult doesn’t go beyond inflicting mental and emotional damage. The tactics and methods employed by cults aren’t usually threats or displays of physical violence. Cult leaders and members typically manipulate with simple actions and remarks. Whether you feel like you belong there or not will depend on whether you keep towing their line and saying all the things they want to hear. If you step off the line or say something contrary to their narrative, you may be ignored, dismissed, condescended to, or shunned. Their goal is to make you feel out of place and rejected to ensure you don’t cross their boundaries again. If you consider leaving, they will make accusations that you’re “running from God” or you’ll “never find what you have with them” or that “you risk your place in eternity”, and all these are statements made to instill fear and ensure you don’t leave their control. Anyone that does leave is deemed in rebellion against God and his “appointed teacher”.
How should we, members of the Messianic/Pro-Law movement, react with this information? The Messianic/Pro-Law movement for too long has been like the Wild West, and we’ve let too many lone cowboys ride into town and shoot up our chapels. We need marshalls. Marshalls that are properly trained and accountable to larger organizations and the people they protect. It’s time we see more organization, more structure, more discipleship, more training, more pastoring, and more accountability for our leaders. We need leaders that understand how to lead people and be sympathetic to their needs, while maintaining healthy God-given boundaries. Only then will these untethered cult leaders go the way of the dodo bird. Pastors, Rabbis, and responsible members of congregations should be mindful of any hebrew roots cult or messianic cult that may reside in their communities. This is for the protection of their congregants, and to be aware of any ex-cult members in search of asylum or rehabilitation. These leaders must be prepared and trained to respond to cults and refugees of cults, which they will inevitably encounter. However, the most important thing we can do is submit ourselves to Yeshua and His revelation through the text of Scripture. Responding to these cults in the manner that the Scriptures intends is absolutely imperative in the struggle against counterfeit pastors and teachers, such as 2 Timothy 4:1-5 and Romans 16:17,18. In the end it is the light of God’s truth that will dispel the darkness, and it is to this end that we are servants.
If you’re interested in learning more about cults and cult rehabilitation, I highly recommend the book Freedom of Mind by Dr. Hassan. Much of the information I’ve written here has been taken from his research. If you think you have gotten entangled in a cult, please, reach out for help and counsel. Anyone from our congregation would be more than happy to speak with you, pray with you, and share resources with you. You can reach us at email@example.com, or reach me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.