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One Law Movements

Reprinted from

One of the glories of life in the Messianic Jewish community is the unity of worship and service between its Jewish and Gentile members within a specifically Jewish context. In recent years, however, a trend has developed that challenges the Messianic Jewish community on this very issue. This trend involves various groups and movements that teach that all Jews and Gentiles under the new covenant are called to keep the same Torah in all regards.

In so doing, these One Law movements not only misinterpret a great body of Scripture, but they also miss the unique calling of Jews and Gentiles within the Body of Messiah, robbing both groups of the biblical richness of their identity. They lose the new covenant vision of unity in Messiah between Jews and Gentiles and replace it with a man-made rallying cry, which One Law advocate Tim Hegg has expressed as “One people, One Messiah, One Torah.”1

Several streams teach such views, including Ephraimite groups that believe that Gentiles who have come to faith in Yeshua in some way fulfill the prophecies concerning the regathering of the Northern Tribes and their reunion with Judah. Generally, they teach that all believers are called to follow the same Torah instructions, with the exception of circumcision.

Other groups teach that Gentiles are both called to live the same Torah as Jews (except for circumcision), without teaching that they are in any way descended from the so-called “lost tribes” of Israel. These groups see all believers as grafted into the Olive tree, and therefore called to obey the same Torah as Israel. Perhaps the best-known proponents of this view are the writers of First Fruits of Zion, including Tim Hegg.

The Continuing Value of the Torah

Hegg and others make some good and important points about the Torah, which we should recognize before correcting what we believe is wrong.

Judaism, of course, always speaks of the Torah in the most positive terms. Torah as a whole—the 613 commandments identified in rabbinic literature—is the unique responsibility and privilege of the Jewish people, although many aspects of Torah apply to all people. It will be more relevant to this discussion to compare the “One Law” view of Torah with views in the Christian world.

The best One Law arguments on the value of the Torah resemble those within classical Reformed (Calvinist) Christian thought. Reformed theologians throughout history have put forth a clear doctrine of the Law. They see the will of God described by his Law, not only as taught in the New Testament, but also as taught in the Torah of Moses. Those who teach that we only need to love and can forget the Law of God are badly mistaken. Why? Because without the Law to tell us what love looks like, we will fall into sentimental indulgence. True love is always according to God’s Law. Therefore, the true believer, saved by grace, keeps God’s law, and the mark of the saved is obedience of the Law of God.

Starting in the late 19th century, Dispensational Theology overturned much of this view in popular Christianity in the United States and even in world missions. It taught that the Mosaic Law had no claim at all on the believer. Since the Christian is saved by grace, he may continue to live in sin while being assured of heaven. Such a life would not be a happy one, so believers should be exhorted to commitment and holiness. The committed disciple, however, should be instructed mostly by the epistles, not Torah and not primarily even the teaching of Yeshua, which is an application of Torah.

Many of today’s Dispensationalists have abandoned this severe anti-law position, but many Christians are still influenced by it. It is reflected in popular Christian speech and is prevalent in much Christian culture. One Law teachings can be seen as a reaction to this anti-law culture, and a return to a sounder understanding of grace and law, such as is taught by Reformation theology. So why are One Law people not simply conservative Presbyterians?

Most of Reformed Theology was replacement theology, declaring that the Church has replaced Israel in the plan of God. It treated Israel, the Jewish people, like all other peoples, except that until they receive Yeshua, they may show special marks of both preservation and judgment. Reformed thought divided the law into the ceremonial and the moral-social. The latter is a guide for personal life and for the laws and practices of society. The former related only to the practices of ancient Israel and the Temple. Such theology is alive and well today.

One Law people would see the deficiency in this sort of theology. If Israel has not been replaced, but is still the covenant people of God, then the division of the Torah into an easy moral/ceremonial dyad cannot be sustained. For example, the festivals not only involved sacrifices, but also are memorials of the history of God’s grace and deliverance in the life of Israel, and the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham. Because of these non-sacrificial aspects of the festivals, they must still have validity. Indeed, why isn’t the entire Torah still valid where it does not depend on the presence of the Temple sacrificial system?

These issues and questions could serve as a healthy balance to some of the traditional teaching of the churches. But One Law teachers take another, crucial, step, which brings them into error. They argue that since Gentiles are grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel, both Jew and Gentile are now called to keep the same Law (except for circumcision). They would apply the Law in the same way to both groups, so that Gentiles in the Messiah are to keep the Sabbath, festivals, food laws, and much else that has not been common in Christian practice.

The Exegetical Case for One Law

Most of the case for One Law is taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Exodus 12:49: “The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.” The alien (ger in Hebrew) is viewed as the prototype of the Gentile who comes to Messiah. Several Torah passages apply the same law to native born and alien, for example, Leviticus 24:22, or Numbers 15:16. The New Testament in contrast puts forth passages that seem to say that Gentiles are not called to keep the same application of Torah.

Acts 15 specifically declares that nothing should be required of the Gentiles but four laws, three of them related to blood. Galatians 5 warns Gentiles not to receive circumcision or they will be required to keep the whole Torah. The clear implication here is that without circumcision, Gentiles are not required to keep the whole Torah. Colossians 2 warns that no one is to judge the Colossians with regard to Sabbath, New Moons or festivals. These are a shadow; the substance is Messiah. In Galatians 4:10 Paul writes that he fears that he labored over the Galatian Gentile congregations in vain because they were now observing “special days, months, seasons and years.”

One Law interpreters argue that these passages are only rebuking those who want to keep the Law from wrong motives, as a means of salvation. Thus, in Acts 15, the circumcision party taught that unless a man was circumcised he could not be saved. One Law teachers agree that salvation is by grace, not based on observance of Torah.

Likewise, the One Law teacher says that Galatians is speaking against Torah as a requirement for entry into the Kingdom of God. After acceptance into the body of Messiah through faith, however, everyone should be discipled to keep the whole Torah as the way of a blessed life. But Paul never qualifies his argument this way. He never writes anything like “for a discipled life of blessing, you all need to keep the whole Torah.” If that had been his view, he had plenty of opportunity to make it clear. If that had been his view, the context would seem to demand that he express it. But he did not, either in Galatians or elsewhere.

One Law teachers respond to this by claiming that Paul is not speaking to this issue, but that the Jerusalem council did speak to it when they said, “Moses is read every Shabbat in the synagogue” (Acts 15:21). They take this to mean that, while Gentiles have easy entry requirements, simply faith in the Messiah, they will gradually adopt the Torah way of life through continual exposure to the Law of Moses in the Synagogue.

This is the gist of the argument, repeated in article after article. All the passages on the goodness of the Law (Torah, the instruction of God) throughout the Bible are used to support this point of view.

Responding to the Doctrine

“One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Exodus 12:49). In context, it is clear that this “one law” does not apply to every stranger within Israel. Torah instructs that the native born must eat the Passover, but the stranger must not eat it, unless he is circumcised. Only through circumcision can he be incorporated into the people of Israel and their Torah. Without it, he remains an outsider and is banned from the Passover (Ex. 12:38, 43-48).

In Leviticus 24:22, both the alien and the native Israelite are under the same prohibition against murder and both are to suffer the same penalty. Numbers 15:16 instructs an alien who decides to bring a free will offering to offer it in the same way as the native born. However, there is no requirement for him to bring a free will offering. Other mandated offerings are not assigned to the alien.

One Law advocates often cite the “mixed multitude” that joined the Israelites in their departure from Egypt (Ex. 12:38). In Joshua 5, however, all males who are to enter the Land of Israel undergo circumcision. Before the “one law” can go into effect within the Land of Israel, all those who cross the Jordan with Joshua, both native-born and sojourners from the mixed multitude, must be circumcised. Circumcision marks the boundary between those who have the fullness of Torah given to Israel and those who have the more general connection to Torah common to all nations.

Uncircumcised aliens were allowed to live in the midst of Israel as long as they accepted the requirements of not undercutting life in the land of Israel, submitted to the governing authorities, did not spread idolatry, and did not commit crimes punishable by the civil magistrates. It is unclear how long such aliens were was able to stay within Israel. The Torah does not tell us.

With the coming of the New Covenant, there is a change of relationship between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Since the New Testament teaches specifically on the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the new reality of the body of believers, we cannot simply transfer the practices of pre-Yeshua times into the New Covenant period.

By the time of Yeshua, an interpretative tradition was developing concerning the requirements for Gentiles. These later became formulated as the Noahide laws, binding on all people and rooted in the covenant with Noah. Already in the first century, Judaism made a distinction between universal requirements and requirements that were the particular responsibility of Jews.

Torah itself makes it clear that the Law has different applications for different groups. For example, purity laws and requirements for priests were different than purity laws for other Israelites. There were laws for men and laws for women, laws for widows, children, and so on. The Torah is not one homogenous whole, but is filled with diversity. Only as each group fulfilled its own destiny in Torah (men and women, for example) could there be true unity in the nation. Likewise, unity of Jew and Gentile does not require that there be one set of commandments for both, but that each group fulfill its own identity and destiny (1 Cor. 7:17-20).

Yeshua in Matthew 5:17-18 teaches obedience to the least of the commandments. He was speaking to Jews in period when the Temple was still standing and it was possible to keep the Torah to a much greater degree than now. To teach people to obey the least of the commandments, however, assumes that they keep them according to the intent of the commandment. It does not mean that Gentiles should be taught to keep all the details of law given to Israelites.

Yeshua teaches mostly on those parts of Torah considered to be universal in accordance with Jewish teaching of that period. The Gospels give little space to the primary concerns of the Pharisees concerning Torah’s purity laws. From how to pray, to loving enemies, from lust in the heart to hatred in the heart, Yeshua teaches Torah that applies to all. There is no evidence that the Apostles ever taught Gentiles to keep the whole Torah, but only the Torah that was perceived as universal, just as Yeshua himself had done.

Significant passages that speak to Gentile practice in the New Covenant provide clear evidence that the One Law view is not correct.