Conversions of Convenience

There is currently an argument going on in Israel (in June 1998) about Christian organisations who have supposedly abrogated the cause of evangelism of the Jews, in return for a withdrawal of political support for the anti-missionary bill. A document known as the "Understanding" is being circulated, which is viewed by some as a betrayal of the faith, when in in fact it only says that they do not support so-called "conversions of convenience".

A "conversion of convenience" occurs when someone changes their religion, or appears to change their religion, for an ulterior motive. For example, someone might convert to Christianity so that they can go to a Christian school run by missionaries, giving them the opportunity to learn English and obtain a better education than that which is available elsewhere. Such Christians, during the days of the Raj, became known in India as "Rice Christians" because they changed their religion for material benefits.

Conversions to Judaism also occur sometimes as a matter of convenience, usually when a Gentile wants to marry a Jew. The Jews are sceptical about such conversions and the candidate is usually asked to explain his motives to the local Rabbi, who might ask something like "Why do you want to convert to Judaism?" (as if the reason is not already obvious). The candidate is expected to give some reason other than "Because I want to marry Judith", and if the Rabbi is satisfied that the person is genuinely interested in Judaism, he will be asked to undertake a five-year course of study which ends with the "mikvah" (immersion) and "brit-milah" (circumcision).

Conversion to Christianity is much easier, and the couple might decide to get married in church rather than in the synagogue. To get married in church, all you have to do is say "I believe in Jesus". Some churches won't even expect that much. They will only expect you to agree with the contents of the marriage service itself. Whatever may be the ambiguities, a marriage in church is an affirmation that the couple is "Christian", although it might mean absolutely nothing to either of them and is just a "conversion of convenience".

The Understanding

The so-called "Understanding" does not contain the term "conversion of convenience", but it references the same principle. The complete text is as follows:

Agreed Text Between Representative Christian Bodies and MK Nissim Zvili

As representatives of Christian churches, schools and charitable institutions from different parts of the world, living and working in the State of Israel, we rejoice in the presence of the Jewish people in this country of their ancestors and delight in their return to it after many centuries of persecution and suffering. We trust that the Almighty will guide them in all aspects of their religious and communal life and will inspire them, in the tradition of the prophets, to shape a just and compassionate society. We pray for the establishment of peaceful relations with their neighbors, as well as with the members of the Christian, Muslim and other religious communities in this country. We pray for God's blessing over all Israel's inhabitants.

We believe that the covenant which God concluded with the people of Israel was never revoked. We deeply respect the Jewish people in their identity and integrity and will therefore not engage in activities, which have as their intention to alienate them from their tradition and community. Nor will we exploit, for the benefit of our denominational interests, such economic, social or psychological needs as may emerge. Recalling the grim events preceding Israel's rebirth, we are sensitive to their memories, hurts and feelings, even as we pursue our religious callings. We also recognize the potential for healing between our faith communities as we live in the midst of a Jewish majority, sharing its challenges while living together in a land sacred in both our traditions.

We earnestly call upon the government of Israel to maintain its enlightened policy which allows our Christian communities in this country, both native as well as expatriate, to freely follow our vocation, which includes among others, caring for our members; engaging in many social and charitable projects; welcoming and assisting pilgrims and visitors from abroad; and maintaining schools and institutions for teaching and research - to the end, that the Christian communities in the State of Israel may flourish in harmony with those of other faiths.

END OF STATEMENT. For more details, contact Bridges for Peace.

Does this statement amount to an abrogation of the cause of evangelism? For some Christians, the offending clause is:

We deeply respect the Jewish people in their identity and integrity and will therefore not engage in activities, which have as their intention to alienate them from their tradition and community. Nor will we exploit, for the benefit of our denominational interests, such economic, social or psychological needs as may emerge.

There are actually two points of contention here. The first is about intent to alienate Jewish people from their community, and the second is about conversions of convenience that might occur as a result of social and economic exploitation.

Alienation from the community

If a Jew converts to Christianity and then adopts all the Christian traditions such as Sunday worship, Christmas and Easter, to the complete abandonment of Shabbat and all the festivals, then they will certainly have alienated themselves from their community by their own choice. However, this situation does not occur among Jews who believe in Yeshua and participate in a Torah-observant Messianic fellowship. Rather than feeling alienated from Judaism, they feel more Jewish than ever before because not only do they have the Torah, but they also have the Messiah.

Torah-observant Messianic Jews might become alienated from their Jewish friends and family who do not believe in Yeshua, but in this case, alienation does not occur by their own choice, but by the choice of their friends and family who have rejected them. Yeshua taught us that "a man's foes shall be they of his own household" (Matt. 10:36). We have to be prepared for rejection, but the cause of evangelism is universal and we should seek to be re-united with our families and communities by bringing them to faith in Yeshua.

Economic Exploitation

The statement that we will not attempt to convert people through economic exploitation should hardly be a matter of controversy. Most Christian organisations do not believe in it anyway. In fact most missionaries find it extremely annoying and frustrating when they discover that "enquirers" who are supposedly interested in Christianity are just faking it for ulterior motives. I spent some time in Iran, selling Bibles and Christian books, and I remember one of my colleagues came home feeling disheartened one day because he had spent many hours discussing the Bible with someone, and he thought the person was really interested, until he eventually dropped his disguise and said "I like to learn English".

Economic exploitation for the purpose of conversion is of no benefit to anybody, and certainly not to the missionaries. It is hardly surprising that Christians in Israel should be willing to agree with a statement that condemns it. Many Christians would be surprised that an Israeli politician should even bother asking the question. The reason the question has been asked is because Jews and Christians have a difference of perception about Christian evangelism. Many Jews believe that evangelism is all about the use of financial benefits to achieve conversion. Christians believe precisely the opposite. A person has to come to Yeshua by faith and with a pure heart, and far from receiving benefits from men, they should expect rejection and persecution.

The so-called "Understanding" has been processed by some Jewish journalists and written up as if Christians had abandoned the cause of evangelism of the Jews. Christians have taken it at face value and have accused the participating organisations of abrogating the faith. If only people would take the trouble to read the statement for themselves, they would see that it says no such thing. On the contrary, it says we are to "pursue our religious callings" which must include evangelism because it is fundamental to Christianity. To remove any possible doubt, it was issued together with another verbal statement from the Christian community saying "...we exercise our right and duty to proclaim our faith to others...".

Is the "Understanding" a Good Idea?

Probably not. The early church flourished under conditions of persecution, until the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the State religion in the hope that the God of the Christians would help him win his battles. After that, the vigour and dynamism of the church gave way to compromise and decay, eventually resulting in the Roman Catholic church which was an instrument of political and spiritual control.

For these reasons, I do not favour the idea of Christians getting into bed with politicians, in Israel or elsewhere. I do have some concerns about the "Understanding". It leans a bit too far towards ecumenism and interfaith dialogue for my liking. It could well be the thin end of the wedge, going beyond the concept of mutual respect for other religions and leading to corporate acts of interfaith worship. Should we respect other religions anyway? For example, should we respect Islam which considers itself to be the final revelation of God, which replaces both Judaism and Christianity, seeks our destruction, and considers the State of Israel to be a theological heresy?

There are genuine reasons for concern about the "Understanding". However, there is no reason for the church to tear itself apart over one innocuous clause that has been misrepresented by some journalists.

At the time of writing this article, I am advised that the "Understanding" is just a document for consultation, and nobody has actually signed it. During the current discussions between Christians and politicians, nobody has signed anything. Whether they do so in the future remains to be seen, but I think they are all better off not signing anything because whatever they sign can be interpreted in many different ways.

What does the Bible say about Conversions of Convenience?

Not very much, for a variety of reasons. Conversions of convenience were virtually unknown during the days of the Old Covenant. I cannot find a single example of someone being offered money or other benefits to become a believer in the God of Israel. In any case, those sort of incentives would not mean much because they had a theocracy during the days of Moses, which remained intact to some degree or other during the days of the Kings of Israel, so that worship of other gods was illegal (depending on whether the king did good or evil in the sight of the Lord). Anyone born among the Israelites was expected to believe in the God of Israel. Anyone from among the other nations, who wished to live among the Israelites, had to abandon their idols and believe in the God of Israel. Did this amount to coercion? Not really, because the decision to live among the Israelites was itself synonymous with conversion, as in the case of Ruth who said "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God". (Ruth 1:16).

There were obligatory conversions among the women whom the Israelites took from among the nations they had conquered, while they were on their way to the Promised Land. However, the pagan gods in those days were considered to be territorial and only had dominion within a limited geographical area. If someone was physically taken away from their land, they were also physically taken away from their gods, so there was no point continuing to believe in them. This is the reason why the Israelites were able to take wives from among the other nations, but not from among the Caananites who lived in the Land that they were supposed to possess. They could not marry the Caananites and expect them to believe in the God of Israel, because such conversions would be just conversions of convenience, and the Caananite women would just go back to their local gods and take the Israelite men with them.

A dispute about a conversion of convenience occurred while the Israelites were in the desert. It was about Zipporah, the Ethiopian/Midianite wife of Moses. Aaron and his sister Miriam complained that she was Ethiopian, implying that she was not a true believer in the God of Israel. The Lord struck Miriam with leprosy, but Moses being a humble man, prayed for her to be healed. (Num. 12). Zipporah had on at least one occasion proved herself to be even more faithful than Moses himself. This was after Moses had heard God speaking out of the burning bush and was on his way to meet his fellow Israelites in Egypt and speak to Pharaoh. God wanted to kill him because he had not circumcised his son, but his wife Zipporah took out a flint knife and performed the circumcision, averting God's anger. (Ex. 4:24-26)

In the New Covenant there is not much on conversions of convenience either. That's because during the ministry of Yeshua, as he pursued his arduous calling as a travelling Rabbi, nobody could imagine that they could benefit financially by following him. During the days of the early church, nobody imagined that they would benefit by being imprisoned, driven from their homes, stoned, and fed to the lions. Instead they had to consider how much it would cost them to be a believer.

When we believe in Yeshua, we enter into a contract in which we receive blessings from God, but we do not expect to receive anything from men, except for fellowship and support from other believers, but even then we do not expect to get out more than we put in.

Blessings from God

The most important blessing from God, that we receive by believing in Yeshua, is what he called "treasures in heaven".

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matt. 19:21).

Nobody in this world knows exactly what is meant by "treasures in heaven", but there are verses that suggest there are positions of greater or lesser honour. The disciples were always asking Yeshua who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, imagining that those who were greatest on earth will also be the greatest in heaven. Yeshua always rebuked them and said the least will be the greatest, or as he sometimes put it "the first will be last".

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory. But Jesus said unto them, ... to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared. (Mark 10:37-40).

There are also material blessings for those who follow Yeshua, insofar as our needs will be provided as long as we are doing what God wants us to do.

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt. 6:31-33).

I know from my own experience that this is true. I am a freelance technical author, writing computer manuals and motor manuals. There have been good times and bad times, but looking back I can see that the good times have always coincided with periods of worthwhile spiritual progress and ministry. I used to have business problems, but then I got on the winning side and started supporting Israel, and my business problems were resolved. However, one good move doesn't give everlasting benefits, and it didn't last for ever. I got involved in a fundraising project to help Messianic Believers in Israel who suffered discrimination and were in need. It seemed like a worthwhile project, but it was inefficient and time consuming, and I was only doing it because, at the time, nobody else was available. While I was working on this project, I had difficulty finding commercial work and my business started going down. I eventually abandoned the project (or rather it was abruptly terminated), and instead I spent my time studying and teaching the Bible and writing these articles for my Web site. Since then I have felt that I am doing what I am good at, and I also believe it is what God wants. At the same time, my business has picked up and I am finding plenty of work.

During the good times I have had continous work, with new jobs starting as soon as the last one finished. During the bad times, I couldn't find work however hard I tried. I have found that, for a believer in Yeshua, advertising and marketing is all a load of rubbish. The reasons for finding work, or not finding work, are spiritual. If I ever again see my business going down, there is only one question that needs to be asked. "Am I doing what God wants me to do?".

I should also say that I have never been offered a job because I am a believer. If such a thing happened, it would be a blessing from men and not from God, and I would not expect it to happen because, in this world, people are much too sensible to offer commercial work for anything other than commercial reasons.

Curses from Men

... they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons ... ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake. (Luke 21:12-17).

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; (Matt. 10:16-17).

... If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you ... (John 15:20)

Believers in Yeshua have been persecuted relentlessly throughout the entire 2000 years history of the church. The early believers were fed to the lions. Then there were the thousand years of the dark ages, where anyone who did not submit to the teaching and authority of the Roman Catholic "church" was dispossessed, imprisoned, or put to death. Then there was the persecution of the Protestant Reformers, also at the hands of the Catholics. Since the days of Muhammad, there has been Islamic military conquest and forced conversions on pain of death. Islam is the greatest foe of believers in Yeshua today, with many believers being imprisoned and killed all over the world. I used to be in Iran, but I came back to England before all the trouble started, otherwise I would probably not be here writing this article now. The Iranian pastor of the church that I used to go to in Shiraz was killed by people who pretended to be interested in the Bible. Even the Jews in Israel are making plans to send believers in Yeshua to prison, with their iniquitous "anti-missionary bill".

If anyone thinks they are going to be blessed by men, for believing in Yeshua, just forget it. If anyone thinks they can offer financial incentives to make someone believe in Yeshua, just forget it. Unless you are a millionaire, the curses of men would outweigh any blessings you can offer.

The only blessings we might get from men are the blessings that the poor might give us after we have helped them with something. Generally, the richer and more powerful people are, the worse their curses will get.

Mixed Blessings

There is one rather unusual verse, where Yeshua tells his disciples about blessings and curses within the same sentence, and some of the blessings appear to come from men, although they actually come from God because they are about the fellowship we have with other believers.

And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30).

It's obvious what the "persecutions" are - we have discussed that in the last section, but who are the brothers, sisters, mothers and children? Yeshua explained who they are:

For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matt. 12:50).

Clearly, all these new relatives are our fellow-believers within the church. Whereas we might have only a few natural brothers and sisters, we will have many more spiritual ones. The early church used to have everything in common, so that someone who previously lived in just one house would be able to go freely to other houses and have fellowship there, without feeling that he is imposing on anyone. If anyone had more than they actually needed, they sold it and gave the money to the poor.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:44-47).

What sort of fellowships and congregations do we go to? Depending on the state of the church in our area, we might have many brothers and sisters, and there might be many homes we can go to from time to time for fellowship. In some places, the church has been wrecked by false teaching, or no teaching at all, or domineering leadership. Believers are running to the hills, having their own meetings in their own homes with just a few people. But all those who we meet with for real fellowship, even if we only do it only over the Internet, are our brothers, sisters, mothers and children.

Would someone be likely to become a believer in Yeshua, in order to benefit from the generosity of the early church? They sold their land and possessions and gave the money to the poor. They had favour with all the people (meaning the ones who benefited from their generosity), so were they coercing anyone into becoming a believer? No, because when someone joined the church they were also expected to give something. If someone joined the church having nothing, they were accepted, but as soon as they accumulated some wealth they were expected to be generous to others. The early church did not tolerate parasites. This is illustrated by the example of Chananyah and Shappirah who sold some property and gave some of the money to the Apostles for distribution, falsely claiming that they had given all of it. They could have done whatever they liked with the money, but they chose to tell a lie and they dropped down dead at the Apostle's feet. (Acts 5:1-11). There was to be no false accounting in the early church. Great fear came upon the church and nobody dared to tell a lie to the Apostles. Not any kind of lie. If someone claimed to be a believer when they were just on the make, they would be found out just as easily.


The suggestion that 50 Christian organisation in Israel have abrogated the faith by supporting the so-called "Understanding" is actually a misunderstanding because they have either not read the document at all, or have read it and not understood the concept of a "conversion of convenience". Such conversions are pure falsehood and do not benefit anyone.

Every misunderstanding is an opportunity for a Bible study. The Bible is God's word, and all moral and spiritual situations that we encounter in this life have their answers in the Bible.

Copyright 1998

Mike Gascoigne
Send a mail message

Bible Index

History Index

Home Page