Nearly a month after a video showing Rabbi Ralph Messer, who leads the Simchat Torah Beit Midrash congregation in the Denver metropolitan area, "crowning" Atlanta megachurch leader Bishop Eddie Long went viral and earned both men a storm of criticism, Messer's ministry is still evoking questions.
Most recently, a local Messianic Jewish community has officially renounced Messer, who has given the impression that he is a Messianic Jew.
His ministry is a blend of Christianity and Messianic Judaism that seems to confuse both Christians and Messianic Jews. According to the church's website, "Rabbi Messer actively teaches the Hebrew Roots of the Christian Faith." Yet what seems to confuse many is that the Christian minister uses the title "rabbi," a title critics claim he might not have officially earned.
The controversial ritual performed by Messer on Long (and, previously, on Paula White of Without Walls International Church and New Destiny Christian Center) does not exist in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, an Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, told The Christian Post recently. Gafney is one of Messer's critics who also authored a blog post bashing his ritual. The "rabbi" in front of the name confused her as well, and Gafney said she did not know how Messer could have received it.
"There isn't even a minority Messianic Jewish community that would claim him," Gafney pointed out. "He is pastor of a stand-alone church that employs Hebrew as part of the original story of Christianity. I can't say how he was ordained or if he was ordained at all. I really don't know the answer to this question."
Gafney's theory about the purpose of the ritual involving Long is that it serves to restore the embattled bishop's position within his church community, and that it was meant as "a path to restoration that functions as a kind of anointing." As if the embattled minister was looking for a way to reaffirm his position without having to step down, she explained.
Long has faced a number of lawsuits, including one in which former male congregants accused him of sexual misconduct. Recently, Long was also accused of taking part in a Ponzi scheme involving members of his congregation. All of that may have pushed him toward searching for a way to reassure his position withing New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Gafney suggested.
"I think it's important because Messer performed the same ritual on Paula White," the Bible scholar told CP. "So it does seem to be a ritual that he [Messer] brings to clergy who are in difficulty around issues of their integrity, and perhaps it is supposed to convey to their congregation that they have a particular authority from God."
Gafney continued, "It's really interesting why he's the one. In terms of megachurches, I don't know that he is particularly that well known, that he has the name recognition. I only give this as example -- Bishop T.D. Jakes has a wide name recognition." If he were to praise a pastor, to reconfirm his/her position, that might make an impression on people who know and respect his ministry, she added. But Messer does not seem to have that much authority.
Messer is able to move the congregation because "they believe that they are seeing an authentic ancient ritual and their pastor is being blessed in this profound way, with this sacred item that has link to the Scriptures. That could be a very powerful thing," Gafney said.
Gafney told CP that she belives Long should step down. "I think he [Long] stayed [behind the pulpit] because he can; the structure of his church does not require him to step down. … He can do what he wants. I do believe that he needs to step down."
In a recent video address that was Messer's response to criticism concering the Long "coronation" ceremony, he apologized to the Jewish community and "repented."
"We are reaching out now to the Jewish community in Atlanta, Ga., in a dialogue between us and them. And it looks like it's going to come to pass," he said.
However, he did not cease to defend his way of conducting the ritual addressing very specifically multiple critical remarks made by rabbis across the nation. In fact, Messer read most major points of criticism out loud and attempted to disprove each. He also specified that the ministry is not to be confused with a Messianic Jewish one. Members of Simchat Torah are Christians who believe in the Hebrew roots of the Christian faith, he said.
Messer also did not renounce his decision to support Long, "a man of God," whom the media have "slaughtered" through recent years.
"I came to simply honor a man who needed to be encouraged," he told his congregation, to great applause.
Meanwhile, the Denver Messianic Jewish community found it particularly important to respond despite a "multitude of other protesting voices" as they live "in the same community and are directly impacted by the ministry of Ralph Messer," reads a statement put out by several community leaders through the website of Church in the City-Beth Abraham.
"We find the misuse of the Torah scroll to be an egregious offense," the statement reads. "The Torah is not an object to be manipulated according to one's whims or as a tool with which to stir the emotions of a crowd," they bash Messer.
The statement also indirectly refers to the ambiguous position the Colorado minister is taking, on the border of Christianity and Messianic Judaism.
"If he [Messer] has been called to be a Christian pastor, let him wear that label with pride and lay down the pretense of being a Messianic Rabbi."