The Dangers of the Hebrew Roots Movement
There is a theological movement called Torahism—you might know it as Torah-observant Christianity or the Hebrew Roots Movement. Torahism1 teaches that all Christians should be “keeping Torah,” by which they mean we should be keeping the Law of Moses (aka the “Old Testament law”). The New Testament teaches that keeping these Mosaic traditions are permitted for Christians, but they are not required. So naturally, people have asked why I spend so much time mounting arguments against this lesser-known belief system.
What’s the big deal with the Hebrew Roots Movement and other groups that want to practice some Old Testament traditions? Don’t you say all the time that those things are “permitted but not required?” How is it hurting anyone if some Christians want to keep the Saturday Sabbath, celebrate Passover, or not eat pork?
These are fair questions. Although the motivation behind Torahism may include some noble ambitions—such as wanting to better understand the Christian faith in its original cultural context and wanting to do our best to live in obedience to God—the theology itself contains some dangerous ideas. Let me share with you some real stories about how these teachings can affect families, friendships, and even churches as we examine what I see as the three biggest dangers of this belief system.
1 “Torahism” is an umbrella term for Torah-observant Christianity but not necessarily what they call themselves. The term is in no way intended in a derogatory sense. It is merely a convention for describing a belief system and its adherents. When I refer to someone as a “Torahist,” it is no different than referring to them as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
Salvation v. Obedience
Before we get to the reasons and the stories, it’s important to clarify what Torahism is and isn’t. The defining element in the theology of Torahism is the teaching that the Torah—specifically the Law of Moses—must be kept by all who profess faith in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.2 A minority of Torahists teach that “keeping Torah” is a matter of salvation. Most, however, agree with mainstream Christianity that salvation comes only through grace by faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9). They believe that “keeping Torah” isn’t what saves us but is how we show our love for God. It is the way we are commanded to live our lives as Christians. In other words, they view Torah-keeping as a matter of obedience, not salvation.
But here’s the catch. All Torahists—even those who profess salvation through Christ alone—teach that not keeping Torah is sinful. They view disobedience of the Law of Moses (such as not observing Saturday Sabbath, kosher food laws, annual feasts, circumcision, etc.) as living in sin and lawlessness. So despite the claim that keeping the Mosaic Law is not a requirement for salvation, Torahism considers it a confirming sign of a truly-saved, obedient Christian.
Anyone who teaches that all believers in Jesus are required to keep the Mosaic Law—whether as a matter of salvation or obedience—is teaching Torahism. With that, let’s move on to the three most significant dangers of this belief system.
2 Although a legitimate case could be made that Jewish followers of Jesus have a different relationship to the Torah than do Gentiles, neither are required to keep it as a matter of salvation or righteousness.
1. Torahism is Unbiblical
Despite what these groups teach, the Bible does not support a Hebrew Roots worldview. We will look at a few specific examples of this below. (And I have many videos, blogs, and books that go into greater detail on the issue.) That said, there is a challenge in recognizing and resisting Torahism’s theology. If a Christian group were to teach, for example, that adultery or greed was okay, we could point to numerous verses in the Bible that directly contradict their teachings. In the case of Torahism, however, there is no single verse that specifically says, “Christians are not required to keep Torah.” At the same, no verse says explicitly, “Christians are required to keep Torah.”
The relationship of Christians to the Law of Moses is something that we have to dig into Scripture to understand. God wants us to eat His Word, to ingest it every day because through reading His Word, we get to know His heart. It’s about having a real relationship with our heavenly Father. And His Word—the Bible—is how He most often speaks to us. But God doesn’t always give us a nice, tidy list of directions and instructions. I don’t know about you, but I’m a list guy. (Ask my wife!) If God gave me a to-do list, I would be off to the races working on the list and forgetting all about spending time with God. Instead, our heavenly Father wants us to pull up a chair and sit with Him daily. He wants us to spend time with Him, so He can feed us His truth.
The more we get to know the truth of the Word, the easier it is to spot counterfeit teachings. This is what we find in many of the claims of our Hebrew Roots friends. These teachers claim Torahism is biblical, and I’m sure many of them believe it. But the proof is in the pudding. And at the end of the day, the Bible teaches that Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses. Let’s look at the Scriptural data.
In Exodus 19 and following, we learn that the Law of Moses was given as part of the Covenant at Mount Sinai. It was given to “the house of Jacob” (Ex 19:3). In Scripture, the phrase “the house of” is a way of referring to the family or physical descendants of someone. So even though there may have been a “mixed multitude” (Ex 12:38) traveling with Israel when they were rescued out of Egypt, the covenant God made at Mount Sinai was solely with the “house” or descendants of Jacob, who was also named Israel (Gen 32:28). These were the Jews. No other nation or people group was part of the covenant. In fact, many of the Mosaic laws were given specifically to set the Jewish people apart from the Gentile nations around them. God uniquely chose the Israelites, telling them “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation ” (Exodus 19:5).
The New Testament later reveals that under Jesus and the New Covenant, things changed. For one thing, it was revealed that the Law of Moses was given as a guardian until Christ came. And now that He has come, God’s people are no longer under that Law (Gal 3:24-25). It’s also revealed that the nature of the People of God has changed. Under the Sinai covenant, the People of God were the Jews (aka the nation of Israel, the House of Jacob). They were designated through ethnicity and lineage. Under the New Covenant, however:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”-Galatians 3:28-29
That’s right. Believers in Jesus—both Jews and Gentiles—are now considered Abraham’s offspring and the heirs of God’s promises. (I’ll unpack this a bit more below. But spoiler alert: this has nothing to do with the erroneous concept of “replacement theology,” which teaches that the Church has replaced Israel.) And since Jews and Gentiles who are in Christ are now one people, the laws previously given to set Israel apart from the Gentiles are no longer needed.
2. Torahism is Divisive
The second big danger is that Torahism often causes division in the body of Christ. I’ve seen it damage marriages, friendships, families, and even churches. Torah-observant Christians often make keeping the Law of Moses a test of fellowship. Because they view these Mosaic traditions as required of Christians, not optional, they often look down on Christians who don’t keep the Saturday Sabbath or the kosher food laws or celebrate Easter or Christmas. Those Christians are often reprimanded as lawless sinners. Not every Torah-keeper adopts a divisive or arrogant attitude, of course. But if you’ve got a Hebrew Roots person in your life, you know what I’m talking about.
Although many Hebrew Roots believers profess with their lips that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, I’ve yet to come across any Torah-keeper willing to take the peacemaking attitude that says, “Hey, we can agree to disagree on this issue and still be brothers and sisters in Christ.” The majority of Torah-observant Christians I have interacted with take a prideful and judgmental attitude toward Christians who don’t “keep Torah.” In fact, that’s how I stumbled across this movement in the first place. A few years back, an old friend from church began publicly accusing me of partaking in pagan rituals. Why? Because I celebrate Christmas. (The conversation that grew out of that encounter eventually turned into my book, Torahism.)
To be fair, no belief system, including Torahism, should be judged by those who abuse it. There are no Torah-observant tenets that require its adherents to cause division in their families and communities. But there is a virulent strain of distrust—sometimes even outright rebellion—against the mainstream Christian church in many Torah-observant communities. Romans 14 addresses the in-fighting in the Roman church on the issue of kosher food. Paul admonished his readers that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit . . . so then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:17, 19). And when we look at the common fruits of Torahism, we find the opposite of what Paul taught. Rather than peace and mutual upbuilding, Torahism tends to cause disunity in the body of Christ. And it has done needless damage to families, friendships, and churches.
Often the average Christian senses something is wrong with the idea of Torah-observant Christianity but has a hard time articulating exactly why it’s wrong. So the mainstream Christian and the Torah-observant Christian end up talking past one another, quarreling and arguing without any resolution. The old friend I mentioned who took me to task over Christmas is a perfect example. He and his wife were causing so much turmoil in their family and neighborhood that the people who loved them were at their wit’s end and didn’t know what to do.
In another instance, a woman from Minneapolis reached out to me because her husband has been thinking about leaving the family to move to Israel. He believes it is part of his duty as a believer to make the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem required in the Torah. I sat with him for almost two hours and found him to be a soft-spoken, intelligent man who knows his Bible. But he was unwilling or unable to see that those Mosaic traditions are not required of Christians under the New Covenant. I remember him being really upset that he was being “forced” by mainstream Christianity to worship God on Sunday rather than the true Saturday Sabbath.
And interestingly, like every Hebrew Roots believer I’ve ever encountered, he is not Jewish. He is a Gentile, which means he has never been under the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath requirements. And here he is, ready to walk away from his wife and kids in service to Torahism. That’s scary stuff.
But that’s not all. Let me share a few other stories with you. These are actual comments I’ve received:
- A man from Kansas wrote, “Thank you so much for your biblical and logical teaching in your book and on YouTube. With one of my best friends falling into the Hebrew Roots Movement (I partially blame 119 Ministries), I have been struggling to find answers to the questions he raises.” This man later told me that this friend ended up causing so much disruption and arguing within their church small group that they finally had to ask him to leave. (Which he wanted to do anyway because he thought they were all deceived.)
- A man from Tennessee wrote, “I like your videos. My son married a girl recently that her family had been strongly involved in the Hebrew Roots Movement. So, I am researching for myself. I do not believe in the movement myself, nor does my son but, we have to get along with the in-laws. They are starting to come out of it but cling to some of the food laws and feast ideas.”
- A pastor from Connecticut wrote: “My elder brother just sent me this link [to a Hebrew Roots article]. Is this what your book on Torahism is about and do you deal with this subject? I want to learn more just in case my brother is going down a wrong path. By the way, I’ve been a pastor for over 32 years and have an M.Div . . . Please, any help you can offer is greatly appreciated.”
- A woman from Mexico wrote, “I’ve recently come across this movement you mentioned in your book. I’ve dealt with harsh comments and teachings towards Christians… I’ve been a Baptist all my life, and I am concerned about this situation . . . My husband isn’t a Christian, yet; he’s friends with a gentleman who is involved in Hebrew Roots, they’ve known each other even longer than my husband and I have. I’d love to get your book. Is it available from Mexico?”
- An author from Spain wrote, “I just recently bought and read your book Torahism (great job, BTW). I would be interested in chatting with you about the Hebrew Roots Movement. We have this problem in Spain, too.” He and I ended up having a video chat, and he explained to me how the Hebrew Roots teachings are growing, especially among the Gypsy population in Spain, who identify themselves with the lost tribes of Israel. He told me that four prominent Christian leaders in Spain had recently stepped down from their positions in the church to pursue Torahism.
(You’ll find more examples in the comments section below.)
Torahism is real, and it seems to be growing. Thankfully it’s nowhere near as big as other Christian cults, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism. At least not yet. And one of the reasons I do what I do is to help make sure Torahism never gets that big.
3. Torahism Undermines Jesus
The third big danger is that the theological concept at the foundation of Torahism undermines both the Gospel of Jesus and the sufficiency of His work in making us right with God. For one thing, by trying to point Christians toward Moses, these teachings can take our focus off of Jesus. By emphasizing a works-based lifestyle, Hebrew Roots’ teachings deemphasize the “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17) that is ours through Jesus. But the danger of Torahism is even bigger than what it does to our focus.
The theology of Torahism contradicts and undermines the accomplishments of Jesus through His life, death, and resurrection. Here are seven biblical examples that show how the teachings of Torahism are incompatible with the work of Jesus:
|Under the Law of Moses / Old Covenant||Under Jesus / New Covenant|
|Continual animal sacrifices are required for sin. (Ex 29:10-14, 35-37, 30:10; Lev 4:1-5:13; Num 6:10-14)||We learn “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). They were only a reminder of sin. Jesus, however, was our atoning sacrifice (1 John 2:1), which was given once for all (Heb 10:10). If Jesus was our sacrifice once for all, why would we need to continue with the repeated sacrifices required under the Law of Moses?|
|All priests must come from the tribe of Levi. (Ex 29:1-8; Deut 18:1-8; Num 18)||Jesus is now our High Priest (Heb 4:14-15), and he came from the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14), not Levi. We’re further taught that “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb 7:12). How can the Law of Moses still be in effect if our high priest is not from the tribe of Levi?|
|God told the Jewish nation of Israel, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:6)||All believers in Jesus—whether Jew or Gentile—are described as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9) Contrary to the Law of Moses, every believer in Jesus—whether Jew or Gentile—now qualifies as a member of God’s chosen people.|
|God’s presence or spirit resides in the temple in the most holy place, behind a veil where only the high priest can enter once a year (Exodus 26, 30:10)||The moment Jesus died on the cross, God tore down that temple veil, symbolizing that we now have direct access to God (Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). We, the body of Christ, are now God’s temple (1 Cor 316-17, 6:14-20; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5). If believers in Jesus are now the temple of God’s spirit, how does it make sense to keep a Law that requires a physical Temple where the most holy place is veiled off and only accessible by priests? Are we to sew back together the temple veil that God ripped apart?|
|Kosher food laws were given to set Israel apart from the Gentile nations around her. (Leviticus 11)||All food is now clean. (Acts 10:9-16, Mark 7:1-23, Rom 11:11-24, 14:1-15:13). In Mark 7 Jesus said to His disciplines, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18b-19). How does it make sense to require the keeping of kosher food regulations when Jesus and the apostles taught us that all food is clean?|
|Israel was required to circumcise all males at eight days old. (Lev 12:3).||For those who place their faith in Jesus, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6. See also: Acts 15:1-29; Gal 6:15; 1 Cor 7:19; Col 2:11) How does it make sense for Christians to keep the Mosaic requirements for circumcision when the NT tells us that now, under Jesus, circumcision counts for nothing?|
|No commandments shall be added to or taken away from the Law of Moses. (Deut 4:2, 12:32)||Jesus gave us new commands not found in the Torah (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; John 13:34). For example, nowhere in the Torah will we find anything like this command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I (Jesus) have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). If the Law of Moses is still in effect, how could Jesus give us new commandments?|
I mentioned earlier that we don’t have a verse we can look at that directly teaches that “Christians are not required to keep the law of Moses.” However, you can see how the bulk of evidence in the NT teaches this very point. Not only that, we have a verse we can point to that reveals that the Sinai Covenant, the old covenant, has ended. The book of Hebrews teaches that Jesus is our High Priest and that the New Covenant is a better covenant. And, “In speaking of a new covenant, [God] makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13).
This text was written in the first century when most of the apostles were still alive. And a few years later, in the year AD 70, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. From that day until now, it has been impossible for anyone to live a truly Torah-observant lifestyle. The temple is gone, the priesthood is gone, the sacrifices have ended. In other words, the old covenant has become obsolete and vanished.
Wrap it Up, Solberg
Look, I get it. This idea that Christians ought to keep the Law of Moses can sound appealing, even beautiful. It seeks to connect us to our spiritual roots in ancient Israel and give us a framework to live out our faith today. This is what draws people into Torahism. But the bottom line is that Torah-observant Christianity is flat-out unbiblical. And anyone who spreads this false teaching is well advised to soberly reconsider what they’re doing. There are many ways to acknowledge and honor the true Jewish roots of the Christian faith without resorting to unbiblical teachings.
The three biggest dangers of Torahism are that their teachings (1.) are unbiblical, (2.) cause division and disunity, and (3.) undermine the work and sufficiency of Jesus. These false Hebrew Roots teachings put an unnecessary burden on believers. They add requirements to living out the Christian faith that were never intended. This is a dangerous stumbling block that promotes the false idea that putting one’s faith in Jesus commits them to keeping all sorts of regulations—about food and days and so on—that aren’t actually required of Christians.
In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul spends chapters three and four making his case that believers in Jesus have been liberated from the law. I’ll close with his summary of that argument: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).