The Danger of Replacement Theology
Supersessionism, fulfillment theology, replacement theology….they all refer to the same non-biblical doctrine that has crept into the church…a teaching that says the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan, that all of the promises God made to the Jewish people and Israel now pertain only to the Church.
There are several variations of this doctrine ranging from a belief that God has completely disinherited the Jewish people to a gentler form which states that God has an end-time plan of salvation for the Jewish people as a group but does not include a restoration to the land. The mildest form says that God’s plan for Israel has been completed and that a transition has occurred in which His plan only comes through the Church.(1)
Any form of replacement theology negates the nation of Israel as being a fulfillment of the biblical promises. No matter the range of the belief, the core principle is that the New Testament church is the new or the true Israel, sometimes
called spiritual Israel, that has forever superseded the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as the people of God. In other words, all the promises that God made to the Jewish people are null and void and apply only in a spiritual sense to the New Testament predominantly Gentile church.
This principle crept into the church as early as A.D. 160 with Church Father Justin Martyr who was the first to state that the church was the true spiritual Israel.(2) His contemporary Marcion tried to purge the Church of what he considered to be Jewish errors and influences. The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) codified it under Emperor Constantine, the first “Christian” emperor, who called together non-Jewish Christians to define Christianity.(3) Everything related to the Jews was removed from the church including the celebration the Feasts of the Lord and the Sabbath. Easter was moved away from Passover aligning it with the more pagan celebration of the spring equinox.
The result of the Council of Nicea was an increase in anti-Semitism and violence against the Jews.(4) Although mistreatment of the Jews was not a new practice, a marked increase can be seen after this edict. A timeline of anti-Semitism can be found many places on the internet showing an increase in anti-Semitism from then into the present time.(5) After all, if we can convince ourselves that God has rejected the Jews, surely it would be appropriate for them to be rejected by all.
Somehow the church lost the facts that the early church was almost exclusively Jewish, that the apostles were Jewish, the writers of the Bible were Jewish, the first congregation was Jewish, and the first missionaries were Jewish. Most importantly they seemed to have lost the fact the Jesus was Jewish!
Why did this doctrine continue into modern times? Didn’t Bible scholars understand that what happened under Constantine, whose Christianity should be questioned, was wrong? In defense of the church, before 1948, when Israel became a modern nation, the idea of the Jews returning to their land, seemed absolutely impossible. Jewish people were scattered among the nations, so how were they to interpret the promises in the Bible?
“In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” (Isaiah 27:6 ESV)
They held onto replacement theology because it seemed the logical thing since the existence of a future Israel seemed out of the question.
So why has this false doctrine continued to plague the Church even after Israel was reborn as a nation in 1948? God’s promises are now obviously being fulfilled.
“For behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it.” (Jeremiah 30:3 ESV)
“Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.” (Ezekiel 11:7 ESV)
It is clear from the Word, that the promises specifically refer to a physical restoration of Israel as a nation and as a people. Once the restoration became a historical fact, why has so much of the modern-day church continued to hold onto this doctrine of man?
When something has been ingrained for so long, it is hard to break. Even if the established Church doesn’t teach against Israel, it tends to ignore her. That too is dangerous and a form of anti-Semitism. Genesis 12:3, as explained in part one of this series describes the dangers of that. “I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses (despises, dishonors, treats lightly) you…”. I don’t even want to go into what it means to be cursed by God.
Also consider the source: the devil’s hatred of the Jewish people. His kingdom opposes the establishment of God’s kingdom. First, he tried to stop Messiah from being born. To do that, he had to destroy the Jews because the One who would destroy his plan would come from the Jews. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2 ESV)
He failed then; time and time again he tried to wipe out the Jewish people. What about his hatred today? His plan now is to stop Jesus from returning; he still thinks he can win. He knows that the Jews need to be in Jerusalem to welcome their Messiah. If he destroys the Jews, he thinks Jesus cannot return. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! …And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:37, 39 ESV)
But the devil will not win and Jesus will return and Jewish people will welcome their Messiah. “But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting.” (Isaiah 45:17 NIV)
Problems with Replacement Theology
First, the church is never referred to as Israel in the New Testament, so the idea of the Church as spiritual Israel has no biblical foundation.
Second, to hold this doctrine not only causes an increase in anti-Semitic ideas, but also distorts the scriptures because the subject of Israel is found on just about every page of the Old and New Testaments. To have a distorted view of the Bible then leads to a distorted view of God!
Most importantly, if God breaks His promises to Israel, then what good are His promises to us? Either He is the covenant-keeping God or He is One who changes His mind about His promises. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6 ESV)
The truth is that God had not replaced Israel with the Church. His plan includes both Jews and Gentiles. If our failures negated the promises of God, we would all be in dire trouble. But our God is merciful and despite the shortcomings of His people, both Jew and Gentile, He is a loving, covenant-keeping God.
Can We Fall into the Trap?
As Gentile believers, we must be careful not to misuse the Bible taking verses that apply to Israel and assigning them to the church or to ourselves. Who has quoted Jeremiah 29:11(ESV)? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Do we know the preceding verse which clearly makes this a promise of God to Israel? “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” (Jeremiah 29:10 ESV) This was a part of the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon.
Is it a type of replacement theology when we take scriptures out of context ignoring their application to Israel? It can be…if we are ignoring that the promise was first given to Israel. Rather we should use the scripture with the following attitude: “Lord, I know You have a plan and a promise for good for your people Israel, so I know that you have a plan for me too.”
The church, which began with Jews only, was not complete without the Gentiles. In the same way, the church today is not complete without our Jewish brothers and sisters. God’s plan includes both. “…He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.” (Ephesians 2:15 NLT)
We owe a great deal to the Jewish people. “They are the Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4 ESV) Without them we wouldn’t even have the Bible!
What a blessing it is to be grafted into the promises of God! It is our duty to live lives that provoke the Jewish people to jealousy so that they may see the love of their Messiah through us. And we must guard our hearts maintaining a biblical attitude in all things, including toward Israel and the Jewish people.
“Now I am speaking to you Gentiles…For if their rejection means the reconciliation for the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?…But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.” (Romans 11:13-18 ESV)
(1) Hedrick, Dr. Gary. “Replacement Theology: It’s Origins, Teachings and Errors,” Shema Congregation Shema Yisrael, October 5, 2012.
(2) Ice, Thomas D., “What is Replacement Theology?” (2009), Article Archives 106. Liberty University, https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/pretrib_arch/106.
(4) Price, David, ”How the Council of Nicea intensified antisemitism and a Bible ban,” Jerusalem Post, July 30, 2017.
(5) The Jewish Agency, “A Brief Chronology of Anti-Semitism,” https://archive.jewishagency.org/jewish-history/content/36936/
Sue Priebe is the Pastor of City of Hope Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, and serves on the Board of Directors for Women of the Word. She is passionate about teaching the Word of God in ways that are relevant and applicable to daily life. She also has a deep love for Israel and travels there frequently connecting with believers there and teaching God’s Word on location.
Women of the Word is hosting a trip to Israel Feb 20 – March 3, 2024. The focus of this trip is to build relationships with local believers. There will be times of service and ministry. We will have focused times of prayer, worship and Bible study. We will also visit some Biblical sites. Click here for more information and registration.