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Bob Roberts, Jr. speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem in March, 2012. (Photo Credit: Camera.org)

Bob Roberts, Jr. speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem in March, 2012. (Photo Credit: Camera.org)

By Jeff Walton (@JeffreyHWalton)

This is the first of two articles on the 2013 Churches for Middle East Peace Advocacy Conference

Evangelical Christian support for Israel is often based on cultural conclusions reached apart from scripture, according to a prominent Southern Baptist pastor engaged in interfaith dialogue and Middle East peace advocacy.

“Why is it that we Evangelicals and Arabs are so much at odds and in such disagreement? Frankly, it comes down to this theology called dispensational premillennialism,” assessed Pastor Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas during a keynote address at the annual Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) advocacy conference in Washington, D.C. “For us [this] looks like Left Behind. They’re not just novels for us, they are our theology.”

Roberts, who previously adhered to dispensationalist theology – and support for the state of Israel – now rejects both dispensationalism and U.S. support for Israel.

“Take your people over there until they become embarrassed they were on the wrong side,” Roberts advised to church activists confronting support for Israel in churches.

CMEP is an ecumenical advocacy organization composed primarily of Mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches, including some Catholic orders. The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist General Boards of Church and Society (GBCS) and Global Ministries (GBGM) are all members of the coalition. The decision to spotlight Roberts, who appeared at the Bethlehem Bible College Christ at the Checkpoint conference last year, signifies the mostly oldline coalition’s interest in broadening their support to allies in other traditions.

Amiable and folksy, Roberts shared about his congregation’s experience building schools, orphanages, agricultural projects and other humanitarian ventures in Afghanistan.

“The result is that I became very close friends with those imams,” Roberts explained, adding that those friendships gradually affected how he saw the world.  “Had I not discovered the world and understood the world outside of an American and Texas context, I never would have understood how the Gospel goes into a place – what it looks like for Jesus to be a positive word and a blessing to people verses something that is negative , destructive and counter particular cultures.”

Roberts did not address reasons apart from eschatology for which American evangelicals might support Israel. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates that no more than 10 percent of U.S. evangelicals are devoted to dispensational premillennialism, a significantly lower percentage than the strong majorities who still express support for Israel.

“A lot of times we come to conclusions that really go beyond Biblical interpretation and go to cultural understanding of how we respond to specific things. The number one thing I am always asked is ‘why do you evangelicals love the Jews so much, but you despise us Arabs and Muslims so much?’”

Declaring that “dispensationalist theology builds a wedge between you and the Arab world,” Roberts revealed that he did not shift his theology on the second coming of Christ because of scripture, but rather because of relationships.

“I began to realize that all the things I built into scripture – that my tradition added and my background added – what that did is it forced me to look hard at ‘what does the Bible really say?’. I also began to discover something else that I never really understood: the impact theology has on foreign policy. How people relate to one another and get along. It’s just massive.

Roberts encouraged the gathered church activists, set to lobby members of Congress the following day, to “bypass Congressional staffers who see the U.S. role in the Middle East as one-sided defense of Israel.”

Describing his own experience taking 15 pastors to the West Bank, Roberts advised the mostly oldline Protestant audience not to approach the West Bank as a political issue.

“You aren’t going to change these people, I am,” Roberts said of interactions with Evangelicals who support Israel. “And I won’t be able to change the old guys, it’s the younger guys.”