This is an important story in the birth of the early church. The Apostles have to resolve a major theological issue concerning who’s in and who’s out of the church and what one has to do to be included. It is a defining moment in the theological evolution of the church. Much of the drama and conflict in churches can seem petty, small, silly. This theological debate was worth having and a debate that needed resolved.
The problem is many in the Jerusalem church want Gentiles to become Jewish before they can become Christian and want Gentile Christians to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law or the Law of Moses as part of the disciplines of Christianity. There is a whole book dedicated to this concern. The book of Galatians is Paul’s manifesto on the matter. I’m going to preach about Paul’s letter to the Galatians in a couple weeks. Galatians is more about the theological argument for Gentiles not needing to become Jewish. This reading in Acts is more about how the church resolved the conflict.
The Bible tells us that there was a group who Paul calls the circumcision faction. Regardless of what they stood for, I don’t think I’d want to be a part of a group identified as the circumcision faction. They want Gentiles to be circumcised before becoming Christians. Circumcision is important because it is the outward sign a man bears (or doesn’t) of the covenant God made with Abraham. Circumcision is the point of reference for the totality of Jewish practice and faith. There are many questions for the church to wrestle with: How does one become a member of the family of God? Are we saved by the Law or by grace? “Could Jesus be the Jewish Messiah and bring salvation apart from the Law?”
We should note on Mother’s Day that this text has nothing to do with women. There is no outward sign that a woman bears as a sign of participation in the covenant. This debate about circumcision has nothing to do with how women are included in the church. This is all about men.
So, Paul and Barnabas and the Apostles are caught in this issue that the Bible describes as “no small dissension and debate.” The conflict had reached a fever pitch that had to be resolved. They could no longer ignore it and hope it’d go away. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to discuss the question with the Apostles and Elders.
On the way, Paul and Barnabas make their way through the churches rejoicing in all the Gentiles that have been converted and all the churches that have been started and are growing. I imagine Paul much like a new church planter. He’s a bit of a renegade focused on converting new believers and growing churches paying no mind to the Jewish traditions. Paul was an innovator. He’s excited about Christ after his walk to Damascus conversion.
Paul was probably not fully accepted by the established Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. They were probably still suspect of him after he persecuted the church; and, now, he’s their best evangelist. The Apostles want to keep the Jewish traditions; yet, they’re looking at this Paul guy wondering what he’s doing to convert all these new believers who are being baptized and receiving the Spirit.
I imagine this is like an established Mainline traditional Protestant church looking at a growing new church. The established church wants to honor tradition yet grow like the new church that is busting at the seams. The new church seems to hold no regard for tradition. Established churches call the new church “on fire” while they try to reconcile tradition and innovation. The first century church, still many churches today, need to reconcile the excitement of new converted Christians with the sobriety of stable mature faith. One is not better; they’re just different.
When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem they are received by the Apostles and elders and the debate begins. The circumcision faction starts “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and they must be ordered to keep the law of Moses.” After much debate, Peter stands and addresses the crowd on behalf of leadership, “My brothers…God knows the human heart. He’s giving the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, just like He’s giving it to us. In the cleansing of their hearts by faith, God has made no distinction between Gentiles and Jews. Now, why are we trying to put a yoke on their necks that even our ancestors were unable to bear? We believe that we will be saved through grace, just as they will.”
It was a lot of us versus them language. We’re in but we want them to do stuff to be part of us. Peter says, nope. They’re in because God’s giving them the Holy Spirit. End of discussion. Let’s move on. But, as with any conflict in the church, we know that probably was not the end of the discussion. The Scripture seems to present the model of conflict resolution that might be described as debate it, decide it and be done with it. But, it’s never that easy in the church. You know there was a faction that went out to the parking lot to hold their own court. That group is concerned that they didn’t win so they must not have been heard. They think it was a terrible decision and prophesy that the church won’t exist in 10 years if leadership keeps on this path. We know from heated debates and loud Board meetings that not everyone agrees at the same time. Sometimes, it takes a while for others to come around.
The thing is tradition didn’t win. This is the beginning of the church choosing the grace of Christ over the tradition of the Law. The church decided one becomes a member of the family of God without first becoming Jewish. This is a big deal! The Jewish Christians recognize the faith and practice of the Gentile Christians and are allowing for the birth of new traditions forged by the Spirit.
This is the beginning of Jewish and Gentile Christians co-existing in one church. This requires new teaching and preaching. They can no longer teach the observance of the Law or Jewish tradition. They need to focus on grace. This is all part of the church meeting on a separate day from the Jewish Sabbath to participate in uniquely Christian worship celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The debate needed to be over; the church needed to move on and allow Christ to form the church into communities of grace.
I was recently talking to a friend about the strengths of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We named that our practices include traditions familiar to varied denominations and their practices. We named that there was room for a diversity in thought and belief. These are strengths that make the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) the perfect, yet little known, gem for the 21st century as believers vary in belief, practice and witness where everyone can find a home.
Tuesday night, the regional moderator, Rev. Tom Stephenson said that when there is 1 disciple in the room there are 2 opinions. The challenge is finding a way to allow all of us to co-exist without asserting our views as better than another’s. Some churches do that better than others. Some become homogenous in belief while others hold in tension diversity and remain grounded in the confession of Christ. The churches that co-exist best are those churches that remain outward focused, focusing on others, rather than themselves. Outward focused church have little conflict.
Yet, there are even exceptions to that, like the turmoil in the Christian Church in Ohio. Tuesday night, Cliff and I went to a gathering hosted by the Region with other local churches. It was a time for the regional moderator to share with local churches what’s going on and for church leaders to ask questions. The regional moderator was honest and prudent. The region is trying to be transparent about what led to Dr. Edwards’ retirement and how they are responding to allegations so the matters can be investigated, cleaned up and none of this happens again. Most of all, the Regional leadership would like to regain trust and rebuild relationships.
I know that there hasn’t been much of a relationship between the Region and this church and perhaps most of you aren’t feeling a sense of loss, hurt or mistrust. I’d like for us to respond to this crisis in the Region by participating in the conversations about the crisis as the Region plans other meetings, gathering with other local Disciples’ congregations for fellowship, and reaching out to the region to renew our covenantal relationship. Over the next few months, I’ll be presenting to the leaders of this church ways we can rebuild our relationship with the region.
Debate it; decide it; be done with it – is not a practical model of conflict resolution. In all conflict there needs to be healing, relationship building and restoration of trust. May it be so within our Region.
Text study with Rev. Andrea Brownlee on Tuesday, May 9.
Working Preacher commentary: http://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=05/14/2017&lectionary=nl
Working Preacher podcast: http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=881