If you have not yet read Let Us Make It Difficult for You, reading it first will give context to this blog post.
Here’s a quick recap. The main problem McCracken seeks to resolve in his sermon is how we, as believers, put a yoke, or heavy burden, around the necks of people who do not know Jesus. McCracken refers to Acts 15, which is not about people who do not know Jesus but about Gentile believers. I wrote:
Ironically, the main problem the Spirit of God seeks to resolve through McCracken’s sermon, the main subject the Spirit of God seeks to introduce, finds its way to the surface, despite McCracken’s intended subject.
This sermon is not about believers placing heavy burdens on those who I like to call not-yet-believers; the real subject of the sermon is believers placing heavy burdens on one another.
I asked, “What purpose does the first Christian council in Jerusalem in a.d. 48 serve?” We can answer this question by examining the letter written to Gentile believers in Antioch. The letter effectively demonstrates some disturbing trends that have persisted among believers for almost 2,000 years.
1. Misapplication of Spiritual Authority
The apostles and elders of the community of Jewish believers obviously believed they had the spiritual authority to declare whether the Pharisee believers were teaching accurate doctrine and/or whether the Gentile believers were living according to accurate doctrine. Perhaps they mistook their positions of influence in the subculture of Judaism (big fish in a little pond), their knowledge of scriptures, and their conformity to orthodox practices as signs of their spiritual authority in this matter.
We must remember the underlying reason they convened: To determine the extent of God’s grace to the Gentile believers. We must also remember the words of Jesus Christ, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
The “log” in the eye of both Pharisee believers, who said Gentile believers should be circumcised, and the Jewish non-Pharisee believers, who said Gentile believers should just follow a handful of rules, was their underestimation of God’s grace. Instead of examining their own hearts and their own doctrines, they focused on the “speck” in the eye of Gentile believers — that they might be overestimating God’s grace.
For decades many Jewish believers continued circumcising their sons, going to the temple, participating in the sacrificial system, following dietary restrictions, and the like. According to Eusebius’ History of the Church, the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were “all of them belonging to the circumcision.” Grace, to them, was more like a back-up plan to provide whatever righteousness the observance of customs and the works of law did not cover. Sure, they talked about salvation by grace, but their practices demonstrated otherwise. Had they humbled themselves and not thought so highly of their own spiritual authority in matters of doctrine, they might have learned a thing or two from the uncircumcised believers.
This trend continues today. Many believers, especially believers in positions of authority, still try to define the boundaries of God’s grace, and they rarely ever consider learning a thing or two from the modern-day equivalent of “uncircumcised” believers.
2. Failure to Recognize the Extent of God’s Nondiscrimination
Although the apostles and elders of the community of Jewish believers professed and agreed in theory that God gave “the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us,” their practices reveal how little confidence they had in the Spirit’s ability to lead the Gentile believers apart from Judaism. The decision-makers in this situation were circumcised and therefore permitted to enter the temple court or participate in the sacrificial system. The letter to Gentile believers in Antioch wasn’t a random list of suggestions; the rules were designed to discourage uncircumcised Gentile believers from participating in pagan (non-approved) sacrificial systems. Regardless of how one views the intentions of the council’s letter, this is certain: The first council created a double-standard of regulations and privileges, one for Jewish believers and one for Gentile believers.
The institutional church still creates a double-standard. There are stricter regulations and more privileges for people with titles. There are other less imposing regulations and fewer privileges for people without titles.
3. Failure to Understand God’s “Over-Abounding” Grace
Uncircumcised Gentile believers were the first ones to understand the irrelevance of circumcision and following Mosaic laws in light of salvation by the grace of the Lord Jesus. This is evidenced in the fact that they were disturbed after hearing the teaching that circumcision and law-following was a requirement of salvation. The Spirit of God was already at work in them, teaching them that the message they were hearing didn’t jive with the message of grace they first believed. The Jewish believers had a long, long way to go in their understanding of God’s grace.
The apostles and elders of the community of Jewish believers had confidence in their religious heritage, which delayed or prevented them from being led beyond the boundaries of their current system of belief. The Gentiles, who were also led by the Spirit, held the distinct advantage of NOT belonging to a long-standing, formal religious heritage. They had less to unlearn.
Anyone who has been following this blog knows how a failure to understand God’s over-abounding grace is an overarching theme on WhatGodDoes. I invite you to read through the related blog posts at the end of this blog post for how the institutional church systematically supresses any teaching about grace that does not fit within the boundaries of its current belief system (officially approved doctrinal boundaries).
4. Disregard of Christ’s Instructions
Believers are gifted in different ways, with a wide variety of skills and interests. It follows that in certain situations, some of them will have more authority than others to lead and direct. Then, in different situations, these others who were looking for guidance will be the ones to step up and give instruction. It’s an organic, Spirit-directed, beautiful way of relating to one another with love and respect. This kind of authority is humble and does not use fear or intimidation to elicit compliance. Unfortunately, we are fallible human beings, and pride gets in the way. That’s why Jesus instructed,
Ye have known that the rulers of the nations do exercise lordship over them, and those great do exercise authority over them, but not so shall it be among you…
In the Acts 15 conflict, what happened at first was appropriate and beneficial:
- People talked about it.
- People sharply disputed.
- People debated.
- Both sides of the argument were represented.
- The conflict was not hidden.
To talk, dispute, debate and argue openly with each other as equals in a setting where anyone can have a voice is good.
What happened next was inappropriate and prejudicial. Think about it. A handful of believers were making an official decision about whether other believers should be required to cut the foreskins off of their penises and kill animals in order to be saved. The hubris of assuming any kind of official decision they made would hold more weight than the moral freedoms/convictions the Spirit of God had already given to the Gentile believers is astounding.
Perhaps some readers think I’m overreacting…
Even Paul, considered by many to be a “pillar” of the church, lets these elders “exercise lordship” over him. He ends up practicing the very things he had already begun to preach against.
The following story, in which the same elders from the Jerusalem council confront Paul, is an example of believers’ disregard for Christ’s instructions, “…not so shall it be among you.” As you read, first consider the oppressive and threatening tone the conversation takes, then notice what emphasis is placed on not only following law but also making a great show of following the law, and finally, pay close attention to the official way the letter to the Gentile believers is framed in the conversation with the elders:
Paul was going in with us unto James, all the elders also came, and having saluted them, he was declaring, one by one, each of the things God did among the nations through his ministration, and they having heard, were glorifying the Lord.
They said also to him, `Thou seest, brother, how many myriads there are of Jews who have believed, and all are zealous of the law, and they are instructed concerning thee, that apostacy from Moses thou dost teach to all Jews among the nations, saying — not to circumcise the children, nor after the customs to walk; what then is it?
Certainly the multitude it behoveth to come together, for they will hear that thou hast come. This, therefore, do that we say to thee: We have four men having a vow on themselves, these having taken, be purified with them, and be at expence with them, that they may shave the head, and all may know that the things of which they have been instructed concerning thee are nothing, but thou dost walk — thyself also — the law keeping.
And concerning those of the nations who have believed, we have written, having given judgment, that they observe no such thing, except to keep themselves both from idol-sacrifices, and blood, and a strangled thing, and whoredom.
Then Paul, having taken the men, on the following day, with them having purified himself, was entering into the temple, announcing the fulfilment of the days of the purification, till the offering was offered for each one of them.
Not so shall it be among you. Jesus’ instructions are clear, but I can tell you after spending three decades in the institution that His instructions are regularly disregarded there. It is that way among you. Outside, thank God, it’s a different story. When believers have titles and positions and paychecks or little kingdoms to lose, the Spirit of God is quenched and grieved systematically.
In his sermon, McCracken pointed out the Paul and Barnabus and others came together as a team in Acts 15. McCracken said, “They did not just unilaterally say, ‘Stop it. Shut your mouth, right now. No, it’s not that. Just keep moving along.'” The implication is that the modern-day institution operates the same way. I say bullshit. There are some conflicts that are settled together as a team, but when long-standing doctrine is challenged? No, sorry, that’s complete crap. The response is, indeed, “Stop it. Shut your mouth, right now. No, it’s not that. Just keep moving along.” When it comes to conflicts about doctrine in institutional churches that have doctrinal statements:
- People don’t talk about it.
- People don’t sharply dispute.
- People don’t debate.
- Both sides of the argument are not represented.
- The conflict is hidden.
The next blog will address another disturbing trend: Important information from the council discussion that never made its way into the letter. Also, McCracken’s “ancient landmarks of the fathers,” preaching without authorization, “wacked” doctrine, and more…
Related blog posts: Reign of God / Reign of Humanity, Rebranding Religion, Every Day Easter, On Abortion, Homosexuality, and Obama, Orthotomeo (aka, Rightly Dividing), Whistling Pines’ Barbie God: A Response from a Believer Who Has a Voice, 5 Ways to Build the Church of Your Dreams & 5 Ways to Destroy It, Abundant Life, The Light of Scrutiny, The Church Has Left the Building, You Can’t Kill God’s Idea, and Aion, The Eternal Torment Four-Letter-Word