Disturbing Trends

Disturbing Trends

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 HumanityRebranding ReligionEvery Day EasterOn Abortion, Homosexuality, and ObamaOrthotomeo (aka, Rightly Dividing)Whistling Pines’ Barbie God: A Response from a Believer Who Has a Voice5 Ways to Build the Church of Your Dreams & 5 Ways to Destroy ItAbundant LifeThe Light of ScrutinyThe Church Has Left the BuildingYou Can’t Kill God’s Idea, and Aion, The Eternal Torment Four-Letter-Word

  • Mary Vanderplas June 29, 2014 at 7:20 am

    I don’t agree that the fact that Jewish believers continued to live by the Torah reveals a lack of understanding that salvation comes by grace alone or a failure to live by grace. In Judaism, living by the Torah was not a matter of earning salvation; it was a matter of signifying one’s identity as a member of the people of God, of witnessing to God’s act of making a people set apart for himself. Circumcision was, for the Jews, the sign of the covenant, not a means of being accepted by God. When Jews became Christians, they didn’t cease to be Jews. Nowhere in Acts is it said that Jewish believers were expected to abandon the practices of Judaism. While I don’t disagree that believers in positions of authority (and entrenched in tradition) could stand to learn from outsiders who do not share their religious background, I don’t think this has anything to do with what is going on in Acts 15. The issue here is whether Gentile believers had to become Jews, adopting the rituals prescribed by the Mosaic Law, in order to be accepted by God and included in the church.

    I don’t agree with your point about the Jerusalem Council creating a double standard. The directions given for the Gentile believers represent minimal requirements intended to enable fellowship between Gentile believers and Jewish believers. They are patterned after regulations given for resident aliens living among Israelites – regulations that applied also to Jews (Leviticus 17-18).

    I don’t agree that the Jewish believers had a long way to go in their understanding of grace. No doubt some within the company of Jewish believers held a defective understanding of salvation, but the majority, I think, understood that acceptance by God is based not on the works of the law but on God’s gracious act in Christ.

    I don’t agree with what you say about the regulations Gentile believers were instructed to observe. In the first place, the regulations are not the basis of salvation. The council already discerned that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church was God’s doing; the leaders weren’t making their inclusion contingent on their adherence to these regulations. Secondly, as I said, the purpose of the regulations was to promote the unity of the church by having Gentile believers live in a way that showed respect for what was important to conscientious Jews. The purpose was not to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Gentile believers or to bind them to an oppressive system of rules. It was for the good of the whole that they were urged to adhere to a minimal observance of Jewish ritual law.

    I don’t see the story in Acts 21 the same way you do. I see it as Paul voluntarily agreeing to show his commitment to the traditional practices of the Jewish faith in order to squelch a rumor about his infidelity to the traditions of his Jewish heritage and to build a bridge between the two wings of the church. Paul is seen here as respecting the fact that Jewish Christians maintain their commitment to observing the rituals and practices of Judaism. I don’t see how Jesus’ words “not so shall it be among you” apply to this situation. Jesus was himself an observant Jew who practiced the rituals of Judaism. I don’t think that Jesus would have any problem with what Paul did – or with the fact that the leaders urged him to do this.

    I continue to see the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15 as a positive development in the life of the early church – and as a model for the church of how to discern the will of God and decide how to be in the world.

    • admin June 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      The reason I see the regulations as a basis for salvation is that this is the premise for calling the council to convene: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” You write, “The issue here is whether Gentile believers had to become Jews, adopting the rituals prescribed by the Mosaic Law, in order to be accepted by God and included in the church.” What is the difference between salvation and being accepted by God and included in the church?

      The reason I believe the Jerusalem Council created a double standard is as you say, “regulations given for resident aliens living among Israelites.” If God makes no distinction between believers, why should we? If there is a different standard for one group than there is for another group, how can it be called anything other than a double standard? Why should any requirements at all be necessary to enable fellowship between believers?

      Do you believe the accusations the elders voiced against Paul (“They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.”) were true or false? If they were true, why did Paul go along with their plan (“Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.”) to demonstrate Paul’s allegiance to the law? I find it very unlikely that the accusations are false. It seems like Paul just needed to grow some balls first before he had the fortitude to challenge this ruling elite that had risen up in the early church. Paul wrote, “I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” And in the strongest language possible, Paul contrasts circumcision and freedom in Christ: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! You, my brothers, were called to be free.”

      • Mary Vanderplas June 29, 2014 at 6:27 pm

        Yes, this was the reason the council was convened. And it was determined that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to be saved/accepted by God. The regulations that were given did not change this – i.e., they were not given as grounds for salvation, but as measures to enable the Gentile believers and Jewish believers to live and work together as one. The Jewish believers had deeply ingrained sensibilities that Gentile believers were told to respect and accommodate by adhering to a minimal observance of Jewish ritual law. They were not told that unless they adhered to these ritual practices they could not be saved. Nor was it intended that these regulations be turned into ethical instructions for the church in every time and place. That the Antioch Christians rejoiced when they received the report of the council’s decision suggests that they did not perceive the regulations are being unreasonable or oppressive.

        These regulations did not apply only to Gentiles, but to Jews as well. They represented a minimum observance of Jewish ritual law. How would this be a double standard? Fellowship between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers in the early church didn’t just happen. Peter and the others were taught from the time they were young not to associate with Gentiles. Now, suddenly, there are these “others” in the church. Is it not reasonable that the newcomers would need to make some (minor) accommodations to Jewish practices in order for the Jewish believers to feel comfortable with them and in order for the two to work together to carry out the mission of the church? It seems perfectly reasonable and appropriate to me.

        I think the rumor was false. There is no evidence that Paul ever taught Jews of the Diaspora to abandon the practices of Judaism. His objection wasn’t to Jewish believers continuing the ritual practices of the Law of Moses; it was to attempts to impose the Law on Gentile believers and to make fulfilling the demands of the Law grounds for acceptance by God – thereby rejecting God’s way of grace. This is what the text in Galatians is about: Paul’s staunch objection to attempts to make observance of the Law a necessary requirement for salvation – which meant rejecting God’s saving act through Christ.

    • Lanny A. Eichert June 30, 2014 at 1:19 am

      Mary, Alice just likes to incite riot because she continues to degrade the church for her “bad” experience with it. She’s an angry hostile mean female with malice* toward the church and that’s why she quit going years ago to further develope this site to get others to join her misery in order to reinforce her heresies and hostility. She can’t face the fact that she is insanely wrong from the start.

      I’m glad you found so many things wrong with this blog.

      *She’s been that way too long now that she probably regards herself as normal.

  • Lanny A. Eichert June 29, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Quoting Alice, her very own word that describes her own site is, “bullshit” and she spoke it truly. It is all over her hateful face as she degrades God’s institutional church.

  • Lanny A. Eichert June 30, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Girls, girls, girls: look at the TIME-LINES !!! Acts records the TRANSITION from the KINGDOM expectation to the formation of the CHURCH.

    Acts begins with a question in 1: 6 Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? The answer is “No.” Yet the hope still remained in Jewish minds that Jesus would be almost immediately returning from heaven to earth to set up His Messiahship on David’s throne in literal Jerusalem in a theocracy govering the entire military-political-religious world as prophetically promised. The Church was YET a MYSTERY unknown until God revealed it to Paul as he wrote of it in the Epistle to the Ephesians. That Epistle was written AFTER the chronology of the Acts ends. The Council occurred years before that Epistle was written.

    I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. {1 Corinthians 9: 22} Every Christian missionary must learn what that means on his mission field. What things are “negotiable” and what is not, IN CULTURAL CONTEXT. Anybody accusing the Apostles of error is walking a dangerously prideful line supposing themselves of greater wisdom and inspiration. God knows how to work His servants to make the transition properly.

    God also knows how He intends the peoples of the world to understand prophesy because He demonstrated LITERAL fulfillment in the First Advent. Therefore the Kingdom prophesies will also be LITERALLY fulfilled and that perspective explains the chronology of the Acts more rationally than any other perspective.

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