If you have not yet read Let Us Make It Difficult for You and Disturbing Trends, reading these first will give context to this blog post, part three of three in a series based on a sermon called, “Don’t Make It Difficult,” by Shawn McCracken.
Here’s a quick recap.
The first Christian council in Jerusalem produced a letter to Gentile believers in Antioch. This letter demonstrates some disturbing trends that have persisted among believers for almost 2,000 years, including misapplication of spiritual authority, a failure to recognize the extent of God’s nondiscrimination, a failure to understand God’s “over-abounding” grace, and disregard for Christ’s instructions to not exercise lordship or authority over one another as believers. When it comes to disturbing trends, information that was not included in the letter is as important, if not more important.
4. Omission of Important Information
During the Council of Jerusalem, some discussion had taken place which ought to have been included in the letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch. The letter was only a portion of the Jewish apostles’ and elders’ plan. James is the one who suggested they write a letter. Here is what James said:
Wherefore I judge not to trouble those [Gentiles] who from the nations do turn back to God, but to write to them to abstain from the pollutions of the idols, and the whoredom, and the strangled thing; and the blood; for Moses from former generations in every city hath those preaching him — in the synagogues every sabbath being read.
Not all of what James said is included in the letter. Along with the four requirements, the council hoped that the Gentiles would eventually conform to the Mosaic Laws by becoming assimilated into the Jewish community (“For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath”).
The implications are that the spiritual growth of the Gentile believers would increase, until eventually they would achieve the same level of spiritual maturity as the Jewish believers. In other words, they would not be excluded from salvation, as long as they continued to follow the four requirements and continued in their indoctrination for further requirements of the law. They could technically be called “saved” and attend church (synagogue), but it would take further assimilation for them to hold the same status as Jewish believers who followed the Mosaic law. And they most definitely would not be able to enter into the temple court to do animal sacrifice unless they had fully complied, including being circumcised.
In the institutional church system, this trend continues. For example, McCracken compares the Acts 15 situation to BOTH people who don’t know Jesus AND people who already know Jesus. It is as if people who already know Jesus are somehow considered sub-standard believers until they practice the requirements of Judaism, or in the case of McCracken’s sermon, until they practice the requirements of churchism. There’s a heavy burden placed on believers by believers. What is that burden? Why is that burden imposed?
Let’s look at his sermon to find out.
McCracken proposes a hypothetical situation, that is, joining the Road Dogs, a motorcycle group and Lifegroup in the church. In order to join, you don’t have to wear a skull cap. You don’t have to get tattoos. “This is a Christian motorcycle club,” McCracken says, but “you don’t have to know Jesus,” or be affiliated with any church or denomination, sign off on bylaws or creeds, and you don’t even have to ride a motorcycle. “They don’t grill you,” on whether you know Jesus.” McCracken explains, “As you get to know them, you get to know the Jesus that’s within them. When you get to know the Jesus that’s within them, they hope that eventually you will want become a Christian.” So far, McCracken is referring to people who do not know Jesus joining a motorcycle club. This Road Dogs analogy is not about people who already know Jesus, and it is not about whether these people should be considered part of the church. McCracken says that the Road Dogs “don’t make it difficult to join, but this is where the rub is…”
Notice how the topic changes as McCracken continues:
We also don’t cheapen grace. We cannot cheapen grace. Grace came at a very costly price. The blood of Jesus Christ poured out on Calvary. We cannot cheapen that. But at the same time, we cannot make it difficult to join. We cannot make it difficult on the onset. We cannot make it to where it’s a requirement. We are not God. We are agents of the Holy Spirit. We are vehicles, but He’s still the Holy Spirit. What we are yoked to is easy and light, remember? Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Here’s His burden. (2 Cor 5:19-21) “He has committed to use the message of reconciliation…”
The topic dramatically shifted from someone who doesn’t know Jesus joining the Road Dogs (no requirements) to someone who doesn’t know Jesus joining the church, in other words, becoming part of the body of believers. Not only this, but within another breath, the subject changes even further:
Our message is not this: I do not go up to Dana and say, “Dana, are you circumcised? That’s real personal. I realize this. But I need to know, are you circumcised?” Now, when I am mentoring him, when I’m discipling him, you know, maybe some issues of morality and things like that, they need to come out. But I need to give him the message of reconciliation.
So the subject of the sermon shifted as follows:
Someone who doesn’t know Jesus joining the Road Dogs —> Someone who doesn’t know Jesus becoming a believer —> Someone who DOES know Jesus becoming a believer
Dana, as far as I know, has been a professing believer for years. Why should McCracken want to give the message of reconciliation to Dana, who has already been given the message of reconciliation? Look at the context of 2 Corinthians:
If any one is in Christ — he is a new creature; the old things did pass away, lo, become new have the all things. And the all things are of God, who reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and did give to us the ministration of the reconciliation, how that God was in Christ — a world reconciling to Himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses; and having put in us the word of the reconciliation…
If we believe this, then we can say:
Dana is a new creature; the old things did pass away, lo, become new have the all things. And the all things are of God, who reconciled Dana to Himself through Jesus Christ, and did give to Dana the ministration of the reconciliation…
And what, exactly is Dana’s ministration of reconciliation?
…how that God was in Christ — a world reconciling to Himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses; and having put in Dana the word of the reconciliation…
The word, or message, of reconciliation is already within Dana. His easy and light yoke or burden is to tell people that God, in Christ, is reconciling the world to Himself and not counting their sins against them. The word “ministration” in ministration of reconciliation is:
Cognate: 1248 diakonía – ministry; active service, done with a willing (voluntary) attitude. See 1249 (diakonos). For the believer, 1248 /diakonía (“ministry”) specifically refers to Spirit-empowered service guided by faith (4102 /pístis, “the Lord’s inbirthed persuasion”).
In other words, Dana is Spirit-empowered and guided by the Lord’s in-birthed persuasion with the message that God is reconciling the world to Himself and not counting people’s sins against them.
The yoke or burden that McCracken described is different than the ministry of reconciliation Paul described (that is, once Paul grew some balls and stopped catering to the elders in Jerusalem). McCracken claimed that the burden is light, but if we compare the burden he described to the one above, it proves to be heavy. It’s more like the Pharisee believer’s requirements to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic laws or like the Jewish believer’s requirements to start with a few rules and move toward complete assimilation. McCracken says,
That is the burden that is light that is on us. That’s what we have to say, “Listen, things are wrong in your life. Be reconciled to God. Make things right with your heavenly father.” The same way as if I am in a counseling session with somebody who has something wrong with their earthly father, I would say, “Listen, you need to make things right. You need to talk. You need to have forgiveness in your heart,” things like that. “You need to make things right with God. Be reconciled to God.”
Clearly, McCracken defines “Be reconciled to God” as “You need to make things right with God.” Who is the one initiating reconciliation in McCracken’s counseling analogy: God or the one whose sins are not counted against them? What is the message of reconciliation in McCracken’s counseling analogy: Your sins are not being counted against you or your sins are being counted against you?
Notice how McCracken wavers, like Paul did at first, between law and grace.
Making it easy…
does not mean watering it down or cheapening it. It doesn’t.
Then a mix of grace and law:
You have to understand that there’s a fine balance.
I am not saying, “Listen, come to Jesus and your life is a bed of roses. All you’ve got to do is say a prayer and you’re good to go, keep living how you’re living and it’s good, it’s good, seriously. God loves you anyway.” God’s love is unconditional…
…but He does not like how you are living. He is still a holy God.
But on the outset, we cannot be telling them what to be changing before they can come to Christ, because it’s not based on what they change, it’s based on what Jesus can do to change them…
A mix of grace and law:
It’s this fine line. And if we talk about anything in this church, we talk about that fine line between grace and law and between lasciviousness and legalism. And there is that fine line.
And we do not want legalism to where everything is checked and you can only wear this, we don’t want that…
…and at the same time we don’t want sloppy agape, either. His grace is too costly. Again, a relationship with Him produces holiness. I want to be like Him when I spend time with Him. And if I’m not spending time with Him, then something is awry in my heart.
But that should tell me that something’s awry in my heart, not somebody pointing their finger at me.
The powerpoint slide says, “Our task at the onset is to make sure God is the one that initiates transformation, not us,” but the sermon is a jumbled mix of grace and law for both believers and not-yet-believers. Several times McCracken refers to a “fine line” believers must walk in order to navigate through the jumbled mix of grace and law.
I believe that the institutional church has set up an elaborate framework of doctrines to create a sense of safety in walking a line we were never meant to walk, which leads to the next section…
McCracken’s “Ancient Landmarks”
The council prefaced the letter to Antioch, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” McCracken calls this a “powerful statement” and calls the entire situation “uncharted waters.” From this, he moves to the subject of leadership, the appointing of elders, and the importance of the governance of doctrine or “making sure that things line up.” He references Proverbs 22:28:
Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.
McCracken’s interpretation of this proverb is as follows:
Something important that we have to realize when it comes to our faith in leadership within our faith. In a local church, such as ours, but also in, we are a non-denominational church as you know, but also within denominations, within Protestantism, within the church as a whole, within our church fathers as a whole, going back to Martin Luther, going back further than him, that they have set landmarks. It’s important to understand we are allowed to question those landmarks, in fact it’s healthy to question. It’s healthy to study to show thyself approved, Paul tells his disciple, Timothy. But we must beware if we start to move it. They’re there for a reason. The Holy Spirit has led them for a reason, collectively. Our whole scripture that we have here is canonized, meaning, many, many godly men got together, and by the direction of the Holy Spirit said, “This, these are the books, these are the writings that God wants put together for us, for all time.” And we trust that that is from the Holy Spirit, that God moved upon man to write, and God moved upon man to combine together. And then we must trust that. This is where leadership comes in. It’s important. The Holy Spirit appoints leaders in every church, including adoption, teaching, and refuting of doctrine. That’s why it’s so important. That’s why the impact on a teacher is so great. As a teacher, I must be held accountable to a higher standard than somebody who isn’t teaching. As an elder of this church, I am held to a higher degree of accountability before the throne room than somebody who is not, because of this very thing. That’s why we have to depend upon the team and we have to depend upon the ancient landmarks. Not blindly. Please hear me, church. Not blindly. But we have to also realize that the Holy Spirit spoke to them the same way He speaks to us now.
I’d like to point out a few problems with McCracken’s use and application of Proverbs 22:28. First, the meaning of the text does not support McCracken’s claims. In addition, the meaning of the text, ironically, goes directly against McCracken’s use of it. Also, it’s not beneficial to rely so heavily on the “landmarks” of believers in the past. Furthermore, McCracken’s view of canonization is not accurate. And finally, we need to take a closer look at the idea that the “Holy Spirit spoke to them the same way He speaks to us now.”
About Proverbs 22:28
The ancient landmarks were boundary stones to mark property lines. Elsewhere in scripture, the boundary stones are used to describe God defending oppressed people. For example, Proverbs 15:25 says, “The Lord tears down the house of the proud, but he sets the widow’s boundary stones in place.” And Proverbs 23:10-11 says, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless, for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you.” To move the landmarks was to move the property line, basically robbing one of a portion of his/her rightful inheritance through deception.
The meaning of the text, ironically, goes directly against McCracken’s use of it.
McCracken likens ancient landmarks to doctrine. Suppose for a moment that the ancient landmarks = doctrine.
Matthew Henry’s commentary says, “Let not property in general be entrenched upon, by robbing men of their liberties and privileges, or of any just ways of maintaining them.”
If God is nondiscriminatory, but people move the boundaries of this doctrine, taking away one’s freedom in Christ, if grace is over-abounding, but people move the boundaries of this doctrine, counting one’s sins against them, and if the law has been fulfilled in Christ, but people move the boundaries of this doctrine, making people work for what Christ has already earned, then those who prevent people from putting boundary stones back where they belong are robbing others of their spiritual inheritance. I don’t see God being very happy about this. McCracken said, “Grace came at a very costly price.”
If erroneous doctrines are defended, thereby limiting God’s grace, believers are then robbed of an inheritance, since inheritance and grace are interconnected (“I commend you, brethren, to God, and to the word of His grace, that is able to build up, and to give you an inheritance among all those sanctified”).
It’s not beneficial to rely so heavily on the “landmarks” of believers in the past.
McCracken talks about landmarks set by church fathers and names Martin Luther in particular. Church fathers, including Luther, were fallible human beings. For example, Luther taught that if one wasn’t baptized, then he or she was not saved. Whistling Pines doesn’t subscribe to this doctrine. According to “What We Believe” on the Whistling Pines website:
We believe that water baptism (full immersion in water by a believer) and communion (The Lord’s Supper) as ordinances of the church, give outward demonstration of the covenant we have with God through Christ and with one another. These ordinances however do not cause regeneration. (Mk 1:9-10; Matt 28:19; Acts 2:41-47; Rom 6:1-14; Col 2:11-13; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-33; Ti 3:5)
I don’t know how Whistling Pines handles one who has no desire to be baptized, yet professes faith in Christ. If you think about it, baptism is a lot like circumcision. There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting circumcised or baptized as an outward display of what has happened in your heart, but to require it for official inclusion in the local assembling of believers is to agree with the Pharisee believers in Acts 15. After all, if God includes an unbaptized believer in His family, what gives Whistling Pines the right to exclude him/her from being considered just as much a member of the community as one who is baptized?
Perhaps baptism is not a requirement for membership. I have no idea. I’m putting just one example of a doctrinal landmark out there for consideration. Remember there are many, many other doctrinal landmarks that ought to be held to open scrutiny.
McCracken’s view of canonization is not accurate.
There’s just too much information to include in one blog regarding how the Bible as we know it now, was compiled, and perhaps even more importantly, who the decision-makers were, and what the political climate and position of the church within that climate was. The idea that “these are the writings that God wants put together for us, for all time,” stands in contrast to:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:2-6).
The Bible is a lot like history. It is useful for teaching, testing, correcting, and training in what we ought to do compared to what we’ve done in the past. It is a tool given to us by God and used by the Spirit of God to reveal the intentions of our own hearts. But it does not in any way compare to the Word living in us, that is, Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches that produce fruit.
We must consider the fruits of those who established the Biblical canon and put the writings on the pedestal that they are on today. For now, I encourage you to watch this video, and then study (using unbiased sources), how the canon of scripture was decided.
The Holy Spirit spoke to them the same way He speaks to us now.
I don’t believe that McCracken or almost anyone involved in leadership positions in the institutional church recognizes the practical implications of such a statement. If the Holy Spirit really does speak to us now in the same way He spoke to believers in the first century, then why are church leaders so afraid of laypeople disagreeing with doctrine or preaching without authorization/permission?
Even the apostle Paul had to deal with church leaders appealing to their positions of authority to undermine the message (“wacked doctrine”) given to him by God. Paul wrote, “I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.”
McCracken said, “Leadership is not about lording over… but if you are teaching doctrine, it might be a good idea to at least run it by us the first time, because it might be wacked doctrine.” I would love to be a fly on the wall and report to you, readers, exactly how those conversations go, word-for-word. You will be at a disadvantage before you even walk into the church office, because any doctrine that is not in full agreement with their doctrine will be automatically considered “wacked doctrine.”
There is no unbiased third party to whom you can appeal to consider both sides.
McCracken adds, “At the same time, if you feel like something we say that comes out of our mouth is wacked doctrine, please come talk to us, and we’ll talk it through. It goes both ways.”
I can only tell you the words that I heard, when I began to question “wacked doctrine” coming from the pulpit. Words like the subject being “shelved indefinitely,” whispers of “heresy,” accusations of “spiritual rebellion,” warnings like “guard your words,” warnings of “consequences for questioning authority,” and finally, ugly words like “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “false prophet,” and “heretic.” There was no point-by-point debate and no in-depth examination of the subject. It was ignored until I would no longer allow it to be ignored, and then I was quickly (and publicly) stripped of any title or position and driven from the fellowship.
I truly believe that going to have a private visit with church leadership over disputes with doctrine is an ass-backwards approach to conflict resolution. Let me put it this way. If you suspect corruption in the police department, you don’t call the police, you call an investigative reporter or some outside agency. In the institutional church, there is no investigative reporter or outside agency, there is only a chain of command that ends with people who will not tolerate any serious threat to orthodoxy.
If you study church history, you’ll find that reform is almost always accompanied by denominational or local church splits, and reformers are almost always demonized and outcast by orthodoxy. The only way to have a fair and honest conversation with church leaders is in a public manner, and that just doesn’t happen, at least, not within the church walls.
When was the last time you heard an announcement at your church for a meeting to hold some long-standing doctrine under the light of scrutiny? I’m not talking about a lecture by an approved talking head on why you should still believe such-and-such doctrine, I’m talking about the scene you see in Antioch in the first few verses of Acts 15.
Sometimes, Acts 15 breaks out on Facebook. Watch how quickly your church leaders unfriend those who publicly challenge the doctrines they teach.
The leaders at the Council of Jerusalem were playing God, stepping in and teaching partial-truths that minimized grace by retaining prohibitions (law) under the guise of passive language (grace) like “You will do well to avoid these things.” The council served a purpose. It set a precedent. Organic, Spirit-led conflict resolution would eventually be completely replaced by church councils where decisions of importance would be made in an official manner by a handful of people in the upper hierarchy. Decisions, once made, would be very difficult to challenge without severe consequence. The issues being discussed were important. But much of the growth and development of spiritual understanding in the early church took place outside of councils.
The growth and development that took place as a human institution began with the first council and evolved (went from simple to complex, growing geographically and politically in influence, etc) from there. For example, councils were held to decide whether people who renounced their faith under persecution should be received back into fellowship with other believers, whether people who were baptized by unapproved others should be rebaptized, whether some bishops should have authority over other bishops, what should be considered the Bible canon (which is different from the one accepted today, BTW), arguments over jurisdiction of apostolic authority, the minimum age for ordination, the minimum number of deacons for each city, etc. These councils were more localized, so decisions made were only considered as official decisions for the immediate area.
As time went on, the councils became more political and the decisions made there were considered official decisions for the entire church (all believers, everywhere), not just a local group of believers. Christian Roman Emperors convened, and decisions were enforced by the state church of the Roman Empire. During this shift in decision-making, the idea of the Infallibility of Church and Papal Infallibility arose, along with a new and darker meaning for the word “anathema,” excommunication (de-salvation) for those who did not abide by ecumenical council decisions, and canon law. The Word of God was considered to be both scripture and tradition, each considered equally divine revelation. The goal of the councils was to unify the Christian church, but this unity was to be imposed by force, and stood in contradiction to unity accomplished by the Spirit of God.
Today, we are witnessing the slow fall of the kingdom or reign of God that believers have built for God. This kingdom is one you can see. It is built on fear and forced upon people from without, an attempt to transform the world into something it is not. This is different than the Kingdom or Reign of God, in which Jesus Christ “conquers,” all social, political, economic, and religious institutions, not by fear, but by His authority and power of love over hearts and relationships. It is the Reign of God that is built on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, beginning within individual people and spreading in influence until He is all in all.
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