Last week we started in on a series on conflict with the story of Nathan confronting David with his sin. That was a very personal conflict that was easily avoidable if David could have kept himself under control. This week is a very different kind of situation. In the passage I read from Acts, we have the first major conflict in the early church. It's a theological conflict, coming out of a new situation.
Remember that Jesus did not come to start a new religion. Jesus came as a reformer as well as a Savior. He came to get Judaism back on track...to help them remember their first love, to get them to stop focusing so much on the details and ignoring the big picture. In its very beginnings after the resurrection with the twelve disciples, the faith of Jesus was simply called "The Way" and it was considered a Jewish sect.
One of the things that distinguished this Jewish sect was their insistence on going back to the original mandate to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob intended that all nations would eventually come to know and love God. It was simply the job of the Jews to be the messengers. They weren't to hoard God for themselves. And so the disciples became "apostles," which means "sent out." Some stayed within Palestine to continue to try to persuade the Jews to come round to their way of thinking, but a good many went out to the Gentiles...the word used to describe anyone who was not a Jew.
And that Gentile project was working. God was pouring out the Holy Spirit on them, and new Gentile churches were thriving. But with a new group of people came new issues. In order to be a part of this new movement, did new Gentile converts have to become traditional Jews first. Most importantly, did they have to be circumcised and follow the kosher laws? It was a tough question. Jesus had always pointed out that the law, in human hands, had become a burden too great for people to bear. It was originally meant to help people learn how to love one another, but had fast become the means by which people condemned one another.. The focus was in the wrong place and the question had moved from "Did you show love in this situation?" to "Did you follow the technical letter of the law?" That was the whole reform Jesus was trying to institute...to take away the rigid, legalistic approach to the law and make it once again a flexible guideline for loving behavior. So...you've got new, non-Jewish converts. What should their relationship to the law be?
As you can imagine, you had people who felt very strongly on both sides.. This was not a conflict that was caused by sin, except maybe in some very indirect way. The immediate parties involved all had their hearts in the right places. They all wanted to do what was right. They all wanted to do what God wanted. But they were hotly divided. We learn in Paul's letter to the Galatians that especially Paul and Peter were divided about it and that Paul told Peter off to his face. Christianity's two prize hotheads going at it...it must have been a sight to behold. Finally they realize that the issue needs to be resolved or it is going to pull the fledgling movement apart, so everybody convenes in Jerusalem to figure out what to do.
What follows is, I believe, one of the most radical events in all of Scripture. All the church leadership gathers and talks about it for a long time. Peter finally makes a decision, which from the lack of dissent expressed, seems to represent a consensus in the group. The Gentiles do not need to become Orthodox Jews in order to become a part of The Way. They don't have to be circumcised or take on the weight of the other Jewish laws. There are just a few things they need to do...stay away from idolatry, and keep the blood restrictions in the dietary law. That's it.
Remember, this is not a group that sees themselves as a new religion. This is a group that sees itself as essentially Jewish, deciding that large chunks of Holy Scripture no longer apply to the current situation. They threw out circumcision! How much closer to Jewish identity can you get? Even a passing reading through the Old Testament (which, remember was the only Scripture that Jesus and the Disciples had) will tell you that circumcision is hugely important. It would be like us throwing out baptism. Remember our first Scripture reading from Genesis...it was the sign of God's covenant with God's people...don't do it and your history, says God.. And here in Acts 15 they say it doesn't apply anymore...God will still bless you...is in fact already blessing those without it. Think about the implications of that.
The Council of Jerusalem, if it happened in the Christian Church in the middle ages would have gotten every last person there burned at the stake. It is a brand new way of thinking about God's relationship with human beings. It proclaims that God is flexible, that Scripture can be adapted and even rendered obsolete by new situations, and that God cannot be contained within any human system. This is a radical act of the first order, and typically the church has just glossed right over it, thinking that the implications only apply to circumcision. I think they are much, much broader than that.
The thing that I really want to examine this morning is the reason they reached the decision that they did, because their decision-making process happens to be one of the hallmarks of the United Methodist Church and all those denominations that came from the reforms and thinking of John Wesley. Peter and Paul and the other apostles came to the decision that they did because they could not ignore the experiences of those who were working with the Gentiles. They knew very well what Scripture said. But they could also see obvious signs that God was blessing and using these Gentiles. The Holy Spirit was being poured out, lives were being changed, spiritual gifts were appearing. It was obvious to anyone that had been there, that God didn't seem to care if these folks were circumcised or not. God was not withholding anything until they started eating only kosher food. God was at work big time with these people just as they were. And if God didn't have a problem with the fact that they weren't circumcised or following the law of Moses, why should they?
It was the same line of thinking that allowed John Wesley, back in the 1700's to start ordaining women preachers. He watched women speaking out and saw that their messages were bearing fruit. He well knew that Scripture said women shouldn't speak in church and shouldn't have authority over men. And he wrestled a long time because of it. He valued Scripture greatly and didn't go against it lightly. But he finally could not ignore the fact that the Holy Spirit was blessing and using women...even to convert and teach men. And as much as Wesley loved Scripture, he loved God more.
He knew that God couldn't be contained in a book...even a sacred book....and when it was obvious that God was doing something new, he wasn't going to be the one to say to God, "Excuse me, but it says here in Scripture..." That would be putting Scripture above God. So Wesley began ordaining women. Unfortunately he did not allow his women preachers to have voice and vote in the Conference, so after Wesley's death, the men of the Conference voted that women could no longer be ordained and we had to wait another hundred years or so to get the privilege back again.
Those who have studied Wesley's writings came up with a name for the process that Wesley used to make decisions for the church. They call it the Quadrilateral...it's spelled out as the sermon title in your bulletin. So now you have a fancy big word to throw around and impress people. But the concept is fairly simple. Those scholars recognized that Wesley made decisions based on more than just what Scripture said. He gave Scripture a lot of weight, but it wasn't the only thing he considered. He considered four things...thus the "quad" in quadrilateral. The four things were: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
I think the quadrilateral is an enormously helpful tool in resolving conflicts that are based in religious concerns...whether they be conflicts between groups and factions within a church or denomination or whether they be conflicts between individuals. These are among the hardest conflicts to sort out because when you start adding religious weight to an issue, the stakes become much higher. If a couple can't decide whether to have steak or Chinese for dinner, what they lose is a favorite food for one night. If they can't decide whether to move for the wife's job or stay put for the husband's job, someone might lose out on a promotion or even an entire career. But when you can't decide about what it takes to ensure eternal life, you're talking on an enormously heavy plane and the emotions are stronger and everything is just harder.
The quadrilateral can be a way to take some of the emotion out and look more objectively at the situation. I bring it up in the context of the Council of Jerusalem to show you that considering things outside of Scripture in order to make major faith decisions does itself have a Scriptural base. God does not blast them for this decision. It is blessed and the work with the Gentiles grows and flourishes.
Typically, the different segments of the Christian faith...and even different Christians as individuals...focus on one of the four areas, sometimes to the exclusion of the others. Protestants as a whole tend to put most of their eggs in the Scripture box, while Roman Catholics put it in the Tradition box. Within the Protestant arm of the church, the Pentecostal traditions go heavy on experience, the mainline churches on reason, and the fundamentalist churches on Scripture. What Wesley recognized is that you can't just ignore any one of those categories and you can't take any of those categories and use it to replace God. God is a free agent and can't be stuffed in a box.
That is unsettling. God does not have to do what we say...God does not have to do what the Bible says. Being the author, God has the right to issue a new, revised version of the text.
But, Anne, doesn't that imply that God makes mistakes? It's a valid question, but I don't think that's the necessary conclusion. When we say and do things, we say and do them in a particular context with particular people. Let's look at a parent instructing a child on riding a bike. Let's say we have a boy who has just dashed out for a bike ride without a helmet, and without looking where he was going. He wrecked and hurt himself. Dad is talking..."Now, Carl, the most important thing to remember is safety. You need to be protected with a helmet, and you need to look where you're going."
Now let's say that the boy's younger sister is just learning to ride. The training wheels have come off and she's having trouble with balance. Dad is talking again...."Now, Melinda, the most important thing is technique...try to stay in the middle of the bike and pedal fast enough to keep yourself going." Well, Dad, which is it? Which is the most important thing...safety or technique? The answer is, it depends on the context...on who you're talking to and what the issues are. Dad said two different things, but that doesn't have to mean that one was right and the other was wrong. They were both right for that particular situation.
It's the same way with God. God does not speak in a vacuum and the Bible was not written in a vacuum. It was written to a particular individual or group in order to address a particular situation. When we read all of Dad's teaching about bike riding, we get the picture that a lot of different things are important, and we are left to judge which teaching is the relevant one for our situation and which things are less important or even obsolete. Dad's earlier teaching to Melinda...that the most important thing is that she should never get on the bike without the training wheels...was appropriate for her at a certain time, but became obsolete later. It was never a wrong teaching. God can do a new thing for a new time without the past teaching becoming false or wrong.
It is terribly important in our conflicts over religion, social policies, politics, and other things that touch us very deeply, to do what we can to avoid demonizing the other side. When the abortion debate becomes "You want to murder babies," and "You hate women," both sides have lost. Like at the Council of Jerusalem, we have to recognize that all sides come from a deep-seated concern for doing what is right. If we can't start by honoring that in each other, we will get nowhere. Once you can accept that the other side might actually have good motives and be sincere in their desire to do what's right...then I think it is helpful to have a tool like the quadrilateral. Don't just look at the situation with one tool...use four.
Use Scripture. Give Scripture a ton of weight. But look other places too. Use your brain...use reason. God didn't just make brains to amuse neurosurgeons. Use them. Look at tradition. Some traditions have outlived their usefulness, but don't throw out something that 2,000 years of Christians have found helpful without deep and serious reflection. Maybe it's something you don't appreciate now, but will grow to love at another stage of your life or Christian walk. And certainly don't ignore the experience of yourself or of others whose testimony you trust. Are there signs that God is in this? Am I really willing to say that God cannot work in this way? Are disciples being made here? Is love being expressed?
The quadrilateral...Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. In this type of conflict, look at the whole picture and be open to the possibility that our wonderful, surprising, unexpected God may have been rewriting the text while we weren't looking so that it better fits our current situation. The witness of Scripture itself is that God has done just that before. Are you going to be the one that says God can't do it again? Before you burn me at the stake, think about it.
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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