Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jewish Politics: You Might Be Fighting God?

Tom Jones and Roger Lamb wrote some time ago a guide ‘You Might Be Fighting God’ (1991). The dual-author project with its bias “basic outline” on church history covers a period “from the dynamic first-century church to the divided religious world of today.”

The Boston movement was in its twelve year when this document saw the light in 1991. Nobody involved at the time with this church group would foreseen with the same years ahead in 2003 the demise of “God’s modern movement” a.k.a. the Boston movement better known as the International Churches of Christ (ICOC). How could they? Though history is always done backward, life is only lived forward.

History teaches us Gamaliel was a revered rabbi in his day. He was a disciple of the progressive branch of Judaism that originated with the rabbi Hillel. Pharisaic interpretations of the Law have long divided Jewish scholars between the houses of Hillel and Shammai. Gamaliel was not a Christian, nor an apostle nor an inspired writer no more than Pontius Pilate who crucified Jesus. Even so, many Christians often draw inspiration from his council to the Jews in order to substantiate a particular liberal idea as Biblical theology. Some justify “growth” as an indicator that “it is of God”. While others defend their own creed or belief system as “the will of God” in order to avoid “ever to slip into weak imitation of true Christianity”. Those who oppose them “might be fighting God”. They all quote the advice of Gamaliel, which he addressed, to the Sanhedrin: “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will only find yourselves fighting against God”. (Acts 5:38,39 NIV)

Should Christians entertain this criterion of “Jewish politics” when groups oppose one another? Is it not reasonable for church groups in order to prevent strive amongst themselves to follow the plan of Gamaliel’s counsel to the Jews? “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.” Here Paul’s Old Teacher builds his “present case” on events that took place “some time ago”. The unsuccessful activities of people like Theudas and Judas were based on “human logic”. Theudas claimed, “to be somebody” while Judas the Galilean “led a band of people in revolt”. Both were killed. In the end their followers were scattered.

What will we find in our “present case” with the rise of the Portland movement? Should we allow the same principle of “Jewish politics” as observed in the days of the Boston movement to continue its course with Kip McKean’s “new movement”? Let us like Gamaliel send the agitators of the Portland movement “outside for a little while” and counsel behind close doors. Let us consider two important points.

Point 1: Though history is always done backward, life is only lived forward.

The dynamic first-century church was never “completely united” in heart and mind as many might think. The honest report in the book of Acts regarding relationships between the characters we love to endear so much provides a steady picture of fragmentation. The one-size-fit-all shoe of complete unity as described in Acts 2:42-47 did not last very long. Nor could it. The Christians in the dynamic first-century church were not “one happy family” no more than the various fellowships of the ICOC struggling today to fit on the same shoe of union amongst themselves. On the other hand, Jesus close disciples also known as apostles were completely unified with him, but they were often at loggerheads with each other. They were 100% behind Christ and 100% real people. What was the reason for the steady decline concerning Jesus’ ideal of “complete unity” in the first-century church?

First and foremost the ‘absence’ of Jesus Christ physical presence to act as a Leader for the Christians must have had an impact on unity. Nevertheless, hopefully we all understand the reasons for his departure. The workings of the Holy Spirit in reaching more and more people for the Lord have resulted in breaking the cultural hub which so unified the primitive Christians in Acts 2:42. These early Christians or disciples of Jesus “meet together in the temple courts” and “enjoying the favour of all the people”. They were “one happy family” because they shared the same cultural history as Peter addressed them in Acts 2:14: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem”; in Acts 2:22: “Men of Israel”; in Acts 2:29: “Brothers” and in return the Eleven was greeted as “Brothers” by those people who reacted in favour of Peter’s plea to get baptised.

The modern Christian scarcely gives any thought to these matters when he or she read the New Testament. Therefore, the ‘dynamic’ of the first-century church gets compromised. Especially when church groups generalise the Bible to fit ‘God’s will’ into their specific ‘belief system’. Can you imagine the reaction of the Jewish audience when Christ announced: “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Thomas the apostle could have reacted in this manner listening to Jesus: “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, … okay! And in all Judea … okay! And Samaria, … o…okay! And to the ends of the earth … Oh-say what?” When we go backward with history Jesus commission to “make disciples” seems like a well-rehearsed script. We understand from reading our Bibles how the events have unfolded one after the other. But we forget that life is lived forward – one day at a time! The same principle applies for those guys who had obeyed Jesus’ commission for the very first time. The Holy Spirit gradually empowered people starting with the small group of 120 believers in Acts 2:4, then fell on each new group of believers; the Jews in Acts 4:31; then on the Samaritans in Acts 8:17; then on the Gentiles in Acts 10:44; and last but not least John the Baptist’s disciples in Acts 19:6.

Jesus’ own group of disciples were comfortable with their own Jewish tradition and customs. They didn’t wear an American, or an African, or an Asian or a European costume. The motto of the apostle Paul “become all things to all men” was still long off. At the mean time, they knew nothing else but Judaism. Even so, Jesus did not replace their traditions and customs as he taught in the Temple or in the fields and towns around Palestine. Jesus died a Jew and appeared to his fellow Jews!

Today we see Jesus not only as a Jew but also as an American, an African, an Asian and a European! When I think and talk to Jesus. In my mind he is a white man who speaks Afrikaans! But when I was in the ICOC who is predominately an English institution my Jesus was a white man who speaks English! Maybe there are others perceiving Jesus in their likeness the way I do. Who knows? But that is how I can relate God to myself. And it is my opinion that through this association Jesus’ words rings true for the world of believers out there “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Therefore, it is impossible to preach that “my Jesus” is more special than the Jesus others worship. Because Jesus is an American, an African, an Asian and a European! Therefore we are completely united with the Spirit that falls on us when we call on the Lord!

Let us consider the Jewish Disciples of Christ that had to “make disciples” on foot “to the ends of the earth”. They had to cross over familiar terrain into unfamiliar territories. They had to go to the Americans, Africans, Asians, and Europeans! Imagine the conflict their traditions and customs have brought on themselves and their hearers. Gamaliel’s student did not only disagree with Barnabas on matters concerning the missions but also with Peter’s hypocrisy in far-away places. “How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Galatians 2:14 NIV) Not many Christians are aware of the incredible challenges these men had to overcome in order to succeed to the end. Perhaps if we allow ourselves to think more on these matters we would not be so desperate to force our minds and hearts into one-size-fit-all type of shoes that our first-century brethren couldn’t wear.

The Kingdom teachers and evangelist’s of the former ICOC have often over simplified the dynamic first-century church history. They too often have spoon fed hungry disciples with their one-size-fit-all lessons of which Jones and Lamb’s “You Might Be Fighting God” is a classic. Here is another story where the ICOC missions seem to come out tops where everyone else has failed. Ironically McKean in the Portland movement is repeating the same old story! Here, the attitude of the Portland churches relies on Gamaliel’s advice in order to intimidate the opposition – what-if-we-are-right-and-you-are-wrong?

Gamaliel never intended to intimidate the Sanhedrin, but he read history well in his judgement for the Jews not to oppose the Christians. He pointed out that false prophets often rose, attracted a large following and created a temporary stir, but once the leader had been killed, his followers dispersed and the movement eventually died out. The apostles’ claim that Jesus was the Messiah had dangerous political overtones. The Romans might interpret their talk of a new kingdom as part of an anti-government plot. Moreover, most of the members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection. Yet for the moment there was nothing they could do but warn the apostles against speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus. Even under the threat of scourging and imprisonment, Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather men!”

For the next few years the apostles and the other brethren lived relatively peacefully in Jerusalem. They continued to preach every day in the temple, but the Sanhedrin, bound by Gamaliel’s counsel did not prosecute them. Their numbers grew, but not at the spectacular pace of the first few months of their preaching. It seemed that Christianity was destined to become another of the many sects within Judaism, but a chain of events soon led the brethren in unforeseen directions that led to separation.

For almost a decade the Sanhedrin had stood by its decision against active prosecution of the apostles who believed in Jesus. Gradually the membership came to include a sizable number of Hellenists or Greek-speaking Jews. Most of them had lived in Jewish communities in the large cities of the Roman Empire such as Alexandria, Athens, Cyrene and Syrian Antioch. They were a cosmopolitan group, accustomed to doing business with their Gentile neighbours, and were considerably less conservative than the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Judea, whom they referred to as ‘Hebrews’.

The event that led to the stoning of Stephen a Greek-speaking Jew has altered the perception on “Jewish politics”. Not only did Stephen challenge the higher authorities thinking of central worship but also he had managed to instil God’s omnipresence in the minds of Christians. Christians no longer have to be seen around the temple. They can worship God wherever! Furthermore, Stephen’s death touch off a widespread persecution in Jerusalem of all the Hellenists associated with the brethren, though the Hebrew apostles were left unharmed. The persecutions were lead for the most part by Saul who was Gamaliel’s student who had witnessed Stephen’s death. The evangelists, from the Greek word euangelistai, meaning preachers of the good, influenced non-Jewish communities. As the gospel spread among Samaritans and Gentiles, an unforeseen problem develops. Until this time all members of the church had been practicing Jews. They had been admitted after repenting their sins and undergoing baptism, through which they received the Holy Spirit. At first all Gentile converts were required to embrace the Jewish religion before they could enter the community of the righteous. This requirement presented difficulties because many Gentiles who wished to join the church were reluctant to undergo the painful rite of circumcision and to observe the complicated Jewish dietary laws. For this reason the Judean brethren opposed the ministry to the Gentiles, which, though limited at first, was beginning to grow. However, Peter convinced the Jerusalem church of the worth and validity of the Gentile inclusion. The difficult issue of Gentile converts was by no means resolved by the meeting in Jerusalem and Peter’s own attitude proved ambivalent facing Paul again over this matter in later years.

In order to conclude our first point; shall we consider the following advice given by Walter Ralston Martin (1928-1989) in his book “The Kingdom of the Cults”. Martin stated on page 13: “Let it not be forgotten that Gamaliel’s advice is not Biblical theology; and if it were followed in the practical realm of experience as steadfastly as it is urged, then we would have to recognize Islam as “of God,” because of its rapid growth and reproductive virility throughout the world.” On page 384: “If his advice is to be followed and his criterion to be recognized, then the thriving growth of the various non-Christian cults, all of which deny the fundamentals of the Christian faith, must be acknowledged as the work of God! No consistent thinker of Christian orientation could long entertain such a warped conclusion without doing violence to a great portion of the New Testament.”

Next week, our second point: Are we fighting God? – We will investigate the criterion of “Jewish politics” as church politics in the Portland family of churches.

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