It did not take the early church too long before they ran into a major controversy. In this week’s reading in the Narrative Lectionary, there was a major disagreement between a group of traditionalists (seemingly associated with disciples who were Pharisees) and a group of innovators (led by Paul and Barnabas) on the topic of interpretation of Scripture and adherence to tradition. Namely, would outsiders to the covenant of God’s chosen people need to become part of that covenant through the rite of circumcision to follow the way of Jesus, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah? Would the outsiders need to become insiders to be a part of God’s kingdom?
To be fair to the traditionalists, the ancient traditions of Israel based upon the very Torah given to them by God seemed fairly clear on the matter. The Messiah came from and to the people of Israel, so the kingdom of God that the Messiah was ushering in was identified with the people of Israel. Gentiles could be welcomed into that covenant relationship, but they (the men) needed to take on the mark of that covenant, circumcision. These innovators, led by one of their own (Paul was a Pharisee as well), were violating the clear directives of Scripture.
Paul and Barnabas (and Peter) argued that God was doing a new thing in Jesus and their experience with the Spirit of God showed them clearly that the Gentiles were accepted by God and received the Spirit without first undergoing circumcision. James, the apparent leader of this council meeting, consulted Scripture as well, and saw that the experience of the innovators could be validated by Scripture, this time from the words of the prophet Amos.
What can we take from this story, the story of what became known as the Council of Jerusalem?
- Disagreements and controversies are not new, but are a natural part of our faith experience.
- Even the apostles did not know everything, but constantly had their faith formed by new experiences in the world, in their faith community, and in Scripture.
- Even church council meetings can be faith formation experiences!
It is important in our congregations to not shy away from conflict and controversy. Disagreements, differences of opinion, and differing interpretations of Scripture are inevitable and signs merely that there are a variety of people engaged in the work of the church. However, it’s important to keep perspective (is this issue actually important to the mission of God through our congregation?) and to make sure each person involved strives toward the ideal of loving their neighbor (even their “enemies”) with the transforming love that God pours out on us. Just like in this council meeting, we pray that the outcome of the disagreement leads to a furthering of God’s kingdom of grace, love, and acceptance rather than limiting it.
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
This week’s FREE resource is a selection of background insights on the Scripture reading from our Living the Word: Contexts & Connections product, which provides cited research notes on the background context for each Narrative Lectionary reading as well as connections to other Scripture passages, the season, media, etc. The Contexts & Connections resources can be used by preachers as they prepare sermons, but also by educators, worship leaders, or anyone else who would like more background on each Bible passage.