Written by Pastor Ed
I Know what the Bible Says
April 24, 2016
Acts 11: 1-18
John 13: 31-35
Some years ago I was chairing a committee that made a somewhat controversial decision, at least in some people’s minds. Among other responses I got a letter that said in part, “I don’t care what the church says, I know what the Bible says,” implying obviously that the church was wrong. It struck me at the time, and still does, as a particularly arrogant statement, and certainly not very Anabaptist.
Yet how often have we heard or even perhaps made that statement in arguments. In fact, I would guess that it was a statement the Peter heard when he was called on the carpet in Jerusalem. Peter had clearly violated the rules of cleanliness set out in the Torah, the Bible of the early church. Leviticus clearly states the rules regarding what was clean and unclean, as well as the rules regarding associating with those who were considered unclean, namely the Gentiles.
Peter knew those rules. He had grown up with them; he had undoubtedly heard them emphasized in the temple. And yet he had disregarded them, or so it was reported to the church in Jerusalem, seen as the mother church, the keeper of the faith. Not only that, but now he was saying that these Gentiles were Christians, and yet they hadn’t obeyed the Biblical rules either. What was the church coming to if no one paid attention to the scripture?
I would guess the debate was much livelier than Luke records in Acts 11. While they may not have studied the issue for 3 or 4 years as we tend to do these days, I suspect the arguments were much like those we engage in even today, with scriptures being thrown back and forth, accusations of not really being a Christian if they didn’t follow the rules, and so forth.
And so Peter has to explain himself and we are given a shortened version of the account Luke had recorded in Acts 10 where we have a much fuller accounting of Peter’s vision and subsequent visit to the home of Cornelius, including Peter’s speech. And, we are told, when the leaders of the church in Jerusalem heard the account, “they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
It is an amazing reversal of opinion and practice for the early church. Clearly the words of the Bible they were using had not changed (and probably at this point none of the New Testament had been written yet at least in its present form.) But it was an affirmation that the Spirit was at work continuing to lead the church into greater understandings and truth, just as Jesus had promised.
Not that this was an easy change. Much of the writings of Paul have to do with working out this change in thinking and trying to come to terms with the new reality that these former outcasts were now fully a part of the church, and could even be leaders.
But perhaps there were some in those discussions who noted that perhaps this wasn’t the first time that something like this change had happened. After all, one of the sworn enemies of the Israelites were the Moabites. They were seen as evil and to be avoided at all costs. And then along came Ruth, the Moabitess who followed her mother-in-law back to Judah and became the great-grandmother of King David.
More recently they had heard about Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, a condition that was clearly condemned in the Bible, and yet Philip had baptized him in a puddle beside the road.
Think for just a bit about changes that you have seen in the church or even made in your own thinking over the years. When I was in seminary and during my first years of ministry the big issue was the role of women in ministry. It was hotly debated and Bible verses were thrown back and forth on both sides. I have a little booklet entitled, “Biblical Perspectives on Women in Ministry” written by Sanford Shetler that argues forcefully against women in ministry, based on the Bible as well as church history. Ironically, at one point I, a male, found myself chairing a committee of 6 women who were planning a conference promoting women in ministry that was held in Ontario. Clearly, for some, we were violating scripture.
If I go back even farther in my church experience and tradition, I can find statements like these:
“We also warn against the spirit of materialism and dependence on material things that Life Insurance policies tend to bring.” (Faith and Practice, Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1958)
“We give our testimony against such things as dancing, card playing, pool, theatre and movie attendance, mixed bathing, commercial sports, and any other activities that tend to lower moral standards and hinder our Christian testimony. (MCO, 1958)
“Chief attention shall fall on holiness of character and there shall be no conformity to the world in such matters as flashy, stylish, semi-nude clothing, rings, jewelry, etc. Similarly our sisters shall seek an inner adornment which is of great price in the sight of God rather than an outward adornment such as the wearing of gold, pearls, and costly array. Christian modesty would also forbid the wearing of slacks, jeans, etc. Inasmuch as God has given women long hair as a ‘glory to her,’ and since the cutting of her long hair is in Scripture called a shame, our sisters shall conform fully to the Word of God in this matter.”
(Mennonite Handbook, Indiana-Michigan Conference, 1956)
And I could go on but I’ve probably hit most everyone by now. The issue of divorce and remarriage would be another major example as would issues like slavery and Sabbath. Willard Swartley covers those topics among others in his book on Biblical interpretation entitled Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women. (Herald Press, 1983)
In researching this I even found a web site from a church, and this is current, that suggests I am doomed to hell because, according to them, the Bible clearly condemns left-handed people, citing the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, among other passages. To reinforce their point they even provide a list of obvious examples of nefarious characters who are left-handed.
Barack Hussein Obama
Kermit the Frog
Leonardo da Vinci
Sarah Jessica Parker
And lest you think change like this is confined to Mennonites or the past, I recently read a report from a consultation called by the Vatican earlier this month to consider, or reconsider, the doctrine of “just war” that has been a part of much of the church’s thinking since the time of Augustine in the 400s. And this group of Catholic scholars and ethicists, including a former Mennonite who now teaches at a Catholic university, has called on the Vatican to renounce the” just war” doctrine and develop a “just peace” doctrine as a more Biblical stance. It would be an amazing change of thinking that would have profound effects on the church, and perhaps even society.
So what am I saying by all this? Am I suggesting that we should give up trying to make ethical decisions? By no means. Am I suggesting that we abandon the Bible as our guide? Certainly not. The Bible remains our source for teaching and instruction about God, shown to us in the person of Jesus. We confess the Bible as authoritative for our lives.
But I am suggesting that we have to be careful when we say, “I know what the Bible says.” For whenever we read the Bible, we do it through our own lens and from our own experience; our own time and place as well. Most, if not all, of those things I mentioned earlier would be seen differently today than they were 50 years ago.
I suspect that after that meeting with Peter in Jerusalem, they went back to the scriptures and began to see other verses that they had over looked before, that talked about Abram being a blessing to the nations, or the prophets talking about all the nations streaming to the mountain of God. And they began reading with different lens.
Why does the church change over the years? Well I think for several reasons.
First and foremost, I believe, is because the Spirit is still active in the church, leading us to greater understanding. This was true for Peter, and has been true throughout the history of the church, and is still true. And the Spirit works in a whole variety of ways, even sometimes through society at large. People sometimes complain that the church is just going along with the greater society. Well sometimes they need to. It was not the church that led the fight, at least initially, to condemn slavery. It wasn’t the church that led the way in supporting care for creation. We had to be nudged by others before we got on board.
And the Spirit still works through our experiences, as it did with Peter. And then those nudges, experiences have to be tested, as Peter’s was. It was right and proper for the leaders of the church at Jerusalem to call Peter to explain himself and why he had broken the rules. He had done something new and radical and needed to be questioned and called to account. And then, thankfully for us, most of them affirmed his action, although it is clear from other places that not everyone agreed and created issues for the church for years after.
Is every change that come along and proposed a good one? Certainly not. Some ideas have been tested and found wanting. Certainly there would not be many who would accept the assertion that left-handedness is forbidden in the Bible, in fact one can find places where being left-handed is deemed an advantage. That viewpoint would not pass the test of time and broader acceptance in the church.
But we should not be surprised that the church has changed and will continue to change. The Spirit will continue to work among us, our experiences as Christians will continue to nudge us, push us, sometimes even beat us over the head to get our attention, as it did with Peter.
And, quite frankly, if we do get it wrong, as I’m sure we have and will, the church will survive because ultimately it is God’s church and not ours. And for that I am truly thankful.
May the Spirit continue to guide us into all truth as we search the scripture together and seek to be faithful in this time and place.