When I was married some fourteen years ago, there are some issues that I didn’t even know would be issues. I grew up using Colgate toothpaste. My mother bought it, so we always used it. Before I got married, I really didn’t know that anyone used any other type of toothpaste, nor did I think it would be hard to switch. That was before I married a girl who had always used Crest. Whenever my new wife went shopping, she bought Crest. Whenever I went shopping, I bought Colgate. We eventually adjusted, but it was a preference we didn’t even know we had until we learned how to live together.
We’ve all got preferences. We don’t even notice most of them. I guarantee, though, that most of us will notice once we’re forced to accommodate someone else. Today I want to talk about preferences, not on a personal scale, but on a church-wide scale. Over the years, without even thinking about it, most of us have grown used to church being run a certain way. We never state it exactly like this, but after a while we begin to think: we do church the right way.
Today, I want to tell you a story about a church that once faced the question, “How do we react to new ways of doing church?” It’s a question that we will encounter sooner or later. One of our kids will start going to a new church. We’ll be doing some reading and we’ll find some of our assumptions about church challenged. Some new people will start attending our church and want to do things differently. How do we react when we think we do church the right way, and someone is pushing us to do it differently? The answer to that question comes in the form of a story. If you have a Bible with you, turn with me to Acts 15.
The story we’re about to read is one of the milestone events of the early church. The crisis that people faced then was one that could have torn the church apart. The wrong response to the crisis could have permanently damaged the progress of the church. The early leaders of the church made a decision which marks us to this day. Let’s take a look at the story and see what lessons we can learn on how to react to new ways of doing church.
Acts 15:1-5 says:
While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians, “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them-much to everyone’s joy-that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry. But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.
What we call Christianity today started off as a movement within Judaism. For the first part of the church’s history, it was primarily Jews who followed the rabbi Jesus Christ. There were some exceptions, but you can handle a few exceptions okay. A man named Paul came along, who started to influence more Gentiles to follow Jesus. As more Gentiles follow Jesus, you have a problem: Do the Gentiles have to become Jewish to be Christians, or can they stay just as they are? You’ve got a big question there.
On one hand, you have those who believe that the Jewish way of doing things is the right way. They had some pretty strong arguments for their case. Most of the Jewish practices came right from God and had been passed down for thousands of years. The Scriptures were full of instructions on the Jewish beliefs and practices. The Jewish people were called God’s own people, the people through which God would bless the world. The Messiah himself was Jewish, and observed the Jewish laws perfectly. You could stack up all the arguments, and it would make a lot of sense: the Jewish way is the right way.
On the other side, you have some people like Paul and Barnabas. They were working among Gentiles, and many of them were starting to follow Jesus. Although Jesus was Jewish, Paul and Barnabas didn’t think that a Gentile had to become Jewish to follow Jesus.
The stakes were high. In the corner, you’ve got a group holding knives and saying that to do things the right way, you’ve got to be circumcised. You’d really want to think hard about joining the church, wouldn’t you? On the other hand, you’ve got a new teaching that unravels thousands of years of theology and practice. What would you do?
Imagine the scene in Jerusalem. All the big names are there in one place. The meeting starts on a high note. Everyone is happy that Gentiles are starting to follow Jesus. It’s the same as if I got up and gave a report about all the new people following Jesus through the efforts of our church. It’s good news, except it also comes with bad news. You can feel the tension rise, people shifting in their seats, as some others stand up and say, “Yes, it’s great news that Gentiles are following Jesus, but we have a problem.” Verse 5 says, “But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.”
Picture the most radical change that you might be asked to make to accommodate new people in our church, and you’ll get the picture. Do you make the change, or do you hold on to the way that you’ve always believed things should be done? What do you do when your most fundamental ideas, your bedrock beliefs about how church should be done are challenged?
Let’s find out what happened here.
The leaders of the church made a decision that was revolutionary in its day. It still is today. They embraced a freedom that allowed the church to expand exponentially. Their decision goes against what I would have guessed. It’s a decision that has marked all of church history since. It’s a decision that if replicated today would lead to freedom and expansion of the Kingdom within our culture.
Imagine for a minute if you had been at this meeting. We don’t know most of what happened, but we can imagine. Verses 6 and 7 say, “So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question. At the meeting, after a long discussion…” We already know that this issue generated strong emotions. I don’t think that they had a nice, calm, rational discussion. I’m sure there was a little bit of heat. The discussion probably moved in a certain direction, but I imagine it was far from easy.
At the end of the meeting, two leaders stood to speak and clinched the debate. Peter, formerly the leader of the Jerusalem church, and the close friend of Jesus, spoke of the genuineness of what had happened, and closed with this: “Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:10-11). Then James, brother of Jesus, stood up to speak:
And so my judgment is that we should stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, except that we should write to them and tell them to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.” (Acts 15:19-21)
The report of this meeting states that the decision was unanimous. It comes in the form of a letter from the Jerusalem council to the Gentile believers:
“This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings!
“We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but they had no such instructions from us. So it seemed good to us, having unanimously agreed on our decision, to send you these official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas to tell you what we have decided concerning your question.
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:23-29)
How do we react to new ways of doing church? This decision sets a pattern for us.
The main thing to take away is this: we have incredible freedom in how the church expresses itself. Early in the church’s history, they faced the decision whether to be monocultural or multicultural, whether to do things one way or to allow freedom. They had to choose between controlling or giving permission. They chose to give permission. There is no one right way to be the church. We have freedom in how the church expresses itself.
I once sat with a lady who was upset with me. She told me that the right way to do church was inherited from Europe and had a particular set of beliefs and practices, right down to an acceptable selection of musical pieces. I listened a lot but didn’t get to say much. It could have turned out this way. Instead, God has given the church freedom in how it shapes itself in different contexts. There is freedom.
At my previous church, an usher didn’t have any dress shirts. People dressed up, but he didn’t. Every week, he would apologize for the way he looked. He didn’t fit into the culture. Every week, I thanked him for providing variety. If someone came in and didn’t wear a dress shirt, they wouldn’t be alone. He represented that there is more than one way to dress to come to church. We have freedom.
I wish I could take you on a tour around the world and show you all the shapes that the church takes. I worshipped in a very different church last week in the United Kingdom – same label, different contents. They did things very differently than what we do here. It was different, and it was good.
This morning churches have met that started early in the morning and went right to lunch, which is when they took a break before coming back for more. There are churches that have met in cathedrals and in huts. They’ve met with all different kinds of music. Some have centered their services around the Eucharist. Some have centered them around the sermon. Some don’t have a pastor. Some don’t meet on a Sunday. They’re all different. The differences are good. God allows us the freedom.
Churches are taking new shapes in the new culture that is emerging. We may be tempted to be scared. Not everything is good by virtue of being different, but things aren’t necessarily bad either. God allows freedom. He’s given incredible freedom in the way the church takes shape.
There are two conditions in this passage. The first condition is this: don’t let the shape stop the mission. If the church in Acts 15 had insisted that everything be done one way, then the growth of the Kingdom would have stopped in its tracks. Whenever we come across a shape that is an unnecessary hindrance to the growth of the Kingdom, we have a responsibility to change the shape so the mission is not hindered. That’s a heavy responsibility.
I like to do things a certain way. As a church, we get used to doing things a certain way. We even codify our practices, and build structures. But none of this – our buildings, our programs, our structures, our staff – should ever get in the way of the mission of the church. The minute that these get in the way, they need to go.
I’ve been asking myself lately: what structures and shapes do we have in place that are getting in the way of the Kingdom expanding in Etobicoke? I’m not talking about the Kingdom of Richview. I’m talking about God’s Kingdom. What do we need to change so that the community can benefit by this outpost of God’s Kingdom being here? What structures do we have that are getting in the way? That’s not an easy question. I hope you’ll think about that one for a while.
There’s one other condition. The letter from the Jerusalem council did outline a few areas in which the Gentiles were asked to cooperate. Don’t be sexually immoral; don’t eat meat offered to idols, or blood or meat from strangled animals. These were the Gentile practices that were either flat out wrong, or were likely to offend the Jewish believers. The second condition is this: don’t be unnecessarily offensive in how you express the church. We have freedom, but that freedom is bounded by concern for the wider church. We are part of something bigger. We have freedom, and we’re called to exercise that freedom with love.
I have preferences. Those preferences can never get in the way of what God is doing around me. We are called to let the church take shape according to what God is doing, and to relinquish our structures and our preferred shapes when they get in the way.
Our values as a church are to be people-centered and evangelistic. This year, as we move to stay in step with God, may we grant freedom to others, the same type of freedom God has granted us.