This is a continuation of (Debate and Argumentation for the Sake of Unity and Love )
Debate, even lively, heated debate within the Church is not a bad thing. There are times when such discussion is necessary and good.
“When?” you ask.
When the truth is at stake:
- “Sanctify them in truth. Your word is truth” (John 17.17).
We must also learn that not all dissension is bad, for there are times when that season blows in (cf. Eccl 3.5). Division is a necessary requirement when the truth of God is at stake….
Am I saying that we are to be contentious? No. Are we to argue for the sake of arguing, puffing out our chest here and there because our eggheads are three sizes too large? No. Debate, argument and at times (when necessary) heated discussion are obligatory when the truth is being weighed. Not our truth. Bear that in mind, that’s important. But God’s truth (cf. John 17.17).
One of the things that you learn shepherding God’s flock is that we do not always see eye-to-eye. There are times where that is allowable and good, and there are times when it is damaging to the gospel.
Today, all I want to do is a give a couple of examples where this sort of thing might spring up. The first maybe one you face in a local church setting. The second will be drawn from the Bible in the 1st century. Hopefully, from these two we will learn how to properly handle them.
What’s the Gospel?
I also think at this point, it is important to understand the different nuances in which the term gospel is used in Scripture.
The gospel of God is not limited to the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospel of Christ is not limited to the New Testament canon. The gospel of Paul is not limited to his writings (the epistles of the N. T.). The good news of God is interwoven through all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. To be frank, you cannot truly understand the gospel in any of its senses (general or specific) apart from the foundation teachings laid down by Moses (1st five books: Gen-Deut), and the Prophets (which would include the sections of history, wisdom writings, and specific fore/forth-telling).
Specifically applied to…
That being said there is a specific fount from which the gospel springs from and focuses on: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Heb 1.1-3).
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1Cor 15.1-8).
When to dissent and divide…
When a teaching infringes upon the gospel of God. When the doctrine being proclaimed leads Christ’s little ones away from the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). The key to remember is that a person can be in error, but still be in Christ.
For example, …
a person who believes that God created by some other means in Genesis 1 than what is clearly taught in the text might still be a Christian—for it is belief in Christ that saves us—but they wouldn’t be qualified to hold a teaching position in the church.[i] That sort of divisive attitude is necessary for the sanctity of truth. Fellowship is granted, but the role of teaching is prohibited. Now if such a person took offense to that and broke fellowship with the body over it, then that too is a necessary act of division. You might run to that person and attempt to reason to them from God’s Word. However, if such an individual will not bow the knee to Christ, (not our, at times, faulty interpretations) then for the sake of peace and Christian unity it is better that they leave.
They may still be considered a Christian, just a slightly stiff-necked one. Give lead way to the Holy Spirit to deal with His own. I tend to look at such people like the apostle Paul describes in 1Cor 7:13-15 in regards to the spouse being married to an unbeliever. As long as the unbeliever is willing to stay and be taught, then I will continue to teach them and pray for them. Perhaps God will correct their hearts. But if they desire to go, then for the sake of peace I let them and hold no ill will towards them.
But what about an attack on the gospel? Not just error, but one that distorts the grace of God? How do we deal with that?
Acts 15: Debate and Dissent over the Gospel
There was a certain sect within the body of Christ that believed circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses were necessary to be saved. This sparked a lively and heated debate within the church(es) in Antioch, Syria and caused the 1st ecumenical council to take place in Jerusalem, with Paul and Barnabas being sent as representatives of the defense.
The charge was laid out as follows:
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15.1)
“It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15.5).
True or False? If only it were that easy, right?!? The problem with the above statements is that there are elements of truth mingled in with a lie. Both circumcision and the Law of Moses (actually, its God’s Law not Moses’ but I digress) are important teachings in Scripture. We need to remember that the source of the conflict which ensues (Acts 15.2, 6-7a) is the Word of God. The error arises, as it so often does when speaking of biblical doctrines, with faulty interpretations over what is written. When the meaning is skewed, then straying from the path to the right or to the left is often the result. This is why Jesus warned his disciples to be wary of the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt 16.6, 12), for a little leaven infects the whole lump (1Cor 5.6-8).
Is circumcision necessary to be saved?
Well that depends upon your understanding of circumcision doesn’t it? Is circumcision a physical act only? Or is there a spiritual element to it as well? The answer is, its both.
Is obedience to the Law of Moses necessary to be saved?
Again, that depends upon your understanding of the Law of God doesn’t it? Is obedience a physical act only? Or is there a spiritual element to it as well? The answer is both.
“Pretty bold claim. Can it be defended?” you say. Oh, I think so….
Ohhh, you mean right now? Okay…no problem. Are you ready? Let’s go.
Circumcision: Physical and Spiritual Elements
What is circumcision? The cutting off of flesh? Yes, it is that. A sign of being covenanted to God? Yes, it is that. God gave the sign of the covenant, people called by His Name to Abraham. You could not, cannot be a member of the household of Abraham, the household of faith, and therefore the household of God apart from being circumcised.
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you…Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17.10-11, 14; italics added).
Circumcision was also necessary in order to participate in the religious festivities, in particular the Passover. If you wanted to sup with God, to break bread if you will, then you needed to be circumcised. Just like above this was true for the natural born descendant of Abraham, as well as those grafted into his household (i.e., sojourners, foreigners).
“If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it” (Exod 12.48; italics added).
Finally, circumcision was necessary if one want personal access to God—to worship Him. Again, this was applicable to what later became known as Jew and Gentile; natural worshipers and unnatural worshipers of the Lord God.
“Thus says the Lord God: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary” (Ezek 44.9; italics added).
The Common Thread that is often missed…
There is a common thread that binds these instructions of God on the heart of his people. We see this more fully drawn out by the prophet Ezekiel who reveals that circumcision is not just an external act, but an internal one as well. Not just physical, but also spiritual. While the external act of circumcision signified a cutting off of allegiance to an old way of life (a life without God), this also provided possible evidence for an internal cutting having taken place (a heart for God).
According to the teaching of Moses true circumcision is both external and internal. The external the person could do. They swore with their mouth and professed to believe in their hearts that the Lord God is God, there is no other. The internal God had to do:
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30.6; ref 10.16).
The internal work was necessary for a person to be capable of loving the Lord, and therefore obeying His Word. The sign of circumcision was given as a testimony before men (i.e., mankind). Here is a statement that I have prepared that I believe helps illustrate what I am saying in light of these biblical teachings:
If we do not have evidence of being cut off for God, we will be cut off from God.
So, when we look at the claims laid by some in Acts 15:1, 5 we find that there is truth to the claim. The error, however, is related to their interpretation and application of the truth revealed by God. They assumed that the letter of the law (Torah) is what saved, when it has always been the Spirit of the Law (2Cor 3.6). Despite the fact that God taught the only thing that could save them was His grace. He alone could atone for their sin. A life must be exchanged for a life, blood for blood (Lev 17.11) to which true circumcision most assuredly points (cf. Rom 2.28-29; Col 2.11-14).
We have addressed the one teaching that needed to be discussed, debated and refuted, next time we will look at the other: The Law of Moses…
“Wait a minute! You didn’t explain whether or not physical circumcision is still necessary!”
You’re right, we’ll discuss that in the next post as well as a bit of a precursor. Until then….thanks for you patience.
[i] I am speaking about a local body where I am an overseer. However, I do believe that this ought to be a universal standard within the body of Christ. If you are incapable of understanding that what God spoke about the beginning is just as authoritative as what he has said about the middle and end, then you don’t need to be teaching. If you struggle with the clear meaning of the text, and want to bend the language to fit a preconceived idea that is foreign to the text (i.e., outside), then you don’t need to be teaching. If we are not willing to use Scripture as an interpretative grid for the rest of Scripture, then we don’t need to be teaching.