Archive for the ‘contextualization’ Tag

Sent   1 comment

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My look at politics in the run-up to the March primaries does not mean I’ve lost sight of my main topic. I’m still looking at how Christianity ought to interact with the world.

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prays to his Father in John 17:14-19:

I have given them your word (or message), and the world has hated them, because they do not belong to the world (or “because they are not of the world”),  just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe (protect them)  from the evil oneThey do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. Set them apart (consecrate or sanctify)  in the truth; your word is truth. (Jesus had already introduced the idea of practicing the truth in John 8:32)  Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I set myself apart on their behalf, so that they too may be truly set apart. (see John 10:36, Exodus 40-13, Leviticus 8:30 and 2 Chronicles 5:11 for more discussion).

In a real sense Christians are aliens in this world. Accepting Christ’s salvation sets us apart from the rest of humanity. We are no longer dead in sin, but made alive through Christ. That changes how we see the world and it should very much change how we interact with the world. If it doesn’t, we may need to go back and look at that time when we “accepted” Christ’s salvation. Did we … really?

Jesus was pretty clear here that He doesn’t not want His followers to be “of the world”. He wasn’t and we should follow His example.

But Jesus was equally clear that He wasn’t asking God to take His disciples out of the world. He prayed for them to be “sent” into the world.

In a very real sense, we are not of this world, but we have been sent into this world with a mission to the world. In other words, we can’t disassociate from this world. While it is not our job to save the world (that is far too God-like for our puny humanity), we are ordered by the Great Commission to do certain things in God’s name. We are sent into the world on mission to advance the advance the gospel through disciplemaking.

Jesus’s true followers have not only been crucified to the world, but also raised to new life and sent back in to point the way to freedom for others. We’ve been rescued from the darkness and given the Light not merely to flee the darkness, but to guide our steps as we go back into the world to rescue others.

Paradox   2 comments

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A paradox is a true statement that is either contrary to conventional wisdom or is seemingly absurd. They can be a useful tool in teaching because they require careful thought to understand, but most people initially reject a paradox as untrue because it offends their presuppositions. That shows a lack of thinking and I’m all about examining my presuppositions.

Chew on a paradox for a bit and you begin to realize your assumptions are not necessarily correct.

An example of a paradox is that something must die before life can emerge. Well, that sounds absurd. Death is the end of life, so that statement can’t be true.

1 Corinthians 15:36-38 reminds us that a seed must be buried (die) before it can germinate into a plant. Paul uses this paradoxical concept of death preceding life so that Christians might understand that in order to gain eternal life, our mortal bodies must die. Paul reused the concept to describe Christian conversion in Romans 6:3-7 and in Romans 5:18 to explain why God chose to die as Jesus.

The Bible contains many paradoxes and some people find that confusing, but they exist to make us think and learn.

Which brings us to my subject – in the world, but not of it. I ran across an statement on the Internet where someone said “Jesus never said that.” Well, actually, He did. His prayer for his followers in John 17:14-16 was that His followers would not be part of the world. Later, His apostles reiterated this concept (see 1 John 2:15-17, James 4:4, Romans 12:2). We are not to love the world or the things of it. Friendship with the world separates us from God. Christians do not conform our lives to the ways of the world.

But we live in the world and we’re here for a reason. Our exemplar Jesus came into the world of humankind (John 1:10), but He did not become of the world (John 17:14). Rejecting the sinful lifestyle of the world does not mean we reject the sinners trapped in those lifestyle (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

We live in this world, but Christians cannot let the world influence us.

But so many of us do.

There is a strong trend in churches today to exist in the world and be accepted by the world by adopting the world’s attitudes. Denominations change their doctrines to be more acceptable to the world. Tolerance of sin is now advanced as a virtue. Apologists for this new paradigm twist the Bible and ignore whole passages in order to cozy up to the world.

The Bible foretold this would happen. Stay tuned for the discussion.

 

 

Look Out for Black Ice   1 comment

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I once taught at a Christian school that had deep fundamentalist roots. The administration was convinced that women should wear dresses and that Christian music did not have instrument combos — guitar, keyboard and drums together was edging toward rebellious and the base guitar was evidence of Satan’s work within the soul of modern man.

Those folks were utterly lacking in contextualization of the gospel. They had obscured the gospel with ideas and expressions external to the gospel. They honestly believed that musical genres were an essential feature of the Christian faith.

 

Syncretism is the opposite error. It is the mixing of Christianity with something else. In an attempt to contextualize the Gospel, some Christians might uncritically accept the religious convictions of a particular culture. Should they believe and present these religious convictions in a manner that distorts or denies the Gospel, they are guilty of syncretism.

So, how do we avoid those two extremes — the black ice of contextualization?

First, conduct an honest self-evaluation that includes an understanding of the history of the Christian church and a focus on the gospel. Be honest in what you find. Then hit pause and ask yourself — what would Jesus do? Not what does your church say Jesus would do, but what would the Jesus of the Bible actually do? Sometimes, you will find the answer in Scripture.

What would Jesus do about sexual immorality?

There is no evidence that He was having sex with anyone, male or female. He also touched on sexual immorality in some of His topics. You might need to know something about the Old Testament verses He used in order to come to that conclusion, but that’s not hard today. Cross-references are the beauty of the computer age.

What would Jesus do about alcohol?

He turned water into wine and it was REALLY GOOD wine. But there are no Biblical examples of him getting drunk, which ought to tell us something. Through His followers, He taught that our bodies are His temple and demanded that we keep His temple clean for Him. That speaks to drugs, over-eating and a whole host of other activities as well.

What would Jesus do about the poor?

You can find that out.

Did Jesus honestly believe that faith was more important than charity to the poor, the lame, the infirm, the widow, etc.?

That is also discoverable, though you might have to find out what He meant in the parables when He compared the Kingdom of God to some human event.

Contextualization is an important component of effective gospel ministry. The gospel is an eternal, trans-cultural reality, but it comes to us within the context of individual human cultures. Contemporary Christians should carefully seek to discern the difference between gospel truth and cultural tradition. They should thus present the gospel in a manner that is culturally relevant, taking care to practice caution to avoid adopting cultural practices that have irredeemably pagan underpinnings.

Syncretism   Leave a comment

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A quick search for the word “contextualization” on Google brought up the word “syncretism”. I believe it is really important for Christians to be in the world, but not of the world, which means that we recognize our culture and are comfortable with the redeemable aspects of it, but we don’t accept culture’s corrosive influence as inevitable.

When it comes to issues of Christianity in a cultural context, Christians and churches we form must be careful to not fall off the fine line we walk. I’ve previously described what I believe to be perhaps the major issue plaguing American Christianity: obscurantism. Simply defined, that would be obscuring the gospel by emphasizing things that are actually external to the gospel as being central to it. The clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, the food we drink and our political party are examples where we sometimes confuse culture and Christianity. While it is fine for the Amish to choose to live in insular communities that they feel protect their faith, it would be unBiblical for them to insist that all Christians do so, because what they are really protecting is their culture, of which faith is an integral part. The Amish actually do a very good job of setting rules for their own groups that they don’t expect the world to follow. Read Amish Grace if you want a further discussion of this.

However, some American “Christian” groups believe that they speak for God and that God has placed them into the world to force all Americans to look and act like their group. The end result is a false gospel that becomes a stumbling block to those Christians and our churches are trying to reach the world around us.

When we’re obeying the Great Commission, we want to make sure that we’re preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the concepts of Western culture. Missionaries certainly got that confused in the past and even today on the foreign fields, but we also get it confused in working with our neighbors. Although I personally consider tattooing to be a form of self-mutilation, I don’t think God cares and I need to separate my personal dislike from the gospel message. I have to be clear about my evangelism … for the gospel’s sake.

I’ve spent some time discussing this with regards to the early church — that Peter and Paul both set aside Judaic forms of worship in order to reach a Gentile world for Christ and Paul spent considerable effort in explaining to his disciples the difference between the gospel and the law of Moses.

If delivering the gospel in a cultural context is somewhat of a tight rope act, obscurantism might represent falling to the right side of the rope, but syncretism is an equal danger waiting on the left side.

Syncretism is the mixing of Christianity with something else such that they become a different gospel. We see this in cults around the world, most notably in Islam, but positive-thinking gospel, a nationalist emphasis, or emerging churches (mostly) are also examples. Syncretism happens more than we might know.

When anything is added to the message of the gospel, the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ is compromised and another gospel can be created that is actually not the gospel. Yes, syncretism and obscurantism end up in the same place.

Syncretism can be most easily seen when two or more starkly contrasting religions are mixed. Around the world, examples are readily available where Christ has been preached in places with long and various religious traditions. In many cases, pieces and parts of the traditional religion will remain while Christ is added to the mix.

We recently had some South African Baptists at our church. Both grew up out in the townships. They explained that traditional religion among the indigenous people often included visiting witch doctors and other types of healers for physical healing and spiritual direction. New Christian believers often want to continue visiting the spiritual healers around them. Sonny and Patience recognize that visiting those who actively practice witchcraft for healing or spiritual direction dilutes dependency on Christ, changes the gospel, creates a mix of multiple gods, and thereby denies Christ His rightful place as the one and only Lord in the life of the believer. Those who would mix these practices, if not moving away from them, end up with a false, syncretistic gospel, not the gospel of Jesus.

Santeria is an example of syncretism that mixes African animistic religious practice with Christianity. The Bahai and various neopagan religions also draw from Judeo-Christian belief and mix it into various belief systems and theological structures to create something that is obviously not Biblical Christianity.

But why stop at obvious examples of cults when there are other syncretistic belief systems that hit far closer to home? Many seeker-sensitive churches, in an effort to reach the pragmatic Boomers, have become largely devoid of the gospel, exchanging it for practical positive thinking without gospel transformation. That’s synscretism.

I am NOT saying all Boomer or seeker churches are this way. I left the broad brush in the bucket, but there are churches that emphasize trying harder and being a better person over the gospel of grace. “Living a good life as a good person,” particularly under your own power, is not the gospel Jesus announced.

It is actually quite the opposite, and it has created a gospel that dilutes dependency on Christ and denies His lordship. That is syncretistic.

Likewise, some emerging churches have contextualized the gospel by softening difficult theological truths, which also changes the gospel, leading to syncretism.

Error awaits on either side. If you don’t care about contextualization, you end up obscuring the gospel and confusing it with culture. If you engage in contextualization too much, you end up losing the gospel by adopting pagan practices and even theologies. Both errors are dangerous as each leads to a false gospel. The difficulty is that when you are more afraid of one, which most churches are, you almost always fall into the other.

Each error is dangerous and fearing one more than the other often leads a church directly into the one that is less feared.

Some churches are so afraid of syncretism (they use the word “compromise” rather than the technical term) that they push back against any change from the tradition they’ve known. They define syncretism as changing musical styles, getting a tattoo or body piercing, or having different hair length.

Alternatively, there are those who are so upset with the established church that they run away from it and everything connected to it, including some parts of the gospel. They fear irrelevance to the point they bend and shape the gospel to fit nicely within the culture. In the process, the true gospel is lost and a syncretic version of it emerges.

The truly Christian challenge is charting the course down the middle. Context matters. A lot. So much so that we must work to avoid the pitfalls.

Culture of Evangelism   1 comment

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Evangelical Christianity used to mean Christianity that reached out and evangelized the world around the churches.

I believe in evangelism. Evangelism lies at the heart of all missionary activity. Which why it is important that we do evangelism right.

Embedded image permalinkI’m not a professional missionary. I have a life here in Fairbanks and I don’t really want to go somewhere else to live. I don’t think God has called me to full-time professional evangelism or missionary work. I do think God has called all Christians to be ministers for Christ in our world and to obey the Great Commission, which is all about evangelism.

I’ve done some short-term mission trips. I’ve gone to a couple of foreign countries and a lot of Alaskan villages. I know some people who do the short-term mission trips all the time and I know some people who reject the concept altogether.

Evangelism done badly—by the wrong people in the wrong way at the wrong time—can be detrimental, no matter how well-intentioned. Yet, there is absolutely no question that Christians must evangelize and that commission from Jesus may have some of us considering cross-cultural evangelism.

Alaska is the most ethnically diverse state in the United, by the way, so I’ve had opportunity to view multicultural evangelism in many guises. Basically, here we don’t have a language barrier, but there are all sorts of cultural barriers.

Understanding culture is key. The logical presentation of the gospel presented as the “Four Spiritual Laws” works well for conceptual, linear thinkers in the West, but does not necessarily work with intuitional thinkers in the East or concrete relational thinkers in Latin America. In working with the foreign-born in my church I learned that eastern thinkers believe that nothing worth proving can be proved. On a mission trip to Columbia, I learned that my passable Spanish was of less importance than my ability to tell stories to illustrate ideas. Although I do not speak German, a mission trip there showed that my forays into logic were more important than my ability to speak the language, primarily because most Germans speak English better than I speak Spanish. Among Alaskan Natives knowing things like sitting at the corner of a table, not talking for long periods of time, and not looking an elder in the eye have allowed me to share the gospel with folks in the villages. Effective evangelism is contextual evangelism. While the message does not change, (Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord), the methodology of doing evangelism must change from culture to culture. Jesus Christ is still Savior and Lord, but how I communicate that must change depending on who I talk to.

Relationships are built on trust and relationship opens channels of communication. Without relationship and the resultant trust it is difficult to evangelize effectively. Building cross-cultural relationships take time and that’s one of the problems with short-term missions. You can’t build trust with another person until they feel like they have been accepted by you and they feel you value them as human beings. After trust is established, there is a greater likelihood that people will share important information. The relationship between persons defines communication and is, therefore, the most important part of the process.

Which is why I am a supporter of long-term missionaries. Nothing speaks so loudly for Christ as Paul mending tents in the Corinthian marketplace. I couldn’t build any relationships with the people I met in Colombia. I hope I acquitted Christ’s gospel well during my 10-days there, but I doubt that was really a long enough time, so I have to hope the long-term missionaries who were our hosts and the native Christians who were already there could water any seeds I managed to plant. I can go back year after year to a Native village and establish friendships, especially in this age of email where we can stay in touch during the months I’m not there. Maybe the day will come when more missionaries will return to the Alaskan bush to evangelize, but truthfully, if the Alaskan villages are to see a second great awakening, the work will likely need to be done by Native folks who accepted Christ back then and are now finally realizing that it is on them to reach their own culture.

But it is also on americanized Christians to recognize and accept that Native Christianity may not look exactly like American Christianity. It may have a lot more dancing in it … inside the churches (gasp)… and songs might be in Koyokon Athabaskan rather than English and maybe they’ll meeting in living rooms around the woodstove rather than in a red-painted building with a cross. Will we be able to accept that version of Christianity as valid within that cultural context? If Raven takes on an Aslan-like quality in the stories instead of being the Trickster will he have a place in the Native Christian churches?

I don’t know, but I do know that cultural context is critical to Christianity because God deals with Christians as individuals and individuals live within a culture. Just as I bristle when my Wendat cousins try to tell me that I shouldn’t do certain things because I am an Indian and not a white person (I’m both!), I bristle when Christians say I shouldn’t dance the Indian dances because it is not “Christian”. Sometimes, some dances are dishonoring to Christ and I don’t participate. Sometimes it’s telling a story of an ancient hunt that doesn’t invoke pagan gods and I participate. The stories of Turtle can be tricky because Turtle can be viewed as a god or simply as the earth. I am capable of judging what is acceptable to my Savior far more than some white person who doesn’t understand my culture.

On the other hand … sometimes we go too far in wrapping Christianity in culture. Watch for the continuation of this series.

 

Building Bridges   4 comments

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Presenting the gospel in a cultural context does some wonderful things.

Lottie Moon-1.jpgMany of the Chinese Christians I know mention Charlotte Diggs Moon as the reason they are Christians today. Of course, none of them knew her personally, but her example as a missionary in China shines in the house churches of the persecuted Chinese Christian faith.

Lottie Moon was born to affluent and staunchly Baptist parents on a tobacco plantation in Virginia in 1840.

The Moon family valued education, and at age fourteen Lottie went to school at Baptist-affiliated schools in Virginia. In 1861 Moon received one of the first Master of Arts degrees awarded to a woman by a southern institution. She spoke Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish, was fluent at reading Hebrew and would later become a fluent Chinese speaker.

Although educated females in the mid-19th century generally had few career opportunities, her older sister Orianna became a physician and served as a Confederate Army doctor during the Civil War. Lottie helped her mother maintain the family estate during the war, and afterward began a teaching career at various female academies throughout the south. She was an avid church member who worked in local charities.

To the family’s surprise, Lottie’s younger sister Edmonia accepted a call to go to North China as a missionary in 1872. Lottie soon felt called to follow her sister to China. On July 7, 1873, the Foreign Mission Board officially appointed 32-year-old Lottie as a missionary to China.

Lottie joined her sister Edmonia at the North China Mission Station in the treaty port of Dengzhou, in Shandong, and began her ministry by teaching in a boys school. She admitted in her letters to feeling racially superior to the Chinese during those early months. While accompanying some of the seasoned missionary wives on “country visits” to outlying villages, Lottie discovered her passion for direct evangelism. Most mission work at that time was done by married men, but the wives of some of the Baptist missionaries had discovered that only women could reach Chinese women.

Lottie soon became frustrated with teaching school, convinced that her talent was being wasted, that she could be better put to use in evangelism and church planting. She had come to China to “go out among the millions” as an evangelist, only to find herself relegated to teaching a school of 40 children.

In 1885, at the age of 45, Moon gave up teaching and moved into the interior to evangelize full-time in the areas of P’ingtu and Hwangshien. She adopted Chinese dress and customs and evangelized in the Chinese language. Hundreds came to know Jesus as their Savior. Lottie distinguished from those who joined the church because they liked something of Christian culture and those who exhibited transformed lives. Going house to house and village to village, she introduced women and children to the gospel and sometimes she had opportunity to “preach/teach” to mixed-gender audiences. Yeah, Southern Baptist women do not “preach”, but they are allowed to “teach” wherever the Lord guides them.

Continuing a prolific writing campaign, Moon’s letters and articles poignantly described the life of a missionary and pleaded the “desperate need” for more missionaries, which the poorly funded board could not provide. She encouraged Southern Baptist women to organize mission societies in the local churches to help support additional missionary candidates, and to consider coming themselves. Many of her letters appeared as articles in denominational publications. Then, in 1887, Moon wrote to the Foreign Mission Journal and proposed that the week before Christmas be established as a time of giving to foreign missions. Catching her vision, Southern Baptist women organized local Women’s Missionary Societies and Sunbeam Bands for children to promote missions and collect funds to support missions. The Woman’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention, was also established. The first “Christmas offering for missions” in 1888 collected over $3,315, enough to send three new missionaries to China.

Throughout her missionary career, Moon faced plague, famine, revolution, and war. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894), the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the Chinese Nationalist uprising (which overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911) all profoundly affected mission work. Famine and disease took their toll. When Moon returned from her second furlough in 1904, she was deeply struck by the suffering of the people who were literally starving to death all around her. She pleaded for more money and more resources, but the mission board was heavily in debt and could send nothing. Mission salaries were voluntarily cut. Unknown to her fellow missionaries, Moon shared her personal finances and food with anyone in need around her, severely affecting both her physical and mental health. In 1912, the diminutive Moon only weighed 50 pounds. Alarmed, fellow missionaries arranged for her to be sent back home to the United States with a missionary companion. However, Moon died en route at the age of 72, on December 24, 1912, in the harbor of Kobe, Japan.

Moon is the only Southern Baptist missionary that I know of who is honored an Episcopalian feast day.

Lottie Moon has come to personify the missionary spirit for Southern Baptists and many other Christian organizations. The annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Missions has raised a total of $1.5 billion for missions since 1888, and finances half the entire Southern Baptist missions budget every year, all of it going overseas to support missionaries in the field rather than stateside salaries (those are paid out of other resources). There is no secular charity that even comes close to that sort of stewardship of donated dollars.

But these pale in comparison to the great achievement Lottie accomplished for the Lord. Her efforts at contextual evangelism had a wide-ranging impact in China, so that many evangelical Christians there trace their spiritual ancestry to one of those she led to the Lord. Because of her emphasis on transformed lives rather than cultural hegemony, the Christian churches in China survived concerted efforts to eliminate them.

Could she have been as effective dressed in a hoop skirt and bonnet speaking English?

Instructional Letter   1 comment

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The first-century followers of Christ faced several difficult challenges. Among the most problematic were the cultural differences separating the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians. Due to their deep respect for the Law of Moses, many of the early Jewish Christians felt that a faithful follower of God must believe in and obey Christ, but also keep certain aspects of the Mosaic Law, like circumcision. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, adamantly opposed this idea, maintaining that the Law was nailed to the cross and was no longer in force. The other Bible writers concurred. But many Christians in the early church were confused on the issue. Due to this confusion, Paul and Barnabas, along with the elders of the Jerusalem church and the apostles, convened to discuss the issue (Acts 15). During the discussion, the apostle Peter recounted the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 15:6-11). Paul and Barnabas then testified to the miracles that God had worked among the Gentiles through their ministry (15:12). And James, the Lord’s brother, explained that the Old Testament prophesied that the Gentiles would be allowed into the church. From reading the text, it is clear that purpose of the meeting in Jerusalem was not to vote on a policy, but to discover the Holy Spirit’s position on the issue.

The council concluded that God had opened the door of faith in Christ to the Gentiles, apart from any adherence to the Law of Moses. The council then wrote a brief letter to be circulated among the Gentile churches in which the council stated: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:29).

The inspired statement from the Jerusalem council presents point of discussion for Christians in the 21st century. Do these rules even apply today? Were they for the Gentiles then, and adjusted afterward by later revelation to the inspired Bible writers? If they still apply, how would a 21st century Christian practice obedience to the command to avoid “things strangled,” since the details of the slaughter and preparation of store-bought items such as chicken, beef, ham, and turkey are virtually unknown to the general public? In my consideration of what the gospel should look like in the context of the 21 century, an intense, honest look into the inspired council’s letter and its ramifications for today became necessary.

Most Biblical historians feel the Jerusalem council meant pagan, idolatrous feasts when issuing the statement in Acts 15. Pagan worship often included sacrificing and eating animals. Occasionally, the drained blood was offered as a “course” in the meal. These festivities also generally included sexual participation by the guest in various ways. Although the Jews had certainly worshipped at high places in the past, they generally recognized these practices to be immoral and the Jewish Christians recognized these practices to be counter to what they had been taught by Jesus. Remember, it’s been less than two decades since Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Many of the council attendees had known Jesus personally. James was his half-brother and Peter had traveled with him for three years. There was therefore no doubt in their minds what Jesus would have done. Therefore, in order to understand the context of the four prohibitions of the council, it’s important to understand their connection to pagan idolatrous practices.

The New Testament is abundantly clear in other places that such was sexual immorality  is uncategorically condemned by God (1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Hebrews 13:4; Revelation 21:8). There was never a time when faithful followers of God were permitted to engage in sexual immorality. Yes, the pagan cultures surrounding the early churches considered such immorality to be part of life, but it was not to be permitted or tolerated in the life of a Christian, regardless of his or her cultural background.

The Council’s letter, meant to be circulated among the Gentile converts, also included the instruction for Gentile believers to “abstain from things offered to idols.” This is a clear reference to the meat that pagans would sacrifice to an idol and then eat as a part of their feasts. Such meat was not inherently sinful. We know this because the apostle Paul qualified and elaborated on the instruction to abstain from meat offered to idols in other others written only a few years after this. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explained that there is nothing inherently sinful about eating meat offered to an idol. “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one…. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (verses 4-8). He explained to the Corinthian Christians that if an unbeliever invited them to his house, they should have no problems eating the meat that the unbeliever served them, asking no questions about whether the meat was offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27). Thus, it is clear that to eat meat that was offered to an idol was not inherently sinful. Paul clarified in the same passage that if a Christian was informed that the meat was offered to an idol and though their consumption might offend those believers who had a problem with such practices, they should avoid eating it (1 Corinthians 10:28; 8:10-13; Romans 14:21). The mindset, attitude, and intent of the one eating meat offered to idols were the pertinent factors involved in the actions, not any inherently sinful qualities of meat offered to idols. The prohibition to abstain from things offered to idols was not a blanket condemnation of an inherently sinful practice, but was conditioned on circumstances, attitude, and intent.

I don’t think we have a lot of meat offered to idols in our marketplaces today, but given this discussion, it would be permissable for Christians to eat meat offered to idols today, if their attitude were right and there was no one around who objected on Biblical grounds. More on that issue in a later post.

So within this one short letter, the Jerusalem Council prohibited Gentile Christians from the inherently sinful practice of sexual immorality and from the conditionally sinful practice of things offered to idols. They then moved onto “things strangled” and “blood”.

Why? The answer is in the letter.

Jewish Christians were horrified at the thought of eating or drinking blood, so the Council asked the “Gentile Christians to respect this feeling and refrain from eating blood and from undrained meat for motives of brotherly love. Why did Jewish Christians abhor consuming blood. The prohibition against eating or drinking blood predated the Law of Moses by several hundred years. Following Noah’s exit from the ark, God explained to him that he and his descendants could eat animals. God said to him: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). God provided a single regulation regarding the consumption of animal flesh. “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4). Thus the command to avoid the consumption of blood was given several hundred years before the Mosaic Law was instituted.

Later, the Law of Moses instructed the Israelites to avoid eating or drinking blood. “Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Leviticus 17:14) Moses also wrote that the Israelites could eat animals like deer or gazelle, but “Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:16).

If the prohibition against eating blood in Acts 15 is binding, then it shows that in every age—the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian—eating blood has been forbidden and is inherently sinful.

If eating blood is inherently sinful, how can it be differentiated from eating meats offered to idols, which was not inherently sinful, since they appear in the same list? One response to such a question would be that we only know that eating meat offered to idols was not inherently sinful because New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 8, 10 and Romans 14 shed further light on the practice. If these passages were not included in the New Testament, then we would be forced to conclude that eating meat sacrificed to idols was inherently sinful and still prohibited for Christians. Since there are no passages that add information to the prohibition against eating blood or things strangled, and it is included in every age (Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian) it’s logical to conclude that the prohibition is still binding on Christians today.

In other words, Christians shouldn’t be consuming blood sausage, but pork shops and shell fish are okay.

Jerusalem Council   1 comment

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While Peter was having his ethnic food adventure in Joppa, there was a even stronger move toward contextualizing the gospel occurring in Antioch.

The church at Antioch in modern Syria was a cross-cultural church mostly populated with Hellenistic Jewish Christians who had been pushed out of Jerusalem by Jewish persecution. Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to check them out and call them to task if they were teaching a false gospel. He discovered they were true Christians, but felt they needed some deeper instruction, so he went and got Saul, the former Christian murdering Pharisee who had become a Christian about 14 years before, but had to retire to his home town of Tarsus because Christians didn’t trust him. Apparently the church at Antioch was more welcoming of this repentant man, so they allowed him and Barnabas to train them. Saul had, prior to his conversation to Christianity, sat under the legendary Jewish scholar Gamaliel. Barnabas may well become the writer of Hebrews, which is another discussion. In other words, they had the best possible training in Jewish theology, but their culture was not Jewish.

These were Hellenistic Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (like Cornelius). Hellenistic Jews like Saul/Paul and Barnabas were Jews by birth who had grown up outside of Judea. They tended to speak Greek as their primary language. Although they followed Jewish ritual law, they were more comofortable with interacting with Gentiles, which might lead to ritual uncleanness.

Paul and Barnabas were seeking diaspora of Jews to preach the gospel to. They were not actually seeking Gentiles, but when they were rejected at the synagogues, they ended up preaching to Gentiles. Whether by personal choice or by a command from the multicultural church that sent them, when Paul and Barnabas went to Asia Minor on the first ever mission trip, they were not seeking to advance Jewish culture, but the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gentiles they encountered accepted Jesus as Savior, not as cultural makeover guru.

This seemed all right when they were on the mission field and when they returned to Antioch, the church was excited, but almost immediately after returning home with some of their new converts, problems arose.

Now some men came down from Judea  and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate  with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they were relating at length the conversion of the Gentiles and bringing great joy to all the brothers. Acts 15:1-3

We know more about this event in the early church because of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Peter was there at the time. He’d been eating with the Gentiles, so it was likely after his vision of the sheet coming down from heaven. But the Judaizers (the name we now call these believing Pharisees) convinced Peter to withdraw from this practice. Paul had sharp words with him and he and Barnabas argued with the Judaizers.

It’s important to realize that these men were not sent from the church in Jerusalem, but had taken it upon themselves to correct the church in Antioch.

Theirs was not a universal view. As Paul and his group traveled to Jerusalem, they stopped at the churches along the way and there was great rejoicing among the believers concerning the conversion of the Gentiles. Titus was with them as an uncircumcised believer, but Paul had circumcised Timothy because his mother was a Jew. Presumably Timothy was okay with this.Brave guy – Timothy.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with themBut some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses. Acts 15-4-6

The thing I like to always remember is that there is nothing wrong with disagreements within a church and between congregations. It helps to clear the air and it allows us to think through out presuppositions.

The Pharisees were not necessarily bad people. They wanted to honor God to the fullest extend possible. Some of them had become believers — Nicodemus, for example, and probably Joseph of Aramithia were Pharisees before coming to Christ. Paul had also been a Pharisee, so didn’t follow immediately that Jewish Pharisees who became Christians would automatically insist that God only accepts Jews. Peter had already encountered these Judaizers in Chapter 14, upon his return from Tyre. The churches needed to deal with this and so they did. The Council of Jerusalem became the first great theological council of the Christian Church.

Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believeAnd God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faithSo now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” Acts 15-7-11 

Peter had been considered the chief of the apostles when Jesus was alive, but you’ll notice he wasn’t considered to be the voice of God. His testimony was accepted and it was pivotal, but there was still more to be considered.

The whole group kept quiet and listened to Barnabas and Paul while they explained all the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. Acts 15-12-13

I always like that line — the whole group kept quiet –. They listened, instead of announcing their preconceived decision to the world. They didn’t have an answer right that moment. They needed to hear the evidence and they were silent so that they could hear God speak as well.

After they stopped speaking, James [Jesus’ brother, son of Joseph and Mary and by that time pastor of the church at Jerusalem] replied, Brothers, listen to me. Simeon [Peter] has explained how God first concerned himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for his nameThe words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written [from Amos 9],

After this I will return,

and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David;

I will rebuild its ruins and restore it,

15:17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord,

namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own,’ says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. 

Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood. For Moses has had those who proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Acts 15:14-21

James, as the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, had written a letter (perhaps the first letter of the New Testament) to Jewish Christians telling them how they should live, but here we see that he had a different view of Gentile Christianity. He remarks that the church at Antioch had been given the name “Christian” because they so exemplified Christianity. He noted that the prophets had foreseen the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s kingdom. He further noted that Moses was preached in every synagogue across the known world every Sabbath and so did not need a monument in the flesh of Gentile believers in Christ.

But notice that James does not make the decision. He only suggests a course of action.

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:22-23

The church, which included the apostles and elders, decided to send men with Paul and Barnabas to lend weight to the letter. It was a church-wide decision, not made by a pope or a pastor or even the apostles.

They sent this letter with them 

“From the apostles  and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in AntiochSyriaand Cilicia, greetings! Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they saidwe have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in personFor it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rulesthat you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immoralityIf you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell. Acts 15-24-29 

I plan to concentrate on the letter in a later posting because it relates to other passages from Paul’s letters. If you go back to Peter’s statement, you will see an early kernel of the topic in the Letter to the Romans, by the way.

So when they were dismissedthey went down to Antioch, and after gathering the entire group together, they delivered the letter. When they read it aloud, the people rejoiced at its encouragementBoth Judas and Silas, who were prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with a long speech. After they had spent some time there, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and proclaiming (along with many others) the word of the Lord. Acts 15:30-35

This contains some important elements to me. Notice that Silas and Judas did not just go on their own. They were sent by the church at Jerusalem. They gathered the whole group together. The letter wasn’t just for special ears and it wasn’t just for the Judaizers, but for the whole church at Antioch. Once their mission from the Jerusalem church had been fulfilled, however, Judas and Silas acted upon God’s guidance and preached. They then hung around and fellowshipped until the church at Antioch said they could leave. Paul and Barnabas, however, remained in Antioch where they were among many who were teaching and proclaiming the word of God.

The Jerusalem Council is a really good example of how churches ought make decisions, but it is also a really good example of diversity in the churches. We are not all the same and we are not meant to be. As long as our focus is on the Lord Jesus Christ and we are exemplifying Him and only Him, it is okay if we are not exactly the same as the church down the road or in another nation.

How Then Should We Live?   1 comment

This is part of a series. Check it out.

Sometimes non-Christians with an ax to grind on the Christian resistance to certain social trends will argue that Christians don’t keep the Old Testament dietary requirements, so we are not allowed (the claim) to old a line in other areas. We are hypocrites and have no standing on any opinion that disagrees with the culture zeitgeist.

These folks speak from a lack of Biblical knowledge. If you’ve never read Acts, you ought to. Although it is a narrative history of the early Christian church, it contains many spiritual insights.

The early Christians were, for the most part, Jews by culture and some by ancestry. The Hellenistic Jews who became believers at least knew the Judaic law and came from a base of having tried to maintain their orthodoxy.

At about the same time as Antioch was sending Paul and Barnabas to Asia Minor, Peter was heading toward an encounter with God’s plan for the Gentiles that was going to push him in a direction that he was not really prepared for.

Jewish opposition to Christianity had pushed Jewish Christians into the hinterland and forced the apostles to leave Jerusalem to tend to the flock. Peter went to Lydda near Joppa (modern day Jaifa ont he Mediterranean coast). In Acts 9, a disciple named Tabitha (or Dorcas) became ill and died. She was a grat lady, but she still died. She’d been laid out for mourning when the disciples heard that Peter was nearby, so they sent for him. Peter showed up for the memorial service, but then he ordered the room cleared and he broke a cardinal rule of a good Jew in the 1st century — he touched a dead body. He then told Tabitha to resurrect and she did.

Many came to know the Lord because of this story. I have to wonder if any of the more Pharisaical believers were bothered by Peter’s indiscretion or if Peter wasn’t really telling that part of the story. On the other hand, Peter, a former fisherman, was staying with Simon, a tanner. Both tanners and fishermen spent much of their lives in a ritually unclean state because their profession required that they touch the dead. Just a little point that gets missed by many people.

A man Roman centurion in Caesarea (also near Jaifa) was a God-fearing Gentile. This means he admired the Jewish religion and sort of played around the edges of it, but he may not have been perfect in keeping the Law. While he was praying, he had a vision of an angel who he recognized to be the Jewish God, who complimented his works of charity as a form of worship to God. The angel told Cornelius to call for Peter.

While his three servants were heading to Joppa, Peter was up on the roof praying. He was hungry (it was near lunch) and he saw a vision of a large sheet descending from heaven. On it were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles and birds. The a voice that Peter recognized as God-Jesus said “Get up, Peter, slaughter and eat!” Peter immediately protested “Lord, I’m a good Jews, I’ve never eaten anything that was ritually unclean.”

The Lord rebuked him, saying “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean.” This back and forth was repeated three times before the vision ended.

While Peter was considering the implications of this vision, Cornelius’ messengers appeared that the gate and the Holy Spirit prompted him to go with them “without hesitation because I sent them”. Peter did so and invited these Gentile men to remain at Simon the tanner’s house overnight.

Peter then traveled to Caesarea. He explained to Cornelius that what he was doing was very much against Jewish law, but that God had told him that there was no difference between himself and Cornelius. Then he asked “So why have you invited me here?”

Cornelius explained and his explanation brought Peter to a realization that God does not show favoritism to certain groups of people over other groups. The gospel is meant for people from every nation. It just happened to start with the Jews.

Peter never missed an opportunity to preach and he was no different that day. While he was preaching, Cornelius’ household became Christians and began speaking in tongues. The circumcised among Peter’s entourage were shocked, but Peter recognized the hand of God and ordered baptism. He then spent several days with these Gentile believers.

Somewhat like our modern day Christian detractors, there were people owe objected to Peter reaching out to Gentiles and getting himself “dirty”. When he returned to Jerusalem, some of the circumcised believers argued that he had made himself ritually unclean and this was just wrong.

Peter argued with them by relating what had happened to him.

The Acts narrative does not give us an immediate response of the church at Jerusalem to Peter’s revelation, but instead follows the story of Barnabas at Antioch and the missionary journey he and Saul undertook. God didn’t hit pause on Peter so that the story could continue with Paul. The events at Antioch were occuring at the same time.

More on that later.

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