It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…
-Acts 15:28 (NIV)
My friend and brother in Christ Mark Love consults with churches as a side gig to his main job teaching at Rochester College. A couple of days ago, Mark wrote a blog post that started this way:
In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.
Mark goes on to say that he isn’t optimistic that most congregations are capable of the kind of “adaptive change” he’s talking about. He says that people usually “do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face” — which is a helpful insight that touches on a lot of our relationships. Most churches don’t have a high tolerance for conflict, either — and conflict is pretty much a given when you’re talking about significant change.
Change is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard in most aspects of life. Most of us like it when things remain on a pretty even keel. Many of us don’t even like it when we have to update our phone or computer operating systems — never mind how we feel about change at church.
Well, listen: there may have been a time at your church when people were convinced that it was a sin to use the Lord’s money to pay for air conditioning. Some would have been convinced those Bibles in your pews right now compromised the word of God. There might have been a time when someone thought it was immoral to desegregate your church. There might have even been a time when some matter of teaching that you take for granted would have been considered heretical by a significant segment of your church.
You know what happened, though? Change happened. Someone proposed something, or taught something, or started something. There was disagreement. Debate. Cases were made, meetings were held, there may have even been a few horses traded. Hopefully, in all of it there was prayer and an openness to the Holy Spirit. Over time, changes were made. Maybe even fundamental ones.
Of course, there’s precedent for fundamental change in churches from the very beginning. Take a look at Acts 15 sometime if you don’t believe me. What you see there is a church in the middle of adaptive change at a very basic level. The question in front of them is, “Who’s in, who’s out, and how do we know?”
See, at first the church was Jewish. That’s strange to say, and my Jewish friends might even take issue with it. Still, the early Christians thought of themselves as Jewish. The Jews did too: the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, for example, ordered Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus. That they felt they had the authority to order them to do anything assumes that they still saw the Christians as Jews who needed straightening out. The book of Acts says that believers in Jesus were first referred to as Christians in Antioch — a Gentile city. That’s because there was already a name for them in Jerusalem and other predominately Jewish places: Jews.
So Acts 15 tells us about a meeting held in Jerusalem and attended by all the leaders of the church. The original apostles were there. So were Paul and Barnabas, who had been planting lots of new churches in Gentile country. James — Jesus’ brother — was there too.
The meeting had to do with some Jewish Christians who had been teaching Gentile Christians that Jesus only saves those who are circumcised. Think about it for just a second and you’ll understand why they felt that way. There was not one verse in their Bibles that told them circumcision had been displaced as the sign of the covenant. There were plenty of Biblical texts that commanded circumcision. Until Paul and others like him started inviting Gentiles into the church, there probably wasn’t one Christian man who wasn’t circumcised. To change, in their view, would be to compromise. Violating one of God’s direct commands was too large a price to pay so that a few non-Jews might be more willing to believe in Jesus.
Skip down to the end, though, and you see that the debate went in a shocking direction: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” This from James, a leader in the Jerusalem church and a Jew.
They decided that circumcision wouldn’t be required, and in fact only minimal fidelity to the Jewish law. It’s how they get there that’s interesting to unwind, though.
First of all, they listen to each other. We’re not good at this as a society, and I’m not convinced it’s better in most churches. When we do listen, we’re mentally preparing to shoot holes in what’s being said. Here, though, the church actually listens to each other. They listen to the experiences of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, who have already been preaching Jesus to the Gentiles. They know that these guys who have been living in Gentile country have been working out the theology. They hear their conviction that reaching out to the Gentiles is the will of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
After they listen to each other, they allow what they hear to inform their reading of Scripture. I think that’s pretty important. Sometimes people who take Scripture seriously shut down personal experience that doesn’t match their understanding of Scripture. “What you’re saying has happened or is happening can’t be valid,” we argue, “because it goes against what we think the Bible says.” Except we sometimes leave out that “we think.”
The verses James quotes could have probably been understood any number of ways — even as supporting the more restrictive Judeo-Christianity. But James mentions Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit first, and he says that the prophets agree with that experience. James doesn’t use the Bible to evaluate Peter’s experience. The Bible is read through the lenses of Peter’s experience.
Maybe we need to do more of that. Maybe our churches would be more able to change if we could let the experiences of our members — all of them, not just those of a few — inform the way we read the Bible. That’s not giving up on biblical authority. It’s just admitting to ourselves the way biblical authority works. I can tell you this: my reading of the Bible, and thus the way I live, the way I preach and teach, all of it, has been changed by listening to the church. Your reading of the Bible has been affected by listening to others too, whether you recognize it or not. We can’t escape having our reading of the Bible altered by the people we listen to. What we can escape is only listening to people like us, who don’t force us to hear the Bible in different ways.
Change will never be easy. But it doesn’t have to be traumatic if we can listen to each other, recognize the work of God in each others’ lives, and then allow what we hear to affect the way we read the Bible.
If God wants change in our churches, do we want to be the ones standing in the way?