Monday, August 28, 2017

Church Write-Up: Preconditions, Acts 15 (Again), Personal Not Lonely, Complexity

I attended the “pen church” last Sunday, and it was starting a new series on keeping things simple.  I may or may not stick around for the series, but here are some thoughts about last Sunday’s sermon:

A.  The preacher was talking about how we like to establish preconditions for serving God.  “I can’t lead a small group because I do not know enough of the Bible.”  “I need an M.Div. in order to serve.”  “I cannot do that because I am a Level 8 Christian,” which is lower than a super-Christian.
I can identify with that.  I have an M.Div., and I can think of reasons that I either cannot serve, or do not want to serve.  “I am not enough of a believer—-I am too much of a skeptic to toe the party line.”  “Sure, I know the Bible, but there are a lot of questions that I cannot answer, and I cannot parrot the standard Christian ‘answers’ with a straight face.”  “I am not profound enough.”  “My training was in academics, not trying to derive practical application from (or project it onto) the Bible.”  “I do not want to tell people to do things that I do not do myself, and do not even want to do, for that matter.”

These are valid reasons, I think.  But at least one of my excuses was nullified.  I did not go to the church’s service projects a few Sundays ago for a variety of reasons: not knowing anybody, social anxiety, etc.  But one of my excuses was that I have no handyman (or handy-person) skills.  I watched the pictures from the service projects, though, and I saw that kids were painting.  Apparently, the jobs were not that complicated.  There was a way that everyone could contribute.  I cannot say that I regret skipping the service projects, but I will keep in mind that the people participating in them did things that I can do, and maybe that will encourage me to participate in the future.

B.  Like the pastor at one of the churches that I visited a few Sundays ago, the preacher at last Sunday’s service commented on the requirements for Gentile Christians in Acts 15.  Gentile Christians were forbidden to eat meat offered to idols and blood, and they were admonished to stay away from fornication.  The preacher said that they were forbidden to eat meat offered to idols because that could give Jewish Christians the impression that the Gentile Christians were worshiping those idols.  He said that the prohibition on eating blood was so that Jews and Gentiles could eat together: the Jewish Christians could eat with the Gentiles without having to worry about consuming bloody meat, meat that had not been properly slaughtered.

On the meat offered to idols, I remember hearing Tim Keller offer a different interpretation.  The preacher last Sunday was saying that the Gentile Christians wanted to eat the meat but the Jewish Christians did not want them to do so due to their (the Jewish Christians’) stance against idolatry.  Tim Keller, by contrast, speculated that the Jewish Christians were the ones who thought it was all right to eat the meat offered to idols, whereas the Gentile Christians did not.  The Jewish Christians, like Paul in I Corinthians 8:4, would have believed that the idol is nothing, since it neither was a god nor represented a real god.  Consequently, according to Keller’s speculation, they would see nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to a non-deity.  The Gentile Christians, by contrast, had just come out of idolatry, so the idol was not entirely nothing to them.  Out of deference to the Gentile Christians, the Jewish Christians were to refrain from eating meat offered to idols: the Gentile Christians may get the idea that the Jewish Christians are worshiping idols or are encouraging idolatry.  It would be like not drinking around someone who was in fresh recovery from alcoholism: you don’t want to tempt him or her to relapse.

I do not know which interpretation is correct.  Certain questions would need to be addressed in order to make a determination: for instance, what did Judaism teach about eating meat offered to idols?  (I doubt that their stance was positive, in light of their strict kashrut standards and rabbinic Judaism’s negative policies towards things used in idolatry, or by Gentiles.  How far back such policies go, though, is another question.)  I tend to prefer Tim Keller’s interpretation, from an emotional standpoint.  Tim Keller’s interpretation holds that Christians were to have compassion for Christians who were struggling, since they just came out of idolatry.  The other preacher’s view, in my opinion, tends to cast the Jewish Christians as legalists who assumed that, just because they did not like something, nobody else should be allowed to do it (not that this was the preacher’s intention).  It comes down to the difference between the weaker brother and the professional weaker brother (see here).

On what the preacher said about the prohibition on eating blood, I have a question about that.  If the goal were to enable Jewish and Gentile Christians to eat together, why did the Jerusalem conference not forbid Gentile Christians to eat pork and other meats prohibited in Leviticus 11?  Can Jewish and Gentile Christians eat together, if Gentile tables have pork?  Some argue that Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 abrogated the food laws of Leviticus 11, thereby allowing Jews and Gentiles to eat together.  I am not entirely convinced by that interpretation, however, for Acts 21:20 refers to Jewish Christians who were zealous for the law: it was apparently understood that Jewish Christians kept their laws (including the food laws, presumably), and there was no suggestion, at least there, that they should abandon those laws.

I think that one factor behind the prohibition on eating blood in Acts 15 was that God in the Torah forbade Jews and Gentiles from eating it (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17).  On Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together, perhaps they could have, even though Gentile Christians ate pork and Jewish Christians did not.  Jews and Gentiles ate together in the “Letter of Aristeas.”  And, as Derek Leman narrates, there are scholars who doubt that the incident in Antioch (in which Peter stopped eating with Gentile Christians when the party of James came; see Galatians 2) even related to the Leviticus 11 food laws.

C. The preacher was saying that we should coach people rather than trying to make them into our image.  He told a story about a person who came up to him and was thinking of joining the church.  This person wanted the preacher to convince him that baptism was necessary, for this person was not yet convinced that it was.  The preacher replied: “I am not going to try to convince you.  What I will suggest is that you go home, read the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts, and come back and tell me what you think about baptism.”  The person followed that advice and concluded that baptism was important.

I am ambivalent when people respond to my concerns with “Read this book.”  On the one hand, I like that approach because it holds that my spiritual life is my own: it is not up to somebody else to believe for me or to think for me, for that is my responsibility and privilege.  On the other hand, I do feel as if such an approach throws me out into the cold: I am seeking relationship or interaction, and I am told to “Read this book.”  Maybe there is a medium somewhere: a way for faith to be personal and individual, but not lonely.  If I had to choose between the two extremes, though, I would choose to read and draw my own conclusions.

D.  I like complexity because I like depth.  If I were to believe that a few simple concepts was all that there was to Christianity, then I would be bored indeed.  There are times when I should stop overthinking, though, and let things be.

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