When Christians Disagree: Church and State

Today in my Sunday School class we finished our introductory topic on the Bible in the “When Christians Disagree” series. We looked at the example of circumcision, which in Genesis 17 is quite plainly said to be a permanent and absolute condition of membership in the covenant people, even for those not actually descended from Abraham. We then turned to Acts 15 and looked at how the church (or at least part of the church) decided that it was going to do something different than what a plain reading of Genesis 17 would require. Reading Acts and Paul’s letters as Scripture, it can be hard for Christians to put themselves in the situation of the time in which they were written, when these texts were not yet Scripture, and were making the case for something that seemed to many to represent a departure from Scripture.

In Acts 15, as also in Galatians, the argument seems to allow experience to trump Scripture. God had shown acceptance of Gentiles by pouring out the Holy Spirit on them while uncircumcised. If God had accepted them in this way, who are we to impose other requirements upon them? To get a sense of how this argument seemed to many Jewish Christians in the first century, one may usefully compare the topic of homosexuality, in connection with which many today might make a similar argument…

As we turn to various topics on which Christians disagree, there are other factors beside the Bible that we’ll need to consider, such as reason, tradition, and experience. The Bible can of course be thought of in different ways: as a source of writings which are authoritative on Christian doctrine and practice, or as a source or writings which allow us to see examples of how the earliest Church worked through issues, themselves making use of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.

The biggest news is perhaps that we have chosen our next major topic for the “When Christians Disagree” series: “Church and State”. It was on our list, and seems particularly timely (we’ll probably finish with the topic in early November). We will begin next week. We did not have a chance to discuss what we’d read to prepare, but I’d suggest that, in addition to the Ten Commandments and some of the places where Paul and Revelation mention those in authority, we should also read the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, since that is a key component in the distinctive form that debates on this topic take in an American context.

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  • Scripture, Reason, Tradition, Experience – sounds like a United Methodist meeting to me.

  • I wonder how reason would fit in, because people can come up with arguments for all sorts of crazy stuff. Plus, should we dismiss a theological idea because it doesn’t conform to our reason? Is there any room for mystery?

  • I think many who are mature in their reliance on reason, Carl Sagan for example, leave a important place for “mystery”, that is the unknown and unknowable. What they don’t do, is fetishize it into a central tenet of their world view. On the other hand, just today I was ruminating on the fact that atheism lacks a mechanism such as magical thinking that allows human minds to deal with situations which allow neither comprehension nor control. Is this a fatal flaw in a world view?

  • Scott,’Wouldn’t atheists look at a situation that was incomprehensible and beyond control and agreee that certain things are “evil”, but are products of human choice, instead of trying to give Meaning to it through “God’?. Human beings impact the world through their choices, the problem is that humans don’t always have control over all the consequences. Religious people descibe these consequences as “acts of God” and others say they are just chaotic chance. There is not reason to say that mystery has to be “God” either. Mystery can also be something we do not understand presently. It is called “God of the gaps”, as people give “God” the “credit” for things that they don’t have scientific knowledge about in the present…Different people have different capacities to live with ambiguity.