Come Compromise at Crooked Creek Baptist Church!

Come Compromise at Crooked Creek Baptist Church! February 20, 2020

It is high time for me to invite readers of my blog to my church, Crooked Creek Baptist Church, once again, as I have done occasionally in the past. Lately in my Sunday School class, we’ve been studying the First Epistle of John, although as always we veer off from there into interesting themes, connections, and side interests. Not surprising, when the text uses words like “antichrist.” But among my favorite recent discussions was one about unity and diversity in the early church and in our time. Someone mentioned the importance of compromise, of finding middle ground when others tend towards polarization. I was struck by that, since conservative churches bristle at the idea of compromise. What, I asked, might it look like if compromise were held up as the chief identifying characteristic of the church? After all, I noted, the first church council that we are told about, in Acts 15, was about finding compromise between Torah observant Jewish Christians and the Gentiles that were being invited and welcomed into their midst, albeit with varying understandings of the basis on which they did so. Those present were struck, as I hoped they would be, by my suggestion that the reason it is hard to be a Jewish Christian, a Messianic believer, a Jew for Jesus, is Gentile Christians. Eating the food you’ve always eaten isn’t a problem, until you welcome others into your group who eat things you cannot and will not.

Many misunderstand what Paul’s biggest challenge was as he promoted the Gentile mission. The biggest challenge, in practice, was often the question of how on earth these different people with their different food norms could eat together. If they couldn’t find a way to do so, there was no body of Christ but bodies of Christ. And for Paul, that wouldn’t do. Part of the point of the whole endeavor was precisely that Gentiles were welcomed, that the people of God became more numerous and more diverse.

This tied in with the theme we explored in 1 John that day. The language used can be taken to suggest that children of God simply don’t sin, and/or that anyone who sins is automatically excluded or to be shunned as an outcast. But other language used in the same part of the letter problematizes this interpretation. There are references to purifying ourselves. There are referenced to hope and to what we will become. Such language is incompatible with an understanding of Christian identity as involving having already reached perfection. The language of being children of God provides a route to making sense of the diverse kinds of expression in the letter. The aim is to have a family that is characterized by a particular identity, by particular virtues and values. A family can have certain characteristics and be known for them, without it implying that no individual ever has a bad day, or at least a bad hour before they’ve had enough coffee after a difficult sleepless night. As so often when it comes to making sense of biblical texts, when relational images cease to be in center stage, many other things go awry. When they are made the hub, other things can be seen to orient themselves naturally or at least intelligibly around them.

We continue to wrestle with what it means to be the church and how to walk the narrow way between extremist and exclusivism and merely accepting anything and everything. On a previous occasion, we suggested that we can be committed to following Jesus in a way that welcomes others whom we recognize as sharing that same aim of following Jesus, while accepting that their own path might well diverge from ours. Perhaps this can and should be another example of the church characterized by compromise – not in the sense of lack of identity, but in the sense of an identity that recognizes the centrality of Jesus and of God to such an extent that it refuses to make an idol of other doctrines or stances that might create divisions among the followers of Jesus and undermine our mission and our unity.

The challenge that faced Paul continues to face us today…

Of related interest to that last point, see Craig Keener’s recent post on Christian unity and discord.

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  • Andrew Perriman uses the Jerusalem Council as an example of how we might move forward on certain social issues that polarize the evangelical church, today, like same-sex marriage, etc.

    • John MacDonald

      I think all churches will eventually have to recognize LGBTQ marriage, as well as polyamory unions (many of whom think their relationships deserve the same recognition as Hetero and LGBTQ), and also objectophilia practitioners, who often can’t picture being in a human-human relationship.

    • Matthew

      “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” …

      No appeal to canonized biblical authority here.

      • gadfly

        …unless one believes the Scriptures when they claim the Holy Spirit as the author.
        (2 Pet.1:20; Mk.12:36; Acts 1:16; Jn.14:27; 2 Sam.23:2; etc.)

        • Even if the speaker depicted believed that the Spirit was at work in Scripture, the appeal is still not to Scripture in that passage.

          • gadfly

            is the argument that canonical authority is rooted in Scripture qua Scripture,
            or that the Author of the Scriptures has an unchanging character whenever he speaks?

          • In Acts 15:28, the passage in the comment that you were responding to? The point in quoting it was, I think, that neither of the things you mention is the focus in the Jerusalem Council’s decision.

          • gadfly

            The book of Acts opens by noting the HS wrote the Scriptures (1:16).
            Jesus says the HS will give them power to be my witnesses (1:8f).
            At Pentecost (Acts 2), the HS fills them, and Peter preaches Jesus from the OT.
            What God foretold by the mouth of his prophets… (3:18)
            …who through the mouth of David, said by the HS… (4:25)
            …they were all filled with the HS and continued to speak the Word of God… (4:31)
            …we are witnesses to these things, and so is the HS… (5:32)
            And the Word of God continued to increase… (6:7, 12:24)
            Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7), preaches Christ throughout the OT.
            When they refuse to hear the word, he says they resist the Holy Spirit (7:51)
            The HS leads Phillip to tell the eunuch about Jesus from Isaiah (Acts 8)
            …the HS fell on all who heard the word… (10:44)
            and James directly appeals to the OT prophets at the Jerusalem Council (15:15f)

            Yet now, in 15:28, the authority of the HS is meant to bypass the Word?
            That’s a non-sequitur. And a very poor pneumatology.

          • There are three major issues. One is that you fail to notice that even in some of the uses of scripture you cite from early Christian preaching, the speaker is playing some scripture off against other scripture. Second, the passages you mention do not in any way claim that because the Spirit was active in those who wrote scripture and whose stories are told in it, the Spirit would never do anything new or differently than before as a result. Third, and directly following from the second point, not only Acts but also Paul in Galatians appeals to the evidence of the Spirit at work in Gentiles to accept them as full members of Abraham’s household without circumcision, despite Genesis 17:12-13 being absolutely explicit and unambiguous on the matter. I’m sure that Paul’s opponents might have said he was offering non-sequiturs and had a poor pneumatology, too.

          • gadfly

            this is silly.

            is it really your contention that the author of Luke-Acts means to belittle the Scriptures he so intentionally cites as authoritative throughout? or that the NT community, despite so many citations, ignored the OT claims that the HS spoke the Scripture through human authors?

            similarly, your mistaken read of Gen.17 makes Gen.34 (Shechem) inexplicable.
            Paul, on the contrary, does not jettison it but sees it as continuing (Col.2:10f).
            the argument is not ‘never do anything new’ but that God’s character is unchanging.

            so, despite your final sentence, that is exactly NOT how the Jerusalem council responded to Paul. instead they concluded: the same HS who wrote the Scriptures is at work here.

          • The only thing that seems silly here is your attempt to caricature my depiction of what the early Christians wrote and did as “belittling.” Paul doesn’t belittle the Torah. He also sets aside some of its requirements in order to welcome Gentiles. The same Holy Spirit who was at work in those earlier times, people, and texts is still at work, and doing a new thing. How is that “belittling”? And yet that is precisely how Paul’s opponents probably characterized what he was doing.

          • gadfly

            The mere fact that you want to pit the relational images of the NT against the very doctrines they were designed to illustrate is belittling.

            And note: Paul doesn’t convince the council by invoking relational images (vs. doctrine).
            James convinces them in Acts 15:15f… by citing the OT prophets.

            then it seemed good to the apostles and elders… (v.22)
            then it seemed good us… (v.25)
            then it seemed good to the HS and to us... (v.28)

            Their confidence in the HS as author of the OT guided them and brought unity.
            It is an exclusive doctrine that presses them to be an inclusive community.

          • What exactly do you think you disagree with me about?

          • gadfly

            As so often when it comes to making sense of biblical texts, when relational images cease to be in center stage, many other things go awry. When they are made the hub, other things can be seen to orient themselves naturally or at least intelligibly around them…
            …not in the sense of lack of identity, but in the sense of an identity that recognizes the centrality of Jesus and of God to such an extent that it refuses to make an idol of other doctrines or stances that might create divisions among the followers of Jesus and undermine our mission and our unity.

          • So you disagree with making Jesus and God central, and when it comes to the images we use in reference to salvation and community, making relational ones primary? You’ve not focused on either of those things thus far in this conversation…

          • gadfly

            No, that’s not at all what i’ve said. Of course Jesus is central.

            But you seem to want to pit the relational images against the underlying doctrines they are meant to illustrate. That’s a false distinction, and one which you seem then to want to use to jettison any part of the doctrine you find unpalatable by labeling it an “idol.”

            That’s not at all how Jesus teaches, nor how the disciples invoke the HS here in Acts.

            The Jerusalem Council does not pit relational imagery against ‘idolatrous’ doctrine as their basis for welcoming Gentile converts. If anything, Acts 15:15f demonstrates how their exclusive doctrine of Scriptural authority (relational image: God speaking) led them to be inclusive. The two are interwoven.

          • So in essence you are saying that, because the Spirit was at work in the Scriptures, although at that time by definition working apart from the (as yet not written) canon, therefore when a character in the New Testament says “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” they in fact mean “as the Bible says,” even when the entire story is about their discernment of a practice that did not fit with the scriptures as most understood them?

            And you cannot see why that I interpretation of the story is not self evident to anyone who reads it?

          • gadfly

            appealing to ‘canon’ is a red herring designed to dodge the overt authority already given to the OT by the NT community & authors. (dating the Council of Jamnia notwithstanding)

            in that vein, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit”- if not a direct reference to the OT Scriptures (v.15f, where James decides the council by citing the OT) – at the very least follows the HS’ work in the rest of Acts, wherein the OT Scriptures are repeatedly cited as authoritative because they spoken by the Holy Spirit.

            again, Acts opens by affirming the HS wrote the Scriptures (1:16).
            and the Jerusalem Council is convinced by the OT Scriptures (15:15f).

            It was so “self-evident” the Church held it with virtual unanimity for its first 1800yrs.

          • Since you’d prefer that the council have said “on the basis of scripture” you’ve found a way to change what the text actually says to mean that. Ironically, you’re illustrating that you are engaging in the same process of discernment that the ancient church did, deciding that the meaning of the scriptures must be reinterpreted for your time based on how you understand God to be at work past and present. You are just doing so less honestly.

          • gadfly

            it is amazing to me how often progressives self-project.
            i’m tempted to quote a variety of commentators, but i can tell it’d be useless.

            you have to decide – as a ‘progressive’ (by definition of the word) –
            whether you admit you are jettisoning church history for the sake of ‘progress’
            or whether ‘progress’ means re-narrating your agenda into the text.

            frankly, i’m stunned you are simply denying 1800yrs of Church history on this.
            are you now going to claim the apostles used higher-critical methodologies as well?

          • Okay, throughout this “conversation” you keep saying that I am saying things that I’m not, and not being clear on what your objections are, and now you’re going to claim that I’m “self-projecting”?! I encourage you to read back through your comments and my post to see if you are actually addressing me and my views, or views that you imagine or assume that I must hold for whatever reason.

          • gadfly

            so… Patheos has your blog under the ‘progressive’ label… but you object to that label?

            a quick pass at some of your previous blog entries strongly suggest otherwise.

          • What on earth are you talking about?

          • gadfly

            “you keep saying that I am saying things that I’m not” – i quoted you. verbatim. with underlines.

            “not being clear on what your objections are” – after quoting & underlining, i explained the objections. you opted not to respond to the substance of that critique, but introduced red herrings.

            “self-projecting” – yes, case in point:
            “you’ve found a way to change what the text actually means.” this is exactly what you are doing. it is a self-projected critique which ignores Church history in favor of claiming i alone read the text that way – as well as separating ‘relational imagery’ from underlying doctrine.

            for 1800yrs, the Church regarded the HS as the author of the Scriptures. that was not a post-Constantinian reconstruction or later development. it’s evident throughout Acts. just look at the sheer number of authoritative citations. it’s even more pronounced with Jesus in the Gospels.

            their doctrine (including the ‘relational imagery’, not pitted against it as you want to argue) decided the Jerusalem Council. you want to ignore v.15, as though James does not appeal directly to the OT Scriptures at the decisive moment in that council. after that, “it seemed good to us” (3x) & “it seemed good to the HS.”

            so – as i pointed out to the OP – the HS, who wrote the Scriptures, is in view here.
            and – against your contention – you cannot make the relational images central while jettisoning the very doctrines those images are illustrating.

          • You underlined things that I wrote, and when I asked if you actually disagree with those core historic Christian emphases, you said no.

            I have never claimed that you alone read any text a particular way.

            You seem to still be assuming that, if James is depicted as quoting scripture, he couldn’t possibly have believed that the Holy Spirit might guide them to do something other than what scripture could be understood to require.

            You still seem to be arguing with some imagined opponent rather than what I’ve written, and worse still, your argument seems to be against historic emphases of the Christian faith, preferring modern-day fundamentalist aberrations. If that is not the case, then would you be so kind as to actually make clear what your stance is and what you disagree with in what I actually wrote? Your willingness to assume that I mean things I didn’t say, and James and Luke mean things they didn’t say, makes conversation difficult.

          • gadfly

            “..if you actually disagree with those core historic Christian emphases, you said no…”
            that’s not where i stopped. i’ve said repeatedly now you are wrongly pitting relational images against the doctrines they are designed to illustrate. it’s very difficult to give you the benefit of the doubt when you keep ignoring that point.

            “I have never claimed that you alone read any text a particular way.”
            did you not write “You are just doing so less honestly.”?

            “You seem to still be assuming… depicted…couldn’t possibly…might…could…”
            you have so many qualifications here, it either says nothing or your vocab choice is intended as a purposeful mischaracterization of my position. again, you are the one objecting to 1800yrs of Church history. the Holy Spirit is not self-contradictory. the onus is on you to demonstrate the legitimacy of your position if you think otherwise. but if you truly are a man of scholarship, you should already know there are tomes written on this, addressing any such ‘examples’ you might cite.

            no, it is not me who is arguing “against the historic emphases of the Christian faith.” and as i said before, if you do actually embrace the label ‘progressive’ (as Patheos has labeled your blog), do you fail to see how – by definition – ‘progressing’ beyond the historic emphases of the faith is the very focus of self-styled ‘progressives’? no, i am not a fundamentalist, but i do believe in the fundamentals of the faith.

            “You still seem to be arguing with some imagined opponent… things I didn’t say…”
            so, for at least the 3rd time…
            1) you insist relational imagery must be central. did you not?
            2) you insist doctrine cannot be central (or it’s an idol). did you not?
            3) so how do you avoid the obvious dilemma that these images (which you want to be central) are illustrations of the very doctrines you insist must not be central?

            “Your willingness to assume…James & Luke mean things they didn’t say…”
            which one of us has actually been quoting & citing the Scriptures? and which one of us is generically appealing to imagery at the expense of the underlying doctrine the image purposefully illustrates? again, this criticism is a self-projection.

          • If I claim you are being less honest than others, how is that a claim that you alone are doing it?

            If you are finally going to address your point 3 above we might get somewhere. Why can relationship not be about relationship? Why must it merely be an illustration of something else such as doctrine?

            I’ve been trying all along to get you to stop saying in effect “Luke wrote that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, but what that really means is that they read it in the scriptures.” If you want your claims of projection to seem plausible, you’ll need to address your blatant and persistent projection first. Otherwise it is just ironic illustration of how you’re approaching this, which clearly doesn’t involve any self-critical examination or introspection on your part.

          • gadfly

            are you going to argue what the definition of “is” is as well? do a venn diagram with your categories “honest” & “less honest”. if you can’t admit the integrity of what you’ve written…

            as for your “why can relationship not be about relationship?”:

            a) you’ve got a false binary going. just “about relationship” & “merely an illustration” – not the only two options; and clearly not the manner in which the author(s) uses them. it is BOTH an illustration and a doctrine. you want to pit them against each other, despite the fact that they are inextricably & purposefully interwoven.

            b) the insistence that doctrine does not matter is itself a doctrine.

            and – yet again – the Church held the position you are criticizing with virtual unanimity for 1800yrs. you, on the other hand, seem to want “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” to be read through a post-Enlightenment, Western individualism utterly divorced from the immediate context, much less with the rest of the Acts or the NT in view. no, the burden is not on me to have self-critical examination.

          • Your comments are bizarre. Trying to get you to not twist what I write, and to not talk past me to some conversation partner in your own imagination, is not a denial of the integrity of what I’ve written. It is the opposite. Notice that I used “is” there and feel no need to debate the definition thereof.

            I am not denying a view that was held for 1800 years with virtual unanimity. I am rejecting a biblicism that reflects a late Protestant, obviously post-Gutenberg, response to issues that came to the fore in and after the Enlightment. But by all means feel free to actually make a case for that view having been the dominant Christian one all along if you’re so inclined, assuming you’re willing to offer substantive discussion and evidence for your views.

    • Matthew

      Now that I think about it, though, I´m wondering how this would play out in a modern context with the church being so very diverse and splintered? This certainly wasn´t the case at the Jerusalem Council.

      • Yes, logistically speaking, there’s a world of difference, especially for Protestantism. I think the best we can do is think of it as a potentially useful model in terms of the spirit of it (Spirit of it?). There’s no way to have a council to decide these things, but we can at a denominational level or congregational level or even individual level recognize that we have a new situation on our hands, and the way through it is to observe what the Spirit is doing and get on the same side of it.

  • Charles Burre

    An excellent discussion. As a MS Lutheran turned Roman Catholic, I have always wished that all denominations would see it that way. At our next prison retreat, which will be attended by both Catholics and Protestants, I will use some of your words.