Like many of you who read these writings, I came from a rather traditional church background. Though those places of my younger years have moderated a bit, by our local church standards they remain very traditional and uncomfortable with progressive and contemporary elements we have known now for several decades.
Is it wrong to have to wear a suit on Sunday morning, only use the King James Version of the Bible, recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing traditional hymns from a hymnal to the accompaniment of an organ and piano? No, of course not; we know that these are not black and white commands. But it is a valued pattern of weekly meeting for these folks who treasure these rituals. The observance of these elements conjure up a warmth of memories of the history of their faith and salvation, and to ignore them would seem to devalue items of deep meaning.
So what would I do if I returned to these places today to visit with former friends and even present the Scripture in the service? What would best bring blessing and unity between us all? Should I wear jeans and a polo shirt like I did at TSF this past week? Preach from the NIV or ESV as I regularly do? Do a special song from Jars of Clay and in all other ways flaunt my freedoms to be as in-your-face contemporary as possible? No, I’d not do that. It would be distractingly annoying and rude. It would not be worth it in the big picture of things. Doctrine is not at stake, so why not just go along with their way of doing things for the sake of unity and focus upon the greater issues held in common?
This is essentially what Paul does as he returns to the very most traditional of New Testament churches in Jerusalem, being amongst a largely Jewish Christian congregation who continued to value many old traditions from their background.
Acts 21:15 – After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.
17 – When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
So Paul reports to James and the elders of the Jerusalem church on the expansive nature of the growth of the gospel amongst Gentile peoples, and this is greeted with pleasure. But they needed to honestly tell Paul that an unfair story was common among the people that Paul devalued and disrespected their traditions. Whereas it would be true that Paul did not tell Gentiles they had to circumcise or observe other non-essential Jewish traditions from the law, neither did he preach that folks should not do these things.
The leaders suggest that Paul could take the steam completely out of these unjust criticisms if he would participate with four local men who have made a Nazarite vow (a commitment to deep piety that involved an expensive sacrifice – when offered by a Christian as a sort of memorial). Likely these men were poor, and we recall that Paul has come with an offering from the Gentile churches.
Acts 21:26 – The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
As we’ll see in our next passage, this apparently serves the purpose. The opposition that arises comes from out of town factions in Jerusalem.
Just because we feel and know that we have liberties to live, serve and worship in a certain way, it does not mean that we are wise to flaunt them in the presence of others who are troubled by or uncomfortable with those liberties. This is a part of what Paul meant when he said that he became all things to all people in order that he may win some by not putting obstacles in the way of the gospel. The gospel is the main idea, the big thing. That is a “major.” All the other stuff that is in the category of the preferential is “minor” by comparison.
In our upcoming and growing emphasis of the “For the City” campaign, we are increasingly looking to develop and build partnerships with a wide variety of other churches. We are only going to do this with those who truly believe and preach the gospel, but we are not going to get distracted by the relatively minor variations we have about worship styles and cultural differences. There are too many people lost in our community for us to fuss over these matters. Majors – yes; Minors – no time for that stuff. Eternity is approaching.