In the Book of Acts, the 15th chapter, we have the record of the Council Concerning Circumcision, where Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to face off with the Apostles and Elders. The setting was that certain people, converted Jews, were teaching the gentiles that they had to be circumcised to be converted. Paul and Barnabas went to withstand their legalism and to proclaim that God had already made clear His acceptance of the gentiles, therefor their legalism should stop.
My first reaction to this passage is to feel affirmed that the early church was not the perfect church, free from the interjection of humanity and its complications, as we are often led to believe. They had disputes.
One of the things I remember, now with some humor, is the days of disputes in the church. People in churches do not always get along. Is anyone surprised by this? At any place that people gather there will be differences, conflict and disputes. Guaranteed!
I remember in my youth when a church in our town split over their pursuit of holiness. The women, in those days in that church, were required to wear dresses, hems below the knees (the lower the better), no jewelry or make up, and long stockings, covering their legs. It was the early holiness movements answer to modern Islam.
But, given the nature of humanity there was a dispute. There were those who wore long black socks, and others who wore long white socks. Those in the black socks camp decided that their style was more holy in that it kept the leg from resembling natural flesh, while the white socks were less holy in that they sort of simulated the color of flesh. Keeping women from attracting men was the idea, but the difference resulted in a split of the church into two churches.
Finally, the leaders of both churches came to my dad for council. His handling of it might even warrant another addendum to Acts chapter 15, except we do not add to the Bible, do we? Dad was always filled with humor and was not afraid to speak to issues straight on. Although he tried to be as tactful as possible, he never avoided an issue. So he told them what he thought.
He started by telling them that their women were not attractive enough to be in any danger of tempting a man to sin. He laughed at this, as did a few in the room, but, unfortunately, not all. He then got down to business. He classified the issue as competitive holiness. He explained that he saw the issue as two groups trying their best to outperform the other in competing for God’s approval of their performance. Then he told them that their attempts at righteousness were being laughed at by the rest of the world and that their isolation from reality was nothing less than self-righteous drivel.
The room drew quite as he went on. He reminded them that self-righteousness was as filthy rags in the sight of God and that God was not ready to resolve their conflict over stocking color but was not pleased with either side. Righteousness, he proclaimed, is not a matter of performance but of yielding to the Holy Spirit. It was not something we could achieve, but something that we had to receive. It is a gift of God not a human sacrifice we offer for approval.
Before he was through, some were weeping and others were red faced in rage. Some understood, while others went out to find new champions for their legalism.
Today, we are still in the same context, only with different issues. We still seem to think that the role of the church is to define what is good and what is evil, even though Adam and Eve, the father and mother of us all, were told to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The legal definitions of good and evil will not save, deliver or help humanity to be better or to resolve the fall. Our redemption is in the Tree of Life, first mentioned in the Garden of Eden, and later planted on Calvary’s hill. It is in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus, that redemption, holiness and salvation flows to the human race.
We struggle in vain for human perfection, like all religions of the world. Holiness is not what I present to God, but what He presents to me. It is not in how I cover the human body, but in the covering of the sacrifice of Calvary. It is not in what I can do, but in what He has done. It is not a quest for better performance but a reliance on the finished and complete work of Jesus. It is finished. Relax! He has you covered!
You cannot become what you already are!