Christian Unity: Don’t Major in the Minors

THEGMP_a4img1In Acts chapter 15, the question was raised whether a Gentile Christian had to submit to circumcision in order to be a true Christian. Since salvation was at stake, this was important. At this council, which convened in Jerusalem, Peter championed salvation being by grace, apart from any human work, leading to the apostles and other elders to commend the ministry to the Gentiles without the need for Jewish legal observance. They did however request the Gentile believers be sensitive to Jewish customs in a letter written from the council.

There is something that sticks out to me when I read this portion of Holy Scripture. Verse 5 of Chapter 15 reads, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’”(ESV, emphasis added). This is interesting, because it says some of the Pharisees were in fact believers. I believe this is in contrast to those of the Pharisee party who were unbelievers, because they believed salvation in Christ was by works. Verse 1 tells us, “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’”(ESV, emphasis added). This is different than what we saw in verse 5. Here, these men are saying one’s salvation was invalid if they forsook the specific Jewish ordinance of circumcision. Something similar today would be to say, that in order to be saved you must be baptized.  

The Pharisees of verse 5 don’t seem to be saying the person’s salvation was at stake. Their issue was that believers needed to keep the customs of Moses, not for salvation, but as obedience to God. Therefore, we have Pharisees who are unbelievers (verse 1) and Pharisees who are believers (verse 5). Could this happen today? I don’t see why not. A few years ago while I attended the Shepherd’s Conference in California, a very respected theologian warned all of us about this reality. He said something to the effect of this: “Be careful men, because the Pharisees were the ironclad Calvinists of their day.” I believe his point was exposure to the truth could cause an ironic ignorance to how we treat one another. Or to how we practice our faith with regard to the truth.

The apostle Paul says in his letter to the Roman believers: “you yourselves are full of 1-Corinthians-13-4goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another”(Rom 15:14 ESV). And of this same knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8:1 he says, “we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1 ESV). He is warning us that our knowledge of truth will in fact cause us to “puff up.” This is because of our sinful nature, which distorts everything that is good.

This is why Paul later in his letter to the Corinthian believers (1 Cor 13:4-13) explains this love that builds up. Verses 4 and 5 capture the essence of what true love is: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” So when Paul tells us we are to be, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), he has in mind the characteristics of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Pharisees during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and even those who came to faith in Christ later, had a tendency to put unrealistic and outright unbiblical expectations on the people. At this gathering of apostles and church leaders in Acts 15, which is known as “The Jerusalem Council,” Peter speaks up and addresses this issue in verses 7 through 11. In conclusion to the understanding that God has included Gentiles in salvation, in verse 10 Peter says, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear (verse 10)?” Our exhortation today should be the same as Peter’s. We should be very careful that we don’t elevate preferences, or what we should consider minor, or secondary issues of theology over the things that matter for salvation.

The response of the apostles and other church leaders in Jerusalem to this error was a letter, which would be brought back to the church in Antioch, which was essentially the hub for Gentile gospel ministry at the time, and read to the believers there. This letter mentions specific immoral things and also some traditional things for the Gentile believers to abstain from. The traditional things were asked of the Gentile believers, so they would be sensitive to the Jewish believers, thus building unity amongst diversity. Paul talks about this type of sensitivity to certain convictions in Romans 14 as well.jerusalem-council-acts-15

The best part of this is it’s from God. We know the Scriptures are God’s inerrant, inspired Word, but here we have a specific Holy endorsement of their decision. Luke records for us the portion of this letter with this endorsement:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (vv. 28-29 ESV, emphasis added).

We know from Act 10:9-15 that it’s not a sin to eat certain animal anymore, since God has made all things clean. The issue is Christian unity. God wants the Gentile believers to be sensitive to the different convictions of the Jewish believers. This doesn’t violate the gospel; it actually accentuates it!

Believers are called to love one another, which means we are toward one another to be patient and kind. Not envious or boastful. Not arrogant or rude. Not insisting on our own way, and not irritable or resentful. This is hard and at times seems impossible not to do. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we have all done this to one degree or another. Now is not a time to be fighting, and bickering with other Christians. Now is the time for us to show love that highly emphasizes unity amongst diversity. For whatever reason the Lord has given us different convictions on secondary theological issues. Things like the end times, baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, or philosophy of ministry. None of these have crystal clear clarity in Scripture or we would not have such diverse beliefs in these matters.

daily-image-020113The amazing thing is that we can have differences in these areas yet have the same belief in the mandatory things of the faith. Things like the deity of Christ, the necessity of the atonement, justification by faith, the resurrection of Christ, and the triune nature of God. We can be unified in the majors and diverse in the minors, which ultimately allows us to be unified as one Body of Christ for the world to see.

When we love each other as God calls us to do we will witness to the world the beautiful diversity that exists in God’s gracious good news of salvation. The Lord Jesus Himself said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 ESV).

May the Lord give us the conviction and power to do this for our good and for His glory!

Grace and Peace!

J.D.N.

 

Comments

  1. Ryan Martin says:

    Great post Jay. Reminds me of a quote I’ve often heard on a radio show I enjoy. (The Bible Answer Man)

    “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, in all things Charity.” I believe the quote can be attributed to St. Augustine.

    I’ve experienced some majoring in the minors. It used to frustrate me, but by going to His Word and through prayer I’ve come to realize that those “struggles” can bring spiritual growth. Praise God!

  2. Ryan Martin says:

    . I Googled the quote and it brought me to that link. Google is quite a tool!

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