A Bigger Tent: The Secret to Church Unity (Part 1)
When my wife and I were newly married we decided we wanted to start doing things with other couples. Many of you have been through this awkward phase yourselves. So we got connected with another couple and went camping. I’m no Eagle Scout, I’ve camped a little bit and so had my wife, but we didn’t have a tent. So, being the man, I set out to procure a tent. My first stop led me to my mom’s house, where we found an older-looking but sturdy-looking tent in the basement, and we were on our way.
Now it’s important to note that this tent was old—so old that it didn’t have one of the identifying pictures on it that showed how big it was, and what it would look like after you set it up. You know the scene. Smiling and laughing around the fire in flannel whilst roasting marshmallows and generally basking in your tent installment success. It didn’t have that. I do remember thinking it was heavy the first time I picked it up, but I didn’t give it another thought. No big deal. Tents are heavy, I reasoned. So we arrived at the campsite with our friends and began the process of setting the tent up. We took inventory of all the parts and started putting it together.
But it seemed to me that there were too many parts. Perhaps you’ve had this sinking feeling as you almost finish putting together an entertainment center only to see that there are six parts remaining. But even as we placed all the poles in their place it still hadn’t dawned on me. I just assumed that maybe because this was an old tent it needed more parts. But what we soon found out, about an hour into a setup that should have taken 20 minutes tops, was that we hadn’t just brought a tent. We (I) had brought a tent that could sleep about 20 people. To be clear, we were the only ones planning to use this tent.
So by the time we got this monstrosity up, we had constructed this tent/house next to our friends who, no joke, had brought a pup tent and set it up in 10 minutes. It was a ridiculous sight. But it was our tent, so we threw our sleeping bags into its cavernous deep and settled in. There was probably still room to drive a car into it, and I’m not exaggerating. Sleeping in that tent was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had. It was so large that I needed a flashlight to find my way out of it.
The moral of the story is twofold: 1) if something has a picture with it, don’t ever throw it away, and 2) some things are designed to be more roomy and expansive than you think. To not use those things in the way they are designed is not only silly; it’s wasteful. Unfortunately, such is often the case with the church of Jesus Christ. Take Acts 15 for instance. One of the most important chapters in all of Scripture.
The lead up to this chapter gives you a hint as to its importance. Six months before Paul and Barnabas set out from Antioch—commissioned as the first missionaries to Asia Minor—they encountered anti-Christ figures (a fella named Bar-Jesus) and a sorcerer whom Paul struck blind, Roman officials were converted, whole cities gathered to hear the Gospel, they healed a crippled man and were called gods (Zeus and Hermes to be exact), and Paul was stoned (with rocks). They strengthened these churches, left behind somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 new Christians, and had a little tiff with some folks called Judaizers who thought these new Christians should be circumcised and made to follow the law of Moses. Not exactly what you want to hear in your first “welcome to the church/membership” class.
Now the background for all of this is probably Galatians, where Paul confronts Peter for denying table fellowship to some Gentiles because these Judaizers say that they are unclean because they hadn’t been circumcised. And even Barnabas follows Peter’s lead, but Paul is having NONE of that, saying “he opposed him to his face” and exposed this “hypocrisy.” This becomes such an argument, such a disagreement, that a council is called in Jerusalem (considered the birthplace of the church), to deal with the problem. And here we arrive at Acts 15.
So what exactly IS the problem? To us it may seem weird, silly, or even gross, but John Calvin is dead-on when he says, “Christianity would have come to nothing had Paul yielded here.” So these Judaizers burst onto the scene, interrupting this great news by insisting that all these people who came to Jesus weren’t saved unless they were circumcised. That unless these dirty Gentiles became like them, it all meant nothing. You can almost hear them: “Circumcision matters! Who will we be if that goes away? What’s next? Tear down the temple?”
It calls to mind Luke 15. There a son has wandered away and is coming back home. Is it possible that Luke laid these two stories on top of each other? That they speak to one another? Which also raises the question: what would have happened in the parable of the Prodigal Son if the older brother had gotten to the younger brother before the father did? Remember, the younger brother is already practicing his speech, ready and willing to be accepted back into the house as a slave and not a son, and it’s only the radical love of the father that keeps him from doing so.
But what if the older brother had gotten there first? What would he have said? Would he have welcomed him like the father? Would he be willing to give up more of his inheritance, more of his rights, to help restore his brother as the father most likely did? Or would he have said, “You know, before you come in here, you need to clean yourself up. You need to do X, Y, and Z before I’m even letting you near this house again. In fact, you might be dangerous, we don’t know where you’ve been, perhaps it’s best if you stay out for a while.”
Is it possible he would have turned him away altogether, ignorant of his father’s heart, thinking he was doing the right thing?
In this way, Acts 15 provides a witness to the 21st century church, revealing a way forward in a religious world that doesn’t notice how big the tent actually is. There’s more than enough room. Indeed, this little chapter might just be the thing that keeps us from tearing each other apart. It might hold the secret to the unicorn of church life: unity.