A Bigger Tent: The Secret to Church Unity (Part 2)
This article is part 2 of a series on unity in the church. I recommend reading it with a Bible open to Acts 15.
Last time we began our exploration of church unity by asking what it might look like, and in Acts 15 we begin to see something take shape. It seems to reflect Luke 15 with Judaziers taking the “older brother” role, and not wanting to welcome the Gentiles (“prodigal younger brother”) into the fold.
Maybe it’s a stretch exegetically, not theologically. Because the Judaizers represent the best and worst of all of us. Our “older brother-ness” runs deeper than most of us want to admit. Because let’s be honest—far too many people have walked away from the father’s house because they thought the message was “clean yourself up and then maybe God can do something with you. Get your theology straight and your talking points ready.”
Who wants to join that? The reality though is that there are far too many people sitting in pews imposing rules on themselves that God never did. But the message of God, the message of Paul, and soon of Peter and James in Acts 15, is NOT “clean yourself up and God will love you.” It’s “turn to God and he will embrace you as a son or daughter before you have a chance to clean yourself up.”
That’s what happens in Acts 15. The heart of God shines through two unlikely sources, two men who should have been on board with the Judaizers, but for some reason, weren’t. First of all, this is, quite possibly Peter’s finest moment, even greater than the sermon he preached at Pentecost. To have been so wrong about wanting to please Judaizers, and be called out publicly by Paul as he was in Galatians, yet stand up and speak with such humility and grace, is nothing short of miraculous.
Peter stands taller than he ever did, free of pride, free of need to justify himself, and talks about how the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his family some 10 years ago. He drives home the point that God made no distinction between him and Gentiles … none! And then he has the nerve to bring up the fact that the law never was the answer to humanity’s problems; the Jews couldn’t even keep it, so why would anyone want to throw that onto the Gentiles?
For a practicing Jew, this is akin to blasphemy! To be clear, he is not saying that the law should be abolished (much like Jesus says in Matt. 5), but that the law was never meant to save you, only to point you to salvation!
Think of a road where people are driving really fast. There’s no speed limit on this magical road, but traffic has started to increase because the town is growing, and more accidents are beginning to happen. So the town gets together and agrees that 55 MPH is the legal speed for that road. Unfortunately, you, much like Sammy Hagar, can’t drive 55. You, like Ricky Bobby, like to go fast. Moreover, you barely drive 75 on that road, and never even stop to consider it might be wrong until you hear about the accidents on it because people drive over 55. So you agree, “That’s bad, I shouldn’t do that.” But one day you’re late for work. You do some quick calculations and realize that 55 isn’t getting you there on time, but 75 will. What do you do?
The problem is not the law; it’s the heart. In a very real way, the law was given to us to show us we couldn’t keep it, that we didn’t need more rules or more information, but new hearts. So now it’s James’s turn, after jaws have been picked back up off the floor. This is James the Just, brother of Jesus, who later writes the epistle of James. He was said to be a man who prayed so much his knees became like those of a camel.
The way James uses language shows his wisdom and tact in this tense moment. He calls Peter by Simeon, his Hebrew name, and quotes the Greek version of the Old Testament when he cites Amos. Make no mistake; even James’s words are beginning to make peace, to mend divides. But what he says after that lays the foundation for every church. He points out how God has acted in this time through Jesus to restore Israel, and that new Israel is the church of Jesus, a tent where all people are meant to seek shelter and come to know God.
Scholars will tell you that there are no fewer than eight prophecies in the Old Testament that James could have quoted here, that would have supported his argument about the Gentiles being welcomed into the family of God. So why this one? Could it be that tents can be moved and stretched? Could it be that from this point on, the Christian church should be about movement and the spreading of this tent to the ends of the earth? And that this tent is big enough to house all the people of the earth?
James realized, maybe even contrary to his own preference, that this is the great tradition of God. Not circumcision and not the law. But that God would be known in all the earth. This is the great tradition to which the people of God must hold, and all other traditions bow to this one.
Allow me to be a little more forward. There is nothing—nothing—that you or I hold to be true or helpful or good, when it comes to how we do church, that compares to how Jews felt about circumcision. Nothing. Seriously. No matter how strongly you may feel about something that needs to change or something that has already changed. You and I have never held anything more dear than circumcision was for the Jews.
And. They. Let. It. Go.
Because Peter and James and Paul understood God’s heart. And that’s the secret to church unity. Because what if, at the end of time itself, God doesn’t ask, “Hey, why did you do or not do such-and-such in that worship service that time?” but instead asks, “Why didn’t you help me find my boy?” Maybe the tent metaphor is apt because we’ve gotten too used to where we’ve put our stakes in the ground. We can’t imagine them moving.
What happens then, and what’s happening now, is that church leadership claims to be acting out of a sense of unity, but upon closer inspection, they are acting out of cowardice. Maybe that’s too harsh. But time is short for the American church if this message isn’t heeded. Courage can no longer be considered tangential to leadership. If we take Acts 15 as an example, the question for any established church should be, “What can we give up that is valuable to us so others can come in?”
And if the church is to be unified, mission is the only thing big enough to sustain it through the inevitable pain of this conversation. We’ll turn to the particulars of that conversation in our next and final installment on unity.