A Lighter Load
In “The Rise of Network Christianity” authors Brad Christerson and Richard Flory describe the members of a growing network of independent congregations aligning themselves under self-appointed apostles. “There’s a suspicion of any kind of accountability structures, because these limit the power of God working through individuals. When you have a church board and an elder board that hires a pastor, then that pastor can’t do the things that God is telling him to do—because he has to go to the board to get everything approved. The real danger, they would say, is when institutions become more powerful than the individuals that God calls.”
That must have been similar to the threat Paul posed for the early church fathers in Jerusalem. Might he have been thumbing his nose at them or flagrantly preaching a gospel that was heresy? A long fourteen years after his dramatic conversion people in authority were ready to confront that issue by convening the Council at Jerusalem. There, with the players from all sides in the room, they could sort out the issue of what were the non-negotiables of the faith. What was essential for salvation and what could be set aside for the new believers? In the end, they came up with just a few essentials. Much more might have been mandated but in their wisdom, they settled on the few. There could have been other choices but they named only these that they felt would keep the Greeks from wandering off and losing themselves in the world they had just left. As it turned out, even those few became mostly irrelevant over time as the center of gravity moved from Jerusalem to the Gentiles.
I don’t think they were men clutching at the past or wanting to constrain the growth. Had they been, they would have required far more of the Gentile believers. Instead, they were looking ahead from the perspective of a particular tradition and realizing the church was becoming larger and more diverse than a small sect of Jewish believers. They were doing their best figuring how to deal with growth and change. How much could they risk? They did not want to lose their traditions nor did they want to send the Gentiles off with no link to their roots. Their solution? Instead of burdens, they were giving them the lightest possible luggage for the journey. They were giving them life preservers and a compass for the deep waters and darkness surrounding them.
I am not sure we could have given as much latitude as they did. Would we be as secure as they were, especially if we had to reduce the fundamentals to just a very few things? What would we choose? What would we leave out? What would we say are the absolutes and the core values of our faith without which we would lose our identity? That’s no doubt harder to do than we realize. I am sure everyone there had different opinions and beliefs about the essentials.
Yet, if you abandon those very few you inevitably drift toward the two poles of either legalism or anarchy. If we do not focus on the fewest core principles we add rules and regulations to make sure people obey. We end up with no one being trusted to practice the principles so we have to implement thousands of pages of rules. Or, perhaps worse, we have no authority at all. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
But times change and perhaps the Spirit of the age is different now. It may be the Gentiles today require different advice and non-negotiables for those coming to faith. Could it be we are now the church at Jerusalem and our burdens need not be theirs? Maybe it is not necessary to be a traditionally defined Christian to turn to God. Converts can love Christ without the labels and burdens we might impose on them – and doubtless, every Jerusalem has burdens they accept as normal and expect others to follow. Maybe the established church has the same role as the Council – support efforts to reach new people and not feel compelled to change ourselves. Not everyone can stretch and there is no reason to ask the Jerusalem church to become the Gentile church. Could we be closer to the conditions of the earliest church than we think?
There is a great shift going on now. The center of the church is moving from the West to the South. People are calling themselves Christ followers and not Christians because the label Christian now connotes a partisan political agenda or an economic system more than a religious faith. People are leaving institutions and joining movements. People are leaving traditional churches and hoping to be more in touch with the Spirit than the structure. How will we the Church at Jerusalem respond? Can we take the same risk?