Sunday, August 22, 2010

The "act" of decision-making, or how the early Christian church grapped with a strategic decision

Yes, another Sunday, another "religious/business" post. The post, while using a religious book as the topic, looks at the items discussed from a business viewpoint. It will veer toward a more religious discussion at the end, but I'll give the rabid secularists plenty of warning before I go in that direction.

One of the good points about me, which is also one of the bad points about me, is that I prefer that decisions be made quickly. Gather what information you have, take a look at it, and make a decision. If a process requires three meetings to make a decision, I believe that the first two meetings should be cancelled and we should go right to the third one.


Obviously, some people feel differently about this, and believe that decision-making should be an iterative process, and that one should not rush into something hastily. These people argue that one should take the time to consider the ramifications of the decision, listen to a variety of views, mull on the matter, and allow for re-evaluation of the decision.

As it turns out, my church is doing a sermon series on the book of Acts, and my Sunday school is independently studying the book. For those not familiar with the book, it tells the story of the early Christian church in the first few decades after Jesus Christ ascended - or died, or went to North America, depending upon your particular religious beliefs or lack thereof. However, people of all religious persuasions can agree that Jesus was not there any more, and the people who were left had to decide how they were going to conduct their affairs from that day forward.

One of the biggest challenges facing the early church was the decision about who could actually join the early church. In this particular case, the decision had overwhelming strategic ramifications, which have influenced not only church history, but also world history, for millennia afterwards.

It's important to remember that in those first weeks, and months, and years of the church, it was regarded as a Jewish church. While most Jews of the time regarded the church as a body of blasphemers, the church considered itself to be thoroughly Jewish. Jesus was regarded as the promised Messiah, sent to the twelve tribes.

The idea that Jesus was anything other than this was considered rarely, if at all, by the church at the time. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, and Christians can read specific passages in the Gospels and in the Old Testament as evidence that the Messiah was to be sent to both Jews and Gentiles alike.

So how did the church make the change from a Jewish body to a Jewish/Gentile body? Well, it wasn't one of those quick decisions that I would have liked. The whole process, as outlined in the book of Acts, took many years. (I won't go into the post-Acts story, in which the church actively became a persecutor of Jews at several points in its history.)

People like me who like to see evidence of a single decision often point to the Council of Jerusalem (Wikipedia entry here), a meeting which occurred roughly 20 years after Jesus' crucifixion, as THE point at which the change was made. The story is told in the 15th chapter of the book of Acts.

But there was another meeting that took place earlier, also in Jerusalem, that is recorded in the 11th chapter of the book of Acts. Basically, through a series of events recorded in Acts chapter 10, Peter was instrumental in baptizing a number of people in Caesarea as Christians - people who were definitely NOT Jewish. By the time Peter got back to Jerusalem, word had gotten around, and portions of the church were criticizing Peter. Why? Because he entered their house and ate food with them. Peter explained his actions (in essence, saying that God told him to do it), which resulted in the following (Acts 11:18 NIV):

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

So the matter was settled, and non-Jews could officially join the church.

Not exactly. The church sent Barnabas to Antioch, Barnabas called Paul (Saul) from Tarsus to Antioch, the two ministered to people (Jews and non-Jews) for a year in Antioch, then they spent some time in Jerusalem, then they went back to Antioch, then they undertook a journey through much of modern-day Turkey - again, speaking to both Jews and Gentiles - and then returned to Antioch, where they stayed "a long time."

So it had been several years since Peter had spoken to the church elders in Jerusalem, the message had been spread to the Gentiles - but for some, the decision had not been finalized (Acts 15:1 NIV).

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."

In essence, "some men" were saying that Gentiles could certainly become Christians - as long as they became Jews first. This was the background for the meeting that has been labeled as the Council of Jerusalem. The upshot of the meeting, as recorded in Acts, was that Gentiles did NOT need to be circumcised to become Christians. (There were a few conditions placed on them, however.)

So the matter was settled, and non-Jews could officially join the church.

Not exactly.

If you look at the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians, it appears that the issue had to be revisited at least one more time. If you assume that the events in Galatians 2:1-10 refer to the Council of Jerusalem (which seems to be a fair assumption, since both Paul and James are mentioned, as well as the specific issue of circumcision), and if you assume that the events beginning on Galatians 2:11 occurred AFTER the Council of Jerusalem, it appears that the issue had to be revisited once again (Galatians 2:11-14):

When Peter came to Antioch, I [Paul] opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Today it all appears as part of one big decision, but in truth there were three different decisions that took place here, each one building upon the previous decision that was made.

The first question was whether or not Gentiles could be baptized into the church.

The second question, while assuming that Gentiles could be baptized into the church, asked whether the Gentiles had to become Jews first before being baptized into the church.

The third question, while assuming that Gentiles could join the church without becoming Jews, asked whether the Jews in the church could associate with the Gentiles in the church.

Take a step back from Acts, and Christianity and Judaism, and look at this from an organizational perspective. People make decisions all the time, and often do so with imperfect information. The decisions that are made result in actions with consequences that require additional decisions to be made. The classic example from the last decade is the U.S. decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Once the decision was made to remove Saddam Hussein from power, we invaded Iraq and removed him from power. what? Another example is the reunification of Germany. Once the Berlin Wall fell and Germany what? (A December 2008 post in my music blog, of all places, looks at that topic.)

I'm not sure what would have happened if ALL of the questions had been addressed by the church right after Caesarea resident Cornelius was baptized. As it turned out, several years elapsed as all of these different decisions were being made, allowing people to carefully consider the ramifications of the decisions. And perhaps the passage of time helped to guarantee the success of the decisions in the long run - imagine what would have happened if, as part of the Brown v Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court had said, "Oh, by the way, this means that as of 1954, Birmingham buses are integrated, Little Rock schools are integrated, lunch counters all over the country are integrated...and the Boston, Massachusetts schools are integrated also.


Now perhaps this doesn't remove my bias toward making decisions quickly, but it does help me to be sensitive to the fact that decisions made on one day may have ramifications on a future day, and even if these ramifications cannot be anticipated at the present time, they will have to be dealt with at some point in the future.

Now to the ramifications for the Christian church that resulted from the episodes above, and what happened afterwards. As I noted earlier in this post, the Christian church changed from one in which Jews were the only members, to one in which Gentiles were the only members, and they persecuted Jews.

What happened?

In effect, we forgot the lessons that were taught by the episodes in the books of Acts and Galatians. Rather than realizing that Jews and Gentiles form one body in Christ, and that all of us were responsible in some way for Christ's sacrifice, some of us conveniently forgot the church's Jewish heritage, and angrily denounced the Jews as "Christ-killers" (although technically the Roman government carried out the death sentence.)

Paul Maier (yes, the Paul Maier from the church founded by Martin Luther) wrote about anti-Semitism and Good Friday in this 2007 commentary. After looking at Luke 23:37, and drawing a distinction between the people who appeared before Pilate and the "multitude" who followed Jesus to the cross, Maier concluded:

How, then, could Jews in general ever have been called fickle “Christ-killers” and been subject to centuries of anti-Semitism in the face of these weeping Jewish followers of Jesus on Good Friday? Later on, anti-Semitism might have developed because of the Jerusalem persecution of the early Christians, St. Paul's struggles with Jewish opponents during his mission journeys, and the split between church and synagogue. But it should never have arisen because of Good Friday.

On the other hand, too many radical revisionists today are claiming that no Jews were involved on Good Friday, and that the Gospels have misled us. Yet this is equally mistaken. The New Testament has it exactly right: Jesus certainly did have Jewish opponents who wanted him dead and did yell “Crucify!” on that infamous Friday, but they were not the “fickle Jews” of Palm Sunday. Instead, they were a priestly directed claque from the Sadducean authorities who controlled the Temple — again, Annas, Caiaphas, and their coterie. They wanted Jesus terminated as a pseudo-Messianic figure who might lead a revolt and bring on the Romans. Josephus tells us that there were 10,000 in the Temple police alone. Less than 5 percent of that number would have been more than enough to crowd into Pilate's courtyard and serve as a speech chorus of condemnation directed by Caiaphas and the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem.

Bottom line, then: the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday and the “Crucifys” of Good Friday came from entirely different Jewish crowds.

In short:

[T]his reading of the sources contradicts not one syllable of the Gospel record. Rather, it picks up on that important nugget of evidence that Luke supplied, tears away one large root of anti-Semitism, and makes the events of Holy Week that much more credible. Had more attention been paid to Luke 23:27, perhaps the pogroms of Medieval Europe and even the Holocaust might have been diminished. Certainly the countless debates — every 10 years — over perceived anti-Semitism in the Oberammergau Passion Play or even Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” might have been muted.

Or maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all. But certainly all of us - well, most of us (see this Southern Poverty Law Center report about Westboro so-called Baptist Church) - agree that persecution of the Jews is wrong.
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