In 1991 the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, was in a run-off election to become governor of Louisiana. In the four weeks leading up to the run-off, the New Orleans Saints were playing a home game, and a black season ticket holder told the story of his feelings as loud eruptions of human noise sounded at various points throughout the stadium. It wasn’t because of the football game. David Duke had received permission to greet the crowds at various points around the stadium. When he would emerge from a tunnel, some of the crowd nearby would cheer in support of Duke, and some would jeer him. The man telling this story began to grow nervous, knowing that soon Duke would appear near his section of the stands. Why nervous? Because until that day, the ethnically diverse crowd around him were unified in support of their team, the Saints. What would happen if some of those same people, people he had become friends with over the years they had shared space as season ticket holders, expressed a viewpoint about Duke he disagreed with? He felt the anxiety because he knew it would change things. (My thanks to the podcast Slow Burn for sharing this story, in Season 4, Episode 6, “A Concerned Citizen.”)
Is there any cultural, philosophical or theological variety in your church family? If so, how does that work out? Do people disagree? Humans tend to congregate with like-minded people. It can be so complex and confusing to navigate the many opinions, strong opinions in our world.
In this five-part series studying Acts 21, starting here, I suggest that there are two themes we can learn from. First, what we studied in the previous post, commitment to Christ. Second, in Acts 21 we get an interesting glimpse into the cultural situation of Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem. While Paul seems to have little intellectual problem adapting Christianity to Gentile contexts in his travels around the Roman Empire; back in Jerusalem, Christianity is still extremely Jewish. It was difficult for the early church to differentiate the boundaries between what is Christian and what is Jewish. Paul endures a Jewish purification rite, hoping to avoid controversy from those who would think that Paul isn’t acting or teaching with enough Jewishness. But the purification rite doesn’t seem to matter, as Asian Jews find ways to accuse him anyway.
From those early days, and through its 2000 year history, Christianity has been divided up into factions with various perspectives. In this passage we see the deep divide between the Jews and the Gentiles.
The Christian Jews saw their faith from a Jewish perspective. Of course they would, because their viewpoint was Jewish from the moment of their birth, and beyond that, for thousands of years prior, as their nation, Israel, was started by God and guided by God. Then Jesus comes on the scene, many Jews truly believe in him and follow him, especially so after he was crucified and rose from the dead. Also the Spirit arrives on Pentecost, and the church begins, and those Jews truly become a part of the new family of God. But that doesn’t mean that they cold turkey throw off all the trappings of Judaism and their Jewish history. Not even close. I don’t think we can truly understand how deep their identification and emotion as Jews would run.
Frankly, I suspect it could be very confusing. To what degree are the earliest Christians still Jews? To what degree does their Jewishness matter anymore? From our vantage point, you and I might look at those Jewish Christians and say, “What’s your problem with Paul? Look at how courageous and committed to Jesus he is! My goodness, he has spent his life, and almost lost his life a bunch of times, traipsing all over the Roman Empire to tell people about Jesus. And you are questioning him about his adherence to Jewishness? You’re way off base.”
For us, it seems simple. Paul is an amazing Christian. Those Jewish Christians should be following his example, not trying to get him to make vows to prove that he still respects Judaism. It seems like they are really misguided.
In the contemporary church, too, we can struggle with how to handle differences of opinion. As I write this in summer 2020, the response to Covid-19 is an example, specifically the wearing of masks. Here in Pennsylvania, our governor and state health department has issued an order requiring the use of face-coverings to help halt the spread of the virus. But there are many differences of opinion about the efficacy of masks. What should we do?
We can have different perspectives on many similar issues, and frankly our viewpoint so often fall in line with political ideologies rather than biblical theology. It can be very complex and confusing trying to bring a Christian viewpoint to the debate. Should we follow conservative, moderate, progressive or liberal points of view? There are Christians who adhere to every one of these, and of course each viewpoint believes that their perspective is the right one. What do we do? We should not be like the people in Acts 21 who were accusatory and falsified information to get what they wanted. In the next and final post, we’ll look at a distinctly Christian response to these kinds of disagreements.