Do Not Grieve the Loss of the Evangelicalism of Not Long Ago

Today we are going to jump into the way-back machine and go back…back…back…

Business meetings are an inevitable fact of church life.  Some of you could probably tell some horror stories about church business meetings featuring more violent deaths than a Game of Thrones episode.  Today we are going to look at the first business meeting that ever happened, or at least that was recorded for posterity.  It certainly fits that curve; while there were no violent deaths (that we are aware of), it was still a very contentious thing.

The stakes were high.  The Christian movement–which at that point was basically just a knockoff Jewish sect–was growing by leaps and bounds in the Jerusalem area.  People had seen Jesus, one of many wannabe Messiahs who seemed to litter the landscape around Passover time every year, die a horrifically violent death–and then saw him walking around just a few days later.  And when a guy predicts his own death and resurrection and then pulls it off, well…you just go with whatever he says.  So many in Jerusalem came to accept this Jesus as Messiah and join what would eventually be known as the Christian movement.

Now these were almost all devout Jews who had grown up all their lives keeping the law of Moses–the circumcision thing, the dietary regulations, and all the other stuff.  This was, in their way of looking at things, how they identified themselves and distinguished themselves to the world as God’s people.  Anyone could join via conversion, you just had to get circumcised (if you were a guy) and do all the other stuff.

Then word began to trickle back that things were happening up at Antioch, some three hundred miles to the north.  Paul and Barnabas were up there and many were coming to Jesus as Messiah.  But here’s the thing:  These were Gentiles.  And they were joining the Jesus movement without first becoming Jews.

This caused no small amount of consternation back in Jerusalem.  So they sent a delegation up to Antioch–the first recorded missions trip in church history–to set things straight and lay down the law, as it were, for the Gentile believers up there.

Luke records how this went down in Acts 15:

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.”  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.  So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.  The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted.  This news made all the brothers very glad.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

This being a business meeting, it did not take long for shit to get real.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

At this point Paul and Barnabas got up to tell what was happening up in Antioch.  And all were amazed.  Then James, the brother of Jesus (what would your brother have to do to convince you that he is the Son of God?  No less than what Jesus did), got up.  After citing Old Testament prophecy, he issued his decision:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

The money quote:  “We should not make it difficult for [those] who are turning to God.”  James then followed this with some quasi-Mosaic directives whose only purpose was to keep the peace by asking Gentile believers to show some consideration for their Jewish brethren and refrain from the most over-the-top outrageous and outlandish Gentile/pagan practices.

Now we come to this piece which recently appeared on Roger E. Olson’s blog.

In it, Olson mourns the loss of a certain form of evangelical Christianity which was widely prevalent back in the 1940s and 1950s and possibly before.  As I read the piece and read through the distinctives which Olson identifies as substantive that are now missing from today’s evangelicalism, I am struck by the impression that the kind of evangelicalism presented here made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  Church was seen as an extended family which–to my mind, at least–had serious boundary issues.  Witnessing (the language used for it back then) and personal evangelism were expectations placed heavily upon every church member, including those who had no personal gifting or inclination in that direction and were required to struggle mightily against every fiber of their personalities in order to perform to the expected level.  Churches required an insane level of commitment to serving and Sunday service/Wednesday bible study attendance, and those who did not rise to that level of commitment were considered backslidden or unspiritual.  If a person attended church regularly but failed to demonstrate what they considered to be a satisfactory level of spiritual growth, he or she would be asked to leave.  Evangelicals had their own alternative culture (this one hasn’t changed much since back then) which all were expected to accept as a substitute for normal, mainstream secular culture.

In short, the evangelicalism of that period made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  It was a closed system very much centered upon those who were already in the system.  Insane levels of commitment and conformity were the expectation, those who failed to rise to those levels were deemed unspiritual.  I do not join Olson in grieving the loss of that evangelicalism.


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