Hurricanes & Unity: Faith vs Issues … Lessons from Paul and Carl KetchersideAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Carl Ketherside, Church, Faith, Galatians, Grace, Hermeneutics, Unity
When the Hurricane Hits
Many years ago I lived in New Orleans and preached for a small congregation called Barton Avenue Church. I have always thanked God that that was my first full time ministry. I could not have had a more caring and gracious group of people to share my life with. Both of my girls were born there.
When Hurricane Katrina smashed into that city, I prayed. I watched in horror the pictures of streets I had walked completely underwater. Neighborhoods I had broke bread in simply gone. The damage was well over two hundred billion dollars, making Katrina the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
The images from the Gulf Coast highlighted the destructive nature of hurricanes. I suppose the images haunted me because I had a connection to that place. One picture in particular captured the crises of has remained in my mind all these years later … maybe because I have since learned that hurricanes do not always come off the Gulf of Mexico into cities but from life into our personal world.
The picture was a woman being evacuated from her home, clutching a single cardboard box. Imagine, a lifetime of collecting, building, acquiring–and in a moment of crises you are forced to choose what really counts. What do you think she carried in that box? What would you have placed in that box?
The Hurricane of Fellowship at the Lord’s Table
Over nineteen-hundred years ago the apostle Paul sent a letter to the churches of Galatia which could be characterized as a spiritual hurricane. It is a letter of swirling emotion and pounding conviction. The letter is not an attack upon Jewish legalism as I once so ignorantly imagined. However, the letter raises some of the most fundamental and far-reaching questions that can be raised within Christianity:
“Will the Christian sect differ from other Jewish sects [i. e. Essenes or Pharisees] only in the recognition of the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth?”
“Must men and women from every nation and religion enter into a saving relationship with the Christ through the hallway of circumcision?”
Those who differed from Paul accepted the fact that Jesus was the door to the Father, but they also believed circumcision was the door leading to Jesus. Paul’s letter was an effort to teach the believers what matters and what doesn’t. No law or works can lead to salvation.
We cannot assume, as has been so frequently done in the past, that the false teachers in Galatia were, by definition, Jewish legalists. Paul states quite clearly that Jews knew that a human could never be justified by obedience to the law. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2.15-16)
The problem in Antioch was Table Fellowship. What kind of Table Fellowship does Paul have in mind? He is not talking about eating at the local McDonald’s. Paul can only be talking about the Lord’s Supper or the Agape Feast (which in the first century these were identical). Some brothers refused to sit and commune at the Lord’s Table because the other person sitting did not measure up to a certain doctrinal standard of purity. So Peter, Barnabas, others decided, in essence, to have a separate Lord’s Supper!
As we shall see Paul could care less, when the chips were down, if you are circumcised or not. But whether you were or not you could not let that separate you from Table Fellowship with God’s family which is very picture of the new creation!! As Richard Hays has shown the issue of “justification” here in Galatians is directly connected to what it takes for Jews and Gentiles to be able to sit in communion. Circumcision or no circumcision could undo the unity of God’s people that the Table both demands and proclaims. If your position led you to withdraw from the Table in which your brothers and sisters sit then, Paul declares, you are no longer walking according to the Gospel.
The differences between Paul and the “Judaizing” teachers (whether Jewish or Gentile) came to a head over the practice of circumcising Gentiles. It was the subject of more debates and the cause of more bitterness than any other in the early church. It divided the early Christian congregations into warring camps. The prominence of this dispute can be seen in the number of times the ward is found in the NT (the verb is used 17x and the noun is used 36x, 31 of which are in Paul’s writings, the antonym is used 20x, 19 of which are found in Paul’s writings).
According to Gal. 2: 7-8 the Jewish Christians were closely aligned with Peter and the Gentile Christians were closely aligned with Paul. The tension between these two groups is vividly portrayed, though sometimes we overlook it:
– at the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:45)
– at Peter’s return to Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-3)
– In Antioch and at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15: 1-2, 5-6)
– in Antioch shortly before the Jerusalem conference (Gal. 2: 11-13)
– in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor. 7: 18-20)
– in Paul’s Roman correspondence (Rom. 14: 1-6, 17, 19; 15:1, 7)
That’s Not Doctrine? or Is it?
But I can hear the objection, “Yes, Bobby, I see what you are saying about circumcision and dietary laws and holy days, but what about doctrinal issues?”
But we just don’t understand how strongly DOCTRINAL these ancient issues were! First the Jewish Christian could point to `Book, Chapter, and Verse.’ It was a matter of faith to him or her! The Bible said to do it.
Jews could use Paul’s own argument on him, he argued that Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised because the promise was made to Abraham long before the Law was given. The Jews could say that means we have to keep circumcision because circumcision itself was the mark of God’s promise to Abraham independent the Law of Moses (Gen. 17: 9-14). Circumcision was THE distinctive mark of God’s people, this was the heart of God’s covenant with Israel.
Much Jewish blood was spilt over this issue because they choose to follow God instead of culture. Between 176-163 B.C. , the Jews were forbidden to circumcise their children. The punishment for disobedience was death for both mother and the child! In the Deuterocanonical book of 1 Maccabees we are told:
According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mother’s necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die! (1 Maccabees 1: 60-63)
This issue that had the early church in a strangle hold was a life and death DOCTRINAL issue for Jews. We in the modern church fail to realize the gut wrenching trauma that many Jewish Christians felt. Once we realize the nature of this issue we can see how it speaks to our issues of today.
A Lesson from Carl Ketcherside Might Help
Paul’s assertion is Gal. 5:6, quoted above, throws same badly needed light on the darkness we find today within the Churches of Christ. We can learn how to handle disputes which plague the church by comparing the value of faith with the destructive nature of issues. Circumcision is no longer an issue facing the church. It seems quaint that it could have been an issue from our modern perspective, but it divided believers. It was displaced by other issues which have also been relegated to the dusty annuals of history where the follies of succeeding generations are recorded.
Today, we are confronted with new issues which have supplanted the old, and which seem as grave and important to us as did the others in times past. A brother, who I don’t always agree with myself, once wrote some very wise words about our folly:
“We are always getting caught on the ‘either-or’ hook, ‘Either circumcision or uncircumcision. ‘ We say a thing has to be either right or wrong. What we overlook is the tact that regardless of which it is, it still may be relatively unimportant, and have no effect whatsoever on our relationship to God, and should have none on our relationship to each other. Future generations will see this and wonder at our childishness even while they fight over matters as trivial.
All truth is equally true but not all truth is equally important. So all error is equally error, but not all error is equally important… It is not true that everything in the Bible is equally valuable to know. It is not nearly so important to know that Methuselah died at the age of 969 years as to know that Jesus died far our sins. Paul wrote that he left his overcoat with Carpus but that is not so valuable t to know as that “the Lord’s servant must not be a man of strife; he must be kind to all, ready and able to teach. “
There are some things which have no real validity in Christ Jesus. The essential thing is to be in Christ. A man might be circumcised, or he might not be, but whether he was or not did not affect his state in the Lord. To be in Christ is to lift us above a lot of things and place us on a wholly different plane…. It is certain that most of the things about which we have wrangled and travailed have no eternal significance. They are all transcended by our tremendous adoption into grace through the new birth.” (W. Carl Ketcherside, “The Priority Value” Mission Messenger, vol 31 #12 December 1969, p.189).
Why have we allowed issues of our day to gain such importance in our thinking? What Counts? What MUST you have in your spiritual cardboard box like that woman after the hurricane?
If Paul were writing to our fractured fellowship of today what would he say? Based on Galatians 5:6, I think Paul would confront us with a comparison between faith and issues. Me would say that in Christ everything changes. Those issues which seem so urgent and important are shown to be of no value, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love! Why aren’t issues important in light of faith? Three reasons stand behind this text:
Faith is Permanent, Issues are Temporary
Paul teaches the truthfulness of the first part of this proposition in 1 Cor. 13:13. The truthfulness of the second part of this proposition is easily documented. Mack Lynn states that the total number of churches of Christ in the U.S. stands slightly above 13,000. About 3,400 or one-fourth of these congregations are distinguished by some doctrinal issue which keeps them separated (or Distinct!) from the larger group. That is they have gone and formed their own separate communion table like Peter and his associates.
The issues change with the times, major issues that have divided us in the past include:
1875-1890 Rebaptism, card-playing, dancing, going to the theater, reading fiction, and going to baseball games
1890-1910 instrumental music, blue laws (Sabbath question), use of tobacco, pacifism, role of women, role of the Holy Spirit
1910-1940 premillennialism, use of prepared Sunday school literature (i.e. Gospel Advocate Quarterly), congregational autonomy
1940-1960 non-institutionalism, non-class, kitchens in the church building, one-cup, and mutual edification
1960-1985 bible translations, Holy Spirit, pacifism, marriage, divorce and remarriage
1985-2016 authority of elders, rebaptism, hermeneutics, women’s role, worship styles
None of these issues stay around, but they come and go. They are recycled. Faith is permanent though.
Faith allows for Diversity leading to Unity, Issues demand Conformity leading to Division
The only type of unity the Bible knows as unity in diversity, though some will deny this vehemently. Remember Romans 14-15? The question is raised about who is the weak brother and who is the strong. That depends on where you start from.
A sectarian or liberal is one who has what we oppose, and an anti, or legalist is one who opposes what we have! This is how it is in our brotherhood. We are to look like Christ, not clones of each other. The Gospel transcends every ethnic, social, political, economic, and cultural wall ever devised by humanity.
Faith enables us to Remain in Christ, Issues lead us Away from Christ
Look at the issues the Jewish leaders attempted to debate with Jesus: Sabbath keeping, fasting, and hand washing (Mt. 15:1-3, 8-9). They were so caught up in issues that they missed recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, what a tragedy (cf. Jn. 5:39-40).
In the same way, Paul was not seeking to establish a theological base, nor arguing against one which was established. He was simply showing that the big issue of the day was without any value in Christ, and if it kept you from sitting at the Table with God’s family then you have walked contrary to the Gospel. Rather the one thing that really counts is FAITH EXPRESSING ITSELF IN LOVE.
If Paul were writing directly to our situation, I believe he would say:
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in clapping or in refusing to clap, but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in using song books or in using power point, but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in using the KJV or in the NIV, but it is in faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in holding an amillennial view or a premillennial view, but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in singing Stamps-Baxter songs or in singing Newsboys songs, but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in N. T. Wright or John Piper but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in Pepperdine Bible Lectures or Gospel Advocate/Spiritual Sword but it is faith expressing itself through love.
– In Christ Jesus there is no value in all the issues we get emotionally worked up over but it is faith expressing itself in love.
Much of our heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement has stressed unity, love and patience in the face of difference. It has also cautioned about swallowing gnats and camels (see my blog Unity, Freedom of Inquiry and Humility … Of Gnat and Camel Swallowing and Who is Sound? A Thought from 1916)
The congregations that survive and thrive here at the beginning of the 21st century will be centered on Jesus Christ and not on issues! They will be lead by men and women who know the difference between faith and issues, wise leaders, who will gently but firmly admonish those who would cause dissension and division by exalting issues to a level of idolatry when they cause us to leave the Table of New Creation.
In Gal. 5:7 & 15, Paul confronts us with a question and a warning:
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you, and kept you from obeying the truth ?… If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Unity consists in our faith and loyalty to Christ. It will never consist in our agreement even upon issues that we are zealously passionate about.
Paul has a word for us. Hurricane Galatians has hit … what is in your cardboard box??