Ecclesial Differences in the One Body
God would provide ecclesias with what was needed to make it through the challenges to their faith
It must have been painful for Jewish believers to contemplate the differences introduced by new Gentile converts in emerging ecclesias. Was it possible that salvation did not require all of the essential rituals and traditions they believed were associated with a holy life? Generations of faithful Jews had defined holiness by these commandments.
The observant Jew, now a believer in Jesus Christ, still saw these practices as Divine decrees as well as differentiation of Abraham’s seed. The practice of the Law of Moses was integral to Jewish culture. It was how commerce was governed and justice administered. The Law united God’s people, even when they were under captivity by a foreign nation.
Did God expect all Gentile believers to become practicing Jews?
However, new Gentile converts required a rethinking of the Law. Many eyewitnesses of Gentile converts were blessed with Spirit gifts. They were authentic believers, yet they were not observing the Law. Was this an error that “stronger” believers must correct? Should Gentile converts be taught to keep the Law? How about circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath? What about dietary practices? Did God expect all Gentile believers to become practicing Jews?
I wonder if we can try to place ourselves in these difficult discussions long ago. Some would argue that the practices of the Law were timeless. God commanded His people to keep these observances as a “statute forever.” Didn’t Moses teach that these Laws were requirements of His people? How was it that Gentiles could be saved and not embrace these practices?
Practice and Principle
Looking back 2,000 years, we can see that the overwhelming message of gospel growth was unity in diversity. There would be vast differences in practice from one ecclesia to another. There was no conformity to a single way of worship. If one attended a meeting in Jerusalem, it included deeply observant Jews, who believed fully in Jesus but kept the Law. Even the Apostle Paul, while spending most of his time outside Judea, made provisions for observing the feasts of the Law. A meeting of brothers and sisters in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia, or Cilicia would have looked far different than those in Jerusalem. How would these vastly dissimilar practices enable the growth and development of one body of Christ across the Roman world?
We might assume that if one agrees to the same Scriptural principles as us, they will follow uniformity in practice. But this has rarely been true in the body of Christ. We see multiple examples where agreement on principle existed, but there was a variation in practice to accommodate local needs. For example, Gentile and Jewish believers agreed an idol was nothing but wood or stone.
In cities like Corinth, some members would have a deep aversion to anything tainted with the idol worship they had once practiced. Therefore, some chose to refrain from eating food offered to an idol. However, others did eat, recognizing there was nothing wrong with consuming the food. The real issue wasn’t the practice but the principle. It wasn’t right or wrong to eat food offered to an idol, but the principle was about the impact eating the meat would have on the brother or sister whose conscience was wounded. Principle always trumps practice. Get the principle right, and it will govern practice.
Ecclesias today have learned to agree on principles but also accept that there are some areas where we can follow very different practices. The issue of marriage and divorce is one such area. I don’t believe there is any ecclesia that would not accept the principle that marriage is intended for life, and the LORD hates divorce. Yet, there is no uniformity among ecclesias on handling matters of divorce. One may disagree with the practice of another ecclesia, but in the end, it is a choice made in love when we remain committed to being united as a body of Christ. It is possible to agree on the principle while accepting that not all brethren see appropriate practice the same way as I do.
The Jerusalem Conference Solution
All one has to do is examine the famous Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15 to see the spectrum of opinions in the body of Christ. There were men of Judaea who argued one “cannot be saved” unless they are circumcised. (v. 1). Pharisee believers also argued this issue was about much more than circumcision; it required all believers everywhere to keep all of the Law. Some wanted a directive sent to all ecclesias, stating it was “needful to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (v. 5). Peter, who received the thrice-repeated vision of unclean animals on a sheet in Joppa, had previously been rebuked by Paul in Antioch (Gal 2:11-17) for withdrawing himself from the Gentiles in fear of the party of the circumcision. Paul and Barnabas delivered a stirring account of the miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. What a fascinating array of deeply held experiences and views!
Today, we may see the appropriate answer to this debate. But of course, we have the benefit of the direction of the Spirit through James (Acts 15:13-21) and two millennia of experience. In reality, the Jerusalem Conference may have been the most crucial example of brethren respectfully and lovingly working through conflict in New Testament times.
Bro. Alfred D. Norris (1914-2003) of England once pointed out that the principle of the Jerusalem Conference was that Gentile believers didn’t need to become Jews, but they did need to stop pagan practices. Practicing diversity was accepted as long as it was consistent with the principles taught by our Lord. With the Jerusalem Conference, we see an example of how unity was appealed for and not demanded. Permitting ecclesias to make their own decisions locally accomplished this goal.
Despite having the greatest Christian thinkers at the Conference and having the benefit of Spirit gifts, the communication to the ecclesias was not a mandate. Rather, the phrasing was: “it seemed good unto us,” and “for it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.” (Acts 15:25, 28). It was a recommendation, though doubtless a compelling one. As the letter traveled around to ecclesias in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, the brethren would have been most pleased to receive it, as it detangled a significant and divisive issue they had been facing.
This solution may have been more difficult for the ecclesias that subscribed to the doctrine of circumcision. Some may have followed the practice suggested in the letter; others we know did not. But there was no edict, no assumption that a centralized body would “command” a given practice. Even with such a significant difference, the only mandate was that the community be united.
Of course, some (mainly in Judea) never accepted the Conference’s recommendation. Sadly, some of them traveled throughout the Roman world in an attempt to drive compliance with their point of view. This effort created immense disturbances in ecclesias, and undoubtedly, some individuals were lost because of the upset.
The Apostle Paul and his co-workers had labored diligently to teach the critical principles of the Truth, only to have influential brethren from Judaea assert their faith was not built on knowledge. This became a ruthless campaign to make the gospel and its practice the same for all believers everywhere.
The work of the Spirit prevailed by demonstrating that brethren should learn to live with difference in practice. Alignment of thinking about the gospel was essential. But variation in how to practice the gospel was permitted, as long as was consistent with Scriptural principles.
fellowship thrived despite having significant variations in practice
Today, some may feel our fellowship cannot have ambiguity in practice. Those who embrace this view think all ecclesias should operate with uniformity of practice, at least on the most important issues. This view is held not solely because of personal preference but from a genuine belief that salvation could be at risk. However, what united the ecclesias was the principle involved in the consideration. What had Christ taught? How was this principle intended to govern the behavior of believers? In some cases, the principle allowed for differences in practice. Throughout the first century, ecclesias were distinguished by differences, yet fellowship survived, even thrived, despite having significant variations in practice.
Damnable Heresies vs. Wholesome Doctrine
Later, “damnable heresies” would arise (2 Pet 2:1), but these were not due to differences in practice between the ecclesias. The primary threat came from corrupting philosophies of the world and erroneous heresies from within (Judaizers), which had wormed their way into the community. Some taught that Jesus was someone other than who he really was. The Gnostics believed in “docetism,” that is, they claimed he hadn’t come in the flesh; John labels this as “the spirit of antichrist.” (1 John 4:3).
In those cases, they were to admonish the individuals teaching these errors. If the erring teachers didn’t cease their promulgation of that teaching, they were to remove them as teachers and, in some cases, withdraw from them. But even then, the conflict between brethren was to be handled in love. In the Apocalypse, the Lord assessed Ephesus as having neglected their first love when fighting against such errors. (Rev 2:2-5).
The focus of the apostles and first century elders was to teach the wholesome gospel, correct doctrinal errors, and invite the community to identify Scriptural principles for their practices. In Corinth, the Breaking of Bread had devolved into an extremely non-spiritual practice for some.
Paul educated them about the principle of what the Breaking of Bread was about and helped them see the folly of their existing customs. Paul also corrected the Corinthians about their practice of not addressing and resolving unrepented sin. He admonished them for failing to confront the sin of the brother who had his father’s wife. But, instead of just demanding adherence, he reminded them of the threat of gangrene to the membership and how they were to behave to recover this man. Once there was alignment between teaching and principles, ecclesias were to ensure similar alignment for practice. It was their duty in Corinth, not to be assumed by other ecclesias.
God’s Grace is Sufficient
We know the failure of some to adopt the tenets of the Jerusalem Conference letter resulted in significant stress to ecclesias, certainly up to AD 70. As we sit here today, we would have strongly advised the party of the circumcision to accept the advice of the Counsel and implement its recommendations. But this was not the way of the Spirit.
The way of the Spirit was for brethren with strongly different opinions to find a common way to work together for the gospel’s sake. Some have suggested that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-8), from which he prayed for relief, was about these same Jews pushing for complete compliance of all believers to keep the Law. We can imagine how this must have desperately confused novice believers and brought much pain to Paul and his co-workers. However, the message to Paul was, despite praying three times for relief, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” (2 Cor12:9).
Paul was learning to acknowledge that God was in complete control. He would provide Paul and the ecclesias with what was needed to make it through the challenges to their faith. That’s a helpful way to look at the differences between brethren.
This thought is a timeless principle for all believers. Rather than calcifying positions and polarizing a community, the message to Paul was to trust in the Lord. It is he who walks “in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.” (Rev 2:1). The introductory chapters to the Apocalypse demonstrate to us that our Lord is not only fully aware of what is happening in our ecclesias, but he has an accurate assessment of what needs to be done. It is always best to recognize that whatever challenges we face, his “grace is sufficient.”
Cookie Cutter Solutions?
What would have happened if this difference of opinion between the circumcision party and the brethren assembled in Acts 15 had become siloed and uncooperative? Undoubtedly, it would not have been in the best interest of the spread of the true gospel. It’s interesting to note that when Paul writes from Rome to Colossi, he mentions, “Jesus, which is called Justus.
These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.” (Col 4:11 ESV). While the party of the circumcision had caused the Apostle great difficulties, he found a way to work productively with these brethren, who held very different views. It teaches us men of opposing views can find a common bond in the work of the Truth. This must be our goal.
As we consider fellowship today, we can learn much from our first century brethren. Throughout history, the body of Christ generally has never had a “cookie-cutter” approach to practice. It certainly is not today. When we look across our community, we see a wide variation of practices; some we may agree with, and others we may not. The essential requirement is that we have alignment on the “doctrine of Christ.” (Heb 6:1). We embrace the principles of Christ, and we must allow for some variation of practice. While we can’t permit the teachings of Scripture to be compromised, the unity in diversity principle between believers is equally essential today.
We are seeing our Lord moving to make rapid changes in our community. In the past twenty-five years, there has been unprecedented growth in many countries, and we are much richer spiritually for this outcome. We’ve realized the ability to preach the Word through the Internet, which has opened a window of opportunity to send our message to people and places we had never dreamed of. Surely, this is the Lord’s work to help us remain strong as we face the challenges of the Last Days. May it be that we walk in unity together, seeking common ground on the teachings and principles of Christ, while we embrace our diversity as brothers and sisters.