It didn’t take long for the new church to have to wrestle with what to do with the various different practices that those new believers brought to their faith. Not only did different believers bring with them “baggage” from their previous faiths, but they also did not have a single Bible from which to read and understand their faith.
It’s hard to picture what it must have been like. Jesus had just ascended into Heaven, the Holy Spirit had appeared as tongues of fire and was bringing all things into remembrance of what Christ said. Many that had been with Him probably expected a soon return, and others were piecing together what would become the four Gospels.
The apostles were tasked with coming up with how to worship Yaweh in the context of Jesus’ work on the cross, fending off heresy as well as dealing with the work of ministering to widows and orphans. It’s no wonder that they appointed deacons at this time to help them!
Doctrine, Commands or Preference?
Very quickly in the book of Acts we see that the Apostles had to deal with what would be the doctrine for a believer compared to the Jewish faith. There were many that believed that Gentiles should become Jewish in order to believe in Jesus. The Apostles ruled that a very narrow set of requirements would be enforced on the new converts:
- Abstain from fornication
- Abstain from meat offered to idols
Paul actually campaigned against the latter one in his letter to the Romans, arguing that there is no such idol if one does not worship it. In this letter he introduced the two categories of things, Doctrine, Commands and Preference.
Much of the Epistles have warnings about false doctrines. Paul pronounces anathemas on those that would teach any other gospel than the one that he preaches. He tells believers to mark those that cause division because of doctrine and avoid them. In 1 Corinthians 13, he lays out exactly what the Gospel is in terms of what must be believed– Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.
There’s further discussion of the heresy of the Gnostics and the Judiazers who would seek to define the nature of Jesus as something other than all God and all Man or enforce Jewish custom on new believers; however, the areas of doctrine are firm and unquestioned.
Paul deals with preference in Romans 14. He states that some people may wish to honor certain days, and that’s fine as long as the person does it unto the Lord. Days could be the feast days of the Old Testament, or other holidays on the calendar. Paul also tackles meat offered to idols– something forbade by the other Apostles in the Jerusalem council– by stating that idols really are nothing, and as long as the person eating is thanking God for the food, it’s fine… with one exception.
Paul introduces the concept of respect to a brother who may believe that an activity is sinful, but would compromise his beliefs if you exercised your liberty in front of him. So a believer that believes that meat is fine should not eat it IF another believer who believes that it is not would be tempted to eat because you do. The test then is that a person should only do as he believes is right before God in good conscience, considering one another.
At this point, you would think that we could call it a day– two areas, one where no compromise could be had and one where we had true liberty to worship God with a clear conscience, but it’s this last category that throws in the monkey wrench, and makes a muddle of the whole.
You see, Paul didn’t just say that there was doctrine and then freedom in Christ, he also gave a huge number of commands about many different things in the Christian life. Everything from who could be an overseer to what women should wear came under different commands from Paul.
And I believe that’s where we find ourselves in many of the Pastoral Epistles– churches that were living out their new faith not knowing what to do and pulling things from all different traditions trying to live this new life.
So in Corinth we have believers rejoicing that they were tolerant of a man that had his father’s wife and were taking each other to court, while they argued over which of the traditions were the one that they should follow– Paul, Apollos, or Jesus. The other churches needing tweaks in various areas, and Pastors needing to know how to choose leaders in the churches.
So Paul gives commands, in fact, there are over 1000 commands in the New Testament!
What to do with the Commands of the New Testament?
So here’s the problem, what are we to do with the commands of the New Testament? Are they relevant for today?
The problem during the New Testament time is our problem today. American Christianity comes from a Middle Ages tradition and continues to follow that tradition today– we have church buildings, a minister who is qualified by his education, tradition and ordination. We build huge congregations and focus our spiritual energy on the first day of the week and large scale ministries. In some places we create satellite campuses and mega churches focused on the ministry of a personality.
But where do these traditions fall? Doctrine, Command or Preference? Maybe parts of all three? How do you begin to evaluate if you’ve fallen afield of what followers of Christ should be?
Many argue over music styles in the church– something that the passages on how to hold a church service are almost silent on. 1 Corinthians 14 speaks to everyone having a word to say, a tongue and a hymn, but other than that, what music glorifies God or how worship should look other than it should be in order– silence.
And then there’s arguing over a woman’s (particularly a wife’s) place in the church– teacher? preacher? silent? covering her head?
The reason that these are issues is that we do not know how to place things into the correct area: Doctrine, Command or Preference. We’re pretty good at the Doctrine section, but we are constantly moving items from preference into command and vice versa.
Hence what is old is new, and many of the items from the Epistles seem like they were written for the current time– and we are playing our part in rejecting commands and elevating preferences to the point where I am beginning to long for a consistent application of the text of Scripture where things aren’t bent into a pretzel simply because they’re inconvenient and aren’t en vogue.
How about you?