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We Should Always Follow the Church, Except When We Shouldn’t, Then We Should

Note: I fully affirm the divine calling of the church, but realize that it is an imperfect representation of Christ. In a changing and complex world tension naturally arises. This series will explore how to live within this tension. The previous entry provides context for this one. You can read it here.

“I would love to get fired for that.”

Most people collect things like coins, media, or stamps. I collect ordinations. I have several. I couldn’t even tell you where most came from without looking at them. If there is a place offering free and open ordination I sign up for it. I did pay ten dollars for one of them when I was asked to officiate a wedding in a state that didn’t like any of my free ones. I know it’s strange, but it’s something to do since I can’t get the one ordination I want. It’s not for lack of trying, but we don’t currently offer an ordination track for Bible teachers. For a long time, this frustrated and disappointed me, until one day I sat at a crossroads.

We had just concluded a week of prayer at our school where fifty students made a commitment to be baptized. In our team, two of us were ordained as local elders, and two of us were not. We had a local pastor offer to come help, but fifty is a lot to baptize, and the elders really weren’t supposed to do it outside of their church. We met to discuss the logistics of our dilemma, when one teacher finally spoke up and said, “I’m going to baptize these kids.” While I was with him in spirit, I felt compelled to address the elephant in the room. I replied, “What if you get in trouble? What if someone comes for your job?”

His response? “I would love to get fired for that.”

I had to admit he had a point. I mean, isn’t bringing kids to accept Jesus and be baptized sort of the point for those in ministry? If someone asked you why you got fired, could you think of a better response than “I baptized some of my students”?

In the end, there were seven of us there baptizing kids. We told them ahead of time that they wouldn’t become members of the church, and they would have to go to their church to make a profession of faith. We didn’t want to discourage their decision, but we needed them to understand that being baptized by a collection of teachers, youth pastors, and deans wasn’t how things were done in the policy books. It would be a little different.

In the end, the kids didn’t care about our paperwork not being in order, and neither did anyone else. Would I have loved to do things more by the book? Sure! Was I going to let some paperwork stop these young people from accepting Christ’s call to baptism? Not a chance.

Concerning Food Sacrificed to Idols

I don’t take violating church policy lightly. Especially since the church is also my employer. Policy is wonderful…as long as it's your servant and not your master. Before we go running off and recreating the days of the judges by doing what is right in our own eyes, let’s explore Acts 15 and Jerusalem. If you've read the previous part of this series, we discussed how Acts 15 was a monumental decision in the church’s history. They ignored years of tradition and scripture when they decided not to require circumcision to join this new Jesus movement. Instead, they said people simply needed to follow a few basic guidelines. The rest was open for different groups to practice as they saw fit.

One of these essential guidelines was about food sacrificed to idols. Acts 15:28-29 says this about the decision:

"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things."

There is an implied "accepting Jesus as their savior" in this, but otherwise, the requirements are few. With the decision made, they send disciples out all over the region with this new and monumental decision. Order has been restored to the church, and all they had to do was discard thousands of years of tradition and divine instruction from God.

One of the people who was part of this deciding group, and who took this message out to the Gentiles, was Paul. Sometime after the Jerusalem council, Paul started a church in Corinth. Then, he left to plant churches elsewhere. Some problems popped up in Corinth while Paul was away, so he wrote to them to clarify things. In chapter 8, he says something that would probably get him placed on a compliance committee agenda these days. He tells the church in Corinth that they all know “an idol is nothing at all in the world” and “there is no God but one.” In other words, Paul is telling them there aren’t actually any other gods besides their God, so an idol is meaningless. He then releases them to eat the food sacrificed to idols, but he does so with a huge, important caveat.

Although they know better about idols and can eat whatever food they want, Paul cautions them against doing this in front of people who are new or immature in their faith. He doesn’t want someone who thinks this is a big problem to see them doing it and have their conscience wounded. He says to cause these brothers and sisters to stumble is to sin against Christ.

If you are connecting the dots, Paul—who was part of the Jerusalem council—is telling the church in Corinth they don’t have to follow the Jerusalem Council’s decision on eating food sacrificed to idols. It wasn’t enough for Paul to undo years of tradition and go away from God’s command, but now he wants them to ignore the will of the church too?! Or does he?

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

When we look at the context of this church decision, we see more than deciding on particular behaviors; they are deciding on a philosophy. It's a philosophy that says first and foremost, the church will follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, this philosophy says the goal is to reduce the barriers of entry as much as possible. You don’t need to get circumcised, or participate in the Jewish feasts, but you do need to do a few of these basic things.

As the church continues to grow and change, Paul is growing and changing alongside them. Those who have developed a strong faith are so far removed from their days of worshiping other gods and they can clearly see that sacrificed food is just food. They don’t need to be troubled by eating it, because their faith is secure in the one God they serve. For these people, Paul says eating food sacrificed to idols is no big deal.

He knows, however, there are still people out there who will find this act a big deal. They are new to the faith, and worshiping idols is fresh in their history. When dining with these people, Paul says not to eat the sacrificed food. Why? Because it would cause a barrier to go up, and they would question their faith. For the new convert, the Acts 15 decision is helpful. For the longstanding church member with strong faith, it's not so important. In ignoring the specifics of the church’s ruling, Paul is actually affirming the guiding principles.

He is removing any barrier between the people and Jesus.

This is why I decided to baptize the students, even though I didn't have a piece of paper granting me permission to do so. Policy and ordination has its purpose, but in moments when the decisions of the church put up barriers between people and Jesus, those barriers must be put aside. I don’t say this lightly, but I look back on that day and I can firmly say:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

If the church is called to be the body of Christ, then following Jesus and following the church should be the same thing. Occasionally we encounter some conflict. The world is a complex and changing place. In those moments, we would do well to remember these words tucked between all the advice about food:

“There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

If we can live through Jesus we will always be doing the work of the church, even when we are going against what the church has said.


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