Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Paul separated from the Jews

I want to carry on making a few Scriptural points directed towards my evangelical brethren in mixed denominations, especially national and/or institutional churches such as the Church of Scotland or Church of England.

When I've interacted with such brethren, or read their reasons why they think that the Bible's commands to separate from unbelief/immorality don't apply to them in their situation (or don't yet apply to them), I often hear arguments with reasoning that involves the Old Testament theocracy. I think I specifically remember John Stott somewhere or other baldly stating that even in the darkest days of Israel's apostacy, the prophets never told the faithful remnant to depart from the nation and start a new one. There are many variations on this theme, but they all boil down to the same thing. Israel was a mixed body, and the church is not a replacement for Israel but its continuation/fulfilment - therefore there is warrant for us to seek to remain and purify the church, not to depart from it.

Now, I think that these arguments are hideously confused - multiple category mistakes:
  • The observation that the New Testament is the continuation and fulfilment of the Old Testament (and thus the people of God in the NT have that relation to the people in the Old) in no way implies anything about the organisation of that people. The outward administration of the covenant must be distinguished from its inward continuity. Obviously those two things are related, but to use one to over-ride the reality of the other is wrong in principle. It's like arguing that Solomon's temple was splendid, therefore God requires us to build elaborately decorated church buildings.

  • Old Testament Israel finds its New Testament fulfilment in an international church of believers. To somehow find reasons in Old Testament Israel for not separating from unbelievers must be grossly mistaken.

  • The New Testament specifically tells us that the theocratic economy was a temporary arrangement intended to preserve an outward witness to God in the world until Christ came. It was an infant state of the church. The people were kept "locked up" under the law - a severe schoolmaster - until the liberty of sonship should come, Galatians 3:19-26. Because the Old Testament church was full of unbelievers, they had to be given a harsh discipline in order to preserve their existence so that they didn't totally disappear from the world before the time God had chosen to send forth his Son. Hence, there's no way you can reason from that old state to justify failure to depart wide-scale unbelief in the New Testament age. It's an immense chronological mistake.

  • At root it's a huge error about the nature of the New Testament church. Its unity does not consist in any kind of organisational or outward principle. We are not born into it by the first birth, but by the second. We do not belong to it by the flesh, but by the Spirit. There is nothing special about an organisation simply because of who belong to it years ago. I hear evangelicals speaking in the Church of England of "not abandoning the church of the Hooper, Latimer, Cranmer, Ryle, Simeon", etcetera. This is nonsense. There is no New Testament doctrine of any kind of automatic successionism. Evangelicals decisively reject such ideas as incipient Roman Catholicism (e.g. apostolic succession - the idea that the laying on of hands from one man to the next constitutes the spiritual unity of the church). The gospel and faithfulness to Scripture constitutes the true spiritual succession. But they let this false doctrine smuggle back in with this kind of talk. There is no entity that Christ cares of called "The Church of Scotland" that has some special value merely because it's united to the state, or had godly men who led it in years past.

I could go on and list more. But the main point I wanted to make is a different one. Actually, the New Testament church did separate from the Jews. The church grew up from the synagogues - it was for some time intertwined to differing extents in different places. Synagogues had believing Jews and unbelieving Jews - and much fertile evangelism went on in those places. But eventually, the lines of division became hard and fast: some believed, others were decisive in rejecting the gospel. And when that happened, Paul separated the disciples from the synagogues, and gathered them together in separate meetings. We see that pattern time and again in Acts. Here's an example in Acts 19:8-9:
And he [Paul] went into the synagogue, and sppke boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading about the things concerning the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened, and did not believed, but spoke evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.

Here's the same in Acts 18:4-7 in a different town:
And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks. 5 And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ. 6 And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his clothing and said unto them, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles." 7 And he departed thence, and entered into a certain man's house, named Justus, one that worshipped God, whose house joined hard to the synagogue.
There's a repeated pattern. Paul went to the synagogues preached the gospel. He preached it repeatedly and clearly. Eventually it led to lines of division. When those lines were clear, he took the disciples out of the synagogues and met elsewhere. He didn't teach them that because of the godly men who'd been there in previous years they should stay and fight for control. He didn't say that it would be wrong to cede control of the buildings and machinery of the organisation instead of seeking to win it for Christ. He didn't say that the synagogue remained the "best boat to fish from" despite the Jews' unbelief. He didn't treat the synagogue system as some kind of special organisation that remained a "church" despite the widescale rejection of Christ that prevailed, that then justified remaining in it.

Rather, Paul knew that that widescale unbelief would be spiritually ruinous to remain in contact with. Just a little leaven leavens the whole lump. He gave up the buildings, the structures, the history, the organisational machinery - and took the groups of disciples into hired houses where they no more had anything to do with the official machinery of Judaism. Note that this was a course of events that took months, not years - not decades; not generations; not centuries. There is no Biblical justification or precedent for the arguments of those evangelical brethren who take such a course. Once it had become clear that the spiritual corruption had reached the roots, the church was separated out from Judaism. When the signs of fundamental spiritual ruin were there, they were told to flee and not even go back to collect their coats. The final judgment on the Old Testament church was nigh, and fell in that generation when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans. Had these dear evangelical brethren been alive in AD70 and run the same kind of arguments, they would have fallen with them. It's spiritual folly of the highest order.

1 comment:

Ned Kelly said...

More and more, I come to believe that so many Christians have misplaced faith. They don't trust the power of the Gospel, they don't trust the Holy Spirit, they seem to think that what they do is God's work, not understanding that it is not what they do that is important, but what God does through them. Hence this protectionism of the institution of the worldly church. We have seen this so much when various denominations have hidden the misdeeds of their clerics, particularly in the area of child abuse. The church leaders have considered it more important to protect the shepherds than the flock, lest the flock lose faith in the shepherds. The focus is entirely wrong, the importance of the worldly institution is exaggerated, and as you rightly point out, our church, our Christian unity, is in Christ and our common belief in HIS message, not in our worldly organisations and our compromised beliefs. I don't have the quote to hand but recall a British bishop announcing words to the effect that given a choice between heresy and disunity, he would choose heresy rather than see his church divided. It would seem from your discussion that this view, though unstated, is prevalent in the C of S.