Monday, July 16, 2012



Ross Douthat’s column “Can Liberal Christianity be saved?” has provoked something of a firestorm, with generally positive responses from “conservatives,” if my social media are to be trusted, and some thoughtful responses from  “liberals,” such as Diana Butler Bass and Craig Uffman. I want to make a different sort of argument: first, that it is time to stop using “conservative” and “liberal” to distinguish Christians (even if it fits a Western political paradigm quite nicely); and second, that the Bible gives us ways of distinguishing when change is authentic to the Christian message and life and when it is not, but the notion that Christianity as manifested in its human dimension has not, does not and will not change cannot be maintained.


Change, development, and growth all happen. What differs amongst Christians going back to the earliest Church is what constitutes authentic and organic change, development and growth and what is false and scandalous. When I look at the earliest growth of Christianity, if the language of “conservative” and “liberal” were in use back then, I would argue that the “conservatives” had all of the best arguments, plus tradition, authority and Scripture on their side. Who would these “conservatives” be? The ones who said the early Christians, including Gentiles, must be circumcised and made to follow the Law of Moses if they wanted to be disciples of Jesus. We see these Christians in the background in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and in the foreground in Acts 15 making precisely the argument I mentioned above: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved"(15:1); "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses"(15:5). The fact that the Church hears and debates their arguments indicates clearly that no definitive statement had been made by Jesus suggesting that the Law of Moses ought not be kept by his disciples, whether Jews or Gentiles. The weight of tradition, practice and Scripture rests with these conservative factions in the earliest Church.  

Indeed, if I were one of these early Christian “conservatives,” here is how I would make the argument:

Brothers and Sisters, why are we even discussing this issue? The Scripture is clear how we should behave and what we must do. God spoke to Abraham directly and said, in Genesis 17:10-14,

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

How much clearer can God speak to his people? It is a sign of the covenant for all who want to belong to the covenant! Yes, the Messiah has come and yes, the Messiah has called all people to follow him, but where does it say that those who follow in the latter days shall not follow the Law of Moses? Show me the verse! The Law will be written in our hearts, as Jeremiah 31:33 says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” but the Law will not come to an end! This applies to all – listen to God speak to Abraham: even the slave and foreigner of our houses should be circumcised, why not then the Gentile who wants to become part of the covenant? Will you disobey God’s clear commandment in order to attract more people to follow Jesus? Will you take the Law, with which God blessed us, and treat it like nothing? We have no right, we have no authority! What does “everlasting covenant” mean to you? How do you understand “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant”? We agree: let the Gentiles follow Jesus, but they must also follow the Law of Moses and that includes circumcision amongst everything else!

But the Church, as seen in Galatians (and elsewhere in Paul’s letters) and in Acts 15, decided that there were a number of factors which necessitated a change of interpretation and understanding in the clear application and practice of the Scripture as seen in Genesis 17:10-14.

One was the experience of the Holy Spirit: Peter said that “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us {i.e., Jewish believers}” (Acts 15:8). Two was Peter’s argument that the Law was “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (15:10) and “on the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (15:11). Three is James’ claim that the experience of the Gentiles coming into the covenant as disciples of Jesus the Messiah is in keeping with other Scripture from the prophets, Amos 9:11-12 and Isaiah 45:21, which indicates to James that “we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19), but only ask them to follow certain laws regarding idolatry, sexual practice and food (which some scholars, such as the late Alan Segal, believed were what were later called the Noachide laws, though this is not universally held). Four is the decision of the whole Church Council to support James’ decision for “then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (15:22) to pass on the Church’s decision.

Now, if you were to ask me as a neutral observer, which I am not,  who had the best of the scriptural argument, the best of the argument from tradition and, finally, the best argument from common practice, I would have to say the “conservative” faction of the early Church. Where is there any direct statement from Scripture or from Jesus that this is the proper “change” or “development” in the life and practice of the Church? Does that mean that the early Church’s decision to change radically its way of life was “liberal”? And make no mistake, this is a radical and earth shattering change, and if that is lost on Christians today it is because we no longer recognize how drastic it was to accept Gentiles into the covenant as Gentiles or to suggest that members of the covenant need not follow the Law of Moses in its entirety (Galatians 5:14: “The entire law is fulfilled in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself").

What is also fascinating is that change is embedded in this passage yet again in the very directives that James and the whole Church give to the Gentile Christians instead of the whole Law of Moses:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)

The Church continues to insist to this day on the illicit nature of fornication (porneia in Greek) and abstention from what is sacrificed to idols (though see 1Corinthians 8-10 for an early modification or “change” of sorts in this respect), though you do not hear a lot on “strangled” animals – whether it relates to idolatrous sacrifices or improper methods of killing animals – or on eating or drinking blood nowadays. In fact, when I taught my Survey of the New Testament course a few years back to a class with a number of seminarians, now priests, from Ghana, this passage lead to uproarious laughing. Why? For some Ghanaian tribes, including their own, blood was a part of their diet. Why is this no longer an issue? Was there some sort of “liberal” agenda driving the Church’s shift from this requirement established by the earliest Church Council?

Things do change in Christianity and it seems difficult to me to cast change in religion in terms of “conservative” and “liberal” factions. It also seems incorrect to focus on “numbers” – falling or rising memberships – as the key to whether change is authentic and organic or whether it is false and unnatural. You can argue that change leads to falling numbers because a group does not follow the traditions of old – maybe the early Christians who were at odds with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 made this argument – or you can use the same falling numbers to claim that it is now a religious movement becoming more pristine and faithful, so why should numbers even matter.

The real issues are who has the authority to certify authentic change and what is the rationale for that change, because change, development and growth do come. Acts 15 tells us a few things about this:

1) There was a gathering of the apostles, elders and other members of the Church who disputed and discussed the questions regarding Gentiles and the Law of Moses;
2) There was a claim made on the Church by the actual experience of the Gentiles, who had also shown evidence of the Holy Spirit;
3) There were scriptural warrants which were gathered to provide support for the experience of the people who desired change;
4) There was an authoritative decision rendered by the Church and accepted by the whole Church.

For Catholics, the issue of authority, that of the Magisterium, is primary, and Catholics are beholden to it, but to think that change does not come is not to know one’s own Church’s history, at its earliest stages. It is also important to keep in mind that the “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). The Church needs to listen to what is taking place in the lives of ordinary believers and recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks through the whole Church. It is also important to search the Scripture and recognize that Scripture speaks in different ways and at different times to people: it was only in light of the experience of the Gentiles that James and then the whole Church heard the prophets Amos and Isaiah in a new way.

Change in Christianity is not about “liberal” and “conservative” factions, it is about becoming the followers of Jesus that we are supposed to be. We need to listen to each other, to hear of the lives of others, to examine Scripture, and, yes, to accept authoritative decisions, but we also need to be ready to hear change, not as a threat, or as schismatic, or as rebellion, but as the nature of the body of Christ:  

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 13-22)

Let’s say this letter was written to us today shall we and that it did not concern “Gentiles” and “Jews” but so-called “Conservatives” and “Liberals”? Christ came to proclaim not “conservatism” or “liberalism,” but “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” What a change.

John W. Martens

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