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Last week we drew a very important distinction. We learned
that while it is important to leave the sin of a culture, that doesn't
necessarily mean we have to abandon its style. While I'm convinced
that distinction is an important one, I'm equally convinced that it isn't
so easy to make. Yet, if we are going to be effective at penetrating
cultures with the gospel message we will have to possess discerning hearts
and minds and know the difference between sin and style.
Let me cite an extreme example to illustrate the distinction.
One of the hot button issues of our day is same sex marriage. In
last Tuesday's election, eleven states voted to ban same sex marriages.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council says,
"This is an issue that reaches deep and wide across this country.
The people are taking the lead - they're not waiting for the politicians
to act." (http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/politics/10057119.htm?1c
I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear that I support prohibitions
against same sex marriages. Maintaining the sanctity of the marriage
relationship is important to me and to most Christians who hold to the
traditional values and the moral teachings of the Bible. I believe
homosexuality is wrong and is an affront to the natural order that God
established when he created male and females. (Rom 1:24-28) But while
I readily teach that homosexuality is sin, that doesn't mean that every
element of the culture that surrounds the homosexual lifestyle is sin.
I started working on a sequel to Future
Church last month because it is my belief that the church is facing
an increasingly hostile environment. I wanted to get some insights
from a Pastor who is on the frontline of the cultural wars, so I interviewed
Rev. Phil Busbee, the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, whose
office overlooks the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Trans-Gender Community Center
in San Francisco. Busbee says, "All of the gay culture is not anti-biblical
or even sinful or even wrong. Some of it is actually commendable,
and one of the things I think about in the gay community is they way they've
developed a commitment to one another in community." While Busbee
upholds the Biblical standards and condemns the sin he sees in those who
practice homosexuality, he also acknowledges the elements of their lifestyle
that is commendable. When a homosexual person is radically
transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, we want them to leave their sin,
but we would want them to bring into the church their commitment to community.
Romans 12:10 says, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference
to one another in honor;" (NASB)
If that issue is a difficult one to parse, just wait until we
address the issue raised in Acts 15. We understand that a new believer
can't be totally the way they were before their conversion, but Acts 15
addresses another issue, do they have to adopt the current subculture of
Christianity; or to put it another way, do they have to become like us
when they are saved?
Acts 15:1-5 says, "Some men came down from Judea and began to
teach the brothers: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom
prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!  But after Paul and Barnabas
had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul
and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders
in Jerusalem concerning this controversy.  When they had been sent on
their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria,
explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great
joy among all the brothers.  When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were
welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported
all that God had done with them.  But some of the believers from the
party of the Pharisees stood up and said, It is necessary to circumcise
them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!"(HCSB)
Circumcision was a big deal to the Jews (Genesis 17:10-24) and
continued to be a big deal to some of the Jewish converts. It was
such a big deal that some of them taught that it was a necessary ingredient
of salvation. Paul and Barnabas argued with the Jews who came to
teach this to the new Gentile converts and when the teachers wouldn't back
down, they took their dispute back to the Apostles and Elders of the church
of Jerusalem. In the beginning, there was some heated discussions
at the Jerusalem Council, some of the believers that were Pharisees pushed
to adopt circumcision as a Christian practice, but Peter opposed them.
Drawing upon what he learned on Simon's rooftop and his experience in taking
the gospel to the Gentiles, he said, "But we believe that we are saved
through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
(Acts 15:11 NASB) Paul, Barnabas and James weighed in and the council came
to a decision. Acts 15:22-33 says, "Then the apostles and the elders,
with the whole church, decided to select men from among them and to send
them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas, called Barsabbas, and Silas,
both leading men among the brothers.  They wrote this letter to be
delivered by them: From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, To
the brothers from among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.
 Because we have heard that some to whom we gave no authorization went
out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts,
 we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along
with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  who have risked their lives for
the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore we have sent Judas and
Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. 
For it was the Holy Spirits decision and ours to put no greater burden
on you than these necessary things:  that you abstain from food offered
to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and
from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these things, you will
do well. Farewell.  Then, being sent off, they went down to Antioch,
and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter.  When
they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.  Both Judas
and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and
strengthened them with a long message.  After spending some time there,
they were sent back in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them."
They made it clear that salvation came through God's grace and
not by circumcision and that the Gentiles didn't have to become "Jews"
to become Christians. While they weren't asking the Gentile Christians
to take on their culture, they did ask them to leave some elements of their
culture. Immorality was out. Liberty in Christ is not a license
to sin. Even people who see the world in shades of grey have to also
acknowledge that some things are black and white. The counsel asked
them to refrain from immorality. They also asked them to not eat
blood or anything that was strangled (Lev 17:14) because of their belief
that the soul is in the blood (Keil/Delitzsch 410-11) and to refrain from
eating meat that is offered to idols a form of pagan worship.
This was a big deal. In the letters to the seven churches of Revelation,
Jesus criticized the members of the Church of Pergamum (Rev. 2:14) and
Thyatira Rev. 2:20 for eating meat offered to idols.
Paul further explained the prohibition in 1 Cor. 10:18-20 when
he wrote, "Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices
sharers in the altar?  What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed
to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, but I say that
the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and
not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons." (NASB)
How would the Pagan Gentile react when she saw the Christian Gentile
eating the meat? Would she believe the Christian was entering into
pagan worship with her? How would a Christian react in seeing another
Christian eating the meat, would she believe the Christian was worshiping
God and the devil at the same time?
In Romans 14:20-21, Paul writes, "Do not tear down the work of
God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil
for the man who eats and gives offense.  It is good not to eat meat
or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles." (NASB)
In essence, the Jerusalem Council told the Gentile believers that
they didn't have to be like the Jews to be saved, but neither could they
continue to be like they were. When Jesus saves people, they are
new creations in Christ. All it takes for them to be saved is God's
transforming grace, which will result in them living a new life.
They may not culturally become like the believers that introduced them
to Jesus, but spiritually they will become like Jesus who saved them from