The Apostle’s Doctrine IV – Theology
By Fred Pruitt
I suppose we give ourselves away, sometimes, in the kind of information we attempt to garner from new acquaintances. When men meet for the first time, somewhere in the initial conversation one or both will almost always ask, “And what do you do [for work]?” Men relate, or do not relate, on a “what we do” level.
We used to attend a very affluent Episcopal church. Most of the men there were community leaders, business leaders, business owners, business management, state legislators, stock traders, etc.
I was none of those things. Once at the church Sunday breakfast before services, a gentleman asked me where I worked. I replied, “At ______ carpet yarn mill.”
Owing to our surroundings, he further asked me, “Oh, are you in management or human resources?” His eyes seemed certain of an affirmative response.
“No,” I answered, “I work third shift on the line. I doff twisters.” (For the uninitiated, to “doff twisters” means removing the full spindles of twisted yarn from the “twister,” about forty per side, put them on a rolling rack, leave fresh empty spindles, and give the signal to the operator to start up her twister again.)
He looked a little befuddled for a moment, finally replying, “Oh, I see, ok.” Then he went off to talk to someone else.
When Christians unfamiliar with each other gather, often the first question that comes up is, “What church do you go to?”
Why do we (they) ask that? Of course, it helps us categorize, whether innocently or suspiciously. It’s Christian “profiling.”
“Oh, you go to ______ church!” Meanwhile in our brains synapses are firing, bringing up anything we have heard or “know about” such and such church or group so that we have an idea “where they are coming from.”
Another time years ago we were at a Christmas Day celebration at Janis’ uncle’s house. While sitting in the living room while all the preparations were going on in the kitchen, a relative from elsewhere I’d never met asked me, “What church do you go to?”
“The Episcopal church,” I replied.
Her immediate response, made as an authoritative statement, was, “Oh, y’all believe in social drinking!”
I think I just sat there dumbfounded for a moment, and cannot remember what I replied. That is probably because ever since that incident, I have wished I had said, “Oh yes, that’s one of the major tenets of our faith!” (I guess the Lord stopped me!)
But my point is, it is not uncommon for Christians to size each other up according to what kind of church they attend or what their “positions” are regarding certain doctrines or issues. It is kind of like when dogs meet each other.
It was not that way in the beginning. The New Testament Church had little literature and probably very few copies of the Jewish scriptures, since they must have been very expensive. There was no “New Testament.” That was when it was being written, and many of the writings were copied and passed around, but the people who wrote it did not know they were writing what future generations would call Holy Scripture. (I’m sure the various authors of the Old Testament were the same.)
There were no Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Calvinists, Plymouth Brethren, Episcopalians/Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, Mennonites, Lutherans or Assemblies of God, etc. There was just one type of church, a “whole” composed of little groups called churches (Gr: ekklesia – gathering), scattered here and there within the confines of the Roman Empire. Neither was there anything called “Christianity.” There were just “Christians.”
Every one of the groups named above as well as thousands of others, demonstrated their distinctions from each other by the variety of their doctrines and practices. Now on the positive side, the Spirit “uses” these distinctions for a very particular purpose. Most every sect named above, especially in their beginnings, was born by a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit. Their “new distinctions” in understanding more often than not resulted in a parting of the ways with the original sect, which after a generation or two had settled into a safe, codified particular “theological orthodoxy,” not to be challenged. Those who saw anew had nowhere to go within their old orthodoxy whose borders were fixed and could not be stretched, which of course led to many of them forming their own new sects.
A well-known example is Methodism, founded by John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican priest at the time of his great revival, and his group co-existed for a while among the Anglicans. Eventually, however, their differences became too great and the two sects parted, and “Methodists” became a separate denomination. But for many of those groups, their new vision or insight from the Holy Spirit, has often served eventually to benefit the whole church, as some forgotten old truths were rediscovered and seen in a new generation in a fresh way. We have seen a very great deal of that in our time!
Regarding all those groups, denominations, schools of thought, from yesterday as well as today, I see them all in Christ! Bottom line, anyone who names the name of Christ in true faith is my brother or sister, even if we do not see eye to eye on various issues of the faith of Jesus. Anyone who loves Jesus, or who would love Him if they knew Him, is my true family. He extends His grace to all who call upon His name, no matter their doctrinal eccentricities! (Thank God for ALL of us! If we have to score 100% on a doctrine test for entry into heaven, I do not believe any of us would enter.)
So for now we suffer this apparent disunity to be as it is, but still purposely in faith seeing all in the unity of the Spirit through the Light of Jesus Christ in all, and all serving to express the Father’s will, the will of Him Who “worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” (Eph 1:11). I am firmly convinced the Spirit has placed each of us who belong to Christ and live Christ (which is all who belong to Him), exactly where we need to be in the unity of the Body of Christ.
No one is out of place, even if it might seem so for a time. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. From physical birth to physical death, His Hand has been ever present in our lives. As Paul testified, “it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me!” (Gal 1:15, 16).
Do we see the great sweep of the hand of God in the life of Saul who became Paul? It did not start on the road to Damascus. No, Paul traces it back to the hand of God in separating him from his mother’s womb, in other words, God was the One Who delivered the man-child called Saul! Paul is saying that every moment of his life the hand of God was bringing him closer to the point of the almost ultimate inner revelation, even more “perfect” than that of the Apostles before him, the revelation (revealing) of the SON in Himself!
What a revelation!!! It is a greater revelation than the fact that Jesus saved us, not because His saving us was something lesser, but because all His actions in saving, reconciling, forgiving, cleansing and sanctifying humanity, all present in His Gift of Himself, were all for a greater purpose than our being saved from sin and outer darkness. There is something greater, more unimaginable, planned ahead.
It starts with our restoration to our true selves, one with Him so that the human life we live is a Divinely energized, purposed and effective life in us, because Christ through the Spirit is effective as us. Now, the only “effectiveness” I speak of and the only one that counts, is the effectiveness of Love. There is no other kind of “effectiveness” that is certain. Only love is certain. The God kind of love, that does not seek for itself, yet seeks for others! Love provides for and accomplishes whatever is required in the fulfillment of love. From the beginning days when I began to think there could be something more meaningful in life, I remember a quote, I believe from “The Prophet,” by Khalil Gibran: “Work is love made visible.” Yep, that’s it, the Life of the Father. That is the Life of Christ, the Life of the Cross, the Life of the Intercessor, the Life of true faith in and of God, which is forever the Life that is our lives.
We can see the perfect hand of the Father in Saul’s days growing up in Tarsus and then his education “sitting at the feet of Gamaliel,” possibly the greatest teaching Rabbi of the day. All that first period of Saul’s life finally culminated with his zeal to purge Israel of the “scourge” of Jesus of Nazareth, and his implicit participation in the death of the first martyr of the Christian Church, Stephen. Every bit of that was the perfect hand of God giving Saul the perfect education for what he would later reveal from the Spirit, “the just shall live by faith.” And, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8,9). How perfect a vessel God shaped to reveal grace, by giving him the best education in the Law of Moses anyone could have in his day! How perfectly perfect!!!
I will only comment here, before we move on, that Paul’s “pre-conversion” life was no more “perfectly ordered” by the loving hand of God, than is the pre-conversion life any of us have lived. What we see for Paul, we have more than permission to see for ourselves. If our eyes could be fully opened to our own histories and sight, into the Hand of God every moment of every day in the temporal AND the eternal, as the sweep of His Hand pertains particularly to us, the glory of God and the clear Light of Christ and the kindness and benevolence and grace we would find revealed IN US ALL ……. no words – it is beyond the imagination of our current mind ….
It is the same for Paul, for Peter, and for you and me. We have entered the “Kingdom,” and the Kingdom has entered into us.
There were no “formed doctrines” in the beginnings of the Christian church. The only “theology” present on the Day of Pentecost, was the Holy Spirit’s presentation via a new bold and confident Peter:
Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. … Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. …
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2: 22-24,33-41).
That was the earliest working “theology” of the just-birthed Church of Jesus Christ. That Jesus was taken, delivered into wicked hands by the purposed counsel and foreknowledge of God, was crucified and was killed. But God resurrected Him and loosed the pains of death, and He has ascended to the Right Hand of God as a testimony to Israel that the Man, Jesus of Nazareth, Who they had murdered, was now proclaimed by the Father to be both Lord and Christ – Adonai and Messiah!!!!
The people hearing Peter that Day were cut to the quick. The Holy Spirit had fallen on them, too, with conviction of sin, when they heard the Spirit’s words as they came from Peter. Thousands earnestly cried, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” I know that many these days cite their cry as part of the whole law vs. grace discussion, and perhaps that may have had something to do with it, but to me it was more a cry of exasperation in that suddenly, on the Feast Day of Pentecost, they were completely undone in all they were, stripped bare in the plain Light of the Fire of the Spirit that had descended upon the place. It is like people who have suddenly realized they have been shipwrecked and have lost all, crying, “What shall we do, O what shall we do?”
What had failed them? That which they had trusted most – the Law and Moses! And now they are under the greatest conviction ever, which to their minds carries with it the sentence of death, because they have killed the Lord of the Vineyard – the Stone which the builders had rejected, had become the chief cornerstone! What remedy could the Law have for that?!?!?!??
Peter goes on, though, not leaving them in their sudden emptiness and conviction, but immediately gives the rest promised in the Good News.
“No, wait, folks, no need to worry! You’re not lost anymore, because He did this so that you might be found again! Repent – meaning, look no more to yourselves for your deliverance and salvation, but turn fully to God. He even exhorts every one of them to make a public statement of their faith through baptism in water for remission of sins – a full cleansing for everything – made completely new again, restored to innocence!
They had knowledge of this in “Type” already, because Temple rites involved “ritual” cleansings as preparatory to those rites. It was really just cleansing of the body, but those ritual cleansings pointed to the True Cleansing in Jesus Christ, which cleansed not just the body, but also our souls and spirits. Do not think it was mere liturgy or ritual on that Day! Every person who “went down and back up” that Day, also received another Baptism! And again, it was not merely a liturgical or ritual Baptism. This other Baptism was their immersion in the Power of the Fire and Light of God, the Holy Spirit. They “went down,” and died as old “first Adam,” and rose again as the new “second Adam.”
The Gift of the Spirit is the most amazing part of the “Good News” package that without, the Good News would have quickly turned into just another false bunny trail, with a priesthood shoring it up with tricks and intimidation of the masses, to keep them in line. (Wait a minute – that did happen, didn’t it?) But it did not happen right away, at least in that first generation. This is the Gift which, after the Cross and Resurrection, IS our daily living in Christ. There is no other kind of Christian “Life” to be had, except that which comes from this Gift Who makes the church:
“And ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
It was the Gift of the Spirit that sealed the deal, and brought mankind back fully into fellowship with God, since, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.” (John 4:24).
That was it! That was the “theology” of the earliest church in the Book of Acts. It served as their major Word for a while, until another issue came along through Peter: “Are Gentiles included in the Promise?”
Can Gentiles Be Saved?
Of course through Peter’s vision of the Sheet filled with unclean animals and his subsequent experience with Cornelius and his friends, the Holy Spirit answered the question Himself. Peter explained what happened to the rest of the Apostles in Jerusalem after the incident at Caesarea with Cornelius:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15-18).
The result was that they now knew Gentiles were included in God’s gift of salvation, though it would take another, an Apostle not of the original twelve and who had never known Jesus in the flesh, to fully reveal the great power of grace as the essence of the gospel. Up until Paul’s later revelation, they had understood “grace” as it concerned being made right with God for salvation, though they had yet to learn the power of grace and the Spirit in living everyday life and service to God. That remained for Paul to do.
But for a time, working long after Paul’s initial conversion on until his time came (at least fourteen years), the basic message was unchanged. Undoubtedly the Jewish believers were still bound to the Law of Moses, and in those early days, they could only bring the male new convert Gentiles into Christ, by receiving them first as children of Abraham and of the covenant of Abraham, through circumcision. That is not such a big deal for eight day old infants, but a very painful rite for anyone older, especially in those days of no antiseptics, painkillers or antibiotics! I’m telling you – talk about a committed statement of faith!!!!
We all have our different paths to get to many of the same places, but as I consider it, the early church’s sort of working theology was to get out there and tell everybody about Jesus, which coincidentally was my only working theology for my first few years. I did almost everything you could do to evangelize in 1970s America. From door-to-door witnessing to participating in huge “Crusades” like the Cow Palace in Oakland, California, and doing the Bill Bright sponsored, “I Found It,” campaign, calling from a supplied computer printout list (first one I’d ever seen) of everyone in town, with a script to introduce them to the Gospel. We had a track to follow – “If they say, ‘I’ve heard it before,’ go to page 42’ and read the answer,” etc. It was kind of like trolling for insurance clients. (I did that, too!)
I could tell lots of stories of crazy things we did to get people to “get saved,” some of them funny, some not. Our level of maturity wasn’t so much in those days, but for most of us our zeal and burgeoning Agape love was heartfelt, and truly from the Spirit.
After a few years of that, I began to notice the need for something else. We were having one of our several “mini” crusades, where our church would rent a hall at the college or a civic building, a “neutral” place for anybody who “needed salvation,” that we could rope somehow into coming to the meetings. They used me in those days at those crusades two ways. Janis and I together might play a song or two, songs she wrote back then that weren’t your run-of-the-mill “gospel” songs. But often I was called to “give my testimony.” And by that, in that period, the only testimony I could give with firm conviction, was “how I got saved.” It was California, and hippie stuff and folk were everywhere, so I could speak in the vernacular and tell all the stories back then that in these more recent years I have written into these articles. So I’d tell the story of “how I got saved,” and sort of a quick ending with, “and ever since I’ve found in Jesus that, ‘every day with Jesus, is sweeter than the day before.’”
It just hit me in the face, after one of those crusades at a local college, that I had no “testimony” to give, past my road to and subsequent conversion. I ran out of stuff to say after that point in the story. Frankly, after a few years of what was really, “declining” joy, I was more miserable than my conscious mind was ready to acknowledge at the time. It was the unacknowledged undercurrent of everything. The elephant in the room I had still yet to notice. It was a dull ache that was beginning to throb. I wholly believed the Good News, but could not figure out why I felt like crap most of the time and felt like a big fat failure.
Let’s jump ahead some years, and rejoin Paul on his return to Antioch with Barnabas, after their first missionary journey. On the journey they had encountered sometimes violent resistance from many of the Jews in the cities they visited, all zealous for the Law, and against anything that included Gentiles. These were not believers in Jesus, but traditional Jews in the faith of Abraham and the Law of Moses. So Paul and Barnabas were probably looking forward to being with their brethren who had discovered their “liberty” from the Law with the Gentile believers in Antioch. Paul had refused to require obedience to the Law to the Gentile believers, nor did he circumcise any. However, upon their return for a little respite in Antioch, they are greeted by “certain men which came down from Judaea [who] taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1,2).
I like that, “no small dissension and disputation with them …” I’ll bet! I know folks have so sanitized those first leaders of the church, it is hard to imagine them being as human as we all are. This is a picture, right here. They were yelling at each other!!! That’s what I get out it! And this King James is of course a British translation, the British who invented monotone understatement. “No small dissension and disputation” probably stopped short at a brawl! Like a meeting of the House of Commons!
And after their “no small disputation,” Paul and Barnabas led a party to Jerusalem, to have the first and only recorded “Apostolic Conference,” to talk about the question of circumcision and Gentile believers.
End Part One