So what? I mean, this whole Jew-Gentile thing has been over for nearly 2,000 years. Why should we spend Sunday school Bible class time studying how First Century Jews should get along with First Century Gentiles?
And if this is what the NT books are really about, why study them at all? I mean, this is great stuff for historians and theologians and guys looking for dissertation topics, but what does it mean at the down-home church member, regular pewsitter level? How do we teach Romans and Galatians and Ephesians today to a class that cares nothing about ethnic issues of the First Century?
Good questions all. And questions that the New Perspective on New Testament studies has forced us to deal with. The scriptures now make much better sense. They fit in their time and place very well. Finally, Paul isn’t debating Medieval Scholasticism, Augustinianism, or Calvin vs. Arminius. He isn’t even debating the Baptists on behalf of the Churches of Christ. He’s dealing with the issues of his day in terms of the scriptures of his day — the Old Testament.
But when we finally get Jesus, Paul, and other NT authors into their historical context, they become, at first, more distant. The 2,000-year gulf that separates us becomes more real. Their debates become less relevant — seemingly. It’s certain less familiar. I mean, we know how to debate Calvinists and Baptists. Why should we instead spend our time dealing with the New Perspective?
Well, fortunately, I’m not the first to wade in these waters. N. T. Wright has sold millions of books teaching the New Perspective, and so obviously there are lots and lots of Christians who find these studies beneficial — even worth paying money for, even wading through 1,700-pages treatises. The evangelical church’s hunger for New Perspective learning is vast — and has been richly rewarded, not only with Wright’s scholarly and popular works but with commentaries and other books by such scholars as James D. G. Dunn, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman. (All excellent writers but not as comfortable in the popular genre as Wright.)
Here’s what’s going on.
1. Truer readings. As we read the NT books more truly in their historical contexts, we understand them better. The new understanding may be less familiar and less comfortable, but it’s closer to what Paul or John or Matthew really meant.
2. Truer questions. Because we read the texts more truly, we discover some new questions. Some of the old questions remain, of course. It’s not as though we were entirely wrong. Rather, it’s like an airline crossword puzzle that you’ve half solved. For some reason, the crossword puzzles on airplanes always have three or four long words that stretch across the entire puzzle. And inevitably, you have to be about halfway done to solve the long words.
When you find a longword, you (a) immediately know you’re right because it fits the clue so well and (b) quickly learn that about one-fourth of your answers are dead wrong — even though you were 10o% sure of your answers. Hopefully, you weren’t working with a pen!
The New Perspective is like that. Not everything changes, but some things change — and you were 100% sure about some of the things that have to change. Don’t worry. The best minds in NT studies have had the same experience — and it’s made them better scholars and this will make you a better preacher, Bible class teacher, and follower of Jesus.
3. Unity. For example, we learn a perspective on church unity that is even more powerful than what we’ve traditionally taught. We’ve studied and taught a few passages that commanded unity. We saw unity as a command — and it is. But we didn’t see what a dear price Paul and other missionaries were willing to pay for unity.
It would have been much, much easier to have separate Gentile churches and Jewish churches, free churches and slave churches, barbarian churches and Scythian churches. Consider the grief the missionaries went through just to avoid having two churches of Christ in the same town! And we consider this perfectly normal, acceptable, and even necessary. Paul considered it unthinkable. Even sinful, if not outright damning when the church was divided.
Paul would rather that we be in one church, worshiping together, even if means we struggle to get along, have to miss meat for a week, and even skip meals just to get along with our weaker brothers. To Paul, there was no other option. There was one congregation per town, under one eldership, meeting in however many houses it took to fit 30 or so members at a time.
The Jerusalem congregation got to at least 5,000 adult male members (15,000 with women and children? At least?). And yet they met in each other’s homes — which could hold no more than 20 or 30. And no telephone trees or email to coordinate 500 places of meeting at least.
And it was a mess. They disagreed over whether Gentiles could be Christians at all without first becoming proselytes by circumcision. They disputed over whether Jews had to continue to follow the Torah. And this was an all-Jewish church. Imagine the disputes in churches where the members were mixed!
I mean, imagine Timothy showing up as a missionary sent by Paul, ready to read a letter from Paul and to preach a sermon, and he’s a mamzer, that is, half-Jew half-Gentile. Under the Torah, he’s not allowed in the temple, and the Jews certainly wouldn’t let him in a synagogue. And he’s the missionary!
Peter got so confused and distracted that, for a time, he refused to eat the love feast with Gentile Christians, just so the Jewish Christians wouldn’t criticize him. He thought he was trying to accommodate the feelings of the weak, but he was being an enabler — allowing the Jews to treat their Gentiles brothers as damned. And Paul explained to him in no uncertain terms that this is unacceptable. It divides the body of Christ.
Yes, the strong should accommodate the scruples of the weak, but the weak may not treat the strong as damned. They have to allow the strong to reach out to them in a common fellowship.
So, today, we deal with division by saying nice, bland, unity kinds of things and otherwise doing nothing. We don’t take communion with the “liberal” or “legalist” Churches of Christ in town, much less the Baptists and Methodists.
We might serve the poor alongside them, but we aren’t about to worship or take communion with them. I mean, you have to stand for something, don’t you? And we’d far rather stand for the status quo than the gospel. Because we now know that the gospel compels unity in fact, not just unity in rhetoric.
The lesson speaks not only to black and white churches, but Korean and Greek churches, and rich and poor and progressive and conservative — you name it. The gospel cries out for all Christians in one body, enabled by one Spirit.
The transition will be unbelievably difficult. It will defy common sense and destroy more than one congregation. And it’ll be worth it.
It’ll be worth it because, until we’re united, the world will not see us as truly disciples of Jesus. There is no choice. There is no decision. It’s just a question of whether we’re willing to follow Jesus by sacrificing our comfort on his cross and submitting to what God needs us to do and become.