Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. Acts 11:20-21
In his book, Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley asks a question that has been haunting me for some time now: Who is church for? Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Seems like we should be able to answer it without even flinching. But it is killing me…haunting me.
It is killing me because I know the right answer: church is for the lost and broken world around us…it is God’s one and only plan for reaching, saving and healing that world. Church, when all the programs and budgets and theological debates are done, is for that world. That is painful for me to admit because, once I admit that, I know it means I must then look at everything I love and want and do in the church and ask myself whether it fits that purpose…whether it is designed to reach that world. I think you know where that inquiry will lead.
But that question is killing me at an even deeper level yet. It is causing me to examine my own heart and ask some troubling questions about my heart’s inclinations and leanings, especially where that lost and broken world is concerned. With the Lord’s leadership, I have crafted an entire ministry around loving, encouraging and healing the church. It is my passion. So, it is easy for me to want church to be for church people…because they are my audience, my market, the purpose for my ministry. I love pastors. I love church leaders. I love church people…and …
When it comes to church, how careful are you about whom you are seen with? More importantly, when it comes to church, how careful do you think you should be about with whom you are seen?
I’ve been asking myself that question as I meditated recently on Galatians 2:11-21, the story about Paul confronting Peter because Peter seemed too concerned with what his Jewish brothers from Jerusalem might think about his hanging around with Gentiles in Antioch. Here is how Paul puts it in Galatians 2:12: Before certain men came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
At first blush I didn’t see this as a major problem worth addressing in my church, nor in any other reasonably healthy church. But the more I think about it, the more I tend to believe that we in the American church really do struggle with this (actually I suspect that the church globally struggles with it, but I don’t want to point fingers at my international friends without much more experience than what I have). I believe too many of us come to church as if it were some kind of country club, there for our convenience and happiness. In fact, if it doesn’t make us happy, we might just go to some other church to find happiness. Because that is what we think church is there for…our comfort and happiness.
And let’s be honest, there are a lot of people out there who, by their very presence, make some of us feel unhappy and uncomfortable. They are different or dirty or smell funny or talk funny or they think …
On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. Galatians 2:7-8
Most of us approach a jigsaw puzzle (or any other problem) the same way, whether we know it or not. We start with what we absolutely know to be true. When chaos and confusion abound and there is so much we do NOT know, we all have an intuitive notion to go back to what we know and then slowly work forward from there. In the case of the traditional jigsaw puzzle, it is the corner pieces. They are what we know, they define the parameters of the puzzle. Whatever else comes along, we know that the answer lies within the four corners of the puzzle.
Finding solutions to conflict within the church, even interpersonal conflict, works the same way. We always start with what we know: what we know about God, what we know about God’s Word, and what we know about what God is doing.
I don’t think the conflict in the early church was any small thing. I think the prejudices and potential doctrinal conflict between Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and Peter’s ministry to the Jews was every bit as dangerous and troubling as our conflicts today. It had a cultural (racial) element, a doctrinal element (e.g., circumcision) and even a leadership style element (Peter was not the only leader with whom Paul’s temperament clashed). Reading Acts 15 and Galatians 2 and other similar accounts, you see that the potential for devastating conflict …