Being the Church Then and Now: Issues from the Acts of the Apostles

William Loader

4. "You received the Law as given by angels and did not keep it." (Acts 7:53)

Religion and the Fundamentalisms: on not losing touch with the centre


Luke tells us how Stephen stood before the great Sanhedrin, before the Jewish assembly and challenged its religious authority. “You received the Law as given by angels’ refers to the Law given by God to Moses. Tradition had it that God gave it through the hands of angels. It came through angels and therefore from God. It is God’s word, scripture, the Bible of the Jews and the early Christians. It also represented the basis of the temple worship and its traditions. Stephen is not challenging that belief. He is not challenging scripture. He is challenging how it is kept and how it is understood. The Sanhedrin, the assembly, the leaders of the religious community, were mostly devout and committed people, but they had failed to keep and understand scripture. They had failed to understand the nature of true worship.

What does it mean to keep and understand the scripture? Fundamentally it was over this issue that the Church split from Judaism, and then, in turn, nearly split itself wide open in the years that followed. I want to explore this issue by looking at the two scenes sketched briefly for us in the readings: the conflict between Hellenists and Hebrews and the speech of Stephen itself.

1. The "Hellenists" and the "Hebrews"

The first episode, Acts 6:1-6, is very complex and can be read at many levels. The presenting problem was a complaint by the Hellenists against the Hebrews that their widows were being neglected in the daily welfare distribution. That already needs unpacking. The Hellenists are Jews whose first or main language is Greek. This had come about primarily because they had been among the very large numbers of Jews who had lived and been brought up in areas of the world where Greek was the main spoken language and that included most of the then known world accessible to Jews and also included parts of Palestine itself. They were Greek speaking Jews. The Hebrews here are Jews whose first language was Aramaic, the main language spoken in Judea and Galilee. They were all Jews, but obviously different languages keep people apart, even though there will have been a number who were proficient in both. There would have been two communities, two kinds of worship, and a whole host of other social and community activities catering for the separate language groups. That already makes it very complex.

And who were the widows? Why widows? Jerusalem was the holy city. Many who had lived most of their lives away from Judea in places like Egypt, Rome, Asia Minor, Greece, Syria, returned home in the their later years to Jerusalem so that they would die in the holy land. The structure of the society dictated that women were dependent. Men had power. Men had money. Women were safe and secure if married. But widowed, they were exposed to dangers of exploitation and often lived in poverty dependent upon the mercy of those who obeyed the scriptural exhortation to remember the widows and the fatherless. Divorce thrust women into even greater danger. There was relief, even daily welfare distributions, but it was relief within the framework of an unequal and unjust society. There was little other than this kind of band aid charity.

The underlying injustice was so much part of social life it was invisible. It was perhaps easier to notice slavery, but by and large slavery and the position of women went unnoticed. It is always hard to see the things that are most visible. Despite the catch cry that in Christ there is neither male nor female slave nor free, it has taken 1800 years to face at least the crassest forms of slavery, and we are still in the process of understanding the revolution of the gospel in relation to women in society. And, of course, Christians still use scripture to ensure male power in the community and in the Church, for the issue here, too, is about a right understanding and use of scripture and this is why we need to listen to Stephen.

Luke allows us to see only the welfare symptom of the problem of women living in a male dominated society. In his account it is incidental. It doesn’t have to stay that way. His account tells us more, however, of an equally complex issue: the living together of two languages, and therefore also culture, groups. Can you just imagine all that could go wrong? After all, these were really of migrant people returned to enjoy the benefits of our land where we have always lived and worked. They are Jews but they have strange ways, dangerous ways. We know. We have heard of people’s sons going off into far countries and squandering their living. For Judeans the Galileans were bad enough. They spoke in a funny way. These others spoke Greek. They were worldly, open to foreign influences, and probably had secret practices that if only you knew would shock you deeply. Or, from the other side of the fence, many who returned did so precisely because of a very deep religious faith. Away from their homeland they had developed strict conservative religious practices and returned home to find the big commercial enterprise of the temple, wealthy high priests, all on side with the country’s millionaires, bending the divine Law. The tensions of multicultural Judaism in Jerusalem were very great and many of them must have been equally present among the first Christian communities.

Luke doesn’t tell us who was in the wrong in the Christian communities, whether the problem was a misunderstanding, an administrative bungle, a slip of unwitting prejudice, a blatant piece of discrimination, racism or sexism. As usual in such circumstances, we can imagine that people rushing in with slogan analyses at each level to compound the problem with the unmixed ingredients of truth. Luke’s economy of words speaks of an immediate response by the young Church’s leaders. It makes fascinating reading. First we notice that the apostles take the issue seriously. They are busy preaching, Luke tells us, but they stop and they listen. Some real listening takes place. The problem is not swept under the carpet; it was, after all, potentially explosive. And notice what the apostles do. Apparently they address the Greek speaking community and tell them to choose leaders for themselves. There’s even a kind of primitive autonomy here. We might at least have expected them to want to keep holding the strings themselves. instead they give the initiative and responsibility to those who have the problem — well, almost. Let’s not idealise from these sparse comments. There were no women among the seven.

But listen to Peter: it’s not good for us to leave preaching the word of God to serve tables. The issue was important, but Peter, says Luke, is not going to allow the immediate issue to be the all consuming issue, to eclipse the gospel. It represented the working out of the gospel in relationship to an issue which had arisen; but that issue did not take over, as issues so easily can when we, and clergy in particular, become overwhelmed with responsiveness, with distributing the fruits of the vine instead of seeing the primacy of keeping people connected to it. All too often ministers of the Word serve tables and the ministry of the Word and the diaconate functions are not clearly seen.

Luke is passing on very early tradition which probably had most to do originally with the need for a structure of leadership to be established for the Greek speaking Christian church, the Hellenists. All of the men appointed have Greek names. It is clear from what follows in Acts that they were first and foremost leaders of the community rather than welfare workers. Stephen is a preacher, Philip an evangelist. The early church had the freedom to shape its structures in accord with central concerns of the gospel. It knew what was at the heart of the tradition, of the scripture and it streamlined its doings to that end. This centre of scripture and tradition was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of love. The Church lived from this centre and loved from this centre. It loved so much that it gave structure and organisation to that love, taking seriously the cries of the needy and creatively responding to the multicultural situation it faced. This was a far cry from the way of handling scripture and tradition which Stephen attacks. For he confronted the opposite of flexibility., he confronted devotion to scripture and tradition which had lost touch with its centre, but we shall turn to this later.

The conflict between Stephen and the Jewish authorities was fierce. It cost Stephen his life. It also engaged the rest of the Greek speaking community in the dispute. The Hellenist Christians were driven from Jerusalem. The Hebrews, the Aramaic speakers, whose leaders, Peter and John, had earlier been arraigned before the Sanhedrin, seem to have been largely untouched by the conflict. When the Hellenists were driven out and persecuted by fanatical Jews like Paul, the apostles and their Hebrew Christian community continued largely unpersecuted in Jerusalem. There may have been more than just cultural and language differences between the Hebrew Christians and the Hellenist Christians. Perhaps the tensions between Paul and the Gentile churches and the mother Jerusalem church and its representatives have their roots here. Again, the situation is complex.

Hellenist Jews like Paul accuse Hellenist Jewish Christians of not keeping the Law, of speaking against Moses and the temple. These were doubtless the conservative strict Jews who had had to preserve their Jewish faith in foreign lands. Paul had grown up in Tarsus near the southern coast of Turkey. For them scripture was scripture. It was God’s word and to be kept to the letter. Theirs was a consistent and logical position. Who were human beings to start making value judgements about which commandments of God are more to be obeyed and which are not to be taken so seriously. Surely all of God’s word is to be obeyed. Start watering it down here and soon you’ll have undermined its authority altogether. This is a very convincing stance borne out of deep devotional conviction and it has had a strong following in every age, precisely because it makes sense; it is simple; and it avoids the pitfalls of tampering with God’s will and word.

When Stephen says, “You received the Law as given by angels”, it would seem on first reading that he, too, follows this line. Certainly it was the position of those who opposed him among the Jews and among those Jews and Jewish Christians who were later to oppose Paul himself. For Paul, for instance, had suggested that food laws could be dispensed with except where it caused particular offence to people with weak consciences; but scripture declared quite clearly which were clean and which were unclean foods. The coming of the Messiah could not suddenly alter the status of creation and make unclean food clean. So Paul advocated a position that contradicted the clear teachings of scripture. And his accusers were, strictly speaking, correct. We shall return to that tomorrow.

But the issue with Stephen and the Christian Hellenists was not much different. They not only preached that God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him Messiah. That had been offensive to the Jewish authorities because it amounted to a claim that their judgement had been unjust and had been controverted by God. Stephen and the Hellenists went beyond this. They called into question the scripture and tradition itself. They appear to have picked up Jesus’ teaching about the vision of the kingdom making the present temple dispensable. This was unthinkable. How could the worship, the liturgy, the structure of the temple, laid down in scripture itself and elaborated by tradition, be changed? Did not God’s Law, God’s Word stand forever?

Stephen and the Hellenists called into question a way of handling scripture and tradition which appeared strict and devout, but denied ultimately the central concerns of the scripture. These strict devout people kept it to the letter at one level. They were the original fundamentalists and some of them, like Paul, were probably as fanatical as some forms of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism we know today. They kept the Law, the scripture, but at a deeper level they failed to keep it. They failed to grasp the heart of scripture. They were so bound to literal obedience to its words, that they failed to obey its Word. They clung to the familiar and the manageable. They were like those of whom Jesus said, They traverse sea and land to make a single convert, they make much of tithing, they adorn the tombs of the prophets, but they have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith.

2. Stephen’s Speech

Stephen’s speech is a cruel indictment of pious organised religion concerned about its rightness and self preservation. Notice the subtle hints along the way: Abraham was called to leave the familiar and set out for the unknown on the basis of God’s promise. Moses came as deliverer to his people, but initially his people rejected him saying, "Who made you our leader and judge!" And then later at Sinai they want to go back to the familiar, back to Egypt. Then God gave them the tabernacle, symbol of his presence with them, but later Solomon turned the tabernacle into bricks and mortar. He built the temple. But, says, Stephen, the most high does not dwell in what human hands have made.

Every step along the way there is a contrast between those who live from the heart of the scripture and the will of God and those who want to preserve the familiar, who want to make life, make God manageable. But God is not manageable. God cannot be isolated by a temple or by a book. God is always greater than the temples built to divine honour and God is always greater than the witness to the divine word.

Stephen was accused of attacking the Law, the scripture, the tradition of Moses, and the temple. At one level these are, as Luke says, false accusations. He does not deny the scripture as scripture. He is not arguing that Old Testament scripture once was valid and now since Jesus must play second fiddle. He upholds the scripture, as does Paul later, but, he argues, scripture, when treated as a set of infallible rules, has been turned into an idol which usurps the place of God, so that those who idolise it reject the gospel and crucify its Lord. The scripture bears witness to the one single infallible source, the one single authority, God who seeks the liberation of his people. This is the deep heart of scripture and scripture is its witness. This leads to an entirely different approach to scripture, one of greater depth, of greater centredness, one more consistent with the thrust of scripture itself.

Stephen also does not attack the temple. He was not arguing that the temple and its organisation and pattern of worship were invalid. This, too, like scripture is given by God. The institution of worship is God given. It is, after all, given in scripture. But it is possible to do the same with institution as some do with the scripture. It becomes no longer a witness, an aid to glorify God, an instrument and embodiment of the coming kingdom. Instead it becomes the fundamental. It becomes the idol. So the same dynamics of fundamentalism that apply to scripture use apply now to the institution and we have institutional fundamentalism, ecclesiastical fundamentalism, liturgical fundamentalism.

The crassest example of this is reflected in the issue of ordination of women, where the heart of the gospel proclaims one thing, but institutions, another. Perhaps we should tread more sensitively. We have learned the wisdom of this in ecumenical politics. But the danger is that all the while our sensitivity supports a fundamentalist structure which by taking itself so seriously denies the heart of the gospel. The commitment to unity is unity in the gospel, unity in the gospel which must sometimes stand over against the institution or betray itself as a league of disobedience.

The issue is similar here to the issue of scriptural fundamentalism. We know ourselves committed to scripture and we are also committed to ecumenism, to ministerial order, to liturgical order. I am not talking about abandoning any of these commitments, but I know and have been disturbed how easily my zeal slides over into a possessive, protective, defensive fundamentalism or plays into the hands of those who do. It is always difficult for genuine Protestantism to survive without becoming sectarian on the one hand or being assimilated on the other by the sluggish spirituality of historical institutions.

Martyrs are often rash. Perhaps we should have taken Stephen aside for a quiet talk. But our commitment to ecumenism is best served by a faithfulness to the heart of the gospel which gives us freedom to love and to critique the canons of tradition, be they the canon of the mass, the canon of ministry, or the canon of scripture. For the fundamentalisms of liturgy, institution of ministry, and scripture continue their drive to usurp the God of Abraham, the God of the promised unknown, the God of Moses, the God of salvation and liberation, and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom the fundamentalisms always crucify.

Our study began with the innocent flexibility of a Church facing issues it is scarcely half aware of, but a Church willing to listen, and to put love into careful structures of leadership, a Church living from the heart of the gospel. It has ended with Stephen’s confrontation of the fundamentalisms which convert faith into religion. They stoned Stephen as they crucified Jesus on basically the same issues. But Jesus was raised; and after Stephen came Paul. In every generation we re-enact the crucifying and the rising. That is our confession and our courage. That is also our business and our agenda.

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