How far outside the box is too far?

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Acts 15 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. …When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

This passage marks a critical time in the life of the early church. The first disciples were mostly Jewish people. They were surprised when Gentiles (non-Jews) began to respond to the gospel in faith and to receive the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish Christians had. This was mostly celebrated.

But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

Keeping the law of Moses was fundamental to the identity of the Pharisees – even Pharisees who had become believers in Jesus. In their minds, flexibility for the sake of the gospel only extended so far. To let go of circumcision and the law of Moses was, in their minds, too far outside the box.

This sort of conversation is happening all across the Christian church today, isn’t it? How far outside the box is too far? What are the essential things that must remain unchanged? What are the non-essentials that can be adapted for a new context? Whose job is it to make that judgment call?

As the senior leader of a Lutheran church in suburban Dallas these questions are frequently on my mind. Our church is holding its own, growing at a modest pace, developing new ways of loving God (UP), loving our neighbor (IN), loving the world (OUT). Yet it’s clear to me that the world we live in is changing much more rapidly than the church, which is a problem long-term.

How far outside the box is too far?

Whether we like it or not, I expect in years to come we will be challenged to find out – or cease to exist. Lord Jesus, give us wisdom and grace to be as flexible as possible for the sake of the gospel without losing our fundamental identity in you. We ask this in your holy name. Amen.

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