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Doctrine vs Mission

January 13, 2016

In Acts 15 we see Paul and his friends winning a titanic battle of doctrine at the Jerusalem conference.   At issue is whether gentile followers of Christ need to be circumcised.  Luke records that Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and debate” on this issue before going to Jerusalem to get a ruling from “the apostles and the elders.”  Eventually James ended the discussion with his ruling that, no; the gentiles did not have to follow the Jewish laws.  It was a resounding victory for Paul and, while the follow the law side of the question diminished only slowly and is, to some degree, still with us today this is essentially long-settled doctrine.

One would think that the victorious Paul would immediately start enforcing this “circumcision is not necessary” policy but he does not.  In the very next chapter we read this: “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek.”  Instead he essentially ignored the new doctrine he had fought for and won and, in the name of ministry, followed a law he knew was not needed.

He did this because he knew that the Jews in the towns he was going to would not listen to an uncircumcised Timothy or Paul who allowed him to go uncut.  In other words, ministry opportunity was reason enough to set aside a strict adherence to a non-central doctrine.

This doesn’t surprise us.  Paul also knew that Jewish dietary laws no longer were mandatory.  This was true both on meat sacrificed to idols (I Corinthians 8) and in unclean food (Romans 14-15).  Paul, following on the theme of the judgement at the Jerusalem conference, basically gave the green light to dig in at the buffet line.  In both these cases he urged those with this green light to consider their “weaker brothers” as he did in circumcision.  He essentially was saying “Yes, you are right, correct doctrine lets you eat that stuff but wouldn’t you rather be gracious to your weaker brother?”

Nowadays we have doctrine hawks with us too.  They are the ones constantly on the lookout for the slightest doctrinal impurity and are quick to condemn and cast out of the tribe anyone who strays.  I suspect it is galling to them to think that Paul considers them the weaker brothers; the ones so deathly afraid of a slight misstep on doctrine that they are constantly on the prowl for evidence of it.

This comes to mind as I’ve followed the continuing battle at Wheaton College over their suspension, and now termination, of tenured professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins over her wearing a hijab during Advent in solidarity with Muslim women who she said “worship the same God.”  I’ve read Dr. Hawkins’ three page doctrinal clarification and it seems to me that it puts her well within the Christian/evangelical mainstream.  Wheaton, however, citing some of the Twitter comments she has made, has declared her to be in such doctrinal error that she must be fired.  They apparently work on the assumption that 160 character tweets trump extended doctrinal statements in determining a person’s true beliefs.

At the end of the day it seems there are two issues here.  The first is that Dr. Hawkins, if she has any fault at all, could be cited for failing to consider the weaker brothers at Wheaton; failing to consider that her gesture would cause panic among the doctrine hawks akin to the first century fit thrown by those who saw Peter eating a ham sandwich.  (Galatians 2:12)

But the larger issue is that this battle has been fought before an increasingly attentive world.  All sorts of people are piling on with opinions.  I’ve seen those who say that Wheaton, and by extension all evangelicals, are Islamophobic.  I’ve seen those who say we are racist because Dr. Hawkins is black.  I’ve seen those who are calling us sexist because she is a woman.  And yes, I’ve seen those who are calling us racist, sexist, Islamophobes.  Wheaton, one of the premier centers of evangelical learning, has, in the name of doctrinal purity, supplied example #793 in support of the “Christians are hate-filled, mean-spirited cranks” theory.  And still we wonder why, when we talk about grace, nobody believes us.

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