Jesus said, “It hath been said . . . but I say to you . . .” With six examples he tells us that some scripture and tradition will not apply in the age of the Spirit (Matt. 5:21-44). Many times since these words of Jesus, the church has found itself between some of the faithful declaring “it hath been said” and others who hear a new word for this new age.
One far-reaching example was whether to welcome Gentiles while the believers were all practicing Jews. “It hath been said” had a powerful case. Much in the Hebrew Bible marked Gentile life as sinful. Centuries of Jewish tradition found Gentiles’ practices repulsive.
Here we are again today, with faithful people on each side of a divisive issue. The church needs to take “it hath been said” very seriously. But also, Jesus’ words and the examples in Acts mean that what the Bible and tradition say will not necessarily be the answer. Had Scripture been locked in for the long haul, we Gentiles would still be on the outside.
How did the early church deal with the issue of inclusion — who is welcomed and for what reasons? Luke tells three stories.
Story one: Philip preaches to the Samaritans. Peter and John are sent to witness what was happening and, amazingly, proceed with baptisms (Acts 8:4-25).
Story two: The Spirit tells Philip to walk toward Gaza and witness the faith of an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip baptizes the eunuch, who could not have been part of Jewish worship due to being imperfect sexually (8:26-40).
Story three: God tells Cornelius that his prayers and alms have been accepted and that he should call Peter to witness this. Peter assumes that what “hath been said” will apply, but God tells him that what has been made clean he should not see as unclean. Peter then witnesses the work of the Spirit and sees this as evidence that Gentiles are clean and cannot be kept from baptism (Acts 10:47 and 15:8-11).
In each story, if Scripture or tradition were followed, exclusion would be assumed. In each, one or two people were sent to witness, and baptism(s) followed.
We can make several observations from these stories.
First, we cannot assume Scripture or tradition has the absolute answer regarding inclusion. Second, we note another factor in decision-making: evidence of the Spirit. This is logical in the age of the Spirit, and Peter declares it to be the deciding factor (10:47). Third, witnesses are needed. In the first story, the church sends witnesses, but in the other two it is God who is intent on having a witness.
If firsthand witness is necessary, and evidence of the Spirit is the deciding factor, then a decision cannot be made based on the Bible and tradition alone. We have to go and see. Either we trust an unbiased witness, or we go to witness for ourselves.
Today, is there someone in one of our conferences who is in a lesbian relationship and has been given the gift of the Spirit and of ministry? From the example of the early church, to weigh in on this decision requires witnesses who know the person and are free of biases that would keep them from seeing evidence of the Spirit’s work.
I was at East Goshen Mennonite Church in the mid-1950s when a conflict between “it hath been said” and “but I say to you” was threatening to split Indiana-Michigan Conference. What happened? We took time to witness. We believed other witnesses and also witnessed for ourselves that people who were divorced and remarried had evidence of the Spirit. Jesus’ teaching on the subject did not go away, but we witnessed and welcomed.
Another time there were faithful ones who assumed Scripture and tradition were clear that women should not be in ministry. But others witnessed and accepted women practicing the gifts of ministry. We continue to live with the tension of having faithful members on each side.
Some have said the church wasn’t taking the Bible seriously when we gave up the prayer veiling or welcomed those who were divorced and remarried or affirmed women in ministry. But were we not taking the scriptural pattern for the age of the Spirit seriously? Were we not doing what God wanted in Acts, trusting witnesses or witnessing for ourselves evidence of the Spirit’s work?
Jesus would not fit into the Pharisees’ rigid Sabbath mold but was led by the Spirit to break Sabbath law to do what was best for people. Jesus demonstrated Paul’s words, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). We are following Jesus and Paul when the Spirit leads us away from the destructive letter of the law to a new word for the life-giving age of the Spirit.
Retired in Goshen, Ind., as a church musician, Darrel Hostetler has been a Bible teacher in Nigeria, at Iowa Mennonite School and Bethany Christian Schools and associate pastor of North Goshen Mennonite Church.