I don’t wear jeans with bedazzled, back pockets. It’s not that I couldn’t…they make them in my size. Or that they aren’t popular… I’ve seen many people, of various walks of life wearing them, and they look fine. It’s just, that’s not my style. I like a more basic look. I love a good pair of dark wash jeans, in a long, boot cut, with the fade in just the right place. I love a long sleeved t-shirt, even in the summer, layered over a soft tank top. And for work…I LOVE a good, power suit that is tailored in all the right places…with a killer pair of pumps and the right statement jewelry to make a very professional look! Besides, at 42…I don’t really like the idea of jewel encrusting a ‘region’ I would rather people ignore.
Clearly, personal style has a lot to do with taste, comfort, and familiarity. This is true in other areas of life as well…like church. So much of what we associate with church and God is wrapped into culture and style. Whether it is the order of service or the way we work with kids, much of WHAT we do revolves around what we in leadership actually like…our style. That style is greatly influenced by what we practiced long before we ever got to be leaders.
In Jesus’ day, there were styles to contend with as well. In the book , “Church History in Plain Language – The 4th Edition”, Bruce Shelley gives a great break down of the sects among the Jewish people during the New Testament period. We tend to think of Jews as being one big religious group that all sort of practiced the same way, but it just wasn’t so!
We talk endlessly about the Pharisees as the religious, bad guys of the Bible. They were but one of five Jewish sects the Romans had to deal with. They were the “book” people. They kept the letter of the law, and held everyone else to the same standard. They were all about rules, and when they were keeping a particularly difficult one, you were bound to know about it…as their piety would be announced so that everyone would be moved by their devotion, and feel appropriately wretched in the face of it.
Good doctrine and practice are important. I adore a deep, theological and philosophical study as much as Socrates… and the fact that I can almost cruise through Sunday morning order of service on autopilot, and not miss a beat is somewhat comforting. But we can’t lose the forest for the trees. I can’t tell you how many times I have had an invitation to a church function declined because the person doesn’t have the right clothes, they are put off by church “lingo”, or they tell me they “just don’t like that kind of music”. Why does our devotion to Christ have to LOOK and SOUND a certain way? Christ fulfilled the law and in doing so, redeemed ALL of mankind…and all of mankind’s ways of communicating. Whether it’s three piece suits or skinny jeans, organs or electric drums, don’t be so staunchly devoted to your organization’s identity, that lost people are left out, feeling as if they could never “measure up.”
The next sect mentioned in Scripture are the Essenes. These guys gave up on both their religious affiliation, and their community! They decided that the life God gave them would be better served hiding away, keeping themselves righteous, so that their non-affiliation with the world around them would make them perfect enough to stand trial in His presence. A lonely existence of solitude and self-sufficiency may sound good to some “homesteaders”, but it defeats the purpose of a missional minded God who tells us to “Go ye therefore…” Are the doors of your church only open to the people who own them? Do you know a church that is so “inwardly” focused, that it doesn’t even have people attending who actually live in the community where it is located? Do people need to adopt your standards before sharing, serving, and worshipping with you? Don’t be cut off…be MISSIONAL! Missionaries entering other countries take a look at their surroundings. They learn culture, language, and build respect among community leaders. When that is done, they can begin sharing the Gospel, and they adapt to cultural norms that do not violate Scriptural principles rather than trying to change them.
The Sadducees are also characters in this saga. They were the sect most infiltrated by Hellenistic (Greek) and Roman culture. They were political AND religious, in as much as it suited their financial stability and higher standard of living. They served on the Sanhedrin, and acted as “go-betweens” for the Jewish higher classes and the Roman government. Their service to God was watered down, and less than sincere. Their affiliations waivered based on what powerful leader had the ear of the populace, and their religious inclinations were to “mix” Judaism with the pagan rituals of their national host…you know…to keep the peace. They were a Jewish sect because of genetic predisposition rather than genuine faith. The outward appearance of the Sadducees was great! Wealthy and successful individuals, respected by civic authorities…those aren’t bad things! Unless they are the main things. How many churches today play a game with God, using His name and repeating all the right phrases, only when it serves their purpose? How often do church organizations hold to a political rhetoric rather than holding fast to the Gospel? How many times have we seen churches resist a spiritual calling to do something innovative or dangerous because it might make them uncomfortable? Don’t be afraid to get dirty or try something new… God may be calling you into something completely different! Like Isaiah 43:19 says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?…”
Then, of course, you have the Zealots. Simon was mentioned as a “Zealot.” A ‘zealot’ can be roughly defined as the “rage against the machine, jump on a political or social bandwagon, get violent if you have to get the point across, kind of social, justice warrior”. In Jesus’ time, these were the guys who thought the Messiah was going to overthrow Caesar. They were outspoken advocates for the poor Jews in Rome, and were willing to die whilst fighting for them to have their say in the kingdom. They wanted to put Jesus…or anyone that claimed to be Him…on the throne of Rome, and they were going to take over the known world…FOR THE LITTLE GUY!
Defending the downtrodden is definitely a worthy ambition, but if all we do is get the hungry fed, get the naked clothed, and get the homeless housed, then we have just made the road to Hell a little more pleasant. Believe me when I say that it is great to do good deeds…encouraged…IMPORTANT! But that alone is not the Gospel. When we serve as advocates or providers, we must make sure that we are sharing the MOST IMPORTANT THING. It is much better to be hungry in this life, than it is to be separated from a Loving Father in the next.
The last Jewish sect that held sway in the Roman Empire was called, “The Way.” Oh, yes! Early Christians were very much Jewish! So much so, that throughout the writings of Paul, there is confusion about whether non-Jewish people could even become Christians! From the Roman political point of view, those wacky, Jesus followers were just a radical subset of an already annoying and overly populated section of the country who refused to worship Caesar.
But this group…they were VERY different.
They held each other in esteem, even though the followers were from poor classes or women. They lived in communities that took care of everyone’s needs, including widows and orphans…those people who couldn’t pay. They loved people of different races, even supporting foreign churches with financial contributions. They didn’t have a specific place or structure to which they had to make pilgrimages or sacrifices. And, the members of “The Way” were politically active in a quiet, slow way. Even when they were threatened with torture and death, they didn’t waiver.
At the heart of this movement was the death of a 33 year old carpenter from Nazareth, named Jesus. He claimed to be their King, and they believed that He had risen from the dead. Their belief in Him, His actions, and His words gave them purpose, strength, and hope. They didn’t have to try so hard to BE ‘letter’ perfect. They didn’t have to leave their community to prove their devotion. Their actions among their “Ecclesia” … their assembly… spoke volumes about how they felt about social and civic concerns (“…they will know you are My followers because you love one another…”).
And what of their style? What of the songs they sang, or the clothes they wore…or the buildings they held meetings in…?
I guess it wasn’t all that important after all. It isn’t about HOW you do it…it’s about WHO you’re doing it for. (I realize that this is very bad grammar…but it works)
That great, theological band, Tears for Fears said it best: “Kick out the style, bring back the Jam.”
Until Next Time,
1 Corinthians 10:31