Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Wisdom of Gamaliel

From the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 5:

34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.

35And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.

36"For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.

37"After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.

38"So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown;

39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."

Gamaliel wasn't just "some guy". He was a man greatly respected in his time, acknowledged to have a great understanding of the Law and someone who held the highest position in his community. Paul is said to have been a student of his at one point. In his time and place Gamaliel is "establishment" to his core, a solid, orthodox kind of guy. Grandson of Hillel, one of the great Jewish teachers, he also had serious family connections.

In other words he was someone worth listening to back in the day. And I think the same can be said today. In the conflict in TEC and the commentary that is being offered from all sides perhaps we need to simply listen to the words of the Rabbi.

The concept of judging someone or something by their "fruits" is one that we see again in the Gospel of Matthew ("Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." MT 7:19-21). It gives us an interesting challenge as new ideas bubble up within the church. If it is of God then it will thrive and if it isn't then it can be and will be (and should be) stopped.

There is a challenge in this for both sides. For the conservatives it means allowing at least the possibility that the liberals might be trying to do something good. And giving them the room to do so (Although it's interesting to note that while the Sanhedrin did take Gamaliel's advice not to kill the apostles they still felt the need to flog them and tell them to stop preaching the Gospel. That no doubt made them feel better but did nothing to change the course of what was to come). For the liberals it means we have to acknowledge that we might be wrong. We must be willing to submit ourselves to Gamaliel's standard. This "new thing" needs to result in a positive, God inspired growth in the life of the church. If we truly believe in what we're doing we should be able to accept that standard without flinching. I believe we can easily meet the Rabbi's mark so I have no fear of it.

I also find it interesting that it is Gamaliel, the bastion of the establishment, who offers this thought. Paul the student (and I'm aware there is some dispute about whether he was. Paul says he was and I'll go with that for the moment) clearly breaks with his teacher on this point. The future apostle's actions in hunting down the new church, persecuting them and active involvement in things like the stoning of Stephen show that he rejects this teaching of the Rabbi. The establishment preaches patience and the younger generation preaches action.

Sometimes the older generation DOES know a thing or two.

As we move forward trying to discover God's intent for this corner of his church I think we would be well advised to keep Rabbi Gamaliel in mind.


(Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Version, courtesy of BibleGateway.com)

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