As I understand it – and I welcome correction from folks who know better – most Jews agree that the Torah (what we Christians call the first five books of the Old Testament) is The Law; it is authoritative; it is handed down from God. The remaining volumes of that covenant are known as the Tanakh, and the vast majority of Jews agree that these books, too, are authoritative.
But they do not carry the same weight, nor are they viewed with the same degree of reverence, as the Torah.
And while I’m not writing this to advocate that Christians should view the first four or five books of our New Testament as dictated by God while the remainder were simply suggested, I would like to propose these few scattered thoughts, and let you work through them just as I am doing.
First of all, you should know that I believe in the inspiration of Scripture. Yup, all of it. Every page of every volume within the Old and New Testaments. Some of us will part company there, but if I’m willing to at least hear the reasons for your beliefs, I hope you’ll do the same for me.
Secondly, it seems to me that the return of people to God and the establishment of His kingdom in this world goes pretty well in the better part of those first five books. Yes, it does seem to go badly for a while at the close of the four gospels, but there is a surprise ending that they all corroborate, wiping out any doubt about a happy ending. And the momentum continues into Luke’s sequel called Acts of the Apostles (which probably would not have been even his working title) – as long as the believers persist in telling and living out The Story.
Now you can take to extremes the verses in that book about “continuing in the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer” – and some folks in the past have, by saying “That’s all that scripture authorizes Christians to do.” Many of those folks would be horrified to advocate doing those things in homes as well as in God’s house, and doubtless very few of us would go to the extreme of selling our possessions to share with those in need. But I digress. The fact is, as long as people did these things, “the Lord added to their number.”
Things continue to go well for another couple of chapters, even though Peter and John are imprisoned for telling and living out the Story. Their imprisonment is short-lived, and the authorities are timid about pressing their luck afterward.
Until Avarice steps in. And Envy – trying to keep up with the Josephs in your giving. And then Exaggeration. Finally, Conspiracy to Defraud, with a penalty of death for Ananias and Sapphira. Somehow – with all the miracles going on around them, both extraordinary and everyday miracles – they just didn’t “get” The Story.
Then Peter and many other apostles stick up for The Story before the authorities and will not back down. Gamaliel recommends a code of pragmatism, but the floggings begin – and will continue on and off for the next three hundred years for many Christians who do the same.
The problems begin in the next chapter because some others don’t “get” the selflessness of the story. Whether they are actually neglected or just feeling neglected, a policy is made to give special attention to some widows.
And folks, whether you agree or not, I believe that one of the first big mistakes in church leadership takes place here.
The twelve apostles gathered the disciples together and told them that it wouldn’t be right for them to neglect the ministry of the word of God and wait tables. So they delegated the job. They began creating a hierarchy of service. They, the apostles, would handle the more spiritual tasks. The selected seven would wait tables.
Which means they missed one of the major points of The Story. The one Jesus made by wrapping a towel around himself, and washing the feet of eleven of the twelve of them. The point is this: waiting tables is the ministry of the word of God.
Do you think I am a heretic for harboring this opinion?
(To me, there’s a hint that something was amiss when no mention was made of prayer or fasting before/during the decision; and yet that the decision “seemed to please everyone.”)
I’m guessing that most of you will have as much difficulty proceeding in reading further as I am having in trying to write further. But I beg you to journey with me a little more; a second mile, if you will. Read on, but not here. Read the scripture itself.
See if it isn’t true that things ultimately go well for the company of believers we call the church as long as they stick to The Story – even when their persistence leads to imprisonment, torture and death.
See if it isn’t true that things go horribly wrong when folks within that church family begin pushing their own doctrines (about whether Jesus was all-divine or all-mortal; about whether circumcision and the law must be honored to produce a “true” Christian) and leave behind the simple, haunting beauty of The Story.
See if it isn’t true that when self becomes more important that selflessness; when the details of what is preached and practiced have greater priority than the sacrifice of the Savior; when race and heritage and diversity become obstructions rather than assets to the family of faith – all hell breaks loose, just as Satan designed and intended.
See if it isn’t true in Galatia, in Corinth, in Ephesus, among the Romans, among the Hebrews, in the seven cities of the Apocalypse. See if it isn’t true in the hearts of those loved by Peter and Jude and James and John.
See if there isn’t a measure of desperation in the those epistles decrying attempts to legislate unity through uniformity, morality through just good behavior, and even faith itself by just believing in The Story rather than by living it out as a vessel of Christ’s Holy Spirit.
See if there isn’t triumph in the epistles when they call back to His teachings, His examples, His sacrifice, His promises, His resurrection.
Don’t take my word for it.
See for yourself.
See if it’s even possible in your faith to accept that there might be a New Testament Tanakh – written by good people, inspired people, people doing their best under crushing circumstances, people to whom the Spirit spoke but would not dictate because dictatorship is simply not in God’s nature. But people, nonetheless, who were growing more distant by the moment from the sharpness of their recollection of having been part of The Story first-hand.
Then, we can converse some more about that Holy Spirit, given as surely to those who believe today as to those who believed then.
And how He enables us to write our own Tanakh with our lives.