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February 11, 2014

Restoring a Sense of Family (May-Jun 2002)

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By Gary Pearson
May-June 2002

A Reflection on Acts 23:6

Acts 23:6 is one of the most startling verses to me in the book of Acts.  Paul, the great Christian apostle, says plainly in the present tense, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.”  For all of our emphasis upon the book of Acts, at least in a capella Churches of Christ, I don’t remember this verse ever being addressed growing up in the Church of Christ and going to church three times a week.

That is remarkable because Acts is our book.  It may be apocryphal but the story is told of a church group from a Church of Christ making a trip in an unmarked church van.  At one point on the highway they were excited to come across a group in a unmarked van from another Church of Christ.  They waved like crazy at the folks in the marked van but they looked back with an expression that said “who in the world are you?”  A fellow in the unmarked van quickly wrote in large letters on a piece of paper “Acts 2:38″ and held it up in the window.  Then the folks in the marked Church of Christ van waved excitedly back to those in the unmarked van whom they now knew to be from another Church of Christ!

We heard a lot about Acts 2 and the conversion accounts but Acts 23:6 was as obscure as the book of Jude.  That’s understandable because it didn’t fit in with our strongly held belief that one cannot be both a Jew and a Christian.  It was just as plain as day to us that every Jew who was baptized into Christ ceased at that moment to be a Jew religiously.  After baptism they were only Jews in an ethnic sense.

That certainly would have been news to the apostle Paul.  In Acts 18:18 we find Paul cutting his hair because he was under a vow, evidently the Nazirite vow provided for in the Law of Moses.  Strange thing for a Christian apostle to be doing, don’t you think?  In Acts 24:17 Paul explains in his own words how he had come to be arrested in the Temple.  He says that he was there to offer sacrifices.  A Christian apostle offering sacrifices in the Jewish Temple!  Very strange!

Then, most startling, Paul says in Acts 23:6 that he is still a card-carrying Pharisee.  Now I know why Paul said that at that time.  In the context it was very much a political statement.  He was very shrewdly throwing a wrench into the works of the Sanhedrin and it worked. The Council did not condemn him; in fact, the Pharisees stood up for him.

Even when the context is fully taken into account, however, Paul’s statement in Acts 23:6 is still amazing.  I take it at face value.  I don’t believe Paul was lying or even dissimulating.  While it was not his primary identity, Paul still thought of himself as a Pharisee.  After all, he was the son of Pharisees.  Pharisaism was in his blood.  Some of its tenets, such as the resurrection of the dead, he believed just as strongly as he had ever believed them.

We might say that Pharasaism was a part of Paul’s spiritual DNA and, when the situation called for it, he did not hesitate to say, “I am a Pharisee. . . .”  While in Acts 23 that statement did not endear him to the Sadducees, it did build a bridge, even if only a temporary one, to the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin.

I bring our attention to this odd verse to help us think about our own identities.  How we think of ourselves greatly influences how we relate to others.

Some years back I was startled to find in the January 27, 1883 issue of Christian Standard a four paragraph article about my great-great-great grandmother, Nancy Jeffcoat, under the heading “A Christian’s Life.”  She was a staunch member of the Christian Church.  For 20 years she lived in the Huntsville community in Mississippi where there was no congregation of our movement.  The writer says that her neighbors told her that the Campbellites had all died but she held firm and refused to join any other church.

Finally, after the Civil War, a congregation began that she helped start and her husband was baptized and eventually became an elder.  Later her son and then her grandson also served as elders.  The faith that she first embraced at her baptism in 1828 was passed down generation by generation and now, as my own children are baptized one-by-one, each time I think back to her and how the path she blazed in my family is still being followed in the seventh generation.

The congregation she helped start was an instrumental congregation.  Long after her death, in the early twentieth century, the congregation became an a capella Church of Christ.  That’s how I grew up in the a capella Church of Christ.  I was well into adulthood before I knew about my family’s roots in the Christian Church.  Those roots were all but forgotten.

That heritage, however, is now very firmly a part of my identity.  While I’m very happy preaching for an a capella Church of Christ, I can still say in all seriousness, “I am a Disciple” and “I am a member of the Christian Church.”  Because that is a part of my identity, I find it the most natural thing in the world to try to build bridges to my brothers and sisters in Christ in the Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ.  My commitment to unity in our movement flows out of my identity with our entire movement rather than just one part of it.

Paul’s strange affirmation in Acts 23:6 shows us that it is possible to expand our identity beyond the boundaries that our comfort levels might otherwise dictate.  If any group in Scripture invites criticism surely it is the Pharisees.  Paul knew their mistakes well.  No doubt he could have lectured for several days on the problems of the Pharisees.  Despite all that, Paul could still unashamedly say, “I am a Pharisee.”

We see each other’s mistakes well, don’t we?  Each of us could probably more easily prescribe what the other two groups in our movement need to do in order to get straightened out than we can say what our own part of the movement needs to do.  That doesn’t have to keep us, however, from expanding our identity to include our entire movement.

This effort that we have embarked on is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  Substantive differences do exist among us and may limit practically what we can do in certain areas but, out of our shared identity, we can commit to do whatever we can do to realize the prayer of our Lord in John 17.

In the November 14, 2001 issue of Christian Century, Garret Keizer tells about a small town in northern Vermont many years ago in which a Protestant church building was destroyed by fire.  The congregation enthusiastically went out into the community to raise money to rebuild.  One member was so carried away that he even asked the local Catholic priest to make a contribution.  The priest replied, “Now, Harold, you know I can’t do a thing like that, give money to build a Protestant church!  But, I’ll give you 50 bucks to tear the old one down.”  In our efforts for unity maybe we can’t do A but perhaps we can do B or C.  If we see our identities as, at least to some extent, shared and overlapping then we will do something.

An ancient Greek by the name of Epicetus once said that every relationship is like a cup with two handles.  He said that if you quarrel with your brother you can grasp the handle that you have quarreled or you can grasp the handle that you are brothers.  If we grasp the handle of our quarrels then we’re not likely to ever really grasp the brotherhood and sisterhood that Christ died for us to have.  But if we first grasp that we have been made a family in Christ, then we will, one way or another, work through our quarrels.

Gary Pearson is in his nineteenth year of ministry with Westminster church of Christ in Westminster, Maryland, an a capella congregation that has exercised full fellowship with Churches of Christ and Christian churches since 1985.  He and his wife, Becki, have four sons and also serve as therapeutic foster parents for children with special needs.

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