In the story recorded in Acts 5, the Sanhedrin was furious and bloodthirsty. In defiance of the Council’s command the Apostles continued to proclaim Christ and that set them off. Called before this intimidating body, Peter was anything but timid. He called them to account for the death of Jesus, proclaimed the resurrection and announced his intentions to obey God rather than to cower before them. This insolence infuriated them and they were determined to squash that annoying sect.
Enter Gamaliel. He was one of the more influential teachers and leaders in Jewish history, even being quoted in the Mishnah a number of times. Saul of Tarsus studied under him and even after his experience on the road to Damascus, and his rejection of the Law as a means of salvation, kept a high regard for his teacher. Gamaliel stepped forward with calm words of wisdom.
“Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” Acts 5:35-39
He counseled a more cautious tack. He reminded them of the rebellions led by Theudas and by Judas (no, not that one) and pointed out that their false messianic claims came to nothing. Here he demonstrates a great faith in the power of God. He was confident that if the “Way” was a human movement, if would fail in and of itself. If, on the other hand, it was of God (as we believe it was!) their opposition would not stop it and in fact they would be opposing the work of God.
The Gamaliel Solution
The Gamaliel solution was simple. Trust God. If it is of God it will continue, since God is in it. If it is not of God, it will fail, because it is not of God.
Was Gamaliel’s wisdom divine? I’m not sure. Obviously he was an opponent of the gospel and there is no history or tradition I’m aware of that says that he converted to the faith. So, in the final analysis, he was an enemy of the Cross. But in this case, I think he was gifted to share a piece of wisdom to which we would do well to listen.
Realize that God is the administrator of justice, the one who recompenses evil and restores truth. Yes, we are called to proclaim truth and even to expose error, but there comes a time when we must put the outcome into the hands of God and trust him to bless those who walk in obedience and to bring down that which is of the flesh.
What if we just stopped fighting about Calvinism? What if we simply went about the business of preaching God’s Word, planting churches, evangelizing the lost and discipling believers? What if we stopped pushing Calvinist or Traditionalist agendas and simply did the work of God?
Does anyone really believe that the other side is that evil? I am aware that there are a few extremist Calvinists whose goal is to “reform” the convention and its churches. I honestly believe that they are a minority. They do not represent the purposes of the majority of Calvinists. And I am also aware that there are some extreme anti-Calvinists out there who will not be content as long as a Calvinist influence remains in the SBC. Again, they are a minority within the non-Calvinist continuum.
Most Calvinists (believing as they believe) simply want to do the work of God in this world. Most non-Calvinists also just want to do the work of God in this world. And the vast majority in both camps are ready, I believe, to stop the bickering and simply do that work together.
- Both sides agree that the Bible is God’s perfect Word.
- Both sides agree that the Triune God is in control of the world.
- Both sides agree that Jesus was God Incarnate.
- Both sides agree that Jesus bore our sins in his body, suffering God’s eternal wrath against our sins and redeeming us by his blood.
- Both sides agree that Jesus rose from the grave as King of kings and Lord of lords, exalted to God’s right hand.
- Both sides agree that salvation is found in no one else – that only by faith in Jesus Christ can anyone be saved.
- Both sides agree that this salvation should be followed by believer’s baptism (by immersion, in the name of the triune God, as a symbol of salvation not a saving act).
- Both sides agree that Jesus will come again one day to judge the world.
- Both sides agree that there are only two options in eternity – those who have come to faith in Christ will experience glory in God’s presence, those who have not trusted Christ are destined for eternal hell.
- Both sides agree that salvation given will never be taken away.
- Both sides subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message statement of 2000.
You know what? If you agree on these points, I will work with you. Five-pointers? I will work with you if we agree on these things. Those who reject all the points except the “p”? I will work with you. And every point in-between, from modified Arminian to Traditionalist to modified Calvinist to Four-pointer or Five-pointer – we can work together on the basis of this agreement.
Of course, we can discuss our differences. We should! Conferences like last week’s in Kentucky show that we can have a reasoned and healthy debate on Calvinism. I’m not convinced at this point that a Calvinism debate on blogs can be healthy. I’ve seen a few that started out pretty good, but usually by about 50 comments they have devolved into mud-slinging. Have you ever come away from a blogging debate on Calvinism and felt that the God has been lifted up, the Cross held high and the unity of the Body enhanced? I usually feel like I need a shower. They make me ashamed to tell people I am a Baptist blog editor!
For now, I am ready to abandon Calvinism debates at the blogging level – out of a sense of complete pessimism as to their efficacy. I’m not saying anyone else has to, since I’m not anyone else’s Holy Spirit. But for me, I’m sick of them and I just do not plan to participate.
The Sanhedrin Syndrome
I think the problem (on both sides) is the Sanhedrin Syndrome. “We have got to do something to stop the other side.” That is how the Council felt. We have got to destroy these followers of Jesus before they spread their false teachings any farther. We must act now and act decisively to stop them!
I understand the impulse. To those who do not subscribe to its doctrines, Calvinism can seem so rigid, even heartless. And the committed Calvinist just can’t understand why someone would refuse to accept the truths that are so comforting to them. And the desire to convince the other group is strong, or to oppose “their” false teachings.
The Gamaliel Solution
But what if, instead of the Sanhedrin Syndrome, we tried the Gamaliel Solution?
We would serve God and trust him to guide and protect the SBC!
What if we just went about our business and let God demonstrate his favor on one group or the other (or perhaps, on both groups)! I talked to a leader in the convention a while back, one who had come under quite a bit of criticism. I asked him how he dealt with the criticism. He, essentially, said he was using the Gamaliel Solution. “I just keep doing what God has called me to do and don’t worry about what others say.”
But, you say, won’t “they” take over the convention and ruin it? Do you really believe that you can accomplish what God cannot? God cannot protect the convention from destruction, but if you step in and take action, truth will prevail? Really? Yes, we should proclaim truth. Yes, we should dissent from and confront wrong and evil. But at some point, having proclaimed truth, we have to trust the power of God and just do what is right.
Gamaliel must have been familiar with the attitude David expressed in Psalm 37. David was not paranoid; they really were out to get him! But he refrained from a vengeful or vindictive attitude. In fact, when twice he had a chance to settle the score with Saul, he did not. Read through the entire Psalm to get the full teaching. But here is a sampling of what David said. Maybe we could apply the teaching to our blogging?
1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
2 For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
9 For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.
- Don’t fret about those who do evil – they will fade away. If the other side is doing wrong, God says they will fade away.
- God’s advice – Trust the Lord and do what is right (instead of fretting and fighting).
- Commit yourself to God and his way and he will shine his light on you! He will act, David said. Do we believe that?
- If evil prospers, then just wait patiently for God.
- Refrain from anger and wrath – they only tend toward evil.
- God will cut off wickedness!
That brings us back to the Gamaliel Solution. If that which you fight is opposed to God, he will act to bring it down. If that which you fight is approved by God, then you are essentially opposing God! Who wants to do that?
The Way Forward
I am tired of the bickering over the tenets of Calvinism. And, more and more, I am convinced that there is a broad middle among Baptists in the Calvinism debates that encompasses both sides. The majority of Calvinists are about advancing the gospel, not about advancing Calvinism. The majority of non-Calvinists are about advancing the Gospel, not about opposing Calvinism. There will always be the warriors on both sides, and they will continue to battle. But I think that those who are weary of a pointless and even damaging battle can just keep doing the work God has called us to do. Exalt Christ. Preach the Gospel. Announce the Kingdom.
And let God shine his light of blessing on those who please him. Do we trust him to do that?