Ripening Issues in the Church of Christ – Alienated Older People

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This is the last of the Ripening Issues in the CofC series. This is one that I am most worried about because the other issues all load into this one. There is pretty close biblical parallel that can help us handle this issue. For many years people thought Paul wrote Romans as a general layout of his theology. That would make Romans pretty exceptional because most of Paul’s letters are written to address problems and issues (that is called being an occasional letter). A new theory has developed that links a very specific occasion to the writing of Romans. Roman emperor Claudius ruled Rome from 41 to 54 AD. During his reign he issued a number of edicts including a prescription of “Yew juice” for snake bite (Suetonius #16) but also, and most importantly, an edict in 49 that Suetonius records as follows, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [probably a misunderstanding of Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetoinus 25.4). Acts 18:1-2 also makes mention of this edict as to why Priscilla and Aquilla left Rome. To make a long story short, when Claudius died the edict was void and the Jews were able to return to Rome.

There was one small problem. Jewish Christians would have presumably been Christians longer than Gentile Christians in Rome and had previously had more leadership experience in the church than the younger Gentile Christians. We presume that when the Christian Jews left Rome younger Gentile Christians stepped up into leadership roles and led these congregations/house churches for roughly 5 years until Claudius died and the Jews returned to Rome. When the Jewish Christians got back they may have expected church to be “life as usual” but instead found Gentile Christians occupying “their” places of leadership. [I really am going some place with this trust me]. Paul’s occasion for writing Romans (which is probably dated in 57 AD) was that 3 years after the churches were reunited with the returning Jews they were still fighting and quarreling amongst themselves.

Dealing with Cultural Differences:

Here is my point, Paul is writing to a church that is struggling with cultural issues and leadership issues that stem from disagreements between younger and older Christians who are from totally different worlds/backgrounds. I think that is a fairly good parallel between what is about to happen in our churches as the younger people, who as Rex pointed out, are coming at it from a totally different background and perspective engage the older Christians in dialogue about how the church is going to operate, what the worship should be like, how much we are serving our community, outreach, etc. If the older members stonewall we are going to have a tremendous backlash and an exodus from the church. If the younger people push forward with no concern or deference from the older members there is going to be a tremendous amount of alienation as the older people will no longer recognize the church the spent their whole lives supporting and being a part of.

Paul’s Advice:

What advice did Paul give the Roman churches? He gave them an equal lashing until he felt both sides realized that as different as they may seem they are actually more alike than they realized. It all boiled down to 3:21-24,27-31 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ JesusWhere, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Old or young faith is the same. Old or young our need for forgiveness is the same because we are all alike in sin and all alike in righteousness. As a famous wrestler used to say, “And that’s the bottom line.” This culture or that culture, Jew or Gentile, modern or post modern he is the God of us all because through faith in Jesus Christ he brings justification to both.

An older member might say, “But Paul doesn’t that mean in doing so we might nullify the law?” = “Doesn’t that mean to give deference to these young upstarts mean we are throwing away everything we have lived for up to this point?” Paul’s answer is just the opposite – he says to live in one accord with them is to live more closely in line for everything you have ever lived for up to this point. To be in one accord between the older and the younger means we are being more fully who God made us to be – people who are mutual submissive to each other who understand we do have differences and are still willing to worship and commune with others even though we will never agree on everything.

As this issue looms larger and larger let’s begin by never forgetting who we and our similarities in Christ. When we start from that position it will make the dialogue that much easier because we realize that even though we may differ on some of the “how to’s” the mission and identity of both generations is really the saem.

0 Responses

  1. Matt, this is not a new theory. Karl Donfried has an excellent book that discusses this situation called The Romans Debate. I’m not sure though that you can fit a younger vs. older generation situation into it. You are only talking about a five year period not a 25 year period. There is a cultural discussion going on that is obviously a Jew vs. Gentile issue. Romans is littered with Jew vs. Gentile discussions not older vs. younger. Romans seen from this vantage point would fit well with missionaries from one country trying to help churches from another. It would even speak to sub cultures within a larger culture trying to get along.

    The solution to these cultural problems is not “faith” but the Gospel of Jesus Christ which has the power of salvation (1:16). We have inherited from the Reformation the idea that the gospel is “justification by faith.” A more careful reading of Romans would suggest that justification by faith if the means of salvation not the foundation of salvation. 3:21-26 focuses not on our response but on the blood of Jesus which God freely applies to provide redemption. Luther used Romans and Galatians to fight what he saw as a works oriented religion in Catholicism and unfortunately his application has become our exegesis.

    I think a better reading of Romans would not only see the original situation but also the canonical placement of Romans in the New Testament. The Gospels provide the foundation and center of the New Covenant and show forth the true gospel – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Acts shows Jesus’ chosen apostles going into all the world and preaching the gospel. People are converted and churches started. Paul’s letters show the gospel applied to the various situations in which the churches find themselves. Romans shows that cultural issues can threaten to dismantle the work of the local church. The solution is to focus on the gospel which is the power of God for salvation not the details (which days are holy, etc.). We should also reflect on why Romans is the first epistle in the New Covenant. Length had something to do with it but it does in general provide a grand sweep of the scheme of redemption. We’ve sinned, God sent Jesus, and we can now find forgiveness. The Gospel is really the answer to all our divisions and discussions. Unfortunately we don’t start with the gospel in our discussions we start with systemic theology. What does the Bible say about the issue? is where we usually start.

    Having said all that I don’t doubt that generational mind sets are at work in our current debates and discussions. We can turn to Romans for an answer to these debates as well. Romans demonstrates that we have all sinned and the gospel provides forgiveness. Perhaps that is the missing ingredient in our debates – forgiveness for sins. Instead we want to debate the rightness or wrongness of an issue. We should eventually do that but the Gospel comes first.

  2. Preacherman,

    As long as there are people in the church there will be problems – God knows that and provides the answer for it. Problems may die out but our need to have our own needs met first and foremost will always lead to disagreement and “issues” as we all have different needs.


    That sums it up pretty well. A couple of points in reply.

    The canonical position of Romans may be looked at that way but it was not put there for that purpose/design. As I am sure you know Paul’s letters are arranged from longest to shortest.

    I agree that the issue in Romans is primarily cultural and not older/younger. However, the older/younger problem we are facing today is also a cultural one – which is why I paralleled the two. The age distinction/Christian maturity distinction I drew from Romans is an assumption.

    Thanks for pointing behind the faith to the Gospel because that is more at the heart of what the NT says about this. You are very right in what you said about how the Reformation has done to our view of NT theology. The reason I pointed to faith is because of what Paul said in the passage I cited above (3:21). Thanks for your comment. It was really helpful to me and hopefully to others.

  3. Matt, that Paul’s letters are arranged from longest to shortest may have been in the mind of those uninspired men binding the NT together but it is possible that God’s providence has a different idea. It is also possible that the editors (?) saw that the longest to the shortest made sense other than just the longest to the shortest. If we are to exegete the Scriptures accurately we must not only see them in their original settings, but also in their canonical settings as well. Their canonical settings (or context) includes which testament, which section, what order, it’s function in the canon, and it’s possible intertextuality within the canon. We must include in our exegesis the idea not only of how God spoke to the original situation but also how God uses that letter to continue to speak to new situations and new generations of His people throughout the ages.

  4. I fear you are correct about an impending alienation of older v’s younger.

    I wish both could see how much they NEED each other in order to fulfill the churches responsibility to go into all the world and preach the gospel.

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