In my morning scripture readings a while back, I came across Acts 11. The substance of it is Peter’s defense before his Jewish Christian brothers of his having entered the home of the uncircumcised and even…wait for it…eaten with them (cue omninous organ music). I cannot help but think about fundamentalist reactions I’ve experienced to what they would call “unbiblical practices” like lectio divina or contemplative prayer. They would call them unbiblical because they are not explicitly mentioned by name or word-for-word.
In Acts 11, the “circumcised believers” (vs 2) were bothered and concerned that Peter had shared the gospel with the uncircumcised and even eaten with them in violation of their understanding of God’s law. They could make what they felt was a strong biblical case against what Peter had done. And what justification does Peter give for his actions? Does he appeal first to scriptures? I’m amazed that he mentions a vision he received while he was in a trance (vs. 5) of unclean animals lowered on a sheet that the Lord commands him to kill and eat. To the circumcised, Jewish believers, this was clearly an unbiblical vision because he was being commanded to do something they understood to be against the clear teaching of their scriptures.
Peter also mentions receiving a communication directly from God’s Spirit (vs. 12) that he was to go with the uncircumcised who wanted to take him to visit with Cornelius in his home (again in apparent violation of Jewish tradition rooted in their understanding of scripture).
Peter speaks of Cornelius’s experience of an angelic visit (vs. 13) in which he was told to send for someone named Peter who would give him a message by which he and his household would be saved. And Peter seems to give credence to this angelic visit.
Finally, he testifies to the evidence of the Holy Spirit falling upon them in the very same way the Spirit had fallen on the Jewish believers before, and with all of the same sorts of signs. Peter reasons that if the Spirit fell on the uncircumcised in the very same way as on the circumcised, who was he to make a distinction between them as it related to following Jesus and being included among his people? This subjective evidence carried a great deal of weight with Peter. Specifically, he says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God (vs. 17)?” Fortunately, the Jews concur and find Peter’s testimony to be quite compelling. They concluded that God had indeed given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (vs. 18).
For many fundamentalist Protestants, arguments of this sort would have carried no weight at all. They would not see credibility in any sort of subjective experiences like visions, dreams, angelic visits, or interior messages from the Spirit (all of which Peter experienced). In fact, the general response is to attribute anything of this nature to the work of an enemy. They attribute any subjective signs that don’t quickly and easily fit in with their preconceived view of scripture to error or even heresy. From a certain perspective, this ends up sounding an awful lot like Jesus’ description of the unforgivable sin of attributing to the evil one what is actually the work of God’s Spirit (Mk 3:29). When someone attributes a work of God’s Spirit to the evil one, they put themselves in a place where they cannot possibly receive, because of their preconceived, prejudiced perspective, this good work. And the fruit of their lives, over time, give evidence to this fact.
Some of these biased believers would hold to a theological tradition that has decided that anything of a subjective nature like visions, dreams, miracles and such are from a bygone age and are no longer necessary. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, the Bible records such experiences, but God no longer does in our day what he did for century after century throughout the record of the scriptures.” There is a fear that subjective experiences will lead people astray. Of course this can happen. But how in the world can we ignore that our own intellects and reason can also lead us astray. The Pharisees were both incredibly intelligent and incredibly misguided.
It is my belief that a chapter like Acts 13 provides a present-day guide for discerning subjective spiritual experiences that followers of Jesus might have. There are self-appointed discernment “experts” who would argue the exact opposite. They would claim that there was some sort of apostolic privilege that no longer exists today. But why wouldn’t this chapter still be of practical value to us in real-time discernment rather than only having a sort of historical value that doesn’t apply very practically today? Such a resistant perspective seems just the opposite of the sort of biblical focus these “experts” claim to be defending.
One of Peter’s basic arguments in this story is a form of “you can know what is from God by the fruit it produces.” Fundamentalist judges of anything spiritual never seem to look at the fruit. They usually point to the wackiest (and most obscure) examples of misguided people who also practice some form of the same subjective spiritual discipline. It’s cheap and lazy. Such fundamentalists would be quite offended if they got lumped in with the lovely folks at Westboro Baptist who protest funerals and proclaim that God Hates Gays. This is the very thing they do, without a twinge of conscience, with those they have never met, never personally spoken with or met or listened to in person. Theirs is a “guilt by free association” approach to “discernment.” I find it disturbing and woeful.
In twenty-five years of witnessing what happens when men and women spend time alone and quiet seeking God with a listening heart and mind (and which one might call Christian contemplative prayer), it is impossible for me to agree with the ignorant opinion that such subjective experiences are exactly like new age or Eastern versions of similar practices. I see the good fruit of profound peace, deep joy, a growing sense of the real love of God that is borne in people through such practices. On the other hand, the spirit I witness in the writings of so-called discernment ministries is angry, hostile, ridiculing, harsh, fearful, accusing and self-important. And they claim that they are doing God’s work in such a spirit?
Over the last twenty years, we have trained hundreds of well-trained, biblically rooted pastors and Christian leaders through the Journey. In dozens of retreats, I cannot remember having been accused by one of these participants of promoting something unbiblical. These “discerners” are going to say that these well-trained, godly pastors have failed to discern unbiblical practices through weeks-worth of personal witness that these so-called and self-appointed experts have somehow discerned as error with absolutely no personal exposure encounter or conversation at all?.
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