“2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” (Acts 17:2-4)
A few weeks ago I delivered two sermons on Acts 17. While I had preached on Acts 17 before, this time around I saw something profound in verses 2-4 that I hadn’t noticed before. In this passage we see Paul following his standard modus operandi of travelling to the synagogue and entering into public debate over the messiahship of Jesus. He definitely had his work cut out for him, for by arguing that Jesus was the messiah Paul was challenging deeply rooted assumptions about who the messiah was. And challenging those assumptions threatened to shake the very foundations of Judaism. And yet, time and again it was into the center of the synagogue that Paul came to bring his message.
Think about the contrast that provides with most contemporary churches. The identity of the messiah was a big issue in Paul’s day. What are the big issues in our day? Evolution? Nationalism, war and Christian witness? Homosexuality? Biblical violence? The historical Jesus? Each of these issues and more is a potential powder keg. And yet it is at this point that contemporary churches tend to diverge radically from the first century synagogue. While the synagogue welcomed open, reasoned discussion about the identity of the messiah, most churches provide no space at all to debate the controversial issues of our age. Indeed, many folks worry that simply by raising an issue they face potential social censure.
To take one example, in Jesus Interrupted Bart Ehrman points out that there is a whole range of material on the historical Jesus and historical biblical criticism which is widely taught in the seminaries but never shared in the congregations. Why is this? Do clergy think that their flock can’t handle a more nuanced, complex, and truthful picture of reality? Have they even tried?
Interestingly, a greater openness to such basic questions serves to boost the credibility of the church to a wider, skeptical public. Consider my recent public debates with John Loftus on the existence of God. As I observed back in June, after the debate at Greenfield Baptist Church in Edmonton, a Hindu man came up to me and observed that a Hindu temple or Buddhist temple wouldn’t host that conversation. Then he said, “The fact that this church hosted this discussion shows that you really care about truth.”
I wish that churches today were more like the first century synagogue. I wish they welcomed open, carefully reasoned debate and discussion about the hot potato issues of our age without fear of censure. If nothing else, that would show that the church really does care about truth.