“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1 NKJV).
I recently had my computer to crash while outside the U.S. Though I had printed instructions as to how to possibly correct the problem, they were quite involved and technical and I did not feel qualified to attempt them, especially since I feared that an error might cause irreversible damage. So I took the computer and the instructions to several local technicians hoping to find one who either knew the procedure or could follow the instructions with confidence.
As in so many places, most of the technicians in this country are primarily self-taught. They know much more about the equipment than I, but usually only know one or a very few ways of addressing a problem. To compound the problem they are limited in their English skills, and possibly in the ability to read with comprehension.
All of that means that no one could repair my computer except by reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system. That means I lost a lot of valuable information and programs. Though this is a manageable loss, it is still significant.
The inability to think outside the box or to be flexible in approach to issues is not limited to technical matters. One of the areas where it is most frequently observed is in the spiritual realm. Consider, for example, the sincere but mistaken teachers of Acts 15. They had been taught all their lives that fellowship with God is obtainable only within the covenant which he made with Israel, that is, through the Law of Moses.
Faith in Jesus was well and good, but it did not and could not, in their view, overturn the preeminence of the Law. They were simply incapable of comprehending that God might not have intended the Law as his final and complete system of salvation.
It is easy for us to look back over the centuries and condemn the “blind legalism” of such Jews. But do we consider how hard it is to overcome long held opinions, or even to honestly question their basis?
We each have beliefs, opinions, prejudices and convictions. These are based on things we have been taught, have observed or experienced, and in some cases, on our preferences (likes and dislikes).
I remember the first religious dispute in which I was involved. I was in elementary school and a classmate and I somehow began to argue over whether baptism is essential to salvation. I can still feel the bewilderment of that younger self that anyone could think otherwise than what I knew to be self-evident truth. I am sure the other boy felt the same bewilderment.
Humility will help us to realize that if we were in the same situation as some of those errant teachers in the early church we might have taken the same position. Over and over as I read the history of Israel and early Christianity, I am convinced that “there but for the grace of God I might have gone also.”
The thoughts expressed thus far are not intended as an excuse or apology for the teaching of error. Those Jewish teachers were wrong, and they were opposed by others who perceived the truth. Paul, for one, rebuked them harshly, pronouncing them accursed (Galatians 1:6-10).
We have a tendency, however, to assume that anyone who teaches false doctrine is evil in their hearts and fully aware of the harm they are doing. While this is sometimes true, it is not true of everyone. Some are sincerely mistaken. Yes, they are mistaken and their error will cause much harm. But those who are sincere may be taught and their errors corrected (consider Apollos, Acts 18:24ff).
If we immediately accuse everyone who states an erroneous opinion as a perverse false teacher, we will never have opportunity to correct the misguided. Let those who are more mature and knowledgeable humbly and lovingly attempt to restore those who are “overtaken in a fault” (Galatians 6:1).