The first major issue to face Christianity was, “What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” Jesus’ teaching was seen as a reform movement within Judaism; but, when the fledgling church began spreading its witness, many Jews—especially within leadership—were hostile. But Gentiles accepted the gospel and came by droves!
“What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” There were no creeds for them to memorize—no New Testament for them to read. The Gospels and Epistles wouldn’t appear for another thirty years; and by that time, churches had been established.
Under Peter’s leadership, the initial response was simple: make them become Jews first: submit to the law, keep the kosher dietary rules, offer the proper sacrifices… Make the men be circumcised (that’ll weed out the riff-raff!). A whole Christian sect—mostly converted Jews—grew out of that teaching. They were called “Judaizers.”
Communities of believers emerged in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Some disciples moved north, into Syria. and were teaching and gathering believers in Antioch. Paul took the Gospel into what we know today as Turkey. All this happened, without a written doctrine or manual of policies and procedures.
By the time Paul reached Corinth in his second missionary journey, there already was a church there, and at least two preachers had preceded him. There we see a chaotic mess resulting from the debate over which preacher got it right: “I follow Peter/I support Apollos/I agree with Paul…”
They were confusing ends and means. The Gospel was about Jesus. They were arguing over preachers and baptism and the role of women and whether to eat meat…
And to add to the challenge, the new converts were coming out of pagan religions, and wanted simply to add Jesus as one more God in their pantheon. They wanted to continue to worship in the Temple of Diana, the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle at Delphi...
What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts? Paul returned to Jerusalem and challenged Peter and those who said Gentiles must become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul prevailed, and Gentiles could enter the church simply by a confession of faith and submission to baptism.
But the challenges continued; with a surplus of Christian preachers, many of them recent converts, there were heresies: Gnosticism (the Gospel of John appears to have been written, at least in part, as a counter-testimony to Gnosticism), Docetism, Arianism… Paul’s letters were the first attempts to bring together a message that was consistent and faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus.
But we humans are insecure when it comes to spiritual matters. “What if we get it wrong?” We want things nailed down, carved in stone. We’re uncomfortable with faith. We prefer certainty. We tend to fall for slick-talking carnival barkers and sideshows offering “Five Easy Steps to Heaven” or “Fire Insurance Doctrines” or a “Prosperity Gospel.”
Paul refused to compromise. Over and over he said, “The rituals we perform, the liturgies we recite, and the ethical standards we put into practice are expressions of the faith we hold; they are not the means by which we attain heaven and avoid hell.”
In Paul’s second missionary journey—in Lystra—he developed a strong mentoring relationship with a young Christian named Timothy. Timothy accompanied Paul on some of his later journeys, and eventually Paul left him in charge of the church in Ephesus.
But the mentoring continued with this young Bishop of Ephesus, and we have two of Paul’s letters to him. Our text today comes from the second letter. Timothy was confronted with heresies:
- religion without power;
- trusting in the right form, the right ritual, instead of trusting in the grace of God;
- fads and fancies… you know them: “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere; after all, we’re all trying to get to the same place…”
- religion that focuses almost exclusively on the destination, and neglects the journey…
- superficial faith that clings to the ancient wisdom that “The good are rewarded and the evil are punished.” And if we don’t see that happening in our world, we rationalize: “Well, ‘When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be’…”
- simplistic faith that trivializes the Gospel’s promise of heaven, assigning it exclusively to another time and another place totally separated from life here and now.
Those kinds of heresies. And Paul writes:
2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NRSV) But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
From the beginnings of Christianity—I suppose throughout the history of religions in general—voices have called for believers to check their brains at the door when engaging in matters of faith. Just wrap your mind in memorized creedsand doctrines and carefully selected verses of Scripture. And don’t ask questions. Just accept what we tell you.
Those voices had become the official voice of the church by the Middle Ages, as creeds and catechisms replaced rational thinking. And then, Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg Church.
The Reformation had limited effectiveness. It released the minds of some brilliant thinkers—both sacred and secular. Indirectly it led to the Enlightenment, which produced the writings of John Locke, whose ideas heavily influenced the thinking of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, founders of our denomination.
The Campbells separated themselves from their church heritage, primarily in opposition to the use of creeds as tests of faith and tests of fellowship. Alexander Campbell said, “Faith is personal; not doctrinal;” and he and his father offered a faith that was reasonable, based upon Scripture.
Hopefully, you can see how those principles line up so well with our text today, when Paul encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings…”
My friend, Rodney Allen Reeves, a cradle Disciple and serious student of Christianity, calls it a “Reverent Intelligence.” Our reason, he says, “needs to be tempered especially with ‘reverent intelligence’, grounded not only in sacred writings and faith, but as Alexander Campbell stressed, grounded also in our rational human experience, and in the humility of our human condition that recognizes that we are not ‘omniscient’ beings. Rather, we ‘live and move and have our very being’ in a creative cosmos filled with Mystery.” And our faith brings us to the awareness of a divine persona that, in William James’ term, is "a more"—more than we can know; more even than we can ever imagine!”
In such a state of awareness, we can only stand before that divine persona in awe and reverence.
But in our own time, those voices are being raised again. The result has been damaging: a “spiritually hungry, institutionally disillusioned public” increasingly perceives the church as mindlessly locked into irrelevant, irrational doctrines, judgmental, homophobic and committed only to its own well-being.
That same disillusioned public wants to know, simply, “What does it mean to follow Jesus and to become more like him?” For several weeks now, we’ve been looking at that same question> It involves infinitely more than mental affirmations and verbal recitations. The founders of the Christian Church, from the beginning, called on Disciples to bring “a reverent intelligence” to our faith journey.
The integration of faith and intellect—the integration of our whole being—is imbedded in the DNA of our church history; and is indispensable to the health and vitality of our witness. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:1:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your whole being as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
 Thomas G. Bandy identifies this public as the largest and fastest-growing spiritual population in North America.