When Eileen came out of the room that morning, her son Sam could not believe what he saw. His mother had always been very careful with her personal appearance. She would put on her makeup with extreme caution, she would meticulously polish her nails, and she would carefully comb her hair.
That morning, however, something was very wrong. The left side of Eileen’s hair was a tangled mess with tufts like nests here and there, the left side of her face had no makeup, and the left side of her shawl dragged on the floor. Eileen, however, had emerged from the room after having spent half an hour applying her makeup, combing her hair, and dressing herself—on the right side of her body. The same thing happened at breakfast; Eileen completely ignored what was on the left side of her plate.
Eileen was not blind on her left side. She suffered from a common illness known as hemineglect, negligence of half her field of vision. The problem was not that she did not see her left half, but that she simply did not pay any attention to it. The doctor demonstrated this fact with a simple experiment. If he lifted a finger to the left of Eileen, right in front of her eyes, but didn’t move the finger, she did not see it. If the doctor moved his finger, then she became aware of its presence. The system that governs those things we pay attention to is quite complex, and in large part full of mysteries for the scientific world. What things attract our attention, and why? What are the determining factors?1
Adventists live in an increasingly polarized world. Socially, economically, and politically, the areas that lie at the center are becoming more and more deserted. Media and social networks have facilitated this phenomenon. You can read or see the news from outlets that think as you do and reinforce your cherished opinions. Facebook and other social media also make it very easy to restrict our group of friends to those who resemble us and bolster our views.
The General Conference Session in San Antonio this summer made evident that strong polarizing tendencies are in our midst as well. In both ends of the spectrum, there are Adventists deeply suspicious of fellow church members at the other end of the spectrum and will warn about the danger they pose to the church. Others are less vocal regarding their views but will simply tune out the other side and restrict their attention and conversation to those who think as they do. This is a problem of gospel hemi-neglect. If you cannot get rid of the other side, simply tune it out.
This is not a new phenomenon in the history of the church. The New Testament reports of deeply divisive issues in the early Christian Church. One was circumcision (Acts 15). This issue created deep suspicions (21:20, 21) and even confrontation (Gal. 2:1–16) among those with opposing views. What impresses, though, is the healthy balance in Scripture.
There are 21 epistles in the New Testament. Fourteen were written by Paul. These Pauline epistles were written to seven churches (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica) and three individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon).2 Seven epistles are known as the Catholic Epistles, which were written by four apostles: James, Peter, John, and Jude. If you pay attention, you will notice that these were the apostles identified in Galatians 2:9 as those who were missionaries to the circumcised (the Jews).3
Paul, on the other hand, was the missionary to the uncircumcised, the Gentiles (Eph. 3:1–10). Because of the ministry given to him, Paul emphasized that we are accepted into God’s people by faith, not circumcision, and, therefore, the Gentiles have equal standing with the Jews before God.
James, Jude, and John, however, emphasized the importance of works as an evidence of a living faith. James emphasized the care for the poor and the actions that evidence true faith. First Peter emphasized the importance of appropriate conduct, even in the midst of persecution. Peter’s second Epistle and the Book of Jude denounce the immorality of false teachers. And John emphasizes love. It is very clear that these epistles tried to provide balance to the teachings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15, 16; James 2:14–26).
Acts of the Apostles also provides a balanced introduction to the New Testament epistles. Peter is the hero in the first half of the book (Acts 1 to 12). Paul is the hero in the second half (Acts 13 to 28). Peter, the apostle to the circumcised (Galatians 2), is the one who brings the gospel for the first time to the uncircumcised (Acts 10) and defends the gospel preached to them (Acts 15:7–11). Paul, the apostle to the uncircumcised (Eph. 3:1–10), always begins his efforts in new cities by preaching in the local synagogue and yearns for the salvation of his Jewish brethren (Romans 9–11).
Acts records four evangelistic speeches by Paul and Peter. Each of them addressed one to a Jewish audience (Acts 3, 13) and one to a Gentile audience (10, 17). It is clear that God in His wisdom wanted the church to have a balanced view of the gospel, and this required the writings of more than one inspired individual.
One of the mistakes that we can make as Adventists is to tune out opposing viewpoints. When we encounter opposition, there are three things to keep in mind: First, the New Testament shows that more than one inspired author and one side of the issue is needed to provide a balanced perspective. Second, mission requires a diversity of emphases and communication. The place where we do mission and the needs we seek to address should not change the gospel we communicate but should affect the way we communicate that gospel and the emphases that we make. Third, even inspired authors need others to protect them from mistakes. Paul rebuked Peter when he wavered in his practice of the gospel toward the Gentiles (Galatians 2) and Peter and James addressed aspects of Paul’s gospel that were difficult to understand and could be easily twisted toward immorality (James 2:14–26; 2 Peter 3:15, 16; Jude).
In the history of our own church there are clear examples of the need of balance, even for those who were in the right position. A. T. Jones, for example, who championed justification by faith in 1888, would later overreach and abandon the church.
Tuning the other side out is contrary to Christian love. The gospel requires that we care for each other. The case of Eileen above also teaches that tuning out the other side will not solve our problems.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See V. S. Ramachandran, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind(New York: Quill, 1998), pp. 113–115.
2. At this point, there is uncertainty among scholars as to authorship of the letter to the Hebrews.
3. Jude was the brother of James (Jude 1:1) and therefore probably also part of the ministry to those of the circumcision.