The oldest heresy

Andrew F. Walls has been a key thinker in Christian mission and the transmission of faith for a number of years. I only discovered him this week when I read an article he wrote contrasting being a proselyte and converting to a new faith. The essential difference, he argues, is that a proselyte abandons the old culture and joins a new one, giving up ways of life that are incompatible with the new one.

He argues that the early church had a choice between being a proselyte church or a converting one in the first decades after Christ’s resurrection. That was what all the arguments over food laws and circumcision were about. The proselyte party wanted a church that remained essentially Jewish and required its members to become Jewish and adopt Jewish ways. Set against that was a church that took converts, people who brought their whole life and culture with them into the church. It was then the church that was challenged to, in Walls words, read Christ into and through that culture.

Walls marks the start of this turn from proselytizing Jewish church to converting Christian one with the first persecution after the stoning of Stephen that sent the first followers of Christ out into Gentile cities, where they continued to proclaim Jesus.

This meant talking about Jesus in a new way. There was little to be gained by stressing the ethnic term “Messiah.” It could be translated into Greek easily enough, but the translation (“the Smeared One”) would still seem odd to anyone not well acquainted with Jewish institutions. Explaining it would require a lengthy introduction to the Scriptures; and supposing there were Greek pagans with the interest and stamina to pay attention, they might still be puzzled to see any relevance to their own situation. Why should they rejoice that the national savior of Israel had arrived? What sort of good news to them was the restoration of Israel?

Walls argues that the cultural encounter with and incorporation of non-Jews into the church also led to pushing Christ into the culture. And he argues that this choice and tension still remains one of the most important aspects of the Christian mission:

The distinction between proselyte and convert is vital to Christian mission. It springs out of the very origins of that mission, demonstrated in the first great crisis of the early church. The later church has seen many heresies come and go, but the earliest of them has been by far the most persistent. The essence of the “Judaizing” tendency is the insistence on imposing our own religious culture, our own Torah and circumcision. Christian conversion as demonstrated in the New Testament is not about substituting something new for something old—that is to move back to the proselyte model, which the apostolic church could have adopted but decided to abandon. …. Nor is conversion a case of adding something new to what is already there, a new set of beliefs and values to supplement and refine those already in place. Conversion requires something much more radical. It is less about content than about direction. It involves turning the whole personality with its social, cultural, and religious inheritance toward Christ, opening it up to him. It is about turning what is already there