The Gamaliel Attitude


You probably know that religious pluralism did not originate with modern theologians like John Hick or John Shelby Spong or Leslie Weatherhead. Some form of pluralism can be traced back for thousands of years and in most civilizations, including Greece and Rome. The Roman people would accept any religious view, unless the adherents of that view claimed to represent the only way to God. That is precisely why the Roman authorities opposed the church of the living God. They knew that Christians made claims like the following: "This is the stone (that is, Jesus Christ) that was set at nought by you builders, which has become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:11-12). The Roman government persecuted and even killed those who claimed to have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


The apostles Peter and John miraculously healed a lame man at the Beautiful gate of the Jewish temple. The Jewish leaders were angry with the apostles. They were concerned that some of their supporters would turn from Judaism to Christianity. Members of the Jewish council conferred among themselves. They asked, "What shall we do with these men? For that indeed a notable miracle has been done by them is manifest to all them who dwell in Jerusalem: and we cannot deny it." The council commanded Peter and John not speak any more in the name of Jesus Christ. The apostles answered: "Whether it be right in the sight of God to listen to you more than unto God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and  heard" (Acts 4:15-20).


Peter and John could not comply with the demands of the Jewish council. The Jewish leaders imprisoned the apostles. "But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them (Peter and John) forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple all the words of life." The apostles obeyed the command of the angel. When the Jewish leaders heard what Peter and John were doing, they were concerned about what would happen in Jerusalem if the apostles were not stopped. They wanted to use whatever means were available to prevent widespread acceptance of the gospel message. They were so angry they wanted to kill them (Acts 5:18-20, 24).


Gamaliel, a prominent Jewish rabbi, a teacher of the law and a man who was highly respected by the Jewish people, warned his fellow council members about any rash behavior. He mentioned two religious movements that had started with great enthusiasm, but had failed. "For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nothing. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed" (Acts 5:36-37).


Gamaliel explained to the council his reason for speaking of the two failed religious movements. "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: but if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God" (Acts 5:38-39). Gamaliel makes two points—neither of which is valid. On the one hand, if the preaching of the apostles came from men, it could not succeed. It would come to nothing. On the other hand, if Peter and John truly represented God's plan, no one could thwart their work. It would succeed regardless of men's attitudes toward it.


Pat Boone wrote a book that he called Dr. Balaam's Talking Mule (Van Nuys, CA: Bible Voice, Inc., 1974). One chapter in Pat's book has the title, "The Gamaliel Attitude" (pp. 48-52). Pat asks, "May I introduce you to Rabbi Gamaliel?" He says he loves Gamaliel "for his common sense and for his kindly moderation." Pat says he wishes Gamaliel were among us today. Pat thinks we ought to wait to see what a religious movement will become before we oppose it (pp. 48-50). I have two questions I must ask you to consider as we begin our study of the topic, "The Gamaliel Attitude." "Do we have to wait to see the direction a religious movement will take before we oppose it? Why would Pat or any other person take a position that is contrary to the conduct of Christ and of his apostles?"


The Gamaliel attitude can be summarized in these simple statements: We should wait to see whether a given religious movement is from God or from men. If the movement is from men, it will fail. But if it is from God, we cannot fight against it. Pat Boone recommends the Gamaliel attitude, but no reputable scholar would do so. In his very scholarly commentary, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), the late Dr. F. F. Bruce, one of England's most influential Evangelical scholars, says there is some wisdom in Gamaliel's recommendations.   He thinks that some religious movements "can safely be relied on to hang themselves if given enough rope; but Gamaliel's temporizing policy is not always the wisest one to follow, whether in religion or in political life. His pupil Paul of Tarsus was of a very different mind" (p. 117). J. W. McGarvey's great Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1892, a reprint), says concerning the Gamaliel attitude: "If it were proposed as a general rule of procedure in reference to religious movements, we should condemn it as time-serving" (P- 99).


I have some questions to challenge your thinking about the Gamaliel attitude. What could have been the results if strong Bible believers had challenged the modernism that swept the seminaries in the east—Harvard, Princeton, Yale and others? What would have happened to some of the liberal denominations if preachers and -theologians had taken a firm stand against the liberal trends in the denominational Bible schools and seminaries? Should we stand by and do nothing when apostasy develops in churches? Do we have nothing to say when charismatics deceive people into believing their so-called "miracles" are genuine? Can we conscientiously remain silent while the "prosperity gospel" sweeps many people into soul-condemning error? Do you remember what Peter and the other apostles said to the Jewish council when it forbad them to preach Christ: "We ought obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29)?


Pat Boone says he wishes Gamaliel were among us today. By that he apparently means that preachers and others should cease judging what other people believe. Oddly enough, Pat's book is full of judging. One example will have to suffice. "The only sins that furnish scriptural grounds for 'disfellowshipping' are sexual or sensual sins, and teaching doctrines that deny the Sonship of Christ" (p. 50). Does Pat not recognize that what he wrote is a judgment—an inexcusably bad judgment—but a judgment nevertheless? Does Pat not know that Paul commanded the Thessalonians to withdraw from lazy people—those who would not provide for their families (2 Thess. 3:6-10)?


There is absolutely no doubt that Judaizing teachers were disturbing many churches in apostolic times. The Judaizers wanted to combine the best elements of Judaism, at least from their viewpoint, with the most attractive features of Christianity. It certainly had an appeal to many in the early churches. Why did not the apostle Paul wait to see how the Judaizing movement would develop? If the movement came from men, it could not survive. If it came from God, he would be guilty of fighting against God. In either case, from Pat Boone's viewpoint, the apostle Paul had no reason to oppose the Judaizers. There is a serious problem with that theological position: It does not make sense scripturally. Paul knew the new covenant had supplanted the old. If he had failed to speak out against the perversion of the gospel, he would have stood condemned in the final judgment.


If you think I might be exaggerating the seriousness of perverting the gospel, please listen to what Paul wrote to the Galatian churches that the Judaizers were attempting to lead astray or had already led astray. "I marvel that you are soon removing yourselves from him who called you unto another gospel: which is not another; but there are some who trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel to you than that you have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-9).


The expression, "would pervert" (metastrepsai in the Greek), means to change completely. W. E. Vine says the word means to "transform into something of the opposite character" (volume 3, p. 180). The apostle Peter quoted the following passage from Joel: "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:20). James used the same word in the following passage. "Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness" (Jas. 4:9). Was Paul being intolerant when he so vigorously opposed the Judaizers among the Galatian churches? Did he have the attitude of his famous teacher, Gamaliel?


Please listen to the following verses to ascertain if Paul was following the advice of Gamaliel. "O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the law? Have you suffered so many things in vain? If indeed it be in vain! He therefore who ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith" (Gal. 3:1-5)? If we must wait to determine how a movement will grow before we oppose it, Paul made a serious blunder in so severely criticizing the Galatian Christians and the Judaizing teachers among them.


Those who preach and promote false doctrine, as the Judaizers were doing among the Galatian churches, are causing men and women to fall from grace. Paul pled with the Galatians: "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." He then warned them: "Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ has become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law: you are fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:1-4).


Was there no good in the views and practices of the Judaizers? After all, they were Christians who wanted to adopt many New Testament ideas and add them to valuable insights of the law of Moses. The Mosaic covenant had been divinely given to the Jewish people. The gospel of Christ came from the very mind of God. So what could possibly be wrong with combining the best elements of both covenants, since both laws came from God? That approach would certainly meet with approval from many modern theologians, including some who approve of the Gamaliel attitude. But it was a repudiation of the gospel of Christ. It was preaching another gospel. And you     know what Paul said about preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:8-9).


If we alter the gospel of Christ in any way, we bring the curses of God on our heads. Paul accused the Judaizers of making Christ of no effect by adopting beliefs and practices of the old covenant. In other words, if the Mosaic covenant can save and justify anyone, there was no need for Christ to suffer and to die. Paul said, "You are fallen from grace." The Greek verb (ekpipto) translated "fallen" really means to fall out of. In his excellent set of Greek Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), Dr. A. T. Robertson comments on the Greek verb. He says it means "you left the sphere of grace in Christ and took your stand in the sphere of law" (volume 4, p. 309)


If a movement viciously attacks the gospel of Christ—as modernism and postmodernism have done—are we to act as if it does not matter? Is that really what the Lord demands of preachers and other Christians? Many of those who claim to be the most tolerant and most loving are often uncompromising in their opposition to true Christianity. Dr. John Killinger has preached for the Baptists, the Methodists, the Christian Church, the Congregational Church, the Presbyterian Church and perhaps others. His book, Ten Things I Learned Wrong from a Conservative Church (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), attacks the inerrancy of scripture, the atoning death of Christ, Jesus as the only way to God, and other fundamental teachings of scripture. Following is one of the strangest statements I have ever read from a theologian. "I can hardly describe the ecstasy I felt when I first learned that Martin Luther... swore like a drunken sailor. He used the German equivalents of all our four-letter words, and then some....But I delighted in Luther's having been a vile-mouthed religious figure" (p. 99). Why in the world would Dr. Killinger take delight in anyone's being foul-mouthed? Does that attitude not show how far Dr. Killinger had departed from the purity of heart the Bible demands of all who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Did not Jesus teach: "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt. 12:34)? A filthy mouth is a sure sign of a filthy heart.


Am I to remain silent while liberals like Dr. Killinger seek to destroy men's faith in the Bible as the word of God and in Jesus Christ as the Son of God? If we follow Gamaliel's advice, should we not give the modernist movement plenty of room to grow to see if it is from men or from God? You and I do not have to wait. We know that modernism and postmodernism are contrary to scripture and repugnant to God almighty. How do we know that? We have God's infallible word. We know beyond any doubt that modernists and postmodernists are enemies of the cross of Christ.


I wonder if Pat Boone and others who embrace the Gamaliel attitude know of the growth and influence of the New Age movement. Probably as many as sixty millions Americans embrace some phases of that movement. Twenty-four per cent (24%) of Americans believe in the possibility of reincarnation. Millions of Americans read their daily horoscopes. Great numbers of our citizens believe they have been in touch with a dead relative or friend. Psychics enjoy enormous popularity with many Americans. How do we respond to the superstition and paganism in the New Age movement? We know the beliefs and practices of the New Age movement are contrary to scripture. Do we act as if the movement contains no threat to New Testament Christianity? For years I have spoken out against such heathen practices. I do not have to wait to see if the movement is from men or from God. I know it is not from God.


Are you aware of our Lord's deep concern about false teachers? In his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You shall know them by their fruits" (Mt. 7:15-16). The expression, "come to you in sheep's clothing," indicates that the false teachers pretend to have their hearers' interests at heart. They make believe they are loving and generous and would not mislead anyone for any reason. But they are ravenous wolves. Why did not our Lord recommend that we wait to see if the, false teachings were from men or from God? You know the answer to my question. He knew that false teachings would cause them to be lost. Only the truth of the gospel can set men free (John 8:32). When a doctrine or practice contradicts the truth of scripture, it must be exposed and opposed, regardless of the sincerity of the persons who believe the doctrine or engage in the practice.


The apostle Paul warned the elders of the Lord's church in Ephesus: "For I know this, that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one of you night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31). Did Paul believe the Ephesian elders should adopt the Gamaliel attitude? Would not God hold them guilty if they failed to protect the flock from the grievous wolves on the outside of the church or the predators on the inside?


Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334