Two thousand years ago there were many groups "outside the camp"1 of the accepted, organized religion. There were also many that fit in quite comfortably, taking their acceptance and success in society as a sign of God's blessing. Both types of groups still exist today. Relations between the two were often strained to the point of suspicion, violence, and persecution. It is now just as it was then, that those within the camp of organized religion were connected to the power structures of their societies. For those who would not come under their spiritual authority, they tried to influence the civil authorities to use force against those dissenting spiritual voices.2
One of the most successful crusaders against the cult of his day was Saul of Tarsus, who had an unforgettable encounter with the very God he was persecuting. In that awesome moment, blinded by a brilliant light from heaven, he did not hear harsh condemnation for his evil deeds,3 but instead was pierced by the gentle words reminding him of the truth he knew in his conscience. God's voice spoke to him saying: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads."4
Those goads were the words of Gamaliel, his own teacher as a young man. Gamaliel was a very wise man who lived "within the camp" of organized religion. He commanded the religious leaders of that day to leave the most notorious cult of the ancient world alone because they might just find themselves fighting God. Referring to the very sect that Saul would later join, the Messianic Communities,5 Gamaliel advised:
And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God. (Acts 5:38-39)
If religious leaders since had listened to this respected teacher, rivers of innocent blood could have been spared. Gamaliel said these words in the face of the same kind of doomsday cults, armed militias, false messiahs, and religious fanatics comparable to any group that exists today. He spoke to the powerful, wealthy, and well-connected religious figures of his day that were just like the preachers, bishops, popes and televangelists of today. Gamaliel and those who heard him knew well of the groups on the outskirts of society. Some, like the Zealots, were a menace to society, while others like the Essenes held the traditional religious system in utter contempt because of their obvious worldliness.
The Zealots were determined to overthrow the government with as much violence as necessary, even at the cost of putting their whole society into chaos. They were the armed militias of that day, led by men like Judas of Galilee.6 His rallying cry, that Roman taxes made the Israelites no better than slaves, was a powerful one. His rebellion was met by the overwhelming power of the state, leading to his death and the scattering of his followers.
The Essenes lived in set-apart communities waiting for the Messiah and the end of the world. Famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls,7 were they alive today they would have a far different reputation. Their apocalyptic writings portraying the armies of God slaying the wicked, their white garments, and their refusal to marry would label them a doomsday cult for sure.
The Communities of the Messiah 8, or The Way, as His followers liked to call themselves,9 were the very group Gamaliel used to teach his very important lesson. Motivated by envy due to the following the Master, Yahshua, was gathering, the religious leaders delivered Him up to be crucified.10 Afterwards, His followers claimed He rose from the dead. The "proof" they offered was their radically different lives. Because of their love for one another there was no poor and needy among them. Everyone shared what he or she had in common.11 Since the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled,12 their uncompromising proclamation of forgiveness and salvation became increasingly bold. This brought them face to face with the same jealousy13 that their crucified leader had faced at the hands of the same religious leaders. The sect of the Master Yahshua was bursting with new life. They could not kill it. This was the living proof of His resurrected life.
At this point Gamaliel spoke. He already knew the actions the civil authorities had taken against armed uprisings.14 Gamaliel made a careful distinction between the two kinds of authority on the earth, civil and religious. His words were not directed at the civil authorities, telling them to ignore criminal behavior, because it might be from God. He was telling the religious leaders, rather, to let men believe and act as they saw fit. If men violated laws, then it was up to the state to deal with them. If men violated religious teachings, it was up to God to deal with them, not men. The true church is not supposed to be alarmed at the actions or beliefs of their opponents.15 For a brief time, the established religious leaders received Gamaliel.
As a good rabbi, Gamaliel was actually protecting them, to keep them from opposing God. The only sure way of preventing them from opposing God was to exhort them not to trust their own judgment at all as to whether this or that group was from God. If God was not with them, he told them, they would come to nothing. To the contrary, if they did trust their own judgment and actively oppose some group, they might find themselves opposing God. If that were the case, one day they would face God's wrath. They would be judged for the very deeds they thought they had done for Him,16 and their secret motive of selfish ambition would be exposed.
Later in Saul's life other Jews picked up where Saul had stopped. They weren't listening to the wisdom of Gamaliel either. They dragged him before a Roman ruler, Gallio, on charges that he "persuades men to worship God contrary to the law."
While throughout Christian history many heretics were executed, Gallio was a righteous judge who did not deprive people of their right to believe. He did not even let Saul speak in his own defense. He knew that no civil wrong had been done to anyone simply by not believing the way the Jews did. He drove Saul's accusers away with the words:
"If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters."17
Gallio righteously understood the limits of his authority. Within those limits he could make the judgments he was qualified to make. His only lawful concerns could be men's actions - the injustices they did to one another, not their thoughts and beliefs. By the time the apostate Christian Church married the Roman Empire under Constantine, these separate spheres of authority for church and state had been utterly torn down. How different history would be had this distinction remained!
Just as the accepted religion of Judaism should not have persecuted the disciples of our Master 18, later Christians should have not executed Jews and others they branded heretics. Today, just as then, there is great alarm about those "outside the camp" of organized religion.
In early colonial America these same tensions emerged between those who remained faithful to the established religion of England (the Puritans) and those who desired to worship outside the camp of the church of England (the Separatists). Perhaps the most powerful dissenting voice of the Separatists was that of Roger Williams. He found no protection for his voice among the Puritans who exiled him into the wilderness. He sought for the very foundation and pattern of Acts 2 and 4 that was practiced by the primitive church. Williams could not find that life in the organized religion of his day. Finding it became a radical quest for him.19
Based upon his memory of people being burned at the stake for their dissenting voice against the Church of England in London and upon his personal experience in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams set out to construct a political philosophy that effectively encompassed the wisdom of Gamaliel. His toleration of dissenting religious beliefs and practices was the hallmark of the Constitution of Rhode Island. This protection of religious dissent against an established religion prevailed in the two-year debate that led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the treasured First Amendment.
Today, as in the time of Gamaliel, there are many dissenting religious voices in society. Like then, a growing number of people today are dissatisfied with the voice of the cult of established religion. The doctrines that enshrine Christianity today are not meeting the needs of the people, relieving their fears of increasing social unrest. Their example is not providing the true light and real salt to the society they see crumbling around them. It remains without the power of the Holy Spirit which enables believers to give up their selfish lives and live as the primitive church demonstrated in Acts 4:32-35.
In this climate the organized religious leaders of today are threatened, challenged, and fearful of change. Instead of obeying the gospel, they resort to great complexities of reasoning to justify their hatred of the cross, that is, death to their self-seeking, satisfied lives. Their reaction is to attack the religious voices that are "outside the camp." This provides the fuel for the modern day cult hysteria. Sociologists call this term "moral panic." Religious scholars document how isolated incidents are exaggerated and magnified so as to deliberately create the climate of fear of unconventional religions. The wisdom of Gamaliel needs to be heeded by religious leaders today, no less than in his day. Advancements in information technology and the effectiveness of media campaigns provide ideal conditions for lies to be spread without restraint. The voice of a modern-day Gamaliel would be hard to hear indeed, perhaps only audible in the voice of one's conscience.
Surrounding the Christian establishment today are the dissenters labeled as cults. Hundreds of new religious movements have come and gone or integrated themselves into the mainstream, proving not to be the prophetic demonstration of God's salvation that He promised would come about through His gathered people in the last days.20 Among those who have proven to be false are the People's Temple who perished in the jungles of Guyana and the Branch Davidians who perished in the flames of Waco.
These two groups who claimed to follow the teachings of the Messiah along with the Unification Church, whose leader claims to be the Messiah, are the springboard for voices from established Christianity to instill fear and paranoia in their congregations against anything outside the mainstream. Nevertheless it is true that the life of our Master Yahshua and His followers in the early church came from "outside the camp" of the organized religion of their day. Religious leaders and so-called cult "experts" use their interpretation of "doctrine" to instill this fear. Many cult watchers today profit by such slander.
Labeled together with groups that are false is the gathering of God's people. They have come out of the cult of organized religion, out of groups labeled as cults, out of the decadent society to be a light and demonstration of God's love and unity spoken about in John 13:35 and 17:23. The fruit of His salvation will show the world what His kingdom will be like when He returns. This people is becoming the nation that produces the fruit of the kingdom, which is an observable life.
In this day there needs to be voices like Gamaliel and Roger Williams, voices that call for freedom for dissent. We know from the prophets that this life will come forth before the Messiah, Yahshua, returns to claim His Bride [read also The Last Day to find out about her]. So, what spirit is it that leads a person to instill fear about new religious groups? It is the same spirit that wants to destroy God's witness from the face of the earth today, just like their fathers destroyed the life of our Master Yahshua and persecuted and killed His followers. It is a lying spirit, uninterested in God's truth.
The voices that quench religious dissent and open expression of differing views of God are the same voices that listen to lies and spread lies about the true witness of God. [see also The Sign of the End for more information about the witness] Individuals are accountable for whom they listen to for Proverbs 17:4 says, " A liar pays attention to a malicious tongue." So, be careful whom you listen to. Make sure that you judge a tree by its fruit and not by the lies of untrustworthy men. Exercise your freedom. Find out for yourselves, lest you find yourselves opposing God.