What do some physicists, Toronto Blessing advocates, proponents of “remaining a follower of Jesus in Islam,” some bible translators, ethnographers, and even some Bible commentators have in common? An appeal to something called the “Gamaliel principle.” Taken from the comments of the famous Jewish rabbi in Acts 5:38-39, it has become in vogue to use this to buy time, or even to invoke the ultimate playing card: “If you oppose what we are doing, you might just be fighting against God.” This paper will give a short overview of this usage by means of direct quotes. Then it will take a closer look at the Scripture and how some commentators have interpreted it along with some applications for today.
Some quotes in order of date:
1974: Pat Boone wrote a book Dr. Balaam’s Talking Mule (and one of its chapters is entitled “The Gamaliel Attitude” (pages. 48-52). Boone praises Gamaliel “for his common sense and for his kindly moderation” and suggests that prior to opposing any religious movements, we ought to wait to see what they will become. 1
1994: John William Lyons wrote a scholarly article (in 1997) on the use of this principle by advocates of the Toronto Blessing, which was portrayed by them as a ‘bona fide’ visitation by God. They responded to detractors who observed phenomenon which they described as people making barking sounds, rolling in holy laughter, shaking, pogo-ing as works of the Holy Spirit. In effect, noted Lyons, the advocates said to the detractors who had serious reservations, do not oppose what God is doing or you might be committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. 2
2009: A correspondent named Jim added his comment to the blog in Christianity Today by Joseph Cummings, entitled “Muslim Followers of Jesus.” His response to several other commenters who raised concerns over the mission strategy being proposed concluded by these words:
“…. Why should folks get upset if Muslims are having an encounter with the living Lord?! How many people who have had a genuine new birth experience can recite a solid Christology and understanding of the Trinity? …..Perhaps those with concerns should have the attitude of Gamaliel – if this is not of God, it will fizzle. If so, we sure don’t want to be the ones standing in the way!” 3
2010: Kevin Higgins concludes his article entitled “Beyond Christianity” with an appeal to promoters and detractors of IM to consider some principles from a list of scriptures as “the basis of an agreed ‘ethic’ for our publications, public statements, dialogues and disagreements.” His final citation reads:
“….And from Acts 5:33-39: Can we learn from Gamaliel and be humble enough to realize that even in our sincerest and deepest desires to follow Him and seek His truth, we still see through a glass darkly and have much to learn? Can we all affirm that we do not want to be found opposing God?” 4
The longer title of Higgins’ work is : “Beyond Christianity: Insider Movements and the Place of the Bible and the Body of Christ in New Movements to Jesus” and essentially he is saying that those who oppose his methodology might just have a run-in with God.
2012: Bob Blincoe, the US Director of a mission organization called Frontiers was called to defend a new translation in the Turkish language. In his correspondence he suggested that this somewhat experimental version for Muslims should continue and “Let’s give it a chance to do its work” since ” The team believes that if Turks do not take ownership, the project will just fade away, teacher Gamaliel commented about human efforts in Acts 5.” 5
2013: John Travis in his “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders” follows previous authors and he concludes his article with the Gamaliel playing card. “…. we should be careful. We could find ourselves opposing what God is doing, when God moves in ways we do not expect. Those trying to pull up what they perceive as tares may in fact be destroying maturing wheat.” 6
2013: Gene Daniels responded to several comments which questioned the title and the contents of an article entitled “Worshipping Jesus in the Mosque.” On January 19 he wrote:
“This is not the first time there has been controversy in the Church when a new movement emerged, the Methodists and Pentecostals come to mind quickly. But over time they showed themselves to be orthodox members of the body of Christ by the adherence to the Bible for life and doctrine. Why don’t you give groups like the “people of the gospel” the same opportunity to show themselves. If they really are members of Christ’s body, just a radically different expression (and I do believe that), then they will demonstrate it by building their movement around the Bible, and it alone. If they truly are heretics as some seem to think, then it will manifest itself in due time. Or in the words of Gamaliel in Acts 5, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” 7
Some commonalities to the quotes:
1. All are couched in a situation where a group of people, or a representative of such, are defending a certain course of action. Call it “Plan A.”
2. “Plan A” is challenged by some others on theological grounds.
3. The defenders of “Plan A” invoke the ‘Gamaliel principle’ as a justification for their actions, to silence their opposition, or to buy time with implementing their plan.
4. Detractors of “Plan A” may feel that they have been spiritually manipulated by the appeal to the ultimate authority of the threat of ‘opposing God.’
A closer look at the Gamaliel’s words:
The wise and politically seasoned Jewish rabbi, in an attempt to calm down his fellow Jewish council members, appealed to historical precedent to make his case. He cited Theudas and Judas of Galilee as two examples of flash in the pan movements that fizzled out and died (Acts 5:36-37), and predicted that this too might happen with the seemingly unstoppable apostles (Acts 4 and 5). Then he says, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man [NIV ‘of human origin’], it will fail but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God! [Greek= to be God fighters]” (Acts 5:38-39 ESV).
So what does this mean? A dozen commentators weigh in:
1. John Gill (1746-1748). “Some have thought from this advice of Gamaliel, that he was a Christian, or greatly inclined to Christianity; but when it is considered what respect was shown him at his death by the Jews…. it cannot be thought he had any favourable sentiments of the Christians.” 8
2. Joseph Addison Alexander (1857). “That the speech itself is an authoritative statement of the true principle to be adopted and applied in all such cases, is as groundless an opinion as its opposite, to wit, that there is no truth at all in the doctrine here propounded, but only a sophistical apology for temporising unbelief.” 9
3. Abraham Kuyper (1879). “Gamaliel’s advice is bad. It is not true that God destroys forthwith that which is not from him and crowns with success every endeavour of his believers. .. How is it that Gamaliel’s advice, so profoundly untrue, is repeated again and again in life? Could it not be just as well the other way around, that to have no success suggests virtue?… Oppressed, downtrodden, molested—can these not be signs that you are walking on the way of God?” 10
4. J. W. McGarvey (1892) asserts: “If it [the Gamaliel principle]were proposed as a general rule of procedure in reference to religious movements, we should condemn it as time-serving. Instead of waiting to see if such a movement is to prove successful, every lover of truth will promptly investigate its claims if it has any worthy of attention, and decide without reference to public opinion or probable success. ” 11
5. Alexander Maclaren (1907) “…the advice on the whole is a low and bad one. It rests on false principles; it takes a false view of a man’s duty; it is not wholly sincere; and it is one impossible to be carried out…Here is disbelief masquerading as suspension of judgment… Here is success turned into a criterion of truth… it is utterly false to argue that a thing is true because multitudes think it to be so. The very opposite is more nearly true. …. Here is a selfish neutrality pretending to be judicial calmness… 12
6. R. C. H. Lenski (1944). “Gamaliel offers what has become his famous counsel of indecision. Be careful — do not decide —wait, wait and see…. First, if this counsel or this work — call it what you please — is “of men,” has its origin and its source of strength only in weak, erring, deluded men, “it will be overthrown.” That is undoubtedly true. Every religion that is built and founded on men will go down in failure….
Shall they [i.e. the Jewish counsel], then, do nothing? Shall they sit on the fence and wait and wait, afraid to strike for God lest they strike against God? This counsel has been called wise but it offers only the folly of indecision where decision is imperative. And with its indecision there goes hand in hand the implication that God has not supplied us with means to make the true and safe decision, so that only the final fate of any religion can decide whether it is of God or of men. 13
7. Theodore Ferris (1954). “Gamaliel is a personification of the elder statesman. His counsel is one of wise restraint.. .He is a perfect instance of the moderating influence of the judicial mind.” 14
8. F.F. Bruce (1988) affirms that as much as there was some wisdom in Gamaliel’s recommendations and 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” 15
9. John MacArthur (1988) responds to Gamaliel’s suggestion that “…. whatever succeeds is of God; whatever fails is not” and suggests that it is “a fallacious principle in a fallen world. God allows evil to exist. Gamaliel’s principle will come true only when Christ returns to establish His kingdom on earth, thus reversing the curse. Gamaliel’s principle can’t be used to evaluate what’s happening now. Many things that God hates are successful.” 16
10. Robert J. Karris (1989). “Luke portrays Gamaliel’s advice as an ironic commentary on history, not as advice to be followed by Christian authorities in evaluating spiritual events…Gamaliel’s principle of having “nothing to do with these men” until their movement either dies out or is confirmed is not a Christian position but that of an unbelieving outsider. One cannot just “wait and see” whether God is acting in or speaking to our time, but must test the fruits and heed those words that correspond to the gospel and church teaching. 17
11. Darrel Bock ( 2007) criticizes Lyon’s assessment and suggests that the point of Gamaliel’s speech is about “the ultimate success of the new faith, which is rooted ultimately not in where the faith stands now but where it is headed eschatologically in Jesus’s return and victory. This means that this movement will have staying power, as its content reflects the gospel given from God.” 18
12. D. G. Peterson (2009). “Gamaliel’s point about not being able to stop the apostles has been described as ‘sound Pharisaic teaching; God is over all and needs no help from men for the fulfillment of his purposes; all men must do is to obey, and leave the issue to him.’ But such teaching is closer to fatalism than a truly biblical view of the way God works in his world and expects people to respond to the unfolding of events. Gamaliel’s temporizing approach does not highlight the importance of considering the truthfulness of the apostolic claims, with their challenge about the fulfillment of Scripture and signs of God’s Spirit at work in the Christian movement (4:8–12; 5:29–32). Waiting to see how things turn out is not an adequate form of guidance for difficult situations. Gamaliel’s pupil, Saul of Tarsus (22:3), saw the issue more clearly. If a movement is wrong, it should be vigorously opposed (22:4–5). 19
A summary of the commentator’s views.
The minority of commentators see Gamaliel’s advice as positive. A few see it as a mixture of truth and falsehood, and others see it wholly in a negative light. What is certain is that he was acting consistently in the role of a politically shrewd Pharisee, who understood his context. He is addressing a Council that already condemned Jesus to death, and who have rejected both the teaching of Jesus and the apostolic teaching. He is also aware of the context of Roman occupation and is likely trying to play all sides of the fence in order to maintain a good face all around. In light of these facts might it be said that he is actually playing the role of the hypocrites that Jesus said were trying to appear wise and righteous, while in effect rejecting God’s plan (Luke 7:30–“the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves.”).
Yet, due to divine providence, even Gamaliel’s words are part and parcel of God’s plan described in the book of Acts that sees the advance of the Gospel, regardless of what humans contrive against it. Yet, its successes come at the cost of the apostles counting it “being worthy to be despised” for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41), Stephen and James are killed, the apostles are persecuted and the ambassador in chains–if there ever was an irony–is humiliatingly incarcerated.
It is not without irony that Gamaliel, also known as Rabban Gamaliel I (The Elder) was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3), and it was this same Paul who actively fought against the encroachment of false teachings in the church, whereas his teacher might have just allowed them to take their own course of action. Whereas the Council members listen to the voice of this man (v.40) and in effect are fighting against God, Paul prefers to fear the voice of God.
Applications for today:
Lyons identified that this passage is seized on by movements in the church today, and the quotable quotes certainly bear that out. Yet a fundamental question remains: Are they using this quote for their own purposes? How should we respond? Four suggestions might be in order.
- The equation of the success of a movement with numerical growth and the blessing of God is highly suspect. Consider that the Mormons grew from 6 people in 1830 to 11 million in 2002 tells us more about the multiplication of cancer cells than indicators of God’s blessing. The growth of Islam might also be mentioned, and even syncretistic movements that attempt to combine Islam and Christianity.
- The idea that one should suspend judgement on new religious movements has an initial appeal to the kinder/gentler/more tolerant side of humans, but it might be sheer humanism. What if the Apostle Paul took that approach with the Judaizers in the book of Galatians? What if he took that approach with Hymenaeus and Alexander “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:20). The Scriptures tell us to “test the spirits” while a number of the quotable quotes appear to call for suspending judgement and letting history passively decide.
- Curiously the use of the ‘Gamaliel principle’ has found its way into the realm of physics. In a customary mouthful in explaining thermodynamics it is said, “The long-term course of future events—consequent to a particular antecedent event—is strictly correlated with the truth quality of the antecedent event.” In simple terms, as Rick Lawrence points out, this means that ” the long-term future consequence of anything labeled as truth is directly tied to its previous truthfulness.” 20In a word, we can say that the foundation of any religious movement today will determine its fruits. In his masterful thesis on the insider movement, whose proponents appear to have a particular adhesion to the Gamaliel statement, Wonjoo Hwang has demonstrated that the entire edifice is constructed on extremely shaky foundations. 21 Some of these fruits have started to become manifest in second generation insider believers in Bangladesh, for instance where adherents demonstrate considerable confusion as to their identity, and appear to be moving towards Islam, more than to Christianity. (See the movie Half-Devil/Half Child)
- The potential for spiritual manipulation by appealing to the Gamaliel principle is strong. To use the ultimate trump card of “fighting against God” to anyone who asks legitimate questions of any movement, could well have echoes of Jim Jones in the treatment of his cult-followers.
At first flush the Gamaliel principle appears to be sage advice. On closer observation, however, the potential for an agenda of mixed motives is very high. May the Body of Christ in this generation be known less for appealing to “plausible words of worldly wisdom” than its willingness to “test all things” and be willing to make decisions that demonstrate a greater fear of God than of humans.
- Pat Boone. Dr. Balaam’s Talking Mule. (Van Nuys, CA: Bible Voice, Inc., 1974), pages.48-52 as cited by Winford Claiborne’s “The Gamaliel Principle” (The International Gospel Hour) http://www.gospelhour.net/2128.html ↩
- William John Lyons, “The Words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39) and the Irony of Indeterminacy,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no 68 (D 1997), pages. 23-49. ↩
- Jim commenting in Joseph Cumming, “Muslim Followers of Jesus?: The conversation for December 2009” Christianity Today, Dec, 2009. [Jim’s comment was at 8:25 pm on December 16, 2009] ↩
- Kevin Higgins, “Beyond Christianity: Insider Movements and the Place of the Bible and the Body of Christ in New Movements to Jesus” Mission Frontiers, (July 2010) http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/beyond-christianity ↩
- Bob Blincoe , “Why a New Translation of the Gospel of Matthew in Turkish” (February 8, 2012), p. 3. ↩
- John Travis, “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today Vol. 57, No. 1, (January/February 2013), p. 30. ↩
- Gene Daniels, “Worshipping Jesus in the mosque” Christianity Today, blog quote on January 19, 2013. ↩
- John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament (3 vols., 1746–8), which with his Exposition of the Old Testament (6 vols., 1748–63) ↩
- Joseph Addison Alexander, The Acts of the Apostles , Volume 1 (Scribner and Sons,1857), p. 238. ↩
- Revisie der revisie-legende (1879); English translation in G.C. Berkouwer. The Providence of God (Studies in Dogmatics; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952). pages. 173-74 as quoted by Lyons, p. 23. ↩
- J. W. McGarvey. Commentary on Acts. (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1892, a reprint), p. 99. ↩
- Alexander Maclaren. Expositions of Holy Scripture: The Acts of the Apostles. (Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), pages.199-204. ↩
- R. Lenski. Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles 1-14, Vol 1 (Augsburg Fortress, 2008) pages. 234-5 ↩
- Theodore F. Ferris. Acts (Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1954), p. 86. ↩
- F.F. Bruce. The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 117. ↩
- John MacArthur. Keys to Effective Evangelism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988. p. 54 ↩
- Robert J. Karris. Acts: The Collegeville Bible Commentary: (Liturgical Press, 1989), ↩
- Darrell L. Bock, Acts. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 256. ↩
- D. G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles. The Pillar New Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p. 226. ↩
- Rick Lawrence. Shrewd: Daring to Live the Startling Command of Jesus. (David C. Cook, 2012), p. 128. ↩
- Wonjoo Hwang, “A Critical Evaluation of the Insider Movement as a Contextualization Model Among Muslims,” (Diss: PhD, Southwestern Baptist Seminary, 2012) ↩