Was Gamaliel’s Advice in Acts 5:38 Biblically Sound?

Hear a two-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on this topic that originally aired in June 2012 by clicking on the following links: Part 1  Part 2  

By Bill McKeever

The fifth chapter of Acts records several great works that were done through the hands of Christ’s apostles. Verse 14 tells us that as a result, the Lord added multitudes of men and women to the church. It would be expected that results of this kind would cause no small concern among the Jewish religious leaders. In response, the high priest ordered that the offending apostles be imprisoned only to find that God had miraculously intervened by setting the prisoners free. When it was learned that they had gone no further than the temple in order to preach, the apostles were peacefully escorted before the Sanhedrin and questioned.

When the high priest reminded them that they were told specifically not to teach in Christ’s name and to refrain from filling Jerusalem with their doctrine, Peter responded by insisting that it was their duty to obey God, rather than man (5:29). He then testified to his accusers that Jesus was in fact the Savior, exalted by God Himself to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Such a message only served to infuriated the council and had it not been for the influence of a well-respected Pharisee, Peter and those who accompanied him may have preached their last sermon on that day.

Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, a prominent rabbi, cautioned his colleagues in the Sanhedrin to be careful how they dealt with the followers of Jesus and that it would probably be best that they should actually be ignored (Acts 5:38). He argued that if what the disciples of Jesus claimed was actually true, they could be running the risk of fighting against God Himself.

Mormons often use this statement of Gamaliel as an attempt to silence Christians from critically analyzing LDS doctrine in light of the Bible. They argue that because the LDS Church has grown by phenomenal proportions since its founding in 1830, it only makes sense that “fighting” against it is akin to fighting against God. However, there are many flaws in this reasoning.

First of all, Gamaliel’s advice comes within the context of saving human life and has nothing to do with reasonable debate. No Christian I know wants to see Mormons physically harmed. Acts 5:33 specifically says that the council was ready to “slay” the apostles for the things they said. Gamaliel’s interference was no doubt intended to assuage further violence.

Another point to consider is that ignoring false doctrine does not necessarily mean it will go away. The Mormon Church, by its very claim to be the “only true church,” proclaims to the world that it alone has all truth and that only through the LDS Church can true salvation be gained. The obvious conclusion of such a claim is that all other religious beliefs must be false in some degree. If Gamaliel’s advice was a truism, why do groups that the LDS Church claims to be false continue to grow, many of them at a much faster pace than the LDS Church?

The New Testament also shows us that the apostle Paul, one of Gamaliel’s prize students, did not even heed his former schoolmaster’s advice. In fact, Paul made it a point to personally confront those he felt were in error. Whether it meant taking his message directly into a Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:17), a hill in Athens (Acts 17:22ff), or even confronting a fellow apostle of higher seniority (Gal. 2:11).

Paul was known for instructing the fledgling Church to note those who were teaching false doctrine. In Romans 16:17 he admonished the Christians in Rome to “mark” them that cause divisions and offenses contrary to sound doctrine and to actually avoid such dissenters. He instructed the church in Ephesus to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather they were to reprove or expose them (Eph. 5:11).

May I conclude by saying that even though many Mormons have often cited Gamaliel as “proof” that Christians should not critique the LDS faith, the fact is that several Mormon leaders have had no problem criticizing historic Christian positions. If they wish to interpret Gamaliel’s comment in such a manner, they need to recognize that it goes both ways.

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