What the Council of Jerusalem says about debate in the Church

During the Easter season there are a lot of reading during the Acts of the apostles at both Sunday & Daily Mass.  Last week we read about a debate in the early church from Acts Chapter 15 that resonates today.

It begins in verse 1

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” 

Given that Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with God and these men were Jews this was not an unreasonable or odd conclusion for them to come to and it started a debate

Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question.

Now note what happens here.  Paul  Barnabas debated them on the subject but rather than rejecting them or doubting their faith or intentions they decided that this was something the church needed to discuss.  After they arrive in Jerusalem & give their report on their evangelizing the debate begins in verse 5

But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”

It’s worth noting here that these are Pharisees who have decided that Christ was the promised messiah.  They hadn’t rejected the law and the prophets, they concluded that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law & the prophets.

And in verse six  & the start of verse 7 the meeting that is now known by the church as the Council of Jerusalem takes place

 The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.  After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them,….

This may seem like an odd place to stop but I think it’s vitally important to note what has just been established before Peter makes his speech.

1.  A disagreement has come up in the church over proper practice/doctrine

2.  The people involved in the dispute rather than resolving it themselves take it to the highest authority available, the Apostles in Jerusalem.

3.  And rather than a quick answer there is much debate.

Think about those beginning words from verse 7.  We are dealing with people who heard Jesus preach, who were present when his mission took place, people who knew Jesus personally.  Yet even so on a matter basic in terms of what you need to be a follower of Christ they disagreed and debated.

That they disagreed didn’t make them any less followers of Christ, that they debated didn’t make them enemies of he church.  It meant that they were Christians who had different ideas on how to best to lead others to God in the right and proper way.

In the end three things carry the day.  Peter’s speech (Verses 7-11) concerning the Gentiles equality through the Holy Spirit after which in verse 12…..

The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them.

The details are not listed but some are mentioned in the two preceding chapters (acts 13-14 concerning their travels) finally you have the speech of James from verses 14-21 and the final decision is made based on his words in verses 19 & 20

It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God,  but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.

And verse 22-29 detail what was done:

Then the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers.

This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the presbyters, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings.  Since we have heard that some of our number (who went out) without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth:

‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’

In addition to the ruling itself, there are several things in the letter that are significant.

1.  It hits teaching unauthorized doctrines.  At the very beginning of their letter they note the source of the problem they are addressing comeS from people teaching doctrines that have not been mandated by the church.

2.  Recognized members of the church deliver the right doctrine.  They send recognized members of the church to deliver this message and do so both by word of mouth & by letter.   (This is consistent with the Jewish practice of testimony coming from two witnesses).

3.  The Holy Spirit makes the call:  The letter doesn’t state their ruling is the decision of the Church, of Peter, James, Barnabas or Paul.  The letter says it is the Decision of the Holy Spirit.  The same Holy Spirit that has guided the church from the day of Pentecost to the present day.

This is consistent with the church today.  The doctrine of the church comes form the church, delivered by recognized members of the church and inspired by the Holy Spirit that like Christ is with it till the end of time and the gates of Hell shall not stand against it.

There are also several things that are significant in their absence from the letter.

1.  It doesn’t condemn those who made those statements.  It doesn’t say that the people who made this error are no longer members of the church or to be shunned, nor does it suggest they were acting with evil or malicious intent.

2.  The practice of circumcision mentioned anywhere in the letter.  Circumcision is neither condemned as a practice to be avoided or celebrated as a practice to be emulated.

3.  Nothing in the letter mentions a debate.  Nowhere in the letter you see any hint that there was any kind of debate in the church or who was on what side.  There is no condemnation of those who were on the wrong side of the debate at the start nor lionizing those whose opinion matched the decision of the spirit.  While those who attended are aware there was a debate as far as the church & the letter is concerned said debate is moot.  The matter is settled, the debate if any ever took place, is over and the ruling of the church is what it is.

This is also consistent with the church today.  Occasionally people make mistakes or have opinion that might be discussed and debated within the church.  The church doesn’t condemn people for having an opinion nor does it suggest that within such a council they should not make their case.

But when the Holy Spirit through the church comes out with a decision, it is made and those in the church are expected to follow & teach what is bound (or loosed)  on earth and heaven regardless of what any person opinion on that decision might be.

Just as important nowhere in the remaining 12 verses of Acts chapter 15 nor anywhere else in the book is there any indication this happens  elsewhere in Acts does it talk about members of the Pharisees wing of the church suddenly deciding the Church is to be rejected and returning to orthodox Judaism because gentiles are not required to follow the Mosaic Law, Nor do we see others decide to go off and form their own “house churches” because they didn’t like the forbidding of unlawful marriage.  The members of the church didn’t take their balls and go.  They stayed and obeyed.

The council of Jerusalem teaches an important lesson the Christians in general and Catholics in particular.  Whoever has ears ought to hear.