So, first Peter; and then Paul and Barnabas, return to Jerusalem to make the case for the Gentiles being brought into the Church. And what we see unfold here is perhaps one of the most important precedents in terms of the governance of the Church, because we see addressed how to properly handle contention within the Church itself.
See,there were some who believed that for the Gentiles to be allowed into the Church, that they had to maintain the whole of the Law, including circumcision. Peter and Barnabas and Paul, however, saw through the very work of the Holy Spirit Himself that He had already accepted the Gentiles. Thus, for the Church to unnecessarily burden them with the whole of the Law would have truly gone against the will of God. Thus, the elders of the Church convened a council to determine which, if any, of the laws the Gentiles must hold to. After much discourse, the council determined which laws for the Gentiles were necessary unto salvation; that is to say, unto union with the Church.
James, after having heard the testimony of everyone involved, and in light of the Scriptures, determines that Peter, Paul and Barnabas’ testimony all align with the Scriptures; thus making the single most important decision for the Church in the New Testament. He decrees that they are to “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (v. 20). And notice, in the proceeding verse, that even this very declaration from the apostolic council is not valid until it is adopted by the whole of the Church.
I stress this so much, because it is so not how we do things in American Christianity. So much of our culture is based on the individual desires of each. We have adopted such a strong consumeristic mindset in all things, even our theology. We feel as though we can pick and choose what one or two things we like from each of thousands of different denominations and then combine them all and either find the one that fits our desires best, or create number twenty thousand and one among the denominations. And this has never been the way of the Church. The Church has never existed to make us happy, it has existed to make us holy. If there’s something that the Church teaches that we don’t like then it’s not two thousand years of tradition that’s wrong, it’s however many years we’ve been inoculated with the American mindset that it’s all about us.
It’s so important for us to understand these principles set forth in Scripture though. The traditions and councils weren’t handed down to us to make us comfortable; they were handed down so that we would know the truth. They were handed down to us over thousands of years so that we could know that what we believe has survived, intact, since 33AD. These very traditions which so many of us disdain, claiming that they lead to corruption are the very traditions that protect us against that corruption. They have been given to us so that no one person could ever attain the powerto change things on a personal whim; or to align with the times. “Nothing new, nothing innovative,” to quote Father Seraphim Cardoza. Spurgeon admonishes us that “no Bible reading man will ever wander off into modern theology,” and there’s a reason for that. Modern theology focuses on making the Scriptures fit the ebb and flow of our current culture; ancient theology, Biblical theology, is timeless. And to safeguard the integrity of these teachings, the fathers have passed down traditions which have stood since the second century; so that we’re not led astray by the wisdom of the age.
The diviseness of a “free-for-all” doctrine is anti-Biblical, because a doctrine that allows anyone to change the rules based on their personal opinion breeds chaos and disorder; and God is not a God of chaos. the purpose of the traditions of the Church as handed down is not to breed corruption, but to prevent it. We see here, the apostles themselves, disagreeing over something as all-important as the necessary works required for salvation. They, rather than taking their apostolic title as authority, convene a council to discuss it. Consider this is Paul, the author of the majority of the New Testament, and St Peter; and even they seek the wisdom and consent of the Church before acting. And this safeguard is there to protect the Church, as a whole, from human corruption.
This is not to say that there is any equality between man and God. James was not the one who saved any of the Gentiles, neither Paul nor Peter, but God Himself. Rather, what we see in this very passage is how the Holy Spirit works through the Church, through her councils, through her traditions. Even though the Gentiles had already received the Holy Spirit, it was still necessary for them to be joined to the Church. And to do so, there were concessions to be made on both sides. The Holy Spirit, working through His Church, determined certain things that were in fact necessary for the Gentiles unto salvation.
It is so easy for us to feel as though the Church is not necessary for our salvation. And yet, over and over in Scripture, we see the exact opposite. We see the Ethopian unable to understand the Scripture without the guidance of the Church, we see Paul obeying the doctrines of the Church, and here we see the Gentiles, having already received not only the word, but the Holy Spirit Himself, being joined to the Church. No, my beloved brethern, the Church itself doesn’t save; but our salvation, our very healing, is absolutely dependent on being joined to the Church; on clinging to her teachings; to “holding fast the traditions which have been handed down, by word and by epistle.”
May we never disregard those teachings that we see in Scripture.
Christ is in our midst.