July 28: Act 15
July 29, 2010
I never tire from telling our people that Acts 15 is one of the key texts for Presbyterian and Reformed polity. And that is because in this text we see that the church is not merely local and universal, but it is also regional.
What happens is this: some men came to Antioch from Judea and were teaching that the Gospel required men who believed in Jesus to be circumcised in order to be saved (15:1). This was no small matter; this was not simply something to be done in order to remove a potential stumbling block from the preaching of the Gospel (as Timothy would do in Acts 16). Rather, this was a statement that Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be saved; it was a betrayal of the radical claim of the Gospel that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).
What is striking about Acts 15 is that while the Antioch church was certainly "competent" to deal with the matter (after all, the Apostle Paul is there!), the leadership decided that the church in that region needed to meet in order to speak authoratively about this doctrinal matter. And so the elders appointed "Paul and Barnabas and some of the others" to go to Jerusalem to meet with "the apostles and elders" (15:2).
What happens? All of the elders along with the apostles "gathered together to consider this matter." In fact, there was "much debate" on the issue. One of the most important speeches came from Peter, who reminded the assembly about the redemptive-historical significance of his ministry to Cornelius (in Acts 10-11). And importantly, Peter's Gospel matches Paul's Gospel (about which we read in Acts 13): "We believe that we (Jews) will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they (i.e. Gentiles) will" (15:11).
In response to this speech and James' own, the assembly decides in favor of a simple Gospel of faith in Jesus plus nothing else. They decide to write a letter that would address this issue, hopefully bringing peace to the new churches and encouragement to those young in the faith. The pastoral letter that is produced is a model of Gospel-oriented consensus building (15:22-35).
But the important thing to see is that Antioch didn't decide this matter on their own; neither did they simply kowtow to Jerusalem and treat Peter and James as bishops. Rather, the elders from both churches gathered, debated, and agreed for the good of the whole church. And that is exactly how Presbyterian and Reformed polity is supposed to work.