David Anderson on What Lessons Can The Episcopal Church and Its Dissenters Learn from Acts 15

The Rev. David Anderson, rector of St. Luke’s Church, Darien, Connecticut, has a very timely commentary in The Living Church on the current troubles in the Episcopal Church. Now that we have learned that today is not the day of the great schism, perhaps we should reflect hard on what Rev. Anderson has to say:

The genius of Paul is found in how he extracted the universal message of Christ from its setting within Judaism and re-presented it in the Hellenic philosophical terms of the day. Accordingly, Paul preached a gospel free from the ritual demands of Mosaic Law. . . .

That’s the gospel Paul preached, and the results were phenomenal. . . .

Immediately Paul was recalled by Peter, James and the Jerusalem assembly, and Acts 15 records what has been called the “Jerusalem Summit.” Members of what Paul calls the “circumcision party” stood up and insisted that gentile believers also abide by Mosaic Law. And with good reason. The newly emerging church still placed itself under the authority of Hebrew scripture, and the Torah was clear. Circumcision was the very sign of God’s covenant, and living by Mosaic Law was not merely a pleasant, old custom. It was God’s will for God’s people.

At that moment the Jerusalem church, only a few years old, could have cut itself off from Paul’s ministry to the world. Its leaders could have said, “You have departed from the orthodox faith and we hereby sever all ties.” (We know Paul, of course, and that would not have stopped him. But it would have fractured the church almost from Day 1, and the unity of its mission — breathtaking in its eventual reach around the globe — would have suffered.)

But read Acts 15. That’s not what happened. Peter and James, the acknowledged leaders of the Jewish camp, both listened as Paul and his assistant Barnabas “told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the gentiles.” After a long silence, Peter stood up and said, Why would we ask these poor gentiles to keep the law when we Jews have been at it for all these years and haven’t exactly made great progress? “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” James said Amen, and the whole church united to send even more reinforcements with Paul and Barnabas into the great gentile mission field. (And today, you and I are Christians a world away from Jerusalem because of their spiritual wisdom and courage.)

The dispute among Anglicans worldwide is wrenching. I know how difficult it would be for Anglicans in other parts of the globe to preach and live a gospel of inclusion for gays and lesbians. I do not live in that culture, and I can only reverence their struggle.

But we live in a time of seismic, buckling change. Within miles of each other, and sometimes in the same city or village, people live in three different worlds: pre-modern, modern and post-modern. The notionthat the gospel would be believed and presented in the same way in all three worlds— that we must all hew to the line coming from central headquarters— is not only wifty thinking, it’s bad missions policy.

But there are those in the Anglican Communion who believe it’s time to toe the line or get gone. They know that, by itself, the homosexuality issue is a slender reed to lean on (the biblical references are too few — none from Jesus — and too debatable), so the line in the sand is called the “authority of the Bible.” That was also the argument of the “circumcision party.” As observant Jews they were devoted to Torah, and their charges against Paul came withchapter and verse. This is what we must not miss: The biblical stakes could not have been higher. And yet Peter and James chose to follow God beyond scripture, realizing that God was writing, in their very courageous act, a new revelation.

The beauty of the Jerusalem Summit is that no one had to be wrong so others could be right. Allowing Paul to preach in gentile territory a gospel that would have been frankly offensive in Jewish lands did not mean that everyone had to live that gospel (you can be sure the “circumcision party” did not!). It was simply an inspired recognition that the gospel was bigger than any one articulation of it.

That inspiration is what the Anglican Communion needs. I sorely wish we had a certain archbishop who would call a Canterbury Summit.

Read it all.

Acts 15, and Paul's version of the story in Galatians, has been used by others to make the same point that Rev. Anderson makes, but it is a point worth making nonetheless. The world of the Gentiles and the Jews in the First Century demanded different ministries, and with quite different doctrines. But what remained was the core--the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The world views in Nigeria and in the developed West are also far apart, and perhaps we need to keep true top the core, but allow Churches to speak to the unique needs of these different communities.


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