Recently, I read a blog essay by a “formerly fundie pastor” (his words, not mine) explaining why the commands and precepts of the Old Testament no longer applied to Christians. I found the topic, and the ensuing discussion, puzzling.
He must have cited a dozen different verses from both the Old and New Testament to make his case, and the “Comments” section of his blog was filled with counter-arguments explaining why he was wrong. There were about a dozen people involved in the debate, and the comments section was twice as long as his essay. So far as I know, the debate is still going on.
What I do not understand is why no one mentioned that we have been here before as a church and solved the issue some time ago. It is called the Council of Jerusalem, and it is found in the 15th chapter in the Book of Acts.
In the beginning years of the Christian church, it was debated whether or not new Christians should be circumcised and required to follow Mosaic Law. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas made the case to the church in Jerusalem that they should not burden any Gentile Christians with Mosaic Law – it was obvious to them during their travels that the Spirit was with the Gentile church members sans Mosaic Law. So, “the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter” (vs.6), and decided to exempt Gentile Christians from the 600+ laws of Judaism. Problem solved.
So, why are some of us still debating this?
I think one of the reasons so many Christians ignore this passage in the New Testament is because it is contrary to their notions about Scripture itself. Many Christians are immersed in the concept of sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone”; Scripture is to be the final arbiter of all spiritual matters. Yet, here is a passage in the New Testament that turns that notion on its head: the faith community deciding to radically interpret, even reject, Scripture. You might say their decision to reject parts of the Bible actually is “biblical”.
Acts 15 is, in its essentials, how the Episcopal Church makes its decisions. A matter is brought to our attention; we discuss, pray over, and consider it, sometimes for a very long while; we deeply research Sacred Scripture and our traditions for information and direction; then we make a decision by a consensus vote.
Consensus does not mean unanimity, of course. We always have some people who are not pleased with the decision…sometimes, very unpleased. We have had major brawls about all kinds of things over the years. Back in the late 19th century, we had a terrible argument whether or not to keep the single word “regeneration” in the baptismal liturgy. When the general convention decided to drop the word, a small number of parishes decided to break away, creating a tiny church that still exists to this day, called The Reformed Episcopal Church.
But this is how we make decisions about faith matters – we consult Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, and make our decisions in community. The Bible does not trump any and all decisions, and that, as odd as it sounds, is biblical.
Many “formally fundies” who are finding a new home in what they call “progressive” Christianity still brings many of their old thought-models with them, searching Sacred Scripture for multiple verses to support their developing theology and completely missing Acts 15. They just don’t seem to get it yet. That’s ok. Old habits die hard, I suppose, and we are very glad to see them here with us. We are a better faith community for their presence among us. I hope they come to learn that this is how we live, move, and have our being. It is a major part of what makes us Episcopalians. We love the Bible and sincerely believe that God still speaks to us through it (BCP 853), along with Tradition and Reason. Because we do not take the Bible as the final word on a matter does not mean we reject Sacred Scripture…we simply think that is unbiblical.