The fifteenth chapter of Acts is much too long to be here transcribed. But, before the reader proceeds farther, let him open the Bible and read that chapter carefully from the commencement to the close. If he is really in search of truth, and disposed to receive it in its simplicity, the perusal of that chapter will satisfy him that the following facts are there embodied.
It appears that certain men came down from Judea to Antioch, and taught the Church there that circumcision is necessary to salvation. Paul and Barnabas set themselves to oppose these teachers, but in vain. It was then agreed that certain of the Church of Antioch, including in their number Barnabas and Paul, should go up to Jerusalem and lay the case before the apostles and elders. When they reached Jerusalem – at that time the metropolis of Christianity – the apostles and elders came together to consider the question. At first there was in the assembly considerable difference of opinion.
Peter at last rose to speak. He reminded them how God had honoured him in making him the instrument of first preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and how it had pleased God, without respect of persons, to bestow the Holy Ghost upon them as well as upon Jewish believers. He argues, therefore, that to make circumcision necessary to salvation – to bind a yoke upon the Gentiles which even the Jews were not able to bear – would be to tempt God; and he closes by enunciating the great truth that Jews and Gentiles, both alike, obtain salvation through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Barnabas and Paul followed, declaring that by them, too, God had wrought among the Gentiles miracles and wonders.
James next delivered his opinion. He showed that the truth declared by Peter, namely, that God had taken out of the Gentiles a people for His name, was the subject of ancient prophecy. He quotes from the Prophet Amos to show how God had promised to build the tabernacle of David which had fallen into ruins, that the residue of men and the Gentiles called by His name should seek after the Lord. He ends by declaring his judgment to be, that the Gentiles already turned to the Lord should not be troubled with any unnecessary burden, but that they should be directed to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
The opinion of James was approved by the assembly. The apostles and elders, with the whole Church, agreed to send Judas and Silas down to Antioch, with Barnabas and Paul, to announce the result.
The decision of the meeting was embodied in letters, which ran in the name of the apostles, elders, and brethren, and were addressed to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The epistle charged those who taught that circumcision was necessary to salvation with troubling the brethren, and subverting their souls; denied that they had authority from the apostles and elders so to teach; mentioned that Judas and Silas were empowered, along with Barnabas and Paul – men who hazarded their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus – to declare verbally the decision of the assembly; and stated that it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them to impose upon the Gentile converts no burden except abstinence from meats offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication. Such was the substance of the letter that was carried down to Antioch by the deputies from the assembly at Jerusalem.
The multitude gathered to hear it; it was delivered and read, and the people rejoiced for the consolation. Judas and Silas added their exhortations, and the brethren were confirmed in the faith. Shortly afterwards, Paul, having had some difference with Barnabas, chose Silas as his fellow-traveller, and set out on another missionary journey, the object of which was to visit the converts in every city where he had preached the Word of God, and see how they did.
Commended by the brethren to the grace of God, Paul and Silas departed from Antioch, and went through Syria and Cilicia confirming the churches. Derbe and Lystra and other cities of Asia Minor were visited on this occasion; and, as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees for to keep which were ordained of the apostles and elders that were at Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).
Every candid man must admit that this is a fair representation of all facts bearing on the subject, as put before us in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Acts. Let it be remarked that, in the simple narrative, the following facts stand noticeably out:
- That Barnabas and Paul had a dispute about circumcision with certain false teachers who came down from Judea.
- This dispute was not settled in the Church of Antioch where it originated.
- The matter was referred to an external ecclesiastical assembly consisting of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.
- This assembly met publicly to deliberate on the question.
- They pronounced a decision.
- To this decision the Church of Antioch and the Churches of Syria and Cilicia yielded submission.
These facts are on the face of the narrative, and cannot be denied. That they were permitted to take place, and that a record of them is inserted in the Holy Scriptures, seems strange if these things did not happen for an example to us. Were it enough for the Church of Antioch to be made certain of the mind of God upon the point in dispute, Paul, who was present, could have declared this with infallible accuracy; for he was one who not only spake as he was moved by the Holy Ghost, but who often decided matters equally important by a word from his lips or a stroke of his pen. A single sentence from the very apostle who was then at Antioch is admitted by the Church of God to be decisive on any point of Christian faith or Christian duty; so that, if an infallible decision was the only thing required, one does not see why the matter was ever carried farther.
When the case did come up to Jerusalem, had the appeal been to inspiration only, one does not see what business the elders had to meet with the apostles to consider the matter; surely the apostles were competent to declare the mind of God without the aid of uninspired men. If nothing was necessary but for the apostles to pronounce an infallible deliverance, why was there such a thing as disputing in the assembly, or even the semblance of deliberation, or why should one apostle after another state his opinion? We would suppose the deliverance of a single inspired man quite sufficient. If the disputing that occurred in the assembly was only among the elders, the elders must have been very silly to dispute about a matter that inspiration was to settle, and with which they, as uninspired men, could have nothing to do, but to listen to the voice of God; and why did the apostles permit them to dispute, when a word from the infallible expounders of the Divine will could have decided the question? And when the decree went forth, why was it in the name of the apostles and elders that were at Jerusalem?
There is one way of accounting for this satisfactorily, and only one so far as we can see. These events were permitted to take place, and are recorded for our guidance under all similar circumstances. Should any difference arise, which cannot be settled within the limits of the congregation where it occurs, it is to be referred for settlement to the rulers of the Church in their assembled capacity. If the apostles were alive upon the earth to meet with the elders, and by aid of their inspiration, to guide them to an unerring decision, and were we to refer our differences to such an assembly, this would be literal obedience to the example put before us in the Divine Word. But when, in their personal absence, we refer our differences to the assembly of the elders, and when the elders, guided by the inspired writings of the apostles as contained in the Scriptures, pronounce a deliverance on the question, and when to such deliverance we yield submission in the Lord, this is more than acting up to the spirit, it is acting up to everything but the letter, of apostolic example.
We are thus conducted to this twofold fact that, in the Apostolic Church, there existed the privilege of referring disputed matters to the decision of an assembly of living men, external to the congregation where such dispute originated, and composed of the rulers of the Church; and that this ecclesiastical assembly, in the absence of the apostles, consisting simply of the rulers of the Church, has a right to meet, to deliberate, to decide, and to demand obedience to its decisions in the Lord. This twofold principle we designate the privilege of appeal to the assembly of elders, and the right of government exercised by them in their associate capacity.
It would scarcely be necessary to say a word on the presence of the brethren in the assembly at Jerusalem, were it not that some parties have made this fact the foundation for special cavil. As they are mentioned separately from the apostles and elders, it seems to us clear that the “brethren” must have been the non-official members of the Church, or, as in modern times they would be called, the laity. That they were present at the meeting; that they concurred in the decision; and that the letter sent down to Antioch was written in their name, as well as in that of the apostles and elders, are, in our opinion, undeniable facts – patent on the face of the narrative.
But we have not all the facts of the case before us, except we observe:
- that the original reference from Antioch was not to the brethren, but to the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2);
- that it is not said that the brethren assembled to deliberate on the question, but that “the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter” (Acts 15:6);
- that we do not read of any of the brethren speaking on the subject submitted, but that they “kept silence” while others spoke (Acts 15:12);
- that the decrees are not said to be ordained of the brethren, but “of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).
The unprejudiced inquirer will observe that the private members of the Church, here designated the “brethren,” did not ordain the decrees, nor speak in the meeting, nor assemble to deliberate, nor was it to them that the appeal from Antioch was brought. He will, on the other hand, remark that they were present in the assembly, that they concurred in the finding, and that, as it was important to show that all the Christians of Jerusalem were unanimous on the subject, the letter embodying the decision was written in their name as well as in that of the apostles and elders.
From motives of courtesy, and for the purpose of Christian salutation, Silvanus and Timotheus are represented as uniting with Paul, in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, but this does not imply that Silvanus and Timotheus were inspired men, much less that they were conjoined in the authorship of the letter. And, in the same way, the letter addressed to the Gentiles of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, was the letter of the apostles and elders – the name of the brethren being added to show, not that they took part in the composition, but that they concurred in the sentiments.
Persons, therefore, who desire to convince us that private Christians in the Apostolic Church were not only present as auditors at assemblies of Church rulers, but also shared in the deliberations, and acted as constituent members of ecclesiastical courts, would require to produce something much more explicit on the subject than the 15th chapter of Acts. To us it seems clear that the apostles and elders assembled, deliberated, and decreed; the brethren were present, listened, and concurred. The apostles and elders were, as we would say, members of court; the brethren were only auditors, who gave their assent to the decision of the rulers.
Our fifth principle, therefore, may be summed up in these terms – the privilege of appeal to the assembly of elders, and the right of government exercised by them in their corporate character.