Thursday, April 27, 2017

The prevention of schism: be of one accord

I came to faith in my late teens as a Southern Baptist.  My father then came to faith and ultimately became a deacon of the church.  One of the things I remember about the Southern Baptist convention is hearing about various individual churches who split from the convention over doctrinal differences.  In fact, it isn’t uncommon to hear of an individual church that splits from within either, where half the church remains Baptist while the other half goes off and founds another new church.  While that may seem odd to Catholics we have had that too…at first it was called the reformation, but since then we have had splits as well.  This is why we have SSPX Catholics, Evangelical Catholics, Celtic Catholics, and about 50 or so other “independent” catholic churches all of which schism from the Church for various doctrinal reasons.  It may happen more frequently and fluidly in Protestant denominations, but it still happens in the Catholic church.  In today’s reading (Acts 15: 1-6) we see the first potential doctrinal split and the first council (Council of Jerusalem) that was formed by the Apostles and Elders of the Church to address that split. 

In verse 5 we have believers who belonged to the council of the Pharisees standing up and proclaiming that gentiles need to be circumcised and required to keep the laws of Moses.  This is interesting because Pharisees (parush or parushi from the Aramaic) are a split in the Jewish order that means separate.  They are literally a group or party made up from Jewish scholars and scribes who ardently adhere to Jewish purity laws.  In the Gospels, we often see Jesus addressing this group in a way that kind of tells us that they adhere to the letter of the law without consideration for the spirit of the law.  Not all of them, of course, but every group has some bad apples.    So now, we have this group who literally means split, who have come to faith in the Messiah, and are now bringing their doctrinal beliefs into their new faith.  This probably/shouldn’t be surprising to us.  Wherever we go we bring ourselves and the sum total of our knowledge and understanding of God.  It was no different for them. 

What is interesting here is how this first potential split was handled.  Neither Paul nor Barnabas stood up and singularly laid down the “law” as it were (even though they probably could have).  They instead set a precedent.  They gathered the Apostle and Elders (presbyters) together into what we call now the Council of Jerusalem.  After much discussion, Peter lays out what we might consider one of the first official canons of the Church.  (Which is tomorrow’s reading Acts 15: 7-21.)  Which was supported by Paul and Barnabas. 
This is interesting for many reasons, but most of all I think because it shows us how we should deal with potential doctrinal fallacy/issues. It shows us that misinterpretation, and insertion of human understanding is going to happen for one.  When we come to faith we bring our own understanding and experiences.  We interpret through the lens of that understanding.  How this should be handled we are taught by the church fathers in their example.  No one singularly lays down the doctrine, instead they form a council of apostles and elders.  They use both scripture and experience to form and inform themselves.  Then they proclaim what they believe to be the truth and they set down canon to be followed. 

In the next several readings after this, we see that once the canon is established they go out and teach this canon to the churches.  They debated, they used scripture and experience, they set down canon, and then they went and taught.  What is just as interesting as the process of establishing this is how the church received the new information.  They went silent and listened, and then they rejoiced.   

I think these are very important passages to consider as sometimes we come into personal/group conflict with the teachings and doctrines of the Church.  It’s important to realize that rebellion is sin we seldom see for what it is, because when we are rebelling we think/believe we are correct.  I don’t think conflicting with doctrine is inherently sinful as all of us (as I said before) bring ourselves into our understanding of faith.  None of the Apostles chided the Pharisee believers for their thinking.  Instead, they took it as an opportunity to define the faith.  What makes our questions rebellion is when we do not go silent and listen after the Church leadership has followed the precedents established by the early Church.   

God loves obedience.  We bring ourselves into the faith, and sometimes the issues we face are much bigger than what we by ourselves can muster in understanding.  Sometimes we need the guidance of people who have a bigger picture of understanding.  It is up to us to stay rooted in the truth.

Today we pray for all those who would lead us, that they would have the wisdom of the early leaders of the Church. 

Food for thought and prayer.

Here I am, Lord, send me.

LLB