Friday, August 16, 2013

My Arguments For Elder-Led Consensus in Acts 15

I would like to provide my reasons for believing that private elders meetings designed to make decisions for other Christians have no basis in Scripture. 

I firmly believe that Acts 15:6 which states: "The apostles and elders met to consider this question," and Acts 16:4 which states: "The decisions reached by the apostles and elders," do not mean that 'elders meet privately' nor that 'they decide for everyone.'

By argument I mean: "a discussion involving differing points of view; debate; a series of reasons; a statement or fact for or against a point; and/or a composition intended to convince or persuade; persuasive discourse."

Perhaps others can publish their arguments for everyone's consideration. 

"Discourse/dialogue" (Acts 20:7) is not permitted in the institutional assemblies of churches of Christ with which I am most familiar, mainly because of the 'position of gospel preacher.' [See Footnote].

Nevertheless, since today's system is what it is, I must resort to publishing my part of the discourse and discussion online, because oversight is popularly viewed as "control of what is taught" and not "guiding or leading" a reasonable, orderly discussion. 

I believe that the passage commonly known as the "Jerusalem Council" occurs in the presence of the church. I believe decisions are reached with the consensus of the entire church--not privately by a few Christian leaders such as elders or in men's business meetings. I believe that the decisions were not reached by elders for everyone to be later announced to the church.

The context begins in Acts 14:26 and ends in Acts 15:35.

Returning from their first missionary journey, Acts 14:26 says of Paul and Barnabas:
"From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples."
We probably read "gathered the church together and reported" as a gospel preacher coming back from a week long mission trip and giving details to a passive and silent congregation about the trip, but why not read a 'dialogue' or 'discussion' of the mission-trip into the text? Especially, in light of dialegomai (discourse, discuss) in Acts 20:7 and when Paul says "two or three should speak" in 1 Cor. 14:29ff.

Luke continues:
"[But] Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
I am placing a bold emphasis on "the church" and "the believers" to combat the belief that an emphasis is placed on elders in the NT (which there's not, but we have been taught to read certain texts that way). Especially, notice that even the Apostle Paul was "appointed" and "sent" by "the church."

Jewish Pharisee-Christians had 'come down' from Jerusalem to Antioch, a literal geographical drop in elevation. Paul and Barnabas who had been establishing/traveling among Gentile churches (Christians who were not circumcised) confronted and contended with them. The occurrences in Antioch led to the future meeting in Jerusalem and Paul and other believers arrived in Jerusalem.

Paul and Barnabas (and Titus, Gal. 2:2) and others were appointed and "sent" by "the church" in Antioch to Jerusalem where they "reported" everything to "the church and the apostles and the elders." At some point during the trip Paul also met with Peter, James and John privately to make sure he "had not run in vain." 


Paul says in Galatians 2 that he met with those "who seemed to be influential"--though their status did not mean anything to him (the opposite of what we teach today), so that they would have as much information as possible about what Paul and Barnabas were actually teaching among the Gentiles--not so that they could decide for everybody else based on some supposed status. Paul's argument is that their 'status' is meaningless.

Here's Paul's description from Galatians 2:
"Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you."
The word 'esteemed' used by Paul means "supposedly" or "thought of" as leaders. They were 'esteemed' 'as leaders.' None of the words for elders (presbuteros, poimen, episcopos) are in the text. Not even the word hegeomai (leader, Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; Acts 15:22) is in the text. I think that Peter, John and James were (eventually) elders, but not in the authoritarian sense commonly accepted today, and Paul's words certainly don't help establish the 'position-expedient authority' practiced today. Clearly, "esteemed as leaders" comes from their influence not position.

Paul writes: 
"As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along."
Also, what kind of example would Paul be setting for others (1 Cor. 4:17) with this attitude toward the supposed 'authority of elders?' And if these men had the position-expedient authority many argue for, then what about Paul's comment that "Whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show not favoritism?" Many claim that God does show favoritism to the gospel preacher and to elders in "matters of expediency." I understand that Paul is defending his apostleship in the Galatian letter, but that does not change what he said which is nowhere near consistent with 'position-expedient authority' of elders.

Does the "meeting privately" in Galatians 2 modify Acts 15:6?

Were Peter, James and John (among) the elders at Jerusalem who met privately with Paul to decide for everyone else?

I think that Galatians 2 refers to private meeting(s) among Paul and Peter, James, and John at (a) separate time(s) and not to the meeting in Acts 15 because: 1) Paul states what his purpose in meeting with them was: "to make sure he had not come to Jerusalem/established Gentile house churches in vain." His purpose in privately meeting with them was not to settle the matter as was done in Acts 15; 2) the church was present (Acts 15:4); 3) the Pharisee-Christians were present (Acts 15:5); and 4) the "whole assembly" (plethos, see below) "fell silent" when Paul and Barnabas began speaking (15:12).

In short, the private meetings in Galatians 2 do not erase the verses that state the church was present (15:4); the "whole assembly" fell silent (15:12); and, especially, the verse that says "the whole church decided" (15:22).

Was it a private meeting within a public meeting? I think that the Jewish Pharisee-Christians or "some of the believers" (15:5) would not have stood for that.

Do I think Paul's private meeting(s) influenced the public meeting? Absolutely. That was his stated purpose for having it, but the influence this private meeting had does not mean decisions are made "for others" and based on "control."

Finally, Paul's comment in Galatians 2:10 to "remember the poor" will be the impetus for these Galatian house-churches, to whom he is writing the letter, and other Gentile house-churches, like the Corinthians, who will hear about the  poor in Judea and who will also desire to take up private collections at home for the Jerusalem Christians--see Acts 11:27-30; Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-26; 16:5, 23.


Returning to Acts 15:4 which is the same context of Paul, Barnabas, and Titus' trip to Jerusalem in Galatians 2, Luke writes:
"When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
"The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith."

"Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly (plethos) became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them."

When they finished, James spoke up. 

“Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

“‘After this I will return
    and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
    and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
    even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
    things known from long ago.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

The word for "whole assembly" in Acts 15:12 is plethos. It is used again, in this same context in Acts 15:30 where it is translated "church" (NIV 2011) and "congregation" (ESV). It is translated "multitude" in both 15:12 and 15:30 in most versions (KJV). Albert Barnes says:
"The word “multitude” τὸ πλῆθος (to plēthos) would not have been used in describing the collection of apostles and elders merely. Compare Luke 1:10-11, 13; 5:6; 6:17; 19:37; John 5:3; 21:6; Acts 4:32; 6:2."
My point is that the apostles and elders are meeting in the midst of the church. Notice from Acts 14:27-28 and Acts 15:1-4 that "the church" or "the disciples" are all involved in what is occurring. They are the ones sending and receiving. The emphasis is on the entire church and elders as leaders among them--not as rulers over them. This is even how Paul words Philippians 1:1:
"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons..."
I am not saying that elders can't meet, or even that they can't meet privately (though I do not believe that occurred here in Acts 15)--I am saying that they cannot make decisions "for everyone apart from everyone."

Recall in Acts 15:4:

"When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Then, in the next verse:

Acts 15:5 states, "Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said..."


Acts 15:6 says, "The apostles and elders met to consider this question...."

Then follows what Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James would say in the midst of the "whole assembly" who would "fall silent" when Paul and Barnabas spoke (Acts 15:12).

Again, the word plethos "whole assembly" or "multitude" is translated "church" in Acts 15:30 in the NIV 2011 and "congregation" in the ESV--same word, same context.

Luke is not recording everything that everybody said at the meeting, only what he feels is important for his book of Acts.

Are elders meeting? Yes. Are they leading? Yes. Are they discussing? Yes. Privately? No. Are others participating in the decision? Yes. Are certain people, like James, making specific suggestions? Yes. Does he or the elders have more authority than everyone else? By influence and example? Yes. By arbitrary position? No.

The apostles and elders "with the whole church" will decide to send a letter and choose Judas and Silas to deliver it.

This is "what is written" in the text.

One must read the word "privately" into the text in Acts 15:6 to get a 'private elders meeting' or a few 'deciding for' everyone else.

One must read "only" into Acts 16:4 to say that the apostles and elders decided for everyone else.

Acts 15 does not say that they met 'privately' nor that they 'decided for' everyone.

It does say that "whole assembly," "the multitude," or "church" (Acts 15:30, NIV 2011) "fell silent" and were, therefore, present being "reported to" and among whom the Pharisees stood up and spoke (Acts 15:4; cf. 15:12; 15:30).

Where does it say that the apostles and elders met privately and decided for everyone? It doesn't.

In Acts 15:22, it says:

"Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

The heading of the letter, as above, in some versions reads: "the apostles and elders, your brothers."

This is because those versions are based on the Westcott-Hort (WH) family of texts. These are often referred to as "the oldest and best." Many disagree they are the "best" based on a preference for the Majority Text or Textus Receptus (TR). We are left to choose between the "oldest" and the "majority" of texts.

The KJV is based on the Majority Text and it reads:

"And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia..."

So based on the Majority Text/Textus Receptus manuscripts, when Acts 16:4 says:

"And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem," this would certainly include their influence and example or 'stamp of authority,' but it does not mean that they met privately and decided for everyone, since Acts 15:22 specifically says, "the whole church decided" and since 15:23 includes "and the brethren" in a majority of Greek manuscripts.

Luke concludes:
"So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church (plethos, see "whole assembly," "multitude" in Acts 15:12) together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers."
"After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them [Jerusalem]. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord."

If you have e-Sword on your computer, you can check out the Greek Text-WH, Greek Text-TR, and the Greek Text-V (Variants TSB) for the "and" (kai) being absent or present in Acts 15:23 depending on which one you look at.

A.T. Robertson, Albert Barnes, Jamieson-Fausset Brown see the meeting in Acts 15 as taking place among the entire church.

Adam Clarke and B. W. Johnson see Acts 15 as a private meeting of elders and apostles only; however, I did not find where Clarke and Johnson dealt with the word plethos in their commentaries. Perhaps I missed it, but I do not think so.
These 5 commentators all see Galatians 2 as private meeting(s).

I have not consulted other commentaries.

In the most specific passage addressing an assembly of Christians, Paul writes:
"Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged..."
In the other most often cited passage addressing an assembly, Acts 20:7, the word "preaching" (dialegomai) means discourse or dialogue--not a pulpit, monologue sermon (BAGD), but the institutional system forbids Paul's command and example in favor of elders delegating their assembly teaching responsibilities to paid 'gospel preachers.'  

I have had one 'gospel preacher' tell me he prefers/enjoys to 'preach' with interaction from the congregation, but I think that this is still not what is found in NT assemblies. I still see an inequality among Christians in this setting where a 'gospel preacher' (pastor) is viewed above others.

Usually, what is said (mostly by paid preachers and their followers) is that 1 Cor. 14 was "a special assembly" or "miracles were involved." However, since whatever they preached 'miraculously' back then is recorded in the NT for us today, I don't see how these arguments matter. Acts 20:7 was not 'miraculous' and 1 Cor. 14 is the other most detailed assembly passage for us to learn what assemblies were like in the first century.

There is no mention of an "assembly in one place" in Col. 3:16 or Eph. 5:19 necessitating that the "whole church" attend. It was customary for music, singing, entertainment to follow the banquet (evening meal, deipnon, supper) during the symposium that followed the banquet in ancient Mediterranean culture. Paul was not "instituting" a "pattern" of worship to be conducted in public buildings when he said to "sing" in these passages.

Everyone in that culture was already used to assembling for the 'evening meal' (deipnon or supper or banquet) and familiar with the symposium that followed which may include discussion, singing, and often pagan immoral behavior (1 Cor. 5). Paul was "Christianizing" their practices--not creating a whole new set of practices unfamiliar to them hitherto and for them to now repeat week after week.

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