In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When our daughter was still quite young, my wife and I realized that she had the ability to outsmart us and that the price of effective parenting was eternal vigilance. So, we made a pact: whenever our daughter asked one of us for something that was the least bit questionable, the one she asked would reply, “What did your mother say?” or “What did your father say?” That was a simple recognition that kids will play parents off one against the other if the parents aren’t careful. If the first parent doesn’t give the desired answer, go ask the other. There is even a more egregious childhood tactic than this: “Well, dad, or mom, said I could!” If you are a parent, you know these games.
So, my wife and I agreed to make parenting decisions together. And, that worked for many years: two parents “against” one child — decent odds. Little did I know that my wife and daughter would turn that two against one strategy against me and together decide to bring home a cat they knew I didn’t want. I know I should, but I haven’t quite forgiven my wife for that act of betrayal.
How do you, and your family, make decisions? I’m not talking about trivial decisions or decisions that affect only one party. I’m talking about substantive decisions that have far reaching consequences: whether to move across the country for a job opportunity, whether to homeschool a child or to enroll him in public or private school, whether to move an aging parent in with you or to provide more skilled care in a residential facility — that sort of thing. There are some families, I suspect, where the father is the “head of the house” in the sense of unilaterally making all such decisions. I don’t know how that works because I’ve never been part of such a family. My wife is smarter than I am in many ways and certainly more gifted is some areas than I am. We discuss all matters together, but I don’t hesitate to defer to her when she has the expertise that I lack. And, she does the same with me. There are other families who are tended by a single parent, eighty percent of them by a single mother (2015 statistic). What a burden of decision-making that places on the shoulders of one person. I don’t know how those parents do it. Going back to the garden, God knew that Adam needed a helpmate. No parent — male or female — was intended to go it alone.
Think of the first century Church as a family, a growing family at that. At first, it was close knit, one hundred twenty or so who had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. When Jesus was among them, he made the decisions: easy enough. When he ascended into heaven, Peter assumed leadership as Jesus had indicated he should and as the Holy Spirit led. His leadership doesn’t seem to have been unilateral or dictatorial; it just seems that the others naturally deferred to him. They knew him, and they knew of the special relationship he had had with Jesus.
But then the Church grew, unexpectedly — three thousand souls in one day. And it dispersed with the beginning of the persecution in Jerusalem. New leaders arose in local congregations and in larger regions. Charismatic evangelists — not least Paul — took the Gospel into new regions, established new churches among new people groups — Gentiles — and fostered new customs and even a new and broader understanding of the Gospel than that found among the original disciples in Jerusalem. Was this getting out of hand? Who was in charge here? Who was making the decisions on behalf of the Church, or was it churches now instead of Church, with each group making its own decisions?
These are the questions that our text from Acts 15 addresses. A group of Christians from Judea — read this probably as zealous Jewish Christians from Jerusalem — have heard that Paul is extending the Gospel to the Gentiles without requiring circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary restrictions and the like. Paul seems to be promoting a Gentile Christianity alongside or even apart from a Jewish Christianity. On whose authority? Who gave Paul the right to make such decisions? And so they confront Paul on his home turf in Syrian Antioch, and no small dispute erupted. And right there a momentous decision was made on behalf of the Church: a decision this important must be made not by one individual, but by a council of the Church, which, in this case, meant the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
These apostles and elders gathered together to consider the matter. They debated among themselves. They listened to Peter recount the troika of visions that led him to the home of Cornelius where he witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles gathered there. Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul recount the signs and wonders God had done through them on behalf of the Gentiles. All the while a clear consensus was growing. The Holy Spirit was speaking to the assembled Church. When James, the bishop of the Jerusalem church, spoke, he spoke not the mind of one person or even of one faction, but of the assembled Church. And then when he, or the group, drafted a letter with the results of the council’s deliberations, it contained these two phrases which established precedent — and super-precedent — for the Church moving forward: “it seemed good to us, having come to one accord” (Acts 15:25a) and “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28a). Not “me” but “us.” Not “by our own authority” but by the Holy Spirit.
And that is how the Church makes decisions: conciliarism — not one man, not one faction, but authorized representatives of the whole body gathered together to consider a matter, to listen to one another, and to submit to the Holy Spirit. That is how major issues were decided in and by the Church during its first millennium. Conciliarism gave us the canon of Scripture, the Nicene Creed, and the great ecumenical councils. Ours is a conciliar faith. To depart from a conciliar understanding of the faith is to walk the way of heresy and to travel beyond the borders of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. Heresy almost always starts with, “Well, I know that’s what the Church says, but I believe…” and ends with a denial of the authority of Scripture and the authority of the consensus of the Church. Who cares if you have concluded the virgin birth is a sacred myth; the Church has spoken to affirm it. What does it matter — except for your eternal salvation — that you have concluded that it is simply not possible to believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ; the Church is certain of it. So you no longer believe that no man comes to the Father but through Christ the Son; the Church still believes and insists on it. Why ask me what I believe about a certain issue when the Church has decided centuries ago. Ask me what the Church believes; that’s what matters!
This is why it is essential that we read Scripture with the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. That is why it is essential that pray with the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. That is why it is essential that we worship, that we preach the word, that we administer the Sacraments with the one, holy catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Now, that raises questions — or should raise questions — in the mind of every good Anglican. Did we not abandon the conciliar Church when we rejected Rome and the Pope? The short answer — the long answer would take, well, a long time — the short answer is no. We rejected Roman practices and doctrines that were not established through conciliarism. We rejected unilateralism in the Church of Rome, in the Western Church. We insisted on a final appeal not to one faction of the Church, but to the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church itself. The Anglican rejection of the authority of Rome was the Anglican affirmation of the authority of the conciliar Church, the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.
In our Province — the ACNA — and in our Diocese — ADOTS — we are clear about this. Among others, The Fundamental Declarations of our Province (BCP 2019, pp. 766-767) identify these elements as “characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:”
1. We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.
4. We confess as proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture the historic faith of the undivided church as declared in the three Catholic Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.
5. Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth, and seventh Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.
All of these are statements of conciliarity, an embrace of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church over one man or one faction. It all started in Jerusalem with a group of Church representative meeting together to decide what in the world to do about those pesky Gentiles. It all started in Jerusalem where the groundwork was laid for holy decision-making in the Church. It is this process, superintended by the Holy Spirit, that even allows us to speak meaningfully of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.