Did Paul obey his General Conference?

If Peter was the first Pope, then Paul was the first Protestant. In the original church as today, there are two basic conceptions of Christian authority: apostolic succession and the priesthood of the believer. Paul represented the latter; he gave himself a lot of discretion as a pastor in the different congregational contexts in which he ministered. He didn’t mail a single Book of Discipline to Corinth, Ephesus, Colossus, Phillipi, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Rome. Each epistle that would make its way into our Biblical canon was practical and contextual though there are theological threads which develop and solidify over the course of Paul’s writing. In Acts 15, in what Methodists like me might call the first General Conference of the church, a council of apostles and elders convened to consider the debate between Judaizers who were teaching that the Law of Moses was necessary to salvation and Paul who was teaching salvation by faith. The compromise adopted by the council was to require Gentiles to avoid sacrificial meats, blood, meat of strangled animals, and pagan sexuality (Acts 15:20). In response to this decision, Paul doesn’t simply obey; he comes up with his own creative, contextual interpretation for at least two of the four items on this list.

Listen to how Paul deals with the issue of sacrificial meats in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33:

Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice’, then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgement of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.

Paul makes it very clear that any meat (sacrificial or strangled) can be eaten “without raising any question on the ground of conscience, quoting Psalm 24:1 as his justification. He doesn’t belittle or denigrate the council in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t obey their decision. Instead, he nuances it for pastoral and evangelistic reasons. In some contexts, you eat sacrificial meat; in other contexts, you don’t. It all relates to the purpose of “pleasing everyone in everything I do… so that they may be saved.” If someone at the table eating with you thinks it’s a sin to eat the sacrificial meat, then it is a sin for you to eat it in front of them because of the scandal it causes them. Paul elaborates further in Romans 14:13-19:

Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.

This passage cuts both ways. On the basis of Paul’s conscience, he cannot faithfully represent the four prohibitions that the council of Jerusalem made: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” At the same time, Paul is very concerned about “not injuring your brother or sister by what you eat.” Paul counsels his readers to be charitable to others who have a different understanding of what it is sinful than they do. The goal is “peace and mutual edification.”

The question for us today as Christians is whether or not we can emulate Paul’s pastoral discretion in only partially following a decision that the council of Jerusalem charged him with enforcing. Did Paul play by a different set of rules than we have to follow because the church was more fluid at the time of its birth and because Paul’s words got canonized? It is also important to understand that Paul’s disobedience to the Jerusalem council was not motivated by people-pleasing, but by the obedience to God that trumped any human authority, apostolic notwithstanding. Paul explains this somewhat in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5:

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they should be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.

It is Paul’s tremendous responsibility of being a “servant of Christ and steward of God’s mysteries” that compels him to contradict the council of Jerusalem regarding sacrificial meat. I don’t think this means that pastors are free to act as mavericks and play the “God told me” card when we are challenged, because if we do that blasphemously, we will indeed be judged severely by God. However, if God has compelled some pastors to go against the decisions made by our apostolic authority structures, then those of you who are scandalized by their disobedience should pause before the example of Paul’s disobedience to the ruling of the council of Jerusalem. And those of you who feel compelled by God to contradict the authority we covenanted ourselves to follow better be damned sure that it’s God (I’m using that word in the literal Biblical sense). Whatever you do, remember Paul’s exhortation to not “seek your own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved” and to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.”

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