In Acts 15 we read of the first church council. As with those that would follow centuries later at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, it was initiated by controversy. While Philip and Peter had begun the work of spreading the gospel to the nations, the labors of Paul and Barnabas had made the church substantially international. Not everyone was ready, or knew how, to accept this massive influx of unclean Gentiles into the church of Jesus Christ. How are Gentiles to be accepted into the church? To certain men, men with some influence according to Galatians 2, the answer was through Moses, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Because of what Luke says in 15:5, it seems likely these men were Pharisees who had believed in Jesus. The controversy was such that we are told succinctly, “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider the matter” (15:6).
After much debate, Peter is given the floor and lays the foundation for the eventual decision:
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11
Surely, once again, we hear from the lips of Peter things that flesh and blood had not revealed to him. Look and behold the wonderful work of the Trinity in saving any and all men by grace, through faith, without the works of the Law. Trace Peter’s argument and see that just as in the ecumenical councils that would eventually come, the Trinity is at the core of settling the dispute. While men disputed, God the Father had already rendered his judgment by giving the same Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as he had to the infant Jewish church. This gift of the Spirit and cleansing from sin were not offered because of any works but solely “by faith.” Peter then makes the cutting observation that the Jews themselves had not been able to keep the customs of Moses, and they expect the Gentiles to? May it never be! The grace of the Lord Jesus that made salvation possible and a reality for the Jews is the same grace alone that makes salvation possible and a reality for the Gentiles.
When we push through to recognize the Trinity, we find that all the work of Salvation is done by the Three. Because the Trinity has done all the work of salvation, it is ours to receive that salvation through faith knowing the grace of the glorious Trinity will make it so. To place any requirements, any prerequisites, upon salvation is to drive the sinner away from the God who saves. On this, the church has spoken. In this, the church must believe.
In Sunday school this past week talk somehow turned to the lunacy that is known as Westboro Baptist church. A question along the lines of, “Why doesn’t the church do something about them?” was asked. The simple answer is, it can’t. “The Church” as a single physical organization does not exist anymore. Meetings like the Council of Jerusalem (50) and the Councils of Nicaea (325, 787), Constantinople (381, 553, 680), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) are an impossibility today because the church, as such, ceased to exist in 1054 when Rome departed from the ancient communion of the five patriarchates. Five hundred years later Rome began to dis-integrate, and Christianity in the New World has only continued to atomize.
One could say, the Church, if it still existed, wouldn’t say anything about Westboro Baptist, because it is not a problem that infects any outside of this nation. Westboro Baptist is an infection that should be cured on the “regional” level. But because there is no such thing as “the church” in America, there is no such church to condemn it. We are left with the muffled oppositions of denominations and congregations.
Ideas have consequences. Once you say you have the right to believe anything you want to believe, it becomes somewhat difficult to deny that right to the person next to you. In our Protestant-minded individualism we have gained much. But we have also lost much. The trade-off was not entirely beneficial.