In my last post on this blog, I offered observations around the inclusion of Gentiles into a mixed-economy Church comprising Law-observant Jewish Christians and Gentile converts (see “Boundaries, blessings, and the hidden gifts of Church conflict“). I observed that the lighter yoke of the Law advocated by the Jerusalem Council provided a starting point for Gentile inclusion that the Church in Antioch struggled to appropriate. The détante created by the Jerusalem Council’s ruling opened the way for the development of liturgical means of incorporation, drawn from the teachings of Jesus, namely baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this post, I want to offer a few further observations that could prove helpful, if the biblical-historical situation of Gentile inclusion is to provide clues for a way forward in a mixed-economy Anglicanism.
The first observation I would make is that the liturgical solution to the issue of Gentile inclusion, namely, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, came from the tradition of Jesus’ teaching. The rulings of councils can be disputed. The visions of apostles can be called into question as subjective. Even the experience of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit can be interpreted in numerous ways. But the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ would be authoritative in inter-ecclesial disputes. Indeed, Peter’s vision, Paul’s mission, and the Gentiles’ filling with the Holy Spirit all cohere with and are upheld by and consistent with precedents established by Jesus’ teachings and foreseen in his ministry (e.g. Mark 7:1–23).
As I stated in my last post,
[T]he Antiochene church, by revisiting the words of Jesus’ Great Commission to the disciples, discovers in the tradition of Jesus’ teaching a way to initiate Gentiles fully into the Jewish Christian community without sacrificing either the conscience of the Jews or the freedom of the Gentiles.
Jesus’ teaching, in other words, is authoritative both as a commission to the apostles into Gentile mission and as a source from which the apostles (and those coming after them) could mine further theological content and liturgico-ecclesial solutions to the challenges inherent in that mission.
The benefits this offered in assuring Jewish Christians that Gentiles had made a “clean break” with their idolatrous pagan pasts, through their baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit also produced further benefits of deeper theological reflection into the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The dominical origin of the solution assures that the solution is not only a creative form of human compromise but a divinely-inspired and God-given way of creating one Church from two peoples.
The second observation I would offer is that Matthew’s Gospel highlights Jesus as teacher and revealer of the Law’s true intention. In the Sermon on the Mount and in Jesus’ call to “all who are weary and heavy-laden” to take up his “easy yoke” and his “light burden,” Matthew emphasizes Jesus as upholder and advocate of the Law, who invites Gentiles to obey the spirit of a Law of the heart, rather than a Law of ritual purity. While this emphasis was primarily addressed to a Jewish audience in Matthew’s Gospel, its importance to Gentile mission was drawn into focus when Jesus commissioned the disciples: the Gentile mission included “teaching them [the Gentiles] to obey all that I have commanded.” Gentile mission may surpass kosher purity, but it cannot do so in contrast to the teaching of Jesus.
My third observation is that the Jerusalem Council was authoritative in the context in which it was offered, for as long as the solution it offered was applicable. Current catechesis does not include explanations to Gentile converts about food offered to idols or about meat killed through strangulation, because the challenge of table-fellowship between kosher Jewish Christians and non-kosher Christians is no longer a live dispute. The standards of Gentile inclusion (for the purposes of Jewish conscience, especially related to food regulations) can be passed over in the absence of a significant kosher-Jewish presence within the Church that could be scandalized, while the standards regarding idol worship and sexual ethics have remained norms for the Church since the Jerusalem Council. These standards are upheld in Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians, while flexibility regarding the food laws is cautiously allowed.
Fourth, the agreement forged required mutual submission to the conscience of the other within the mixed-economy of the Jewish-Gentile church. Jewish Christians had to trust that the Gentiles were living according to the standards of the community in which they were inaugurated by baptism, and they had to forego their strict standards of absolute assurance regarding kosher purity. Gentiles, on the other hand, had to forego a freedom that was available in Christ, but was not conducive to united fellowship. Paul’s command that Spirit-filled members of a mixed-economy church would “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) served as an ongoing reminder that ecclesial unity is not achieved without mutual sacrifice.
These points pertain to the current challenges within Anglicanism, struggling toward a mixed-economy of another sort. First, whatever agreements could be forged between more disparate groups within Anglicanism must take the teachings of Christ as a point of departure. We may move from, but never beyond, Jesus’ revelation of the truth, as he is the Truth incarnate. Second, Jesus’ advocacy of a lighter yoke of the Law that aims at the heart, not just at actions, can instruct our discernment of the extent to which Old Testament rules for the life of Israel still apply to the life of the Church. Third, the Church must apply and return to prior decisions that she has made on matters pertaining to current disputes until they are no longer applicable. Rightly or wrongly, this would seem to be the intention of Archbishop Justin Welby’s return to decisions of Lambeth 1998 as a starting point for future discussions. Finally, whatever unity may be forged in the coming months and years, it will require all parties to sacrifice something in order to meet at a common table.
Whether Anglicanism rises to this occasion or stumbles upon it remains to be seen. My prayer is that we will return to the teachings of Christ, bear faithful witness to the lighter yoke Christ offers to all who would come to him weary and heavy-laden, find common ground in the directives of our councils, and work in charity and mutual submission to find a way forward together. Many may doubt this possibility for Anglicanism, but I believe that our continued witness and our way forward depends on it.