The First General Assembly
Acts 15: 1-21
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time/9th November 2003
Moderator of the 213th General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
It is good to be home again. I look back on the relative calm and order of last June’s General Assembly with nostalgia. Since the end of the 213th General Assembly I have been on the road. I have made 160 visits in the in 32 states and the territory of Puerto Rico. Sharon and I have just returned from 3 weeks abroad in Portugal, Spain, Egypt, and the Netherlands. This is my 16th seminary event.
We hear a great deal about conflicts in the church. I have not shied away from those conflicts, and have tried to identify some of the main causes. When I actually sat down and tallied up all the places I have been and the mail I received, I have come to the realization that about 90 % of Presbyterians are calmly carrying on their lives and ministries and see the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a wonderfully viable vehicle for doing God’s work in the world. The 10% who are deeply dissatisfied with the church make their position known so forcefully that it distorts our perception of the health of the church.
Fairly early in my travels, I was at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. I had had a lengthy question and answer period with faculty and students. We had covered most of the well-known problems in the church. At the end, my good friend, Laura Mendenhall, the new President of Columbia Seminary made the most helpful comment. She said: “Last summer I read through the Book of Acts. The early church had problems worse than ours. But the Holy Spirit was at work, and now there is a church that spreads all over the world.”
I was challenged to read Acts again. Today, I want to focus our attention on the passage in Acts 15 that is usually referred to as “The Council of Jerusalem.” I thought it would pique our interest to think of it as the First General Assembly.
In its first century, the Christian church was struggling with its sense of identity. Was it a sect within Judaism? Or, was it a new religion? “Certain individuals,” who turned out to be from the “sect of the Pharisees” insisted that in order to be saved, it was necessary for men to be circumcised and all people to keep the law of Moses.
There was precedent for this in Judaism. Proselytes to Judaism had been required to be circumcised and to keep the law.
But now the Jewish Christians were confronting a new possibility. Apparently, Peter and Paul had admitted non-Jews on the basis that the Holy Spirit had been given to them. They did not have to meet any of the former requirements. That would mean that Christianity was a new religion, not just a sect within Judaism.
As I have traveled about the church during the year of the 213th General Assembly, I have observed a similar struggle between the necessity to keep the law, and the possibility of another way of salvation. Let me give you an example.
I spoke to the presbytery of Utah last Fall. There are only 25 Presbyterian churches in the state. Presbyterians know who they are in Utah. They are called “gentiles” by the Mormon majority and sometimes it is costly to be part of the minority. Even Jews are called gentiles in Utah! The congregation in which the presbytery meeting was held is served by an ex-Mormon, whose wife was also an ex-Mormon. Of the 300 plus members, 100 of them were ex-Mormons.
At dinner I sat next to an SFTS seminary student who had just been advanced to candidacy. Later, he drove me back to the airport. He was an ex-Mormon, and his wife was an ex-Mormon as well. I asked him what had triggered the change of mind and heart in him. He said that he had done the required two years of missionary service. He felt that part of the reason for the requirement was for Mormons to feel rejected by the non-Mormon community as was usually the case when they knocked on doors. He told of an exception, a Disciples of Christ minister who welcomed them, listened courteously, and then, from the Scripture, explained the doctrine of grace. It might have been from Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no one may boast.” My seminarian friend said that Mormonism was based on keeping the law. He discovered Christianity that puts the loving grace of God before the law. The word “grace” that he heard from that minister sounded better and better. He began to explore and finally became a Presbyterian.
That formerly Mormon seminarian’s experience reflected what Peter asked that first General Assembly: “Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”
In the Reformed tradition, grace and law are in a different relationship than in some other theological traditions. We speak of the third use of the law. The first use, as in Lutheranism, is to make people aware of their sinfulness so that they will accept God’s grace and be saved. The second use is the civic use of the law to keep everyone obeying the rules in society so that conflict is minimized. In the Reformed tradition, however, we believe that people already know they are sinners, and they know they have to keep the civil law. What all of us need to hear is that God has accepted us by grace, unmerited favor, because Christ has died for our sins. Then, we keep the law out of thankfulness. It is the way to show God our gratitude for the free gift of grace.
That first General Assembly in Jerusalem came to a similar conclusion. They listened to testimony by Peter, and then by Paul and Barnabas. Peter cited a new vision, in his case, literally a vision that came to him when he was in a trance. God gave him a new revelation, that there were no clean and unclean people in God’s sight. Gentiles were not unclean as a class and thus were not to be excluded from full participation in the church. He might have remembered Jesus’ acceptance of Samaritans and others that were considered unclean and incapable of salvation.
Paul and Barnabas told of signs and wonders that God had done among the gentiles. The experience of God’s working in the lives of people previously excluded from the church was persuasive confirmation of the new vision.
After hearing the testimony of those who had been working among the gentiles, James, perhaps the first Stated Clerk, gave an authoritative interpretation. He saw a continuity of the new vision with their roots in biblical Judaism. He gave weight to the words of Peter, “we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (15:11). James interpreted the prophet Amos (9:11-12) to say that God had always purposed the conversion of the Gentiles. Now the church had experienced what God had planned.
The early church accepted a new religious vision of what the church could be. That new vision forced them to confront the possibility of a new ethnic majority. If Jews were going to let gentiles into the church, and if the members of this church were to be drawn from the whole known world, then Jewish Christians would soon be a minority. We, white Americans, face the same sort of reality in our time.
Persons like myself have been used to thinking of Christianity as a Euro-American religion. We were those who sent white, Western, missionaries to convert people of other colors and cultures. Now the majority of Christians live outside the United States in the Southern Hemisphere. Now we are facing the reality that our own country, the United States of America, is well on the way to becoming a nation without a white, Euro-American majority population.
If our denomination is to survive and be a vital force in America it must become less mono-cultural. We need to keep our promises. A few years ago, we promised, proclaimed, that we would raise the percentage of racial/ethnic members of this denomination to 10% by 2005 and 20% by 2010. Right now we are hovering at about 6 % for all non-Anglos.
I was in Pennsylvania, being driven to a presbytery meeting near the center of the state. The driver, a presbytery executive, was asking my views on church growth and new church development and redevelopment. I was sharing some of the strategies that my friend John Chandler is using in two presbyteries in the synod of Southern California and Hawaii. I was waxing eloquent about the value of racial/ethnic diversity. He said, the only diversity we have here is whether you are an Irish Catholic or a Polish Catholic.
That is what people think reality is, but the world is changing. I’ve met Sudanese in Nebraska, and Hispanics in North Carolina. In the last decade, from 1990 to 2000, the population grew by 33 million, the largest census-to-census growth spurt in our history. That growth spurt evidenced far greater diversity in our population than before. The Hispanic population in the U.S. in now greater than the entire population of Canada. The African American population and people from many countries in Asia have grown as well.
Where I gladly live, in Los Angeles County, 59% of our residents speak a language other than English at home. There is now no majority ethnic group in California. By the middle of this century, there will be no majority ethnic group in America. What is already a reality on the coasts is rapidly becoming reality throughout the whole country. Yet only slightly more than 10% of Presbyterian congregations have membership reflecting this reality. Where we have diversity in our communities it turns out to be a blessing.
For example, in Salem, North Carolina, there is a church that has a beautiful colonial sanctuary, complete with brass chandeliers. The neighborhood is changing and the membership is down to 150 and falling. Downstairs in the basement, there is another congregation. It is the Church of the New Creation. It only has about 35 members. There were 45 in attendance the night I was there. Many were persons of color. There were children running all over – Guatemalan, Vietnamese, Indian, Anglo. Some of the adults were street people. Some seemed to be having mental or emotional difficulties. All were welcome to participate.
We were seated in a circle, with the elements of communion on a table at the center. The minister had to speak rather loudly since some people carried on their own conversations. All were welcomed in a very interactive service. We concluded the service by all coming forward and taking communion. Then we moved the chairs and tables and had a meal of rice and beans. After that, those who wanted to stay heard me speak.
Accepting the fact that there can be a new, non-Euro-American ethnic majority can be exhilarating for the church. It has been for the world church, since that first General Assembly in Jerusalem. It can be so for us in the United States of America as well.
That first General Assembly had to develop a new political compromise. Political has never been a bad word in my vocabulary. Political comes from the Latin word, polis, that means “people.” Wherever there are people, you need a polity, a set of agreements by which people will live together. That requires compromise. In the original Latin that means making a “mutual promise.” Compromise is a good word in Presbyterian vocabulary as well.
That first General Assembly in Jerusalem reached a political compromise. They decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and did not need to keep the Mosaic law in order to join the Christian church. Then, however, they asked the new converts to abstain from the features of Gentile life most abhorrent to Jews and Jewish Christians. They were asked to abstain from eating food that had been offered to idols (even though Paul indicated that the food was not unclean in itself).
So, new Gentile Christians were asked to accommodate to the sensitivities of Jewish Christians as a compromise, so that everyone could feel that their concerns were being heard. James concluded his authoritative interpretation of the situation by noting that this did not discredit the law of Moses. “Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Christians keep the spirit of the Mosaic law, the heart of which is grace, even when they do not keep the letter of it.
We Presbyterians know something about compromise. I have had a chance to observe that, and to remember our history, as I have traveled about.
I spent 3 days in eastern Pennsylvania in December. One of the churches where I spoke and answered questions was the Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church. It is celebrating its 275th anniversary.
When William Tennent was pastor there, in 1739, a great revival, now known as the “Great Awakening” was spreading across the colonies. The accent was on a personal experience of salvation. It was given momentum by the arrival and itineration of George Whitefield, a magnetic 24 year old preacher from England. In 1739, some 3,000 people turned out to hear Whitefield at Neshaminy despite its remote location. Whitefield’s own account of the occasion was that “in the midst of my Discourse, the Power of the Lord Jesus came upon me….The Hearers began to be melted down immediately, and cry much.”
William Tennent’s son, Gilbert, is well known in Presbyterian history. Gilbert Tennent was known in his own time as the catalyst for the first great division in the Presbyterian Church in 1741 between the New Side revivalists he represented and the Old Side traditionalists whom he scorned. His sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” was intemperate in the extreme. He called ministers who criticized the emotional excesses of the revivals “dead Dogs, that can’t bark,” “Pharisee-Teachers,” and those “who would learn others to swim, before he has learn’d it himself, and so is drowned in the Act, and dies like a Fool.”
The New Side revivalists invited people to leave churches when the preaching was not according to their liking. The New Side ministers would preach, without permission, in churches of other presbyteries than their own. The Old Side ministers were alarmed by the “censoriousness” and “itineracy” that were disruptive of congregational life and Presbyterian discipline. The tensions, in 1741, finally led to a division in the Synod of Philadelphia, and the creation of a New Side Synod of New York.
We might find this history discouraging and feel that it shows that Presbyterians have always been contentious and will probably continue to be. The good news is that even Presbyterians can and do change their minds. The same Gilbert Tennent, whose sermons, condemning his colleagues, precipitated the New Side/Old Side division in 1741, also took the lead in reuniting the divided body. Only 4 years later, in 1745, he was pastor of Second Church in Philadelphia in the heart of Old Side territory. He wrote an ecumenical tract expressing his concern for divisions among Christians and calling for union and cooperation. Gilbert Tennent was among those who worked for the reunion of Presbyterians that occurred in 1758 under the name of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia.
Both sides agreed to disregard the protestations made in 1741. Most importantly they agreed to incorporate the fundamental values of each side into their new mode of operation. This was compromise at its best.
They honored and incorporated into their common life the values of both sides. They asked candidates for the ministry not only to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but to give satisfaction as to what they called “experimental acquaintance with religion.” Everyone, therefore, was to give evidence not only of their knowledge, but of their piety.
The Neshaminy-Warwick Presbyterian Church is a vital, modern congregation, ministering to people as it has for 275 years. People come now for the same reason that people came to hear George Whitefield in 1739. They hear the gospel preached and are brought into relationship to God. They find spiritual nurture for themselves and their families. They come with all kinds of people and know themselves to be part of the one family of God, the body of Christ. Knowing how to fashion a political compromise has been a valuable part of Presbyterianism from our beginnings.
Our General Assemblies deal with issues similar to those at the first General Assembly in Jerusalem. At our best, we will affirm, with that first Assembly recorded in Acts, a new religious vision – the free grace of God’s love. We will welcome a new ethnic majority and realize that it can and will be a blessing. We will not fear diversity nor shun compromise, since this is the way Christians have lived together from New Testament times right through our American Presbyterian history. The Holy Spirit is still at work. We can look forward to the 214th General Assembly and the amazing work that God will continue to do in our presbyteries, our congregations, in this seminary, and in our individual lives.