Since my last article on the difference between heresy and error I’ve had some push back. The question has come “how do we decide if it’s error or heresy?” It’s been suggested that the risk is that it becomes my opinion against someone else’s. Don’t worry though because my Presbyterian friends have offered a solution. What we need are church courts set up to try cases of heresy and come to a judgement. Some denominations have that kind of thing. However, that still leaves us with a problem -what if denominations disagree? Perhaps what we need is an equivalent of the great ecumenical councils of the early church.
That all sounds well and good until we ask “on what Scriptural basis are such courts and councils set up?” The usual answer is that the basis for this is found with the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. Now, we have all grown up assuming that this is the prototype for either ecumenical councils, denominational courts or both but the conversation got me looking again and I’m not so sure.
The first clue is this, the problem in Acts 15 originates in Judea. There is a geographical source the problem. There are people coming from Judea who are stirring up controversy over circumcision in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas respond and seek to counter the problem but it still rumbles on.So, what does the church do? The answer is that it sends Paul and Barnabas down to Jerusalem. In other words, they go to the place where the root cause of the problem is.
The second clue is that they go to talk to the apostles and elders. This should get us asking “why apostles and elders?” There is nothing to suggest in the NT that this was a recognised grouping with shared authority. Furthermore, the point is that they are going to talk to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. Despite our temptation to read stuff back into the text, this is not a gathering of all the churches, it is the church at Antioch sending representatives to the church at Jerusalem. It makes sense for those in Antioch to seek the ruling of the apostles given their foundational authority.
There are two possibilities here. First of all, it is possible that the church in Antioch don’t have elders yet. This is possible because whilst prophets and teachers are mentioned in Acts 13, elders are not. It may be that this fledgling church plant has not yet tested and approved men as having the qualifications and gifting necessary. When we planted Nueva Vida, it was a little while before a plurality of leaders who qualified was established. So, in the early days, if there were an issue, it was natural for the congregation to come to me and to the Bearwood Chapel elders to get our take on things.
Note that absence of elders is not acceptable over the long term so Paul works with Timothy and Titus to ensure that elders are appointed in local churches. However, even if elders were appointed, you can of course see the scenario where the leaders of one church would go to the leaders of another church and say “what is going on.” I’ve personally done it when we’ve had people turning up from other churches creating issues. The issue would be even more important if there was a relationship between the churches where one was planted out of the other.
Now look at what happens in Jerusalem. James as an elder seems to chair the meeting and what he does is to hear from the apostles including Paul. This is in the context of people in Jerusalem pushing for their Judaizing requirements to be enforced on Antioch. But we don’t seem to see a disagreement between either the apostles or the elders that needs arbitrating. Rather, James’ response to Paul and Barnabas seems to be more along the lines of “you are right, we agree -and so does Peter, the Apostle). This is significant because we know from Galatians 2 that those stirring up trouble were at least claiming to be from and acting under James’ authority and this had unnerved Peter. So whatever views James had endorsed in the past, he now makes it abundantly clear that he does not endorse the position of the Judaizers – quite the opposite. In fact the decision made and the letter dictated was done as much for the benefit and hearing of those pushing circumcision from within the Jerusalem church. It is in effect a matter of internal church discipline for them.
Finally look at the letter that goes out. James reminds the recipients of what Scripture teaches and says “we won’t be attempting to bind you to anything more than that.”
In other words, what happens in Acts 15 reminds us that the arbiter we must come to is the court of Scripture. It’s what God’s word says that matters and the responsibility of elders within the local church is to discern and to teach what God’s Word says. Elders have no authority to impose their own personal positions onto other churches. We do have the responsibility as brothers in Christ to encourage one another back to Scripture.
The question of heresy is decided not by the votes of a denominational court or even an ecumenical council as helpful as one might be but by the standard of Scripture.