From Jerusalem to Vancouver: The Pharisees Strike Back

There is “no small dissension and debate”(Acts. 15.2) in the Anglican Church of Canada as we approach the General Synod in a few weeks. And there is nothing surprising about that, since the very first synod of the church was occasioned by similar dissension and debate. In fact, without such dissension there would have been no need to convene the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. However, while the Acts of the Apostles tells us that there was consensus and unanimity (15.22, 25) at the end of that first synod of the church, it is clear that there will be no such unanimity, consensus or unity at the conclusion of the 42nd Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.

So when I read Bishop Joey Royal’s article, “Conservative Voices on Same-Sex Marriage in Canada” , somehow the Jerusalem Council came to mind. You see, Royal’s argument would have flowed easily off of the tongues of the Christian Pharisees who were the “conservatives” whose agitations occasioned that synod in the first place. If you haven’t read Bishop Royal’s piece yet, there are two reasons why you should do so before reading my response. First, it is only fair to read for yourself what I am criticizing. Second, my critique only makes sense if you have seen the way in which the bishop mounts his argument.

Let’s imagine what would have happened if there was no unanimity at the Jerusalem Council, and one of the leaders of the “conservative” faction (Royal’s self-description) wrote a pastoral letter to his followers. It might have sounded something like this.

It is clear that the fellowship of the Way has changed in fundamental ways. Our church has increasingly embraced the most progressive elements of Gentile culture.

What is surprising is not that the church has been impacted by culture, but how quickly traditional beliefs have been swept away and replaced by revisionist alternatives. This has resulted in deep fissures and enduring division in the church. The momentum seems to be on the side of revisionists, as evidenced by the widespread embrace of uncircumcised Gentiles in the church. That particular issue was the big one on the agenda in Jerusalem, but I cannot help but see this entire process as a misguided attempt to overturn the consensus of our messianic movement. Ignoring the voices of our departed elders in the faith represents a failure to take seriously God’s Word given in Torah and mediated through our revered Jewish traditions. Let’s be clear: nowhere in the Torah – Nowhere! – do we ever read that Gentiles can be welcomed into the covenant apart from circumcision.

This moment in the life of our church is no mere provincial squabble; it is a full-blown crisis, and one which will impact not only the church in Judea but also the worldwide mission of the gospel. Most worrisome is how we got here. The “debate” which led us to this unorthodox inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles was hardly a debate at all, but rather a question-begging testimony time, followed by a unilateral apostolic decision by James buttressed by pastoral pronouncements given in the narcotizing language of inclusivity. Fidelity to Torah, and thereby to the God of Torah, was thrown out the window in a moment of unreflective “spiritual” enthusiasm.

While the presenting issue was the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles, it is not the only issue, nor is it the fundamental one. Inclusion in the covenant without circumcision, like other distortions of Christian teaching, arises from a rejection of scriptural authority. Of course, revisionists would not describe it that way and, to be fair, their rejection is not a wholesale rejection of the entire scriptures. It is rather an incremental, partial rejection – choosing this bit over that bit, bending the meaning of this verse, pitting one tradition against another, reinterpreting a passage here and there. At the Council James brought out a quote from Amos (9.11,12) about the inclusion of Gentiles as if this settled the issue. But no one was arguing about whether Gentiles could be part of the movement of Messiah Jesus! The issue was whether they would, like all Gentiles before them, be required to submit to the sign of the covenant – circumcision. Amos says nothing on this question! James was engaging in a hermeneutical acrobatics that will have the effect of destabilizing any authoritative use of the Torah.

When fellow Christians visit our fellowships for the first time, I often tell them that in Judea we “speak Torah.” When we talk about our Christian faith, or seek to understand God’s will, we look to Torah to discipline our speech and give coherency to our ideas. Of course, for this approach to make any sense at all, we have to assume that the Torah is God’s Word written, that it is fundamentally different from other books, that the Holy Spirit uses it to “read us” and bring to us words of judgment and truth, and that Jesus Christ is the centre on which all things converge. Such a theologically thick account of revelation sits uneasily with contemporary efforts to accommodate Scripture to culturally-defined norms of belief and behavior.

A number of us are writing series of letters to the churches as an attempt to return us to the scriptural source of our faith. The theological vision undergirding these letters is conservative in the sense of trying to conserve the scriptural moorings of our messianic movement, lest it continue to float aimlessly on the seas of cultural change.

Now I suggest that any self-respecting Judean Christian of the Pharisee sect could have written a letter such as the one I here imagine. And you will notice that it is pretty much all in the language of Bishop Royal, who is representative of the conservative side of this debate.

After citing Paul’s admonishment that we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Royal poses this crucial question regarding the changing of the marriage canon: “will this decision help the unity of the church or harm it?” His Pharisaic predecessors would have replied, “In the case of allowing uncircumcised Gentiles full admission into the church, the answer is clearly the latter ….” And in terms of the traditions of Judaism they had the Torah on their side. Yet, the Jerusalem Council listened to the stories of what the Spirit was doing amongst the uncircumcised, discerned that this was the movement of God and the fulfillment of the promises of Israel, and made the bold, courageous and radically innovative move of welcoming those whom they had before dismissed as unclean. Every Gentile Christian in the Anglican Church of Canada should thank God that the Jerusalem Council disagreed with that ancient exclusionary theology and welcomed us into the faith without the central Torah stipulation of circumcision.

That Bishop Royal’s argument  resonates so well with the conservative and pharisaic voices at the Jerusalem Council should give us pause. His claim to be biblical today rings as hollow as the claims of the conservatives at that first synod so long ago. We have seen how the Spirit moved at the first synod of the church. I pray that the same Spirit will move so mightily again at the 42nd Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. Christian pharisaism was overcome in Acts 15. Let’s not tolerate its revival in our midst today.

Note: For a fuller argument on how the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is instructive for how the church deals with controversial issues such as LGBTQ+ inclusion see Sylvia Keesmaat’s article, “Welcoming the Gentiles.”

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

8 Responses to “From Jerusalem to Vancouver: The Pharisees Strike Back”

  1. Pamela Thomson

    Brilliant. Thank you. Bless you.

    Reply
  2. Susan Spicer

    Yes, thank you Brian. Reading through the book of Acts, it becomes clear that pentecost comes not once, but over and over again among the believers and I think Acts 15 was a significant test of their capacity to trust the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues to reveal to truth as Jesus promised she would.

    Reply
  3. Carolyn Herold

    The Holy Spirit is a wild presence that disrupts the status quo. She opens the throats of prophets who in turn step on the toes of the self-righteous clinging to hollow traditions.

    Reply
  4. Glen Taylor

    Thanks, Brian. But it is frankly absurd to compare the gathering of so small a percentage of the church (.025% )to the Jerusalem Council! I take your point, though, and concede that we might perhaps want to reconsider the issue if another event like the Jerusalem Council were to meet. For that to happen, not only would the Council need to be a global, ecumenical gathering, but it would need to be one that received irrefutable testimony of a miraculous vision, like Peter’s, repeated three times over and supported by the testimony of (capital-m type) Miracles by other Apostles. But even so, the analogy would not hold, since, unlike gay marriage, the OT prophesied Gentile inclusion. And of course,—something you didn’t mention—that same Council stipulated “avoidance of sexual immorality!” So, may I say to those like yourself who believe this is of God (and if so, He must have changed his mind, given the clear testimony of Scripture), pray for repeated miraculous visions to this General Synod and all others in the years to come

    Reply
    • Sylvia Keesmaat

      Brian isn’t suggesting that the gatherings are parallel. Rather, this is a template for how decision-making can happen in the church. And while there certainly were miracles in Acts leading up to this, none of the apostles who argue for inclusion of the Gentiles appeal to such miracles. Rather, Peter appeals to the fact that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles and cleansed their hearts by faith (Acts 15.9). Then Barnabas and Paul told of the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. We don’t know what these signs and wonders were that happened among the Gentiles, so there is no way to say that they are any different than the way that God is working in the lives of LGBTQ+ Christians today, who also testify to the work of God in their lives. And, of course, while the OT did predict the inclusion of Gentiles, it also indicated pretty clearly that they had to be circumcised. That’s precisely why there was “much debate” (Acts 15.7). This was no straightforward decision based on a miracle and the clear teaching of Scripture. And James did not appeal to Peter’s miraculous vision, he just said that Peter’s testimony agreed with what the Scriptures said about the Gentiles seeking the Lord, nicely avoiding the central question of whether they needed to be circumcised. What this Synod needs to do, therefore, is listen to the stories of the Holy Spirit acting in the lives of LGBTQ+ Christians. And based on those stories decide whether God has given them the Holy Spirit even in their marriage relationships. You are right that they were asked to avoid sexual immorality. However, just assuming that same-sex marriage is immoral begs the question we are trying to discern. Many, many Christians would argue that in a sexually promiscuous culture such as our own (and let’s be clear, such promiscuity is present in all sexual orientations), marriage is a covenantally faithful way of ordering our sexual lives. Quite frankly, anyone who wants to practice faithful marriage relationships provides a challenge to the ethos of consumption that shapes most people’s sexuality these days.

      Reply
  5. Bp. Joey Royal

    Brian,

    Thanks for your engagement with my piece. I’m not sure I’ve been called a Pharisee before in public, but there’s a first time for everything! Although growing up in so-called “fundamentalist” churches I do recall many a sermon in which the Pharisees were the bad guys who were made to represent this or that person or group. It used to be “works righteousness” that the Pharisees were guilty of, but judging from your piece it appears the new Pharisaic sin is failing to be sufficiently inclusive.

    I won’t rehearse the reasons I find your use of Acts 15 unpersuasive in the context of same-sex marriage, but Christopher Seitz gives a convincing (to my mind) account of why the “spirit discernment into new truth” interpretation is wrong-headed. You can read Seitz’s piece here if you’re interested: (https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/06/12/evaluating-this-holy-estate-misunderstanding-acts-15/).

    The last couple lines of your piece caught my eye: “Christian pharisaism was overcome in Acts 15. Let’s not tolerate its revival in our midst today.”

    I assume by “Christian pharisaism” you are referring to a position, driven by quite traditional readings of biblical texts, which opposes same-sex marriage in the church. If that’s the case, then who is not a “Christian Pharisee”? It would seem, by your definition, the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived fall into that category. Certainly most of the churches in the Anglican Communion are full to the brim with “Christian Pharisees.” Roman Catholics and Pentecostals too. That’s a lot of Pharisees out there in desperate need of some enlightenment. It also calls into question your claim that this was “overcome” in Acts 15. I may be misunderstanding you, since the link you make between the Jerusalem Council and General Synod is not entirely clear to me.

    Lastly, your final call to “not tolerate” the revival of “Christian pharisaism” is a bold way to leave me hanging. What do you mean by this call? Are you suggesting I should not be permitted to teach a traditional doctrine of marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada? Or are you simply exhorting people to vote in favour of canon change at General Synod? Fair enough, but a call to “not tolerate” seems a rather, well, intolerant way of putting that.

    I’ll leave it at that for now.

    Grace and peace.

    +Joey

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Bishop Joey. Thanks for engaging my article. Whether the Acts 15 analogy is convincing or not has been fairly thoroughly discussed and I’m not going to rehearse the argument here. And the interchange between Glen Taylor and Sylvia Keesmaat in these comments has already gone there.

      But your point about my ill-advised phrase “not tolerate” is well taken. I do not mean that you should be prohibited from teaching a traditionalist perspective in the church, and I apologize for using language that suggested such a thing. It was an overstated way of exhorting people to support the change in the marriage canon. Again, I apologize for a moment where my rhetoric became intolerant. Thanks for calling me on that.

      Reply
  6. Bp. Joey Royal

    Brian,

    I appreciate your response. This stuff matters, so a little combativeness here and there isn’t a bad thing! My own rhetoric has run away on me once or twice too.

    On an unrelated note, I owe you a thanks that’s been about 15 years in the making. During a time of struggle in my own faith, your book “Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be” showed me what a fearless and intelligent Christian faith could look like, and in the process helped me to connect some dots. You write well, which is gift to the body of Christ. Speaking of which, I have a copy of your and Sylvia’s new Romans book, which I look forward to reading this summer.

    I wish you every blessing in Christ, and I hope that at General Synod and beyond we will all remain bound in Christ’s love despite our differences. In the meantime, let’s continue a robust public debate.

    In Christ,

    +Joey

    Reply

Leave a Reply