Day 78 – The Authority of the Church to Interpret Scripture

As we reach the end of Acts chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15 we see Paul’s first missionary journey coming to an end. Paul returns to Antioch and a controversy arises. As the text tells us, some of the recent converts believe that circumcision is still required of new converts.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

And we have a clue in the texts as to WHO IT WAS, who was teaching this. It was the Deacon Nicholas. Recall, Acts 6:

And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

A proselyte is an adult male convert to Judaism. He would have had to have been circumcised to convert. Now we see why we were told he was a proselyte from Antioch. One can understand why he would insist on continued adherence to this law.

But one can also understand why the requirement of circumcision would in most cases be a deterrent to converts. Paul takes the position that circumcision in no longer required under the New Covenant. But notice, even though Paul was made an Apostle by the risen Christ, even though he speaks with great eloquence and passion and with the Holy Spirit and he has been converting people wherever he goes, he cannot resolve this controversy.

So what does Paul do?

To understand what happens next (in Acts 15) we must flashback to Matthew 18, when Jesus taught the Apostles what to do if they had a dispute about doctrine:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18* Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This is exactly what Paul and Barnabas do!

Nicholas is a brother – he is a deacon – and he has sinned against them – he is teaching something different than Paul and Barnabas. But they cannot agree. So what do they do? They try to address it with two witnesses, Paul and Barnabas. But when they cannot solve it, what next? They take it to the Church! The Apostles assembled in Jerusalem.

Now we reach Acts 15 and can understand what is happening. Paul and Barnabas have come from Antioch (most likely with Nicolaus) to put the question of whether circumcision is still required under the new covenant to the Church assembled in council. Again, this clearly shows that from the outset there is a Church, it has hierarchy and authority.

Further, look at what happens. There is a heated debate and then Peter speaks,

Brethren, you know that in the early days God made 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, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But WE believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

Notice, when Peter speaks he does speak just for himself but rather he makes a decision for the entire Church and declares what the doctrine is!

After Peter speaks, “And all the assembly kept silence…” If anyone has ever been in the board room of company or charity, or in the military, etc, you can see what is happening here. All the VP’s, colonels, etc are debating the issue and at the end the CEO / General declares the decision he is making for the group / organization. Peter is the leader. Peter is in charge. He makes the decision and declares the doctrine thus fulfilling the end of Jesus’ charge in Matthew 18, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

What happens next is to be expected. The other Apostles next go about discussing HOW the decision will be implemented. Notice, when James speaks, he speaks for himself about practical, pastoral matters. James is pointing out that while circumcision is not required, it is still necessary for the gentiles to have good morals and move away from the trappings of paganism. The other Apostles agree to his plan and agree to send a letter and representatives announcing their decision.

The events of Acts 15 are known as The Council of Jerusalem and marks a pivotal event in the life of the early Church. This is the point in which Christianity leaves the nest of Judaism and sets out on its own. This is also the pattern that will be repeated over and over again in Church history. The Council of Nicea, The Council of Trent, Vatican II, etc, all of these are the same. A dispute arises among the faithful, the Church meets in council, debates the matter, makes a decision and declares it to the world. This is how the books of the Bible were finalized, how the Trinity was defined, etc. A point to note here, the Church does not create new things with these councils, it merely clarifies what was already there. So, with the Council of Jerusalem for example, it was always true that circumcision was no longer required but Nicolaus just couldn’t accept it. Peter’s decision does not change the old rule to new rule, rather he defines or fills in, that which was not previously explicit.

Finally, we must note, what ever happened to Nicolaus? The council makes his decision and he has a chance to accept it. Remember the end of Matthew 18, “…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” But it seems that Nicolaus refused to accept the decision of the council. That is probably why his name does not appear again after Acts 6. In protest, Nicolaus would go on to found his own sect of Christians that would be called by his name, The Nicolaitans.

If we jump ahead the the Book of Revelation it tells us what Jesus thinks of these first protesters,these first people who did not listen to the decision of his Church. In Revelation, Jesus reveals to the Apostle John:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false; I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

Notice, Jesus says that he hates the WORKS of the Nicolaitans because they did not hear what the [Holy] Spirit said to the Church. This confirms what Jesus has said before. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church and therefore what the Church says is bound in Heaven because it comes from Heaven in the first place. We also see at work here the great Christian truth, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Jesus doesn’t hate the Nicolaitans themselves but he refuses to accept their actions.

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6 Responses to Day 78 – The Authority of the Church to Interpret Scripture

  1. Jon musso says:

    Thank dave again for your interpretation! The gift your talking about hear are historical event, binding and loosing back in the apostolic era no longer needed in the way your using them to see the spirit this way, again with all due respect, and I mean is a disservice to the work of Jesus christ on the cross! To see no change from the apostolic age and now is to much christian and to little christocentric. I think this is where the church has it wrong, in my opinion. To see the gifts this way or the church I think misses the point God bless

    • Thanks. I would just point out that most of what you believe – the Nature of Christ as God and Man, the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit – these and many other questions were answered when persons such as Nicholas taught error and the Church responded by meeting in council. For 1500 years after the Apostolic era the Church used the same process to repeatedly settle questions of theology and practice. There were 18 councils before the Protestant Reformation. You probably believe 95% of what was taught in those 18 councils. Christianity today is what it is because of this process – described and instituted by Christ in Matthew 18, first implemented in Acts 15 and a historical reality.

      • Jon musso says:

        Thanks again I have a little different perspective! The implications on the trinity, the implications of the church, the implications of the cross, we just see a little different! I see the cross as the center of the rest of my theology, I don’t want to put words in your mouth so please correct me, but I’m assuming you have a different center of your theology!

  2. Jon musso says:

    Please don’t take my comment as disrespect Im just asking again I know you believe, but just want to understand your supposition better!

    • It really just depends on what you mean by “Center”. Within the Catholic Church there are many “centers”. Some people have a great devotion to the Passion of Jesus. Some have devotion to the Cross. Some Catholics have devotion to “the sacred heart of Jesus” – which is manner of saying you want to emulate him in your daily life. Some have a devotion to the “divine mercy”, which is a way of saying you focus on the understanding of yourself as a sinner and a need for forgiveness. B/c of our busy schedule we split our time between 2 Churches where we live. One has a devotion to Christ as the Good Shepherd and styles everything in the context of applying the gospel to our lives and Christ’s forgiveness. the other has a great devotion to Christ as God and King and styles everything in a manner of being humble and giving true devout worship to God. What is beautiful about these 2 churches in that they are both Catholic. They don’t preach different Gospels they preach the same Gospel in to different styles.

      But also I think as a matter or fact the other center of Catholicism is the Eucharist. When the priest says the words of institution over the bread and wine its substance is transformed into the Real Presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ and into his glorified Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist has been called the “Summit and Substance” of the Christian faith. it is where theory and talk and prayer and works and faith intersect. It is the Lord, who humbles himself again to “eat this Passover supper with us.”

      • Jon musso says:

        That it! You nailed my issue with the Catholic Church and where we part ways! I think your a devoted catholic, who loves the catholic faith! I don’t love the Protestant faith to be fair I don’t really care if your catholic Protestant! Hear the true essence of my faith, jesus lived a perfect life, he died a painful death and he was resurrected from the dead! Because he died and was resurrected I know longer have to live to a standard i can’t, but I connect to him through faith in the living breath resurrected savior! Paul says this when he says I call it all lost to know the savior power of Jesus christ! That my only hope! Not a church, not a pope, not a sacrament! My hope is when I connected to the christ I will stand in front of God with shield of grace in the blood of the lamb! You remove the blood of Christ Im going to hell, he removes my stain! Praise to the king!

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