The ‘Jerusalem method’ assures everyone wins

  • May 5, 2023

Many of us dislike going to meetings. Even more do we dread going to long meetings. For me, an hour and a half is the limit. Any longer and I may start looking for an excuse to sneak out the door.

From May 10 to 12, the First Reading at weekday Mass focuses on an extremely long meeting. However, because it was a meeting that had a profound effect on the future of the world, one should not have left early. It also appears that the participants in the meeting were thoroughly engaged. The participants were the leaders of the earliest Christian Church, and they left a model for a Christ-like way to hold a meeting.

The meeting is recounted in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles and is today referred to as the Council of Jerusalem. Only one item was on the agenda — whether newly baptized Gentiles had to adhere to the traditions of the people of Judah, that is, whether Christian men needed to be circumcised.

The issue was crucial. Should Christianity remain a Jewish sect with a high barrier to newcomers or should it be open to all? Choosing the latter option would open the possibility of Christianity having an enormous effect on the development of future societies, although no one knew that at the time.

Prior to the council “no small dissension and debate” took place in Antioch between Paul and Barnabas on one side and “certain individuals” on the other as to whether the non-circumcised could be saved. A delegation was sent to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders. On their way, they passed through the Phoenicia and Samaria where some Gentiles were converted to the new faith.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the delegation told of such conversions but met resistance from Pharisees who wanted to remain faithful to the traditions. When the Apostles and elders met, “much debate” ensued. Peter then spoke of the Holy Spirit being given to Gentiles as well as to Jewish Christians. It is not human traditions that save, he said, but “the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

Then Paul and Barnabas told of the conversion of Gentiles. Finally, James quoted the prophet Amos’ declaration that it had long been God’s plan to include Gentiles in the economy of salvation. James said he had decided not to set up barriers for those who were turning to God. That decision met “the consent of the whole Church.”

A delegation prepared to go to Antioch to announce this decision. The letter sent with them again stated the decision to include Gentiles in the holy Church was made unanimously. But not only was the decision a human one, it was one that “has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

The last step was for the delegation to announce the decision to the Church in Antioch where the people received it with much rejoicing.

Much in this account is worthy of note. This was no quickie Zoom meeting or even one run by Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead, extensive debate took place on the topic both prior to and during the council. Paul and Barnabas did not send a written request to the elders but made the lengthy journey, interacting with people and the Spirit as they travelled.

Nor was the decision democratic. It was announced by one of the elders; even so the Church approved it unanimously. The previous opposition appears to have disappeared, and the leaders cannot be said to have ignored the will of the people.

Further, the decision was made in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. It was not a display of human power but of prayer. How often do our Church meetings begin and perhaps end with a brief prayer but with little consultation with the Spirit as issues are discussed? For the leaders of the Council of Jerusalem to declare confidently that the decision seemed good to the Holy Spirit implies that it was made in an atmosphere permeated with prayer.

Finally, the decision was “received” by those whom it most affected. In this instance, they rejoiced. But what of cases where the reaction is negative? Is that not a call of the Spirit to reopen the debate until consensus is reached?

The Jerusalem method of discernment and decision avoids the polarization in Church and society which has become a plague today. It displayed mutual respect among people with sharply different views. And it ended not with winners and losers but with a consensus that produced rejoicing.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.) 

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