Discerning the Gospel: Before Acts 15 & Beyond

It seems there was a bit of confusion and concern about proposing communal discernment.  And that’s OK, it is a difficult thing to understand and from what I can tell it is even less often practiced.  On top of all of this are the countless instances of spiritual abuse, if not outright physical and sexual abuse, committed by churches that destroyes the trust and faith necessary for such discernments.

But without being idealistic, unrealistic, harsh or ignorant of those who have suffered such abuse, I think communal discernments within the church is what Jesus and the scriptures model.
Below is an exerpt from Prodigal Christianity outlining this process with reference to the Jerusalem council (it comes from the signpost concerning witness). Below that is a comment that I posted on Homebrewed Christianity (“Jesus was a Cowboy without a Community”), responding to Jesus’ supposed opposition to such discernments.

Discerning the Kingdom: The Last Piece

 

Living as witnesses assumes that God is already at work and that what we need to do is discern this work by entering into each situation together, inviting one another into the presence of Christ. Signposts 2 (Missio Dei) and 3 (Incarnation) make possible our following signpost 4 (Witness) into post-Christendom (signpost 1).  Because we assume God is at work, we can wait patiently, listen, pray, inhabit Scripture, and discern the Spirit in each situation. But we will not know what to say or do prior to discerning what God is doing. Only through discernment can we participate in God’s kingdom work, thereby becoming the vehicle for the divine in-breaking Christ to do his work in and among us. This is the prodigal nature of all witness.

 

Acts 10–15 give us an example of this type of kingdom discernment. In Acts 10, Cornelius receives an angelic vision telling him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision of his own that enables him to receive the Gentile visitors. But Peter does not immediately understand the meaning of his vision and is still pondering it when the men from Cornelius arrive (v. 17). The Spirit tells him to go down and meet the men and go with them (v. 19). Cornelius and Peter are both tending to the Spirit and discerning it, and because of this, the Spirit begins to take them on a journey that will change the entire church. At Cornelius’s house, the first words out of Peter’s mouth confirm that he feels out of his element but is nonetheless committed to discerning God’s work there (v. 28). Peter then begins a “presentation” of the gospel (although not as we usually think of it; this is the subject of signpost 6), and while he is still speaking, the Spirit comes onto all who are listening. They immediately begin to speak in tongues, astonishing all who are present (vv. 44–46).

 

This passage seems to back up the idea that all we need to do is present the gospel, that is, tell the story of Jesus so that lives will be changed. But this is not the end of the story. A bit later, after the Gentiles had been part of the church for a while, some began to teach that although it was good and fine that God welcomed the Gentiles, all male Gentiles still needed to be circumcised (i.e., they still needed to follow the Jewish laws). In Acts 15, in what is often called the Jerusalem Council, the church gathered to discern together God’s work among the Gentiles. They eventually discerned that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, a new understanding that developed over time and in community. It came to them through prayer, listening to each other, and totally submitting to the Spirit’s work among them.

 

After much discussion, Peter rose and began witnessing to the group about what happened to Cornelius, reminding everyone that “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us” (15:8 ESV; emphasis added). After this, James turned to the witness of the scriptures about how God would allow the Gentiles to call God by God’s own name (15:15), concluding that it was as Gentiles, not as Jewish converts, that God was welcoming them. In light of these witnesses (the witness of Peter, the Holy Spirit, and scripture) the council writes a letter to the whole church and announces its communal discernment with the words: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28 ESV). The unity of Gentiles and Jews, the great work of God unifying all people in Christ, was being displayed before everyone. This was witness at its finest.

 

Like those days with Peter and Cornelius, witness today entails regularly discerning the kingdom among us and what God is saying and has said in Scripture. It will entail a community of people where God is working. This is the prodigal journey we must travel.

This is just a rough sketch thrown up as a response to “Jesus was a Cowboy without a Community”:

… Jesus was not some maverick cowboy, lone-ranger that we can’t imitate in the communities we live in.  Rather Jesus was, is, and will be in community, and not just in the Trinity. Certainly in his earthly ministry he never did anything outside the will of the Father empowered by the Spirit, something that we are also called to do (“thy will be done, on earth…”).  Also, I think that Jesus did substantially stand with the traditions of Israel, and drew liberally not only from the prophetic traditions, but also the priestly and kingly tradition.  Certainly the continuity of tradition he was offering was not well received by counter-traditions, but that does not mean we throw out tradition or community.

That Jesus was committed to communal discernment, especially with those that would disagree with him, is that he in no way forced or coerced the truth of his discernment (i.e. his interpretation of the Kingdom of God), but submitted even unto death at the hands of those who disagreed. This is the ultimate commitment to non-violent discernment (he did not use force to proved his point, nor did merely abandon those that disagreed/opposed him).

Not only this, but rather than a post-resurrection so of force (an no, not even Revelation counts as a show of force, but that is a different conversation), Jesus entrusted the truth of the Kingdom within a community of disciples.

In all these way I think we should be like Jesus, and show live like Jesus. I don’t think we should drive a wedge between what we can/should do and what Jesus did.