One of the prevailing myths of Christianity is that the Church was more or less of one mind until the Reformation. Like unto this, the Reformation myth is that the Scripture itself is a seamless garment, and it is bad form to point out or make anything of the contradictions or tensions within it.
However, neither myth will serve us well in addressing reality: the reality of our present tensions and disagreements. On the contrary, it is helpful to make use of the disagreements in the apostolic Church, attested to in Scripture, and hold them up as a mirror in which we may helpfully see our present controversies reflected, and take heart that the Church survived.
One can point to the tensions between Peter and Paul, or Paul and John Mark as obvious points of disagreement, leading to sharp words and separation in mission. (Paul does seem to have been at the center of a good bit of dissension, doesn’t he?)
Obviously the greatest controversy of those days concerned the place of Gentiles in the Church, and what was to be required of Gentile converts. After much ad hoc and informal argument and a few tussles, a Council was called. After hearing reports, and consultation, the Council reached a decision and issued a Communiqué: (1) Gentiles allowed; (2) circumcision not required; (3) a list of required moratoria on a number of practices, including eating meat offered to idols, enacted.
One might have thought that would settle it; but no. The Scripture attests that the circumcision party continued to demand more than the Council required. Saint Paul stood in strong opposition to the conservatives in this regard, in particular in his correspondence with the Galatians. But on the Council’s decision on food offered to idols, Paul took what might best be called a revisionist view when he wrote to the Corinthians. It really ought not be forbidden, he said, but in the interest of harmony why not oblige? Don’t let such unimportant things as food (you and I know they are unimportant) disrupt the Church.
This kind of accommodation was seen by others as both disrespectful of the Council, and really quite contrary to what that Council intended: that eating meat offered to idols was a serious matter, and no trifle. John the Divine may have had Paul or someone like him in mind when he excoriated the people in Pergamum for tolerating those among them who held “to the teaching of Balaam” and “ate food sacrificed to idols.”
And so the conflict went, until the issue of food offered to idols finally disappeared in a generally Pauline direction — although it seemed important at the time, in the long run it really wasn’t a core doctrine after all.
Does any of this sound familiar — I don’t mean from your knowledge of Scripture but from the current goings-on in the Anglican Communion? It seems that Councils (or Conferences) never have settled the dissension they are designed to address, at least not completely. There will still be hardliners at one extreme and progressives at the other.
But the good news is that the Church muddles through. The hot issues of each age do eventually burn themselves out, and the ashes are blown away by the wind of the Spirit.
Tobias Haller BSG