The Unity of the Church Depends on Sameness, Not Difference (Fri. May 19)

Christ is risen!

The word of the day is “same.” When it comes to what people believe, there are more allegations than truths, more falsehoods than realities, and more suppositions than conclusions based on evidence. Today, in our reading of Acts 15:5-34, we hear Peter’s appeal for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church and the final decision of the church leaders in Jerusalem on the matter. Peter says, “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they [the Gentiles]” (OSB vs. 11).

To prove an assertion, we must give warrants for it. The warrant is the connection between a truth claim and the evidence that supports it. A close reading of Peter’s testimony before the Jewish Council finds that it revolves around one major contention: the Gentiles are the same as the Jews when it comes to the essential matters that qualify them for membership in the fellowship of faith.

The Warrants for the Inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church

What are the warrants for this claim? First, Peter notes that the Gentiles believed the preaching of the Gospel that came “from his mouth” (vs. 7). To question the faith of the Gentiles would be to doubt the faith of their teacher. But Peter argues that if he taught them, what the Gentiles believe is the same thing as the Jewish Christians learned from him.

Second, Peter states that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit endorsed the beliefs of the Gentiles. He asserts that the Holy Spirit filled the uncircumcised just as He filled the circumcised believers at Pentecost and other occasions (Acts 4:31, 8:17). To deny that the Spirit given to the Gentiles was not the same as the Holy Spirit given to the Jewish believers would be to deny the unity of the Holy Spirit. But Peter demonstrates that the Gentiles and Jewish Christ share the same Spirit.

Third, the apostle states that the hearts of the Gentiles were purified by faith. Peter had already said that God who sees into the heart had perceived the heartfelt faith of the Gentiles. The gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Gentiles has proved it. But Peter goes on to contend that this faith produces purity.  Those who opposed the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church were insisting on the outward purity of the Law of Moses, the keeping of the rules of “clean” and “unclean.” The uncircumcised Gentiles did not share, nor did they need this kind of purity. Peter proves that what the believing Gentiles did share with the Jewish faithful was the purity that comes from the cleansing of the heart by repentance and faith.

Thus, it was not just the evidence of belief in Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the purity that the Holy Spirit engenders that made Peter’s case. It was that they shared these same gifts of grace as the Jewish Christians.

The Holy Spirit Made No Distinction

What conclusion did Peter draw from these warrants? Peter argued that the Holy Spirit “made no distinction between them and us…” (OSB vs. 9). And again, he contended that “we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (OSB Acts 15:1). This assertion followed from the assumption that salvation depends on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, grace that is accepted by faith (vs. 11). The apostle’s conclusion was that the Gentiles should be received into the communion of faith without putting requirements on their membership in the fellowship of faith that the Jews have to bear (OSB vs. 10).

With that, Peter silenced the opponents of the Gentile mission. And Paul and Barnabas related the “miracles and wonders” that God performed through their ministry to the Gentiles. Again, the opposition was silent.

Finally, James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, agreed with Peter. He quoted the Septuagint (LXX) version of the prophecy of Amos to say that God had planned to restore the “tabernacle of David,” that is, David’s legacy, “so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even the Gentiles…” (OSB vs. 16-17). But in order not to upset the Jewish Christians, James laid down minimum requirements for the reception of Gentiles into the church.

For Reflection

Some might say that the unity of the church depends on the acceptance of differences. We must overlook and perhaps “celebrate” the multiple beliefs and practices of the separated “denominations,” that is, divisions of Christianity.

However, our reading demonstrates that what kept the body of believers from splitting into two churches–the Jewish Christian and Gentile churches–was not the toleration of differences in the basics of the faith.

About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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