Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Rethinking Church Government, and it’s Fruit
This morning, we come to a passage that uniquely reminds us of the great blessing church government can be to Christians—and, this is coming off the heels of a similar message from last week. Last week, we learned about the actual event and circumstances of the Jerusalem council in the first half of chapter 15. This week, we’re narrowing into the immediate fruit of that council.
And, I emphasize that the council really did bear fruit—good, healthy fruit of unity and salvation and joy in the greater church. You see it quite clearly, there, in verse 31: “and when [the church in Antioch] read [the letter], they rejoiced because of its encouragement”. We see the same thing in verse 5 of chapter 16, there. As Paul brought word of the council’s decision to regions beyond Antioch, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily”. That’s immediate fruit, growing out of the Jerusalem council—might I say, church government.
I said it last week, and I’ll say it again this week. People today hardly think of church government and synods and councils serving as the source of unity and fruit in the church. What I usually hear on the street is something along these lines—“Those clergymen, and those denominations, always deliberating over stuff nobody cares about and dividing the church! The church would be much more unified and fruitful without those! I want Christ, not creeds”. That’s the popular sentiment of our day, today.
Yet when we turn to the New Testament, we see the exact opposite. We see that when Paul and the church have an issue that they need to be resolved, (1) they don’t just “agree to disagree”, and (2) they do appeal to a higher court in the church. They go to Jerusalem, and convene with the church leaders there, to settle the matter. And, in this case, that brought great encouragement, unity, and growth (as we’ll look more closely at today). I made reference to a saying from the reformation era that I think holds true to the Bible, even this chapter in Acts 15. Church government is not necessary for the being of the church, but for the well-being of the church. The being, or existence, of the church is solid, firm, established upon God’s command and Christ’s blood. The well-being of the church, as God would have it, is greatly assisted by Biblical, godly church government.
A Fresh Look, to see Fresh Fruit
So, I have three tasks for us to complete this morning. First, I want to look at the matter of church government, and councils, in a fresh way. In some ways, it’ll be review from last week. But, I’ll take a different angle at it, just so it’s not a one-to-one repeater of last week. After that fresh look on councils and governance, we’ll then consider two kinds of fruit that came out of this council in Jerusalem. We’ll see those in the verses we just read this morning. So—(1) a fresh look at councils and governance, and then (2) two kinds of fruit that came out of this particular council in Jerusalem.
The Role of Church Government
So, let’s take a quick jaunt back to the Jerusalem council, as we considered it last week. In a word—Paul had just finished up his first missionary journey, and he returned with Barnabas back to his home church in Antioch. It would have been a wonderful return—I can imagine he felt loved and cared for by the saints there, and they were no doubt encouraged by all the stories he brought home to them. Then Acts 15 sets the stage for the Jerusalem council by telling us that Paul’s joyful and happy return home to his beloved saints in Antioch was interrupted by “some men [who] came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”. In other words, there were certain Jews who really got tripped up at the thought of gentiles receiving their Messiah, their promises, and their God without ever receiving their circumcision and law according to Moses. Ever since the days of Abraham and Moses, the blessings of Israel’s God could only be received by joining Israel through circumcision and adherence to the law of Moses.
Yet, Christ had revealed to Paul and Barnabas that things had changed. As Paul makes incredibly clear in Galatians—a letter written at the time of this controversy—the blessings of Christ are received through faith alone, not through any works of the law. Paul says in Galatians 5:3,
3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
Paul was adamant about this, and wouldn’t back down. He drew a clear, dividing line between himself and these Jews—and, he didn’t say “see ya, time to start a new church”. He didn’t give up. He sought to strengthen the church by going to the church’s government at that time, seated in Jerusalem. As we saw last week, the divided church quickly became a deliberating church.
The church deliberated, and two particular testimonies were brought forth to the table for consideration. First, the apostolic witness. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas opened the discussion by simply telling the church in Jerusalem what Jesus had revealed to them. You could say that Acts 10–14 all set us up for this moment in the Jerusalem council, where Peter and Paul report on the events in those chapters where Jesus uniquely revealed to them his intention for the gentiles.
Then, after this testimony, James stands up. James didn’t witness these things—he was one of the guys asking, “could these things really be happening?”. Yet, he provides testimony to the affirmative. He provides God’s word—the final say, the final authority in every and all church councils (even this one, in a room full of apostles!). James quotes Amos 9, where God predicted a day when the Gentiles would be called by God’s name as Gentiles (not as gentile proselytes into Israel, through circumcision).
The Fresh Angle: Our Own Church's Constitution
Now, I said I would provide a fresh angle into all this for us, this morning. I want to do that by reminding us that the constitution of this church—our confessions, catechisms, and our book of church order—support what we see in Acts. For us, orderly and well-kept Presbyterians, we believe that God’s word is our authoritative rule of faith and that all human documents and councils can err. However, for the “well-being” of this church, we have biblical government and confessions to facilitate our maturity and growth.
I’m going to do something that I rarely do in a sermon—I’m going to ask you to grab your hymnals and open up to page 866, and we’re going to read some of our confession (the Westminster Confession) together. I think it says what I’ve been saying, only more eloquently and concisely. There on page 866, you’ll see at the bottom, “Chapter 31, of Syonds and Councils”. Read through this with me.
1. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils: and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. (WCF, 31.1)
So, in other words, the government and councils of any church is intended “for the edification of the church”, and the councils should convene as they judge it “expedient for the good of the church”. In our passage, in acts, the church convened when they thought it expedient—when the gospel of God’s free grace was being challenged, when the unity was disrupted, and when a decision needed to be made.
You’ll also see, there, that “it belongs to the overseers and other rulers [e.g., pastors] of the particular churches” to convene in this manner. So in other words—the men who are shepherding actual churches, in the mire of actual people’s lives, are to be the ones convening and deliberating. This council work isn’t for the higher-up professionals who are in their offices and never meet with hurting souls. This is for those men who have been called to shepherd and are shepherding in one capacity or another.
It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word. (WCF 31.2)
So there, you see constant reference to the actual power invested in synods and councils—in church government. “which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.
"The Word... the Word... in his Word"—that’s the power at work, there. You even see that reference made in the first sentence, “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies”. It’s a ministry of the word, there. It’s not a magisterium, if you’re familiar with that Catholic doctrine which tends to keep Catholics from reading their Scriptures.
Now, you may be saying at this point—“Pastor Kling, it’s nice that you see church government as a ministry of the word to help us remain truthful to the Word, but don’t even the best governments fail?” Look at the next paragraph, paragraph 3—
All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. (WCF 31.3)
Our confession is just making the Word of God all the more central, here, isn’t it? The “rule of faith and practice” isn’t synods or councils, but the Word itself. Councils are to be used as a help in both.
This is the Jerusalem council, folks—and, it’s how we strive as Presbyterians to maintain our own church government. James brought the Word—the final rule of faith and practice—to bear into the discussion, and it was the final word. The whole council fell silent—and, they provided their ministerial insight as it pertained to the faith and practice of the church on the matter. These were men ordained by the Spirit to be ministers of the Word, and they were committed to the Word—to the faith and practice (the gospel and lifestyle) it required.
Specifically, they confirmed that the faith now, in Christ, required that the gentiles be included into God’s people without circumcision. Although, more than this, you see this council intimately concerned with the practice of how that faith would be carried out. To just let gentiles Christians be gentiles would be a scandal, in many ways, to the church’s unity. This was a delicate time in the church’s history—as Jews and gentiles were being brought into the faith. So, while they were freed from circumcision and the law of Moses, you see that James recommended that gentiles abstain from certain, particularly scandalous matters that would have caused a rift between the Jews and gentiles at this time. In chapter 15 verses 19–21, James singles out certain practices that dealt with blood, and things polluted by idols—gentile practices that Jews thought particularly unclean and sinful. Even though, in Christ, these things weren’t sinful (it’s okay to have a rare steak, every now and then), James is saying “for the unity of this church, abstain for a season until your Jewish brothers and sisters learn to accept you”. This is the church government working for the well-being of the church—her faith and her practice, here. The church was calling for a love and humility toward the brethren in the church.
By the way—I’ll just make this connection here, rather than bring it up later—Paul applied the same principle of love in our passage when he had Timothy circumcised in order to minister among Jews. You see reference to that in 16:3 of our passage. It’s actually a bit ironic, if you think about it. Timothy joined Paul at the precise moment when Paul was sent out to tell churches that circumcision isn’t necessary for salvation. Only, to join Paul in this endeavor, Paul had Timothy circumcised. In the gospel, wherein we have everything we need and more, we are free to give up freedoms for the freedoms of others. Timothy was circumcised, even though he didn’t need to be, so that he wouldn’t be a scandal to people who needed to learn that they are now freed from the law of circumcision. When we exercise our freedoms in Christ, we must take care to obey the greater law of love.
The greater point that I’m making, here, however, is that it is the privilege of church leaders to commend the church to such a faith and practice. It’s a ministery we need, as sheep who tend to wander.
A Personal Anecdote
When I was in seminary, I had the sad-yet-insightful opportunity to see two churches work their way through their own, devastating splits. One church was presbyterian—in our own denomination. The other church was a congregational, independent Baptist church. My Baptist friend was asked to be the new pastor of the Baptist church, as a last straw to see if the church could be restored. Meanwhile, I was aware of what was happening at my Presbyterian church. It was sad, on both accounts. While no church splits or divisions are exactly alike, I can say these two churches were going through very similar troubles. I can remember watching my friend struggle desperately to work through the problems in his independent church. Although, he had little to no outside help. Meanwhile, our presbyterian church had a team of godly, wise pastors from all over the Midwest helping, offering insight, and providing counsel. Long story short—our presbyterian church is now thriving and has been restored in wonderful ways. The Baptist church, left without the ministry of a regional church government, dissolved with unresolved and messy conflict.
Real people are involved in these matters, folks. Real people were cared for, and ministered to with the gospel in that presbyterian church—and real fruit came out of it. Biblical church government is necessary for the well-being of the church.
Now, let’s look directly at what we read this morning, to consider the immediate fruit of the Jerusalem council. I said there are two kinds of fruit that came out of the council. What are they?
The Fruit of the Jerusalem Council
We already touched on the first one, but I want to embellish it a bit. Wherever news of the council’s decision went, you see that it produced the fruit of joy and strength. Verse 31, “when [Antioch] read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement, and Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers”. Joy and encouragement, they were strengthened. Then chapter 16 verse 4, we see that the news strengthened the churches beyond Antioch in the faith.
Now, why would this news make a church rejoice, and give it strength? The answer, in some ways, is obvious. But let’s get really clear, here.
Fruit #1: Joy and Strength (in A Burden Lifted)
The church rejoiced and was strengthened, for one thing, because the council’s decision meant that a heavy burden was lifted off the gentile believers. Circumcision and the law of Moses really was a burden. That’s how Peter talks about it in his appeal to the council in Jerusalem—“God, who knows the heart, bore witness to [the gentile’s salvation] by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us… having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
Circumcision was a yoke—a burden. Jesus’s words come to mind, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–29). Jesus was originally saying this to Jews who were burdened by Moses, just as Peter alluded to. But in the early church, the Jews sought to put this yoke upon the Gentiles!
Imagine those moments of turmoil among the gentiles, just before hearing word concerning the council’s decision on the matter. You, a gentile, have received the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ after you heard the gospel preached. The Spirit and Word testified to your soul that Jesus is God, he’s risen and victorious, he shed his blood as the perfect sacrifice for your sins, and you’re in good fellowship with a God you knew nothing about 6 months ago. Your life is changed, new joys and affections and desires are awakened. Only—people are saying that “to really be saved, and to really be blessed by God, you need circumcision and to obey the law”. What a downer. I can only imagine how refreshing—how encouraging—it must have heard report of the Jerusalem council’s decision, that salvation is received by faith alone, as Jesus’s sacrifice was final and sufficient. That’s freeing, you know. It means you can serve God out of gratitude, not out of duty. That’s where the “rejoicing” came from in the church at Antioch. Works of gratitude are accompanied by joy. Works of duty are accompanied by fear and drudgery—or pride and arrogance. Christians were joyful, humble people—the Judaizers were not. God’s free grace is essential, here—and, it’s all the more essential that the church’s government upholds it in its ministry of the Word.
So the fruit of joy and strength came out of a burden lifted—the burden of Moses was lifted by the free grace of Jesus Christ. More than this, however, joy and strength came through a family that was granted to the gentiles. And, I really do mean a family—a joyful, warm, loving family. That was part of the fruit of this council.
More Joy and Strength (in a Family Granted)
I love the picture of Jewish pastors—even prophets such as Judas and Silas (15:32)—being sent from Jerusalem to encourage the gentiles in Antioch. These gentile believers didn’t just get a letter. They got a family—as gentiles, they received a new family with the Jews. Just as Judas and Silas “encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words”, spending “some time” with them (verse 33), so also they were “sent off in peace by the brothers” in Antioch. This is family—receiving and sending, encouraging, fellowshipping, strengthening, all in the name of the gospel. Later on in Ephesus, the gentile believers wept as they sent Paul on his journey, embracing him (Acts 20:37). Why did they do that? Because Paul was family—and not just family, but a source of strength and encouragement to them. Jesus’s family is a powerful force to be reckoned with.
So, the first fruit of the council is joy and strength—as word was going out through the representatives from Jerusalem, the gentiles saw a burden lifted, and a family granted for joy and strength.
What’s the second fruit of this council?
Fruit #2: Freedom in Mission
I’ll walk you through this in a few different ways, but the common theme in the rest of these observations is freedom. The council’s decision granted the gentile church freedom—and specifically, in her mission.
The council granted the gentiles freedom to pursue the church’s missions to the gentiles. When Paul and Barnabas get back to Antioch, they don’t “hunker down” for a few years of rest. They both get itching for another missionary crusade to the west. Verse 36, “after some dayas Paul said to Barnabas, ‘let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are”. Paul wanted to go back to those churches, where he was almost beaten to death, to make sure they’re doing well. He wanted to deliver word of the council’s decision—not doubt, the churches in those areas were plagued by the Judaizer heresy. Paul wanted to bring an authoritative word of freedom to them. Do you see how this council freed and empowered the church for her mission?
Freedom to Disagree, and still Do Missions
And, by the way, even a “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas couldn’t get in the way. Barnabas wanted to take John called Mark—the same guy who deserted Paul and Barnabas in their first missionary journey together. Paul didn’t want John Mark, he didn’t trust him. For unknown reasons, Barnabas did want John Mark. Either way, I don’t think the point of this is to focus on the disagreement. The point is to see the urgency and freedom to carry on the mission, despite disagreements.
We’re reminded in 15:40 that when Paul and Barnabas departed ways, they were “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord”. The church sent them, and they eagerly parted ways. The church’s mission to the gentiles was a bigger matter than their disagreement. I think people make too much out of this disagreement, speculating what it was about and who was in sin. Again, I think the greater point to see is that the council’s decision gave Paul and Barnabas a wide open door to strengthen and evangelize the gentile churches, with a fresh and authoritative message of God’s free grace.
Freedom for Gentiles to Serve as Missionaries
We see urgency in the mission in yet another way in this passage. Notice that in 16:1, Paul takes Timothy—a gentile—onto his missionary team. This is new. Up to this point in Acts, we don’t see any uncircumcised gentile taking a key role in the ministry of Christ’s kingdom. Now, that’s changed. The Jerusalem council opened up all freedoms and privileges that may have been in question for the gentiles—and so Timothy joins Paul.
Then, the Spirit himself puts a stamp of his approval on all this in chapter 16, verses 6–20 of our passage. We’ll touch on this more next week, but the Spirit himself forbade Paul from ministering to Asia—the next region over. Through the Spirit’s leading, and a vision, Paul was moved to set sail across the Sea to Macedonia. This, no doubt, was the farthest we’ve seen the gospel reach in Acts thus far.
So generically, this is all illustrating that the Jerusalem council opened the freedom of missionary work among the gentiles. The floodgates are opened.
So to put all this together—church leaders and governance are not necessary for the being, but for the well-being of the church. As the council confirmed the faith of God’s free grace, the church was strengthened with a burden lifted, and a family granted; and the church was freed to pursue missions in a way that the world had never seen before. Thank God for the power and freedom of the gospel, and for the church’s ministry therein. Let’s pray.