[Table of Contents]
[Previous] [Next]
Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)



      The right of prayer is not more natural, nor necessary, nor expedient, than the right of appeal. There is no government, or state, or family, that can subsist without it. It was a part of every religious institution before the Christian; and if it be no part of it, it is a perfect anomaly in all social institutions.

      The first great difficulty in the Christian church was settled in this way, and that, too, while the Apostles yet lived. And as this single point, well established, settles the whole question in discussion, we shall now take it up and analyze it. The case is found faithfully reported by Luke (Acts xv.). We shall copy from the common text the first six verses:--

      "And certain men which came down from Judea, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem, unto the Apostles and Elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the Apostles and Elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there arose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the Apostles and Elders came together to consider this matter."

      It is admitted that this portion of Scripture has been as much misquoted, misapplied, and abused as any other passage in the sacred writings. Councils œcumenical, Synods, Conferences, Associations, and Conventions of all sorts ecclesiastic, have leaned upon it for warrant and protection. That it has been tortured, times and ways without number, to countenance and support proceedings hostile to the genius of Christianity and subversive of its designs, is freely and cordially admitted. Still it is a portion of canonical Scripture, and designed to develop the Christian institution both in its matter and form, and is not to be dispensed with as necessary to the perfection of Christian records. It has a true and fixed meaning, and is as necessary to the exigencies of Christianity as is the second chapter of the Acts to the development of what the Apostolic gospel and [541] mode of preaching it were. My object is, therefore, to ascertain not only its literal meaning, but its abiding utility and proper application.

      The case is as follows:--Certain believing Pharisees of Judea had gone down to Antioch in Syria, the first Gentile church in the world, and had endeavored to corrupt the simplicity of the gospel by introducing certain dogmata of their own. These attempts having been resisted, a discussion and controversy arose. Meantime, Paul and Barnabas returned from their tour; and finding these difficulties in the church, undertook their correction, but failed in giving full satisfaction to the whole community. Whereupon the church, no doubt by and with the consent of the Apostles Paul and Barnabas, agreed to refer the matter to some other tribunal. They chose Jerusalem probably for two reasons: First, because Judaizers pretended to have authority from that place; and secondly, because that church had a very intelligent presbytery, and the Apostles might be expected to take part in the adjustment of the matter. They appealed then to the officers of that community.

      The reference or appeal being agreed upon, the church at Antioch elected a deputation, determining to send certain other delegates besides Paul and Barnabas. They went to Jerusalem and were cordially received by the whole estate of the Elders, Apostles, and church. A meeting was appointed--"and the Apostles and Elders came together for to consider this matter." The Apostles and Elders were the judges. We are not told that the Apostles, Elders, and the whole church came together to consider and decide this matter. But we are told that "the Apostles and Elders came together to consider this matter." The discussion was continued for some time probably by and between the Elders and those Judaizers. Finally, after there had been much disputing, Peter rose--then Paul--then Barnabas--then James. These four of the Apostles only are named as speakers. But be it observed that Paul and Barnabas, being delegates, did not judge in the case. Their speeches were not argumentative: they only narrated simply what God had wrought by their means among the Gentiles. Peter and James argued the case. The latter, indeed, offered his judgment or sentence to the whole tribunal, which was unanimously adopted.

      A number of questions here crowd upon us--as, Who decided this question? Was it decided by Apostles in their apostolic or presidential character? Why associate Elders with them? Had they not power to judge infallibly without Elders? And why is the whole church represented as concurring in the decision? Is it as a sanction of the proceeding, or simply an intimation of acquiescence in it? etc., etc. [542]

      Nothing can be plainer than that "the Apostles and Elders came together to consider this matter." They asked no help. They certainly were competent to the task themselves. The church could add no authority to the Apostles and Elders; but as the question of communing with uncircumcised Gentiles affected their feelings as Jews, they demonstrated their submission to the Apostles and Elders by concurring in the decision and in the mission of certain persons to Antioch.

      But the cardinal question yet remains to be answered, viz.--In what character and capacity did the Apostles participate in this meeting--as Apostles, or simply as judges? Not as Apostles; for in that character they could receive no help from the elders or brethren. Besides, as Apostles they were under a plenary inspiration, and needed no reasoning, no debating on the subject. They gave judgment just as the Elders did--without any special revelation or supernatural light upon the subject--as Paul did on another occasion, (I. Cor. vii. 25, 40.)

      These able ministers of the New Testament were sometimes left without any special revelation, that their private and personal advice and example might be useful to the whole church. Their decision in Acts xv. was, it is said, acceptable to the Holy Spirit--i. e., concurred with the Scriptures quoted and explained; as in a case referred to Paul by the Corinthians, to whom when he responded he said, "I think" (in the judgment given) "I have the Spirit of God."

      In one word, then, the Apostles and Elders acted upon the appeal made from certain brethren in Antioch; as we would act in a similar case--by the exercise of our own judgment upon the points referred, and upon the sacred Scriptures supposed to bear upon them. Their decision was sanctioned by the Holy Spirit as sound and judicious, insomuch that in the letters moved by James to be written to the Gentile brethren, they say, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."

      But the peculiarity of this sentence, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," demands a little attention. What means "and to us," unless they were two and not one! The Holy Spirit, therefore, approved and they approved the measure. Hence the sentence goes forth as emanating from both, as we would say, "It seemed good to the King and his Ministers," meaning that each bad thought upon the subject individually and on comparing their sentences they agreed. This seems to authorize me in concluding that having compared their own judgment of the case with the Scriptures of truth as quoted and applied by James, they felt that their mind and that of the Holy Spirit agreed. They did not, then, say "and to us" to sanction the Spirit's decision, but to inform their brethren that the case was to them so obvious that the sentence to which they came exactly [543] corresponded with the oracles of the Spirit of God. No other view can be taken of this passage, in my judgment, that will justify the style of the Apostles.

      The legitimate inferences, therefore, are--that the case was referred to the Apostles and Elders in the character of bishops or overseers of the flock of Christ; that they came together to deliberate upon the subject, and came to a conclusion so rational and consistent, that it exactly tallied with the words spoken by the Holy Spirit seven hundred years before that time. Such is the case; and its utility is, that it shows us how we ought to refer and judge all matters likely to disturb the peace and harmony of the kingdom of Messiah.

      But some man will say, "The cause is not exactly parallel to ours." On that view of parallelism scarcely a case of discipline in the New Testament could instruct us, unless it be almost identical with that on hand. We have but two or three cases of discipline in the whole book, and we have very few rules on the subject; but we have in the cases occurring and in the precepts, given certain principles which are to us as much rules of action as the broadest precepts in the Decalogue. How much is left to human judgment on some occasions by the words "and such like"? This is the apostolic custom: after specifying certain characters he concludes with "and such like." Are we not, then, to judge in all such cases? Are not cards, dice, wheels of fortune, games of chance, theatres, balls, cabals, horse-races, bullfights, cock-fights, etc., to be condemned by the church, and they who practice them to be excommunicated, by the potency of the words "and such like," as well as "envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and they who practice such things?" If they are not by inference and implication, they are not at all to be condemned.

      The 15th of the Acts then establishes a principle of reference or appeal in all difficult cases, to the, presbytery of a different church or churches; and authorizes such elders to come together to consider and decide the matter. It does not institute stated annual, biennial, or triennial synods, councils, or conventions; but it institutes a special conference or convention when exigencies may require. And it makes such decisions final and ultimate on the parties.

      If I am asked how it makes such decision final and imperative, I answer that this is the very spirit or intent of the appeal. If the parties agree to refer it to certain Elders and Apostles, then by the very fact of agreement they pledge themselves to be ruled by the decision. And, indeed, if one party refuse reference altogether, it is proof of conscious injustice on its side, and will justify the other party in referring it at its own option. These are such common-sense views and principles, that methinks a moment's reflection will demonstrate their necessity and utility to every intelligent and candid [544] man. There is, then, no danger of interminable references, and endless appeal of disturbing the peace of the whole Christian community, by admitting this rational and Scriptural mode of preventing unenlightened, partial, and arbitrary decisions, and of guarantying the enjoyment of personal independence, character, and Christian liberty to every member of Christ's kingdom. Who would commit his moral destiny to any particular community, to whose decision, however partial, self-willed, unjust, and informal, he must forever submit! I, for one, most certainly would not. My guarantee is, that there are other elderships in Christ's kingdom, to whom on any painful exigency I can appeal, as ultimate and final in the case.

      I may be asked, Why say that I will appeal to "the Elders and Apostles" of another church, or churches? I answer, Because the Elders to whom I appeal acknowledge the supremacy of the Apostles--(not of the Pope, nor of any superior ecclesiastical tribunal)--and will, after judging the case as faithfully as they can, do, as they did in Jerusalem, finally hear the Apostles, and accept their decision of the matter.

      The multiplication of appeal's, in the very nature of things, seldom, if ever, proves more satisfactory than one. When the parties have liberty to choose--indeed, to constitute the tribunal that shall decide the question, they are more likely to be reconciled to its award than they would be to that of an itinerant, local, or stated court, with whose creation they had nothing to do. The method taught us in this chapter of settling debated questions, whether of doctrine or discipline about to affect our spiritual relations, is, therefore, as evidently wise and judicious as it is plain and practicable, and I trust does or will commend itself to the understanding and good sense of the whole Christian brotherhood. Should any one, however, worthy of being heard, object to the views offered, it will afford us pleasure to consider objections and still farther to expatiate on this interesting and important subject.

A. C., Harbinger, 1841, page 54.      

      Alexander Campbell. "Difficulties in Churches.--No. VI.: Right of Appeal." The Millennial Harbinger 12
(February 1841): 54-59.


[MHA2 541-545]

[Table of Contents]
[Previous] [Next]
Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)