The Buck Stops Here
“The buck stops here!” That was the message sent to the churches by the mother church at Jerusalem (though it was expressed a bit more diplomatically). Paul and Barnabas had traveled from Antioch and presented the controversial matter of whether or not to require that Gentile Christians be circumcised. After some heated exchange, Peter stood to his feet and testified to the fact that by his own mouth the gospel had been declared to Gentiles and that “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinctions between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). Peter’s testimony carried the day and resolved the issue. The assembly suddenly was silent and heard the corroborating testimonies of Paul and Barnabas “as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).
Moderator James, the brother of our Lord, referred to Peter’s comments and then cited a passage from the prophet Amos which substantiated the fact that God would rebuild the fallen tent of King David and that David’s restored tent would include Gentiles (Acts 15:14-17). James then set forth the terms of the letter to be sent to the Gentile churches assuring them that circumcision was not a requirement for them while appealing to them to demonstrate their respect for the Jewish Christians by abstaining from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from meat of a strangled animal, and from blood. The recommendation seemed good to the apostles and elders and to the entire church, and they sent two of their own number to accompany Paul and Barnabas, endorsing their ministry, and announcing to the Gentile churches that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements” (Acts 15:28).
Peter’s role in resolving the tension recalls the words of the Lord:”You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). While Peter’s role was key, James’ moderating wisdom was also critical. Most of all, however, it was the role of the Holy Spirit which was recognized by all to be most definitive in the matter. If the Holy Spirit Himself came upon the Gentile believers, how could the Jews require something more–especially since that something more was part of Jewish legal ceremony which had been an unbearable yoke both for the saints of Jerusalem, as well as their ancestors (Acts 15:10).
Now these things are recorded in the New Testament and are part of the whole composite of apostolic testimony given to the church once for all (Jude 3). Their testimony is conclusive. The buck stops with them. This Jerusalem consultation validated once for all the church of Antioch which was the home base for Paul's and Barnabas's missionary outreach to Gentiles. The Antioch church was blessed by the ministry of prophets (Acts 13:1-3) and, most significantly for future generations of the church, was the place where disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). There is further siginificance in the fact that the first recorded occurrence of the word "catholic" appears in a letter written in 115 A.D. by Ignatius of Antioch: "Wherever the bishop is, there let the people be; and wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church." Truly the Antioch church was characterized by the principle of catholicity being established upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets in keeping with Paul's desciption of the church in Ephesians 2:20. And the apostles at Jerusalem were undoubtedly persuaded that Christ Jesus himself was its chief cornerstone. It may have been this consultation with the apostles in Jerusalem to which Paul refers in Galatians 2:7-10:
Peter had his moment of vacillation (Gal. 2:11-14)--whether before the Jerusalem consulation or subsequent to it, we cannot be sure. In the final analysis, however, he endorsed Paul's writings putting them on a level with the sacred writings of the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:15-16). And though Martin Luther would characterize the epistle of James, the Lord's brother, as "a right strawy epistle," the German Reformer rediscovered the important principle of sola scriptura upon being overwhelmed by the truth of justification by faith alone in Romans 1:17. For Luther and all the Protestant Reformers, Scripture alone was definitive authority for the church. A Protestant is not simply one who protests in the sense of negative defiance or complaint. A Protestant is pro testamentum, (lit., “for the testimony”). Are you a Protestant? Every Christian ought to be! The buck stops here--not with someone who by clever sophistry claims to be Peter’s successor!
Paul and Barnabas’ consultation with the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 has often been used to justify church councils which overthrow the clear testimony of Holy Scripture. True Christians protest in the face of church councils and hierarchical structures which compromise Scripture, that is, they speak out for the testimony of the apostles and prophets whose word is binding upon the church and sufficient for every generation of the church (Isaiah 8:16, 20).