June 29, 2008
There’s been an advertisement running on Classic fm recently for some car or other, with the actor James Nesbitt listing lots of things that are joined by an ‘and’ – horse and carriage, fish and chips, Morecombe and Wise. The church has it’s own series of ‘and’ celebrations in some of its feast days – Philip and James, Simon and Jude, Timothy and Titus, and the two saints we celebrate today, Peter and Paul.
Most of these pairs are linked by a common factor – Timothy and Titus are companions of Paul; Simon and Jude and Philip and James are apostles – so it is ironic that Peter and Paul share a feast day, because most of the evidence show that they were bitterly opposed to each other on a number of fundamental questions that divided the early church.
Some people look back to the New Testament period as a golden age of Church unity. They take the view of Hegesippus, who wrote in the second century; “They used to call the church a virgin, for she had not yet been corrupted by vain teachings.” And then there’s St Augustine, who wrote that Peter and Paul shared a feast day because they were as one. As John Pridmore wrote in Friday’s Church Times “In your dreams, Augustine!”
The virgin-church theory is a false image. Almost as soon as the infant Christian community began to grow in Jerusalem, differences of interpretation began to appear – over who Jesus was; and over who should be included in the Christian community and how they should be supported. The only history we have of this time is written by Luke in the Book of Acts, and he was concerned to present a picture of the early Christian Community as one that lived in perfect harmony, so the differences of opinion are presented as something minor, quickly settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
However, when the Church began to draw converts from the Gentile community, especially as a result of the journeys of Paul, the differences of opinion got much fiercer, and we can only accept Luke’s picture of a united community if we read Acts in isolation from the Epistles of Paul and others. When we look at them together, they paint a picture of the early Church riven by fierce conflict, with each group appealing to memories of Jesus to support their interpretation, and trying to denigrate their opponents. Peter and Paul became the representative figures of these two opposing interpretations.
In his book ‘A Tale of Two Missions’, Michael Goulder, once Professor of Biblical Studies in the University of Birmingham, sets out the evidence, drawn from the New Testament, and the writings of the Apostolic Age, to give a picture of these two groups in the early church.
He says they “were agreed about the supreme significance of Jesus, but disagreed about almost everything else – the validity of the Bible, whether the Kingdom of God had arrived or not, sex, money, work, tongues, visions, healing, Jesus’ divinity, and the resurrection from the dead, for example.”
We don’t have any direct record of Peter’s side of the arguments ( the two letters that bear his name in the New Testament are unlikely to have been written by him, and don’t mention these disputes) but we have plenty of evidence from Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, Romans and Philippians of how bitter the dispute became. Paul called Peter a hypocrite, a betrayer of Christ, a false apostle, a deceiver. We can also infer from Paul’s justification of himself in the letters the sort of accusation that his opponents flung against him – that he was letting down Judaism, that he was not really an apostle because he hadn’t known Jesus in the flesh, that he associated with unbelievers and the immoral.
At one level this dispute was about practical matters – whether or not the Gentile converts to Christianity were required to keep the Jewish Law, eat kosher food, and, if they were male, to be circumcised. However, on a deeper level, the dispute was actually about how far the Christian community was bound by the Scriptures.
In the time of the Early Church, of course, there were no Christian Scriptures. It was only right at the end of the first century, or at the beginning of the second century that some of the writings of the apostles, particularly St Paul, began to be talked of as ‘scripture’.
The only ‘scriptures’ available to Christians were the Jewish scriptures.
For the original apostles, led by Peter and James the brother of Jesus, the rules set out in these scriptures for the chosen people were still binding on anyone who followed Jesus as the promised Messiah. They were the new Israel – but they still had to keep the rules of the old Israel.
Paul had a different, and we probably think, greater vision of the mission of Jesus – that he was a saviour for the whole world, not just the Jews. Although he personally remained loyal to his Jewish inheritance, his missionary journeys brought him to realise that the message of Jesus would never be accepted in the Gentile world if it came with a whole lot of rules and rituals which ran contrary to all their cultural heritage. So, he was prepared to jettison the Jewish Law and rely on faith in Jesus, and openness to the Spirit to guide the church.
Acts 15 shows that what was agreed was a compromise: the Jewish Christians would carry on living as faithful Jews, and the Gentile Christians could carry on living in their cultural milieu, so long as they were faithful to Christ.
Although the two groups differed fiercely about matters of details, the Church did not split. Paul might write with sarcasm about ‘so called super apostles’, but when the members of the Jerusalem church were suffering deprivation, Paul organised a collection from his converts in Greece, and travelled back to Jerusalem to deliver it, and to talk about the anxieties the Jerusalem leadership still had about the relationships between Gentiles and Jews in the Church.
This was the major difference in the Early Church, but it wasn’t the only one. Because each congregation was fairly isolated from others, small differences of interpretation about what it meant to be a Christian, or who exactly Jesus was, didn’t matter too much. The different groups each wrote their memories of what Jesus taught and how he lived, which differed in emphasis according to their beliefs. Eventually the Jewish/ Gentile conflict within Christianity virtually disappeared, after the remaining Jewish leadership was expelled from Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt of AD 70. They exercised less and less power, and eventually this strand of Christianity died out all together.
There was no central authority in the early church. groups dealt with their differences by writing letters to each other – very fierce letters sometimes, but just words. It was only after the Emperor Constantine decided to support the Christian faith as a good means of uniting his empire that differences of interpretation became a major problem – and were eventually decided by Councils of the Church, summoned by the Roman Emperor. It could be argued that their decisions were guided not so much by the Holy Spirit as by the knowledge that the emperor’s troops were outside to deal with people if they didn’t come up with the right answer! This eventually led the Christian Church to split into mutually hostile groups, with rival sources of authority to rule on matters of faith and morals – and impose their rulings.
Most of the things that those councils argued about – the minutiae of how exactly Jesus could be both divine and human, whether God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit all at the same time, or in sequence, and whether the Holy Spirit came from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son – don’t actually concern the majority of Christians today.
But there are still major disagreements about faith and behaviour in the church today – and we can hear echoes of the language that was used by Paul in his letters, and the accusations used by his opponents in the statements coming out of the traditionalist Anglican conference in Jerusalem ( Gafcon) about sexuality; and of those who oppose the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England. Most important, there is again the assertion that the Scriptures provide the only standard for deciding what is appropriate for Christians to do or believe, and the insistence that there is only one answer. What is different is the threat to split from those who want to interpret the Scriptures differently, or to use other insights to decide what is appropriate behaviour and belief for Anglicans in different cultures and traditions. There is also an demand that there should be a single authority which is able to discipline those who take another line, and expel them from the Anglican community – something which has not been found in the Anglican church so far.
The example of Peter and Paul should remind us that even the greatest figures of the church can disagree deeply and sincerely about what the faith requires of us. It also reminds us that even in the earliest days of the Church there was not one answer for everyone, and that deep differences can be worked through, if everyone is prepared to listen and discuss in mutual love and respect. Like Peter and Paul, we need to accept that our unity in the Body of Christ is much more important than any differences of culture or behaviour.