Settling Doctrinal Questions by Popular Vote

By R.L. Whiteside (1869-1931)

Things new to me keep coming up. When I was twenty years of age, I heard a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher in debate refer to the fifteenth chapter of Acts to prove the scripturalness of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Some years ago I attended the Mason-White debate in Dallas, Texas, and heard Brother Mason use this same scripture to prove their right to hold conventions. Just recently I heard this same scripture put to a new use – namely, to prove the right of a church to settle a question of doctrine by popular vote. This seems to be a convenient chapter. Will the reader please stop here and carefully read that chapter?

The last preacher referred to was accused of preaching unsound doctrine in that he had preached that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the kingdom, and had challenged my one to show where the Bible says that the word of God is the seed of the kingdom. In a meeting called to consider the matter, the preacher took the position that the whole church should by popular vote settle the matter of his soundness. A visiting preacher argued against such procedure and raised this question: “if a preacher should preach that sprinkling is baptism would you leave it to a popular vote to determine his soundness? Where would such a course and?” In reply, the accused preacher brought up the proceedings of the meeting outlined in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, and argued that the whole church at Jerusalem settled the question of circumcision that was then agitating the churches, which were composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was later pointed out to him that the decision was inspired, for the document sent out says: “for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us,” etc. (verse 28). To this the preacher replied: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit just a it seems good to the Holy Spirit now when we come to conclusions in harmony with Scriptures.” To hear a Christian preacher ague that a church may by popular vote settle matters of doctrine is astonishing enough, but to hear him try to prove his point by the proceedings of that mating is amazing beyond measure. If there is another gospel preacher who would take such a position, 1 would like to hear from him.

What are the facts concerning this meeting? What gave rise to it? How was the matter under consideration settled? In all the churches composed of Jews and Gentiles the question of circumcision was for a while a disturbing question. A certain class of Jews from Jerusalem was very determined to bind the law of Moses on all Gentile con-verts. “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This was at Antioch in Syria. “The fact that these men came from Judea, where the gospel was first preached, and where the original apostles had been the teachers, gave their utterances much authority from the apostles for their teaching, though it is possible they did . . . . The Phraseology employed shows what is brought out express ly farther on (verse 5), that they insisted on circumcision ‘after the custom of Moses,’ because they held that all the baptized, whether Jews or Gentiles, must keep the law of Moses in order to final salvation …. Paul, who had long ago received by direct revelation from Christ a correct knowledge of the gospel which he preached (Gal. 1:11, 12), knew perfectly that this teaching was erroneous, and Barnabas had learned the same from him, if not from some other source: so the two united with all their might in opposing the Judea teachers …. Paul and Barnabas did not succeed in silencing their opponents, but they so conducted the discussion as to bring about a fortunate decision of a provisional character” (McGarvey).

“And when Paul and Barnabas has no small dissension and questioning with them, the brethren appointed that Paul and Bunnies, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question” (verse 2). These Judaizers did not recognize the authority of Paul as an apostle; if so, his word would have settled the matter. And had it been proper for a church, by popular vote, to what matters of doctrine disturbing it, why did not the church at Antioch take a vote to see which set of teachers was teaching sound doctrine? Why send them to Jerusalem at all? The question was not disturbing the Jerusalem church, but only those churches composed of Jews and Gentiles, or of Gentiles only. If the church at Jerusalem had the right to determine by popular vote what other churches should believe and practice, would not another church have the right to reverse by popular vote the decision of the Jerusalem church, and thus bind circumcision on all? Is not such an idea absurd in the extreme? Is it not absurd that a Christian preacher should argue that the Jerusalem church, by agreement and without the aid of direct inspiration, should settle a great question for all churches for all time. But the other apostles approved Paul’s course, and indicated their approval by giving to Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship.

When Paul and his company reached Jerusalem, “they were received of the church and the apostles and the elders, and they rehearsed all things that God had done with them” (verse 4). It seems that they did not mention the question of circumcision, leaving that for the Judaizers to bring up. “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses” (verse 5). After the Pharisees had stated their position, the assembly, so it seems, adjourned. Perhaps so much time had been consumed that they had no time at this meeting to go further into the matter. Another meeting was held. “And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider of this matter” (Verse 6). At both meetings the church was present. (See verses 4, 22.) “There was, however, between these two public meetings a private mating of Paul and Barnabas with the three apostles who were then in the city” (see Gal. 2:1-10). Paul sought this interview with the old apostles that he might know, before proceeding further, how they stood on the question; for he knew that if he found them on the side of the Pharisees, their influence would outweigh his, and his life work would be destroyed by his converts among the Gentiles being brought under the bondage of the law, and his work would be in vain. But the other apostles approved Paul’s course, and indicated their approval by giving to Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship. Concerning this, McGarvey remarks: “With this information as to the perfect understanding and agreement between the inspired apostles before us, we can plainly see that the second public meeting of the whole church was called, not for the purpose of bringing about an agreement between the apostles, but for the purpose of enabling the apostles to bring the whole church into agreement with themselves. In this light we must study the proceedings, or we shall totally misconstrue them.”

In this second meeting the Judaizers were allowed to fully argue their case before any reply was made. “Then, when they had completely emptied themselves, the apostles, one by one, and in a succession apparently prearranged, gave utterance to the facts and judgments which compelled assent.” The speeches of these inspired men overcame all opposition, so that the whole church concurred in selecting men to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. A document was prepared, which these men carried with them and which is referred to in Acts 16:4 as the “decrees which had been ordained by the apostles and elders that were at Jerusalem.” It is absurd in the extreme to think Luke would have referred to this document as “decrees” had it embodied only the conclusions of a body of uninspired men; neither, in that case, could he have said that these “decrees” had been ordained by the apostles and elders. Besides, if these “decrees were only the uninspired conclusions of the church at Jerusalem, what right did they have to impose them on other churches, and why should other churches be under obligations to regard them? McGarvey says of this document; ‘It makes a for-mal claim of inspiration by the words, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.” No uninspired men could dare to use such language; and this circumstance differentiates it from all the decrees and deliverances from that day to this . . . Furthermore, it decided, on the authority of inspired men who directed its decision, a question of doctrine affecting the salvation of souls; and this no set of men except the apostles have ever had the right to do. In no sense, then, can its action be pleaded as a precedent for the existence of any ecclesiastical court whatever outside of the individual congregation, or for the purpose of settling by authority any question of doctrine.”

“It seemed good that the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” What right did the Jerusalem church as a body of uninspired men have to lay any burdens upon any other church? They did not do it. The document sent out was inspired by the Holy Spirit; in such, it was binding on all churches in all countries and for all time. (From Whiteside’s Doctrinal Discourses [Denton, TX: Inys Whiteside, 1955, reprint 19771, pp. 29-34.)

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 15, pp. 460-461
August 4, 1983