This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have lost track of the number of people in the more than 25 years of ordained ministry who have declared to me that they don’t believe that there should be politics in the church. Sometimes they mean by this that current cultural issues should not be discussed, while at other times they mean that administering the church should be accomplished without taking sides on issues like the color of the carpet or whether or not the church will do contemporary worship, which people somehow think magically take care of themselves.
The first chapter of Acts is always the text I use to reply to such complaints, because it contains an account of the first congregational meeting in church history, which has both elements of secular and ecclesial politics. As for the former, the late Judas Iscariot was a paid informant of the occupying government, which used the information he provided them to bring about the execution of Jesus on charges of sedition. You can’t get any more political than that–his name stirs the passions just like the name Jeremiah Wright does in today’s politics. As for the latter, because Judas is now dead, there’s an opening on the church board which they proceed to address, the early church not being able to avoid administering itself any more than could any other group, ancient or modern.
What is most notable, however, about this episode is what is NOT present in it rather than what is. For one thing, there is no manual or handbook of instructions telling the new community what to do. I am a Presbyterian, and we can’t get along without our Constitution in two volumes that together are three inches thick. To think of not having such a guide of the collected wisdom or best practices of the tradition seems daunting.
Moreover, the early community didn’t even have any instruction from Jesus as to doing the first thing they did, which was to fill the open slot on the board. The symbolism of there needing to be twelve apostles to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel so as to create continuity between the old and new seems clear NOW, with the benefit of hindsight, but who told he community that they needed this symmetry or at what point did these bumblers make such a profound theological assessment?
Lastly, where are the ballots, and the tellers needed to count them? Shouldn’t that be the way things ought to be decided in the church, fair and square, democratically? Isn’t it a bit strange, that before there was Tuesday night parish bingo that they were using a game of chance to pick a board member?
The point of this text, as well as with many other texts in Acts, such as the selection of deacons and the acceptance of gentiles is that the community is given the capacity of discernment to chart its course and that there isn’t any way to guarantee the success of it’s life together other than these given means. Notice even the absence of the Bible, the reliance on which is so scrupulously followed in my own Reformed tradition, as the final authority for faith and life, yet is here not even invoked, no doubt partly due to the fact that it doesn’t exist yet as we know it. This is not an argument against the scripture, but rather a reminder that everything the church needs to know or decide about has not always been mentioned in the Bible. This observation is helpful, I believe, in a situation like we have today surrounding the issue of gay marriage, which has been in the press daily for weeks. The Bible neither advocates nor prohibits it. But the church, because it lives in a world where it is being discussed must think about it nonetheless, even in the absence of much biblical direction as to how we should proceed. I raise this, not because I think the lack of discussion in the scripture decides the issue one way or the other, but again, because we need to recall that not every political matter, whether secular or ecclesial, which comes before the church as it struggles to her God’s voice, is going to be answered by citing a Bible verse. But we must, nonetheless, strive as best we can, to listen for God’s call and to follow wherever it takes us. In this sense Acts, which is called the first “church history” represents more of a paradigm of how to engage in discernment about “what comes next” than it is anything else.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.