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Did Paul obey his General Conference?
If Peter was the first Pope, then Paul was the first Protestant. In the original church as today, there are two basic conceptions of Christian authority: apostolic succession and the priesthood of the believer. Paul represented the latter; he gave himself a lot of discretion as a pastor in the different congregational contexts in which he ministered. He didn’t mail a single Book of Discipline to Corinth, Ephesus, Colossus, Phillipi, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Rome. Each epistle that would make its way into our Biblical canon was practical and contextual though there are theological threads which develop and solidify over the course of Paul’s writing. In Acts 15, in what Methodists like me might call the first General Conference of the church, a council of apostles and elders convened to consider the debate between Judaizers who were teaching that the Law of Moses was necessary to salvation and Paul who was teaching salvation by faith. The compromise adopted by the council was to require Gentiles to avoid sacrificial meats, blood, meat of strangled animals, and pagan sexuality (Acts 15:20). In response to this decision, Paul doesn’t simply obey; he comes up with his own creative, contextual interpretation for at least two of the four items on this list.
Listen to how Paul deals with the issue of sacrificial meats in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice’, then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgement of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.
Paul makes it very clear that any meat (sacrificial or strangled) can be eaten “without raising any question on the ground of conscience, quoting Psalm 24:1 as his justification. He doesn’t belittle or denigrate the council in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t obey their decision. Instead, he nuances it for pastoral and evangelistic reasons. In some contexts, you eat sacrificial meat; in other contexts, you don’t. It all relates to the purpose of “pleasing everyone in everything I do… so that they may be saved.” If someone at the table eating with you thinks it’s a sin to eat the sacrificial meat, then it is a sin for you to eat it in front of them because of the scandal it causes them. Paul elaborates further in Romans 14:13-19: