Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’ The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.
As a youngster I explored a vocation to be a Catholic priest. My bishop said men in his diocese didn’t have a vocation until he said they did! Even though my sense of call has been somewhat refined over the years I felt the bishop understood something – one’s sense of call is tested and discerned by the Church. Each denomination does this in various ways – most often through assessment conferences where teams of people look at candidates’ written and verbal submissions, psychological profiles, and the way they work with others. This enables a decision to be formed about whether candidates have the potential to be trained for lifelong ministry.
In the URC we test and discern through the Councils of the Church for any type of ordered ministry – the Elders’ and Church Meeting will test and discern a sense of Call to be an Elder and those who wish to explore training for the ordered ministry find their call is further tested through the Synod and through the selection process of General Assembly – the final sense of discernment coming with an initial call to serve a congregation. Sometimes we can criticise ourselves for the length of time our discernment processes take but we have something valuable which is very much embedded in the practice of the early Church.
Paul’s successful missionary work amongst gentiles meant they were becoming Christian without first becoming Jewish – challenging the Church’s self definition; was it a Jewish sect or something more? Paul, being something of a loose cannon, pushed ahead with his Gentile mission whilst others were more cautious. There was no established decision making process and so it was decided to hold a Council in Jerusalem to iron out the issues – with the result that the Gentile mission continued.
Conciliar government may be a time consuming and cumbersome process but is a rather better way of discerning together than my old bishop doing it by himself.
O God, you call all people to yourself, and are heard in myriad ways, help us to trust in you as we discern together, to have confidence that you speak to us through our Councils, that we discern and test so that your mission to our world is strengthened. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is a minister in the Southside Cluster in Scotland working with Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs.