Updated: Nov 29, 2022
Synodality and the Early Church
I have to admit that when I heard the Pope was going to convoke (that’s a really weird word!) a synod on synodality, my first thought was, “That phrase doesn’t communicate anything to me. I don’t know what that means!” Turns out, I was not and am not alone. I didn’t know what he meant. What is #synodality ? And I also fell prey to the notion that it is something he’s creating, a Pope Francis invention. Turns out, I was wrong again…and I am not alone, again. So read on to get a sense of where this all came from…let’s journey together into greater understanding.
Go back with me to about 50 years after Jesus is risen and ascended, to Antioch, the place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
What was their problem? Controversy. Get a group of people together and it won’t take long until different points of view emerge. It’s to be expected and it can threaten any group’s existence. Such was the case with some of the Christians in Antioch where more and more Gentiles were following Jesus. Jesus’ early Jewish followers assumed that meant the Gentiles had to become Jews: circumcision for the men, rituals and practices for everyone, and an embrace of the extensive system of law. But did it? Was it necessary for these Gentile believers to observe the Mosaic precepts? What would happen if they refused? Were they not Jesus’ followers until all this was also in place? And so the controversy unfolded.
Problem 2: Who’s deciding? The Scriptures don’t give a lot of details about the controversy other than one set of believers was teaching the necessity for obedience to the Mosaic Law and Paul and Barnabas were in sharp dispute and debate with them.[i] Finally, the local church appointed Paul and Barnabas, along with some other unnamed believers, to go to Jerusalem to solicit the wisdom of the apostles and elders. One thing seems safe to infer and that is that no single person in Antioch felt empowered to make this important decision. So off the entourage went, landing in the company of some Pharisees who chose the side of obedience to the Mosaic law. Clearly, both sides had compelling arguments. How to proceed? Read Acts 15:1-30 to encounter the rest of the story.
One thing seems safe to infer: no single person in Antioch felt empowered to make this important decision. It was too important to do alone!
For our purposes, I’d like to highlight the steps taken in what is now called the Council of Jerusalem so we can see the roots of this “journeying together,” this notion of synod.
What did they do? Steps from the Council of Jerusalem
They sent a small group : Paul, Barnabas and some other believers, having been part of the original controversy, were chosen to go and share this question with other apostles and elders in Jerusalem. They were in search of that still small voice of God…of WISDOM.
They journeyed together, telling God’s story. They traveled together, continuing to share how Gentiles were coming to believe. In other words, they stayed true to their mission, despite the controversy.
They experienced welcome from the church in Jerusalem, the apostles and the elders, with whom they shared what God had done through them. They told the story and were listened to deeply.
They listened to other voices surfacing differing viewpoints. They did not silence or ignore varying perspectives, on their way to hearing the Spirit.
They convened together to consider. The apostles and elders met to consider the question. Together they believed the Holy Spirit’s guidance would surface…within the community gathered.
There was “much discussion.”[ii] Again, they continued to welcome perspectives, some of which may have changed during the travel and earlier discussion, some of which were new, some of which came from other people. But they gave it plenty of time.
They listened again to another perspective. Peter, who was in Jerusalem, then addressed the assembled group with another perspective: God chose them. God knows the heart and accepted them. God sent the Spirit upon them. God purified their hearts by faith. A voice of known wisdom and first hand experience of listening to Jesus. They heard Peter share a fundamental faith tenet: Salvation comes through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and it comes that way to everyone. Wisdom surfaced.
They heard more evidence/testimony. Paul and Barnabas shared signs and wonders to a silent assembly. And still the listening went on, as they sought the Spirit’s right judgment.
They heard the voice of the prophet . James spoke and brought forth the voice of the prophets. Then James offered his point of view that they should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.[iii] He then offered a way to handle this. They did not discount the lone voice.
They made a decision and then crafted it into a letter. It is always necessary to be able to communicate what the Spirit reveals in methods and message, tailored to the audience.
They returned to Antioch to share the decision. The apostles, elders, with the whole church chose some of their own to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch: Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas. So the message came from those who had been present in the discernment in person as well as in writing. Same message. Different messengers and medium.
They traveled to Antioch and delivered the letter. The point here is that there was time and a journey together for these messengers to work with the decision themselves, appropriating it and becoming ever more able to share it.
They declared their trust in the Holy Spirit and their deliberations. Critical to the acceptance of this decision is the way in which it was made…in and with the Holy Spirit.
They encouraged and strengthened the believers after the letter was shared. Judas and Silas, and the prophets remained for a time while the decision was embraced: present, answering questions, encouraging and leading the way to acceptance.
Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they continued to teach and preach. And they stayed focused on their mission, despite all the controversy and change.
This describes the early Church journeying together, assessing what God has done and is doing, hearing many sides, taking time, listening to the prophets and the Spirit, deciding, articulating, sharing and then accompanying the community as it embraced the Spirit’s pathway. This is what Pope Francis is leading the Church to re-discover, today. This is synodality. It’s not new.
Bonus: Click here for a look at “What we can learn from the Council of Jerusalem."
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Pope Francis did not invent the notion of a synod. He did re-claim it for us in the third millennium, challenging us to go together on a journey of listening to the Holy Spirit.