How different would your church look if it had ten members in all? How about if it had one hundred members? Or a thousand, or ten thousand? How would the organization, the leadership structure, and the ministries & programs all change as a result? That’s what the Church was experiencing in the mid-40’s A.D. Thousands had been baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), many Samaritans followed suit a few years later (Acts 8), and finally outright Gentiles were beginning to pour into the Church (Acts 10), aided in no small part by the 1st evangelistic/church planting journey of Paul & Barnabus (Acts 13-14). What’s more, many of the other Apostles were already doing similar work in other parts of the known world.
In Acts 15 we read the story of “The Jerusalem Council.” In a sense, it’s the first Ecumenical Council – the first gathering of Christian leaders to make a common decision regarding doctrine & practice. The only thing holding it back from that title in the history books, I guess, is the fact that the Church was still primarily a local phenomenon; there were not very many Christians elsewhere to be gathered in yet. We can approach this story in five sections: 1) the Prosecution, 2) the Defense, 3) the Ruling, 4) the Decree, and 5) the Implementation.
Part 1 – the Prosecution (v1-5)
The issue is identified: certain Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles needed to be first circumcised as Jews in order to become Christians. They disparage the mission of Paul & Barnabus among the Gentiles and insist those converts be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses as received in the Old Testament.
The issue at stake is the difficult balance between upholding the Old Testament Law as Scripture and enjoying our freedom in Christ. On one hand is the teaching of Jesus – “I have not come to abolish the Law” and on the other hand is St. Paul – “we’re not under the Law, but grace.” What forces the split between the opposing viewpoints is the question of salvation: is salvation found in works of the Law such as circumcision, or is it directly from Christ? The answer is obvious: our salvation is in Christ; he is the Way, Truth, and Life. St. Paul would later go on to write a letter to the Galatian church on this very topic of “Law vs. Grace.” Besides, even when you do get into the means or instruments that Jesus uses to communicate his grace to us, you find that Circumcision has been replaced by Baptism.
So Paul and Barnabus and others convene in Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the Apostles and the Elders and the whole Church. The Apostles are the leaders – either some of the original twelve, or an expanded group of leaders. The Elders are like local pastors or parish priests: leaders, but on a smaller scale. But the “Church” is also said to be gathered, suggesting that not just leaders showed up to this council meeting, but non-ordained folk as well. The Church in its full orders is gathered, not just the big-wigs in charge.
Part 2 – the Defense (v6-12)
St. Peter also has traveled up to Jerusalem for this event, and he gives a speech in favor of Paul & Barnabus. He seems to recount his experiences with Gentile Christians recorded for us in Acts 10, and goes on to argue that Circumcision and the Law comprise an unbearable yoke! I can’t help but wonder if he was contrasting that against something Jesus once said about himself: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Peter instead asserts that salvation comes through the grace of Christ – the very same thesis that Paul puts forth to the Galatians later on.
The assembly is impressed with Peter’s words, and then bolstered by the testimony of Paul and Barnabus concerning what God has already been doing among the Gentiles.
Part 3 – the Ruling (v13-21)
Sure, St. Peter’s an important guy, and probably knows a lot of people here in Jerusalem. But he’s based in Antioch now; he’s out of his jurisdiction as far as being-in-charge is concerned.
Enter another character: James, the brother of Jesus, author of the Epistle of James, leader (or bishop) of the church in Jerusalem since at least Acts 12. From what we know about James from his epistle and other historical sources like Josephus and Eusebius, he was a very traditional Jewish Christian. One might suspect that the Judaizers hoped James would be sympathetic to their point of view, hence holding the council there in Jerusalem rather than in Antioch.
But their hopes were misplaced. James stands up and quotes from Amos 9, highlighting the fact that God promised that Gentiles would be called by God’s name. Think about it: we’re Christians. We are called by God’s name! It was true then, and and it’s still true today. Of course, it’s more profound than that: being called by God’s name means we belong to him and his family. It means we are assured of his love and forgiveness, and that we are wholly committed to him above all others.
James also forbids four things:
- food offered to idols (which St. Paul agrees with in 1 Corinthians 10)
- sexual immorality (which is in virtually every list of really bad sins)
- strangled animals (meat with blood in it – very against the Law of Moses)
- blood (either redundant with #3, or refers to shedding blood – murder)
#3 (and possibly #4 depending on its interpretation) is essentially a concession to the Jewish Christians to the end of enabling Jewish & Gentile Christians to live in fellowship with one another without offending each others’ cultural sensibilities. Again, St. Paul would later share his thoughts on this matter in his first letter to the Corinthians.
James also affirms the good preaching of Moses (in v21). In other words, the Old Testament is still Scripture, still authoritative, still true. The way it applies has changed: Christ is now the Old Testament’s filter – its application only touches us through Jesus.
Nevertheless, when James declares “I judge…” his decision isn’t universal church law just like that. He’s the bishop of Jerusalem; beyond that he has no jurisdiction without further approval…
Part 4 – the Decree (v22-29)
So the council does what, votes on James’ proposal? No, actually, they come to a consensus. “It seemed good” to the Apostles and the Elders and the whole Church… that’s the exact same phrase used to describe the initial convening of this council meeting! That’s a total unanimous agreement.
The Council basically repeats James’ four points, affirming what he and Peter said in their speeches. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are ensured a peaceful coexistence. The message is sent along with a few additional guys to spread the word and give personal affirmation of the written document.
There’s also an interesting turn of phrase in v28 – “it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit.” What a beautiful expression of the role of God’s Spirit in His Church! Jesus had promised that the Spirit would lead the disciples “into all truth,” and that the “gates of hell would not prevail” against the Church, and here we see such a Spirit-led victory in action!
Part 5 – the Implementation (v30-35)
It’s important to note, finally, how this decree from Jerusalem was received in Antioch. The Christians there were encouraged and rejoiced at the news! Imagine if every meeting of the board of elders or parish vestry or synod or annual meeting resulted in that?
Furthermore, two of the messengers – Judas and Silas (Silvanus) – go on sound preaching rounds. Their potentially mundane task of delivering a document and spreading the news about it opens the door for them to teach and preach among their brothers and sisters in Christ in and around another city. It’s not all business, the joy of ministry just overflows, not unlike Stephen’s diaconal ministry back in Acts 6-7.
So there you have it – a positive example of Christian leadership balancing leaders & laymen, bishops & councils, tradition & freedom.