Acts 15 (AD 48)
To follow the chronology of the New Testament we go from James into Acts 15, and ‘The Council at Jerusalem’. As you read, remember that this is history, not doctrine. The key players were all Christians trying to do what’s best, but the edicts that came out of the council for the early Christians are not commands for us.
Conservative Jewish Christians had gone out, trying to insist that Gentile Christians conform to the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Paul and Barnabas were not having it!
Circumcision was a (hidden!) badge of belonging to God’s people from the time of Abraham. In the Old Testament it was a command, not a recommendation, so parents who did not circumcise their sons were regarded as effectively saying they wanted nothing to do with God. The problem was that these people had not wanted to accept what was very clear to Peter and Paul – that the ritual and civil codes that belonged to the Jews, belonged only to the Jews and those living as part of the old covenant Jewish community. In the new covenant community (i.e. all of us after the incarnation of Jesus), according to what Jesus himself had said, those rules did not apply. So while Paul did not condemn circumcision (it was merely unnecessary), he condemned it being treated as mandatory.
All of which may leave you wondering why the council seemed to confuse their ritual laws with their moral laws, when they sent their decisions out to the Gentiles.
Here’s their verdict to the Gentile Christians:
“You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (v.29).
Only one of those things – sexual immorality – is part of God’s moral law. The others were part of God’s ritual laws for the Jews. In 1 Corinthians 10:19-33 (about six years later) Paul would make it clear that eating food sacrificed to idols wasn’t sinful. So why the restrictions?
James (leader of the Jerusalem church and a brother of Jesus), broadly speaking, agreed with Paul, Barnabas and Peter despite his heavily conservative leanings. He noted from the prophecy of Amos (written 750 years earlier) that God would save Gentiles. He saw no reason to hinder them by insisting on circumcision, agreeing implicitly that repentance and faith were behind salvation, not moral works.
However, he also wanted to avoid unnecessary division in the church. The balance that he decided to strike was to deny the necessity of circumcision, emphasise the proscription of sexual immorality, and also ask that the Gentile Christians avoid offending their Jewish brothers and sisters in three key ways. The eating of blood – the symbol of death and life – was grossly offensive to Jews, and the idea of eating food that had been blessed at a pagan sacrifice was – understandably – repugnant to them. There was no need for the Gentiles to eat the three types of food James listed, so he asked them not to.
A related though not parallel example today is alcohol. For good reasons – some personal, some familial, some theological, many people make the choice to avoid all alcoholic drinks. For such people the sight of a Christian drinking alcohol may serve as a discouragement. When I am aware of being with someone like that, I choose not to drink so as not to be a discouragement.
On the other hand, if someone wants to tell me I must not drink alcohol, my inclination is to reach for a whiskey, down it and then ask them to show me in the Bible which law I broke. Those people are not at risk of discouragement, they are merely trying to enforce extra-biblical laws and control other people.
Was James’s decision perfect? We don’t know. But it’s a good example of Christians gathering in mutual respect to sort out a major issue, and subsequently displaying a united front for the sake of the gospel.
The solution worked (as far as we are aware), and did so because both sides were prepared to accept a solution in which neither ‘won’, and neither got exactly what they wanted. As Christians committed to our local church, our outlook should be the same: a humble, relaxed and flexible attitude about all issues that are not core to the gospel. With that we drive church unity, and help ensure a clear gospel witness. Without it, we’re just another bunch of bickering religious types who are best avoided.