Editor’s Note: This series of posts on Acts 15 is written by guest teacher David Hundert. Thanks, David!
What is doctrine? Is it a hard and fast rule? Is it something that has to be written in Scripture? Did it come off the mountain, written by the finger of God? I’d like to answer all that by saying “yes and no.” I would hope that doctrine is grounded in Scripture, however, what did the disciples use for their doctrine? The New Testament wasn’t written yet. Does this mean, that the disciples didn’t have or follow doctrine? No. They had the Old Testament to go by and the teachings of the Lord. They lived in the time-frame when there were many still alive when Jesus walked the earth, so they still had those that heard the Word of the Lord directly.
Last week we talked about the need for people to speak up in our society about injustice. But what if a dispute arises within the Church regarding doctrine? What if that doctrinal dispute is because someone was trying to impose rules on members of the church, rules that can’t be found in Scripture? What if it has to do with the way a person can be saved? What if someone was to say that in order to be saved, all men must shave their heads and a woman can no longer cut their hair? What about racial or religious bias within the body of Christ? What if they said that the rule regarding the shaving of heads, or the no longer cutting of hair for men and women, only applied to those that accepted Christ that weren’t born in the United States? Can that kind of dispute be resolved biblically?
I’m proud to say, that the EC church, has a process in its discipline statement, that lays out a very thoughtful and biblical way to resolve conflict. However, this week we’re going to take a look at a similar situation that arose in the early church, and what they did to resolve it.
The issue that we are going to start with led to the first church council ever held. As Luke reports it in Acts 15, the council was a meeting of the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem, convened to consider two issues. The first issue addressed the terms on which Gentile believers might be admitted into church membership. The second addressed the means by which Jewish and Gentile believers could fellowship with one another. So now, let’s take a look at the situation that led to the council. Turn to Acts 15, and read verses 1 through 4.
To summarize, some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem travel to the church in Antioch, teaching the Antiochan Christians that they needed to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply with these men from Jerusalem. The argument, with what has been referred to as “Judaizers,” gets to the point, where Paul, Barnabas and some other believers from the church, are appointed by church leadership in Antioch to go to back to Jerusalem and meet with the Apostles and elders regarding this. So we started out with a group of people, who Luke doesn’t really identify, who come into the church in Antioch and start to stir things up. Who are these people? I believe Paul sheds some light on them later on.
In Galatians, chapter 2, Paul says,
1 Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4 This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.
These “false believers” took it upon themselves to tell the Gentile believers that they would need to be circumcised in order to be saved. Why would they do that?
It’s possible that a new situation confronted them. Soon there would be more Gentile Christians than Jewish Christians in the world. Many Jewish Christians were no doubt worried that the arrival of so many converts from paganism would bring about a weakening of the church’s moral standards, and Paul’s later letters show evidence that their concerns were justified.
It’s also possible the more conservative Jewish Christians felt that the Gentile converts should be received on the same basis that Jews had always accepted Gentiles into the community—through new convert or “proselyte” initiation. This involved circumcision of the males and then, taking upon themselves the total provisions of Mosaic law. For all intents and purposes, a Gentile convert to Judaism became a Jew, not only in religious conviction but in lifestyle as well.
My own mother had to go through a conversion process where she was bathed in a ritual mikvah in order for her to convert to Judaism. This allowed all of us, my brother, sister, and I to be born Jewish. She was also required to raise us in the Jewish faith after her conversion. It was this question, that the conservative group of Jewish Christians raised: Should not Gentiles, be required to become Jews, in order to share in the Christian community?
It seemed to be a natural question. After all:
- The first Christians were all Jews.
- Jesus was a Jew and the Jewish Messiah.
- God had only one covenant people—the Jews.
- Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism.
Jews had always demanded of all Gentile converts the requirements of circumcision and rituals of the Torah. Why should any of this change? Check back in to the next post, as we seek to answer that question.