The Jerusalem Council

In Acts 15, two proposed ways of salvation are competing with each other: faith plus circumcision saves you versus faith alone saves you. Christian Pharisees (also called Judaizers) taught the former, and Peter, Paul and Barnabas taught the latter. Jesus’ brother James was recognized as the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and presided over the council that met to solve this pressing debate. The two lessons for us to see are 1) the method for dealing with controversy in the church, and 2) the message that clarified and resolved this particular controversy.

In response to the controversy raised by the Judaizers, the leaders of the church at Antioch did not blog about it, split the church, set out a fleece, take a congregational vote, or have their local elders make a decision. When their extensive discussion and debate did not bring peace, they sent elders as delegates to the church in Jerusalem so that the broader church could decide the matter.

This action shows us 1) the role of elders in the church, and 2) the value of theological discussion. It has become very fashionable to sneer at theological discussion as an irrelevant distraction that cripples the mission of the church. The idea seems to be that wonky elders with weird beards just sit around and read big books and have long arcane discussions while people are going to hell all over the world. But here we see the opposite: the leaders of the church are brought together for debate because of the mission work of the church.

This shows us that theology and mission are not in competition. Theology serves the mission, and the mission depends on theology. So do you love a good debate? Remember that theology is meant to serve the mission of the church. Are you passionate about the mission? Don’t forget that long discussions about doctrine are necessary for the mission to survive and succeed. Bottom line: without elders arguing about theology, you lose the gospel. Without the gospel, you lose the church. No gospel, no church = no Jesus.

Thus far the method; what was the message of the council? What did they decide, and what convinced them? After much debate, Peter presented the case for the faith alone side. Based on his encounter with God that commissioned him to go the Gentiles, and God’s own testimony of giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles without distinction, Peter declared that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith (vs. 9) through the grace of Jesus (v.11). Why then, Peter asks, are you trying to save them by putting a yoke on them that never saved even those of us who are Jewish? Paul and Barnabas confirm and extend Peter’s words with a report of their missionary work in Galatia, demonstrating that God is saving Gentiles through faith apart from circumcision.

At this point, James, the brother of Jesus, brings the debate to an end through the important work of evaluating the experience of the apostles in light of Scripture. In Amos 9, James sees that God has promised to do exactly what He has been doing through Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. After a period of exile, God promised to return and rebuild David’s fallen tent, so that the rest of mankind would seek the Lord. God is fulfilling this passage, says James, and apparently He isn’t waiting for circumcision and law-keeping, and so, (vs. 19) his judgment is that they should not trouble the Gentiles who turn to God.

To summarize what this means for us: Don’t listen to the Pharisees, and don’t become a Pharisee. Don’t listen – whenever anyone tries to guilt trip you into being a “Jesus plus a right set of secondary behaviors” Christian, don’t submit. For freedom Christ has set you free. And don’t become a Pharisee – don’t place heavy yokes on people walking through the door of faith. Have strong convictions about secondary matters, but don’t attach them to the gospel as necessary parts of the salvation package.

God’s method for dealing with serious controversy in the church is to have qualified elders discuss the matter in light of Scripture, and make judgments on behalf of the Church. God’s message to Pharisees of all sorts is that no one is saved by law-keeping, but only by faith through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Posted on Thursday, October 02, 2014 by CJ Bowen