It is hard to underestimate what a seismic shift it was for the early church to come to terms with the idea that salvation for Jesus was for gentiles who remained as gentiles rather than joining the historic people of God by becoming converts to Judaism.
The account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 has been drawn on in a range of situations where Christians have argued for a radical change in our understanding of the church and salvation. It comes up frequently in the current debate on sexuality, but was cited by Dick France, late Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in relation to the admission of women to ordination in the Church of England, and has been drawn on in discussions of the growth of ‘fresh expressions’ of church in relation to ‘inherited’ church.
The account of the Council meeting itself forms the climax of an extended section of the narrative that began in Acts 10 with Peter’s rooftop vision and encounter with Cornelius, the Roman centurion and ‘God-fearer’. The importance of this episode is highlighted by Luke’s repetition of it in Peter’s recounting the episode in Acts 11. Luke builds the story carefully, noting the development of the distinctive identity of the Jesus-followers in the form of the name ‘Christian’ in Acts 11.25, and he then dovetails the story of the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Acts 13 and 14 before returning to the question of gentile believers in Acts 15.
This is important, since Luke deliberately structures his accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s ministries to mirror one another, so Peter’s encounter with Cornelius is mirrored by Paul’s habit of preaching to ‘Greeks’ after he has first preached in the synagogue. And, coming at the mid-point of Acts, the Council and its decision become the turning point in the narrative. Up until now, the main focus has been the ministry of Peter and the growth of the gospel amongst Jewish believers. But from now on, the focus is decisively on Paul and his ministry amongst gentile believers. He heads West again on his so-called ‘Second Missionary journey’, and is directed by the Spirit to cross into Europe, where he establishes congregations at Philippi and Thessaloniki, then heads south to Athens and Corinth in Acts 18.
Noting this highlights two issues of context which we need to consider when reading the Council decision. First, it is hard to underestimate what a seismic shift it was for the early church to come to terms with the idea that salvation for Jesus was for gentiles who remained as gentiles rather than joining the historic people of God by becoming converts to Judaism. Something of the significance is captured at the start of Paul’s reflection on the Jews in the purposes of God in Romans 9–11:
Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9.4–5)
The Mosaic law, including circumcision and the food laws, were understood to be the Scriptural commands of God to his people. So anyone wanting to join God’s people needed to take on the ‘yoke of the law’ and conform.
The second question of context is the extent to which Luke is here describing a one-off, historical event, rather than setting out principles for the continuing life of the church. This arises in reading every part of Acts. Was the pattern of the shared life of the early believers, having ‘everything in common’, a one-off glimpse of an utopian moment, or an example for us to follow in our church communities? Are the ‘signs and wonders’ something for the apostolic era alone, or might they persist into the present? Are Luke’s accounts of the leaders a record of their actions alone, or an example for us to emulate? Each needs to be considered on its own merits, but there is also a sense in which the answer is ‘both/and’ instead or ‘either/or’. Luke is clearly recording events (like the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost) which are once-for-all; but these once-for-all events are the threshold of a new age—the age of the end-times gift of the Spirit and the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth before Jesus’ return. This is the age in which we continue to live, and so, in terms of ‘theological time’, we are still in the same era.
What of the decision process in the Council itself? The account in Acts 15 has a number of striking features.
First, there was no attempt to ‘agree to disagree’ or seek ‘good disagreement’. As elsewhere in relation to this issue (for example, in Paul’s correspondence with the Galatians) the clear differences were expressed in ‘sharp dispute and debate’ (Acts 15.2). Nowhere in the NT is unity sought by avoiding issues or agreeing to ‘walk together apart.’ If this had happened on the issue at stake, we might have ended up with a church of Jewish followers of Jesus, and a church of gentile followers of Jesus, which would have fundamentally changed both the nature of the church and the subsequent history of Christianity. All are concerned to be of ‘one mind’ which is the ‘mind of Christ’ (Phil 2.2–5).