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’ (a common term to refer to gentiles, not to actual Greek people; all in the empire spoke Greek) 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 (Acts 16.7), 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 in 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. So on this issue, we are still in the era of both Jews and gentiles believing in the Jewish messiah Jesus, the latter being grafted in to the Israel of God.
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). As Paul reiterates in Ephesians, the two have become one (Eph 2.15) and for both Jew and gentile there is ‘one faith, one baptism’ which reflects the unity of God himself (Eph 4.5–7).
Secondly, Luke’s account suggests that space was given to hear both sides of the debate. In the text itself, more space is given to Peter’s side of things and his account, though I don’t think it is clear what that signifies. Was the ‘new teaching’ given space because the default option would have been to continue as they had been, so they needed to listen more carefully to the advocates for change? Or did this new teaching need greater scrutiny and interrogation? I don’t think we can know.
Thirdly, it is striking that the new teaching has advocates from two quite distinct perspectives. Both Peter, apostle ‘to the Jews’, and Paul, ‘apostle to the gentiles’, who themselves had been on different sides and were potentially the focus of rival groupings (see 1 Cor 1.12) testified in harmony about the new thing God was doing. This work of God transcended the natural boundaries or groupings within the early church; this was not a matter of a power struggle between blocs. This is part of a biblical conviction that we should only believe the testimony of people when two witnesses agree (Deut 17.6, 19.15; compare Mark 14.59, John 5.31).
Fourthly, the testimony that both Peter and Paul share has such a wide appeal as the authentic work of God that the response of the whole group is to fall into ‘silence’. This isn’t just the lack of argument and contention that goes with being teachable, signified by the word hesychia (1 Tim 2.11), but the much stronger response sigao of actually saying nothing (as in Luke 9.36). And the silence was not an act of respect to give space to Paul and Barnabas’s account—it was a response to it as they heard what God was doing. There was unanimous agreement that this was an amazing work of God.
Fifthly, the wisdom of the sage James, brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, who might well have been thought to have an interest in keeping the movement thoroughly Jewish, appears to have been decisive in shaping the final decision.
Sixthly, though in relatively abbreviated form, the citation of Scripture is key. This apparent innovation, this novel act of God, is in fact understood to be something already articulated in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). This is often passed over or misunderstood, since James quotes from the Greek OT, which give an alternative reading suggesting the gentiles will come to worship God, instead of the Hebrew which suggests rather the opposite, that God’s people will conquer or subdue the gentiles. But such ‘alternative readings’ of the OT was widespread in Second Temple Judaism, and the idea James cites can be found in many passages in the OT, not only in the early promises to Abraham, but in the later prophets (particularly the second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 onwards) who express a vision of the whole earth coming to worship the Holy One of Israel who is the creator of and lord over the whole world.
We should also note that the idea that the ministry of Jesus to Israel should spill over to the gentiles is present in even the most Jewish of the gospels, Matthew, where the narrative is punctuated by the appearance of gentile figures who often have a clearer understanding of who Jesus is. The climax of that gospel is Jesus sending his disciples to ‘all nations’; the Council of Acts 15 appears to be catching up with what Jesus has already said!
Seventhly, the potential disruption of this new understanding is minimised by the disciplines that the new gentile believers are asked to live under. There is a strong consensus that the four rules are drawn not from the covenant with Noah (which might look like laws for a universal humanity) but specifically from Torah, rather embarrassingly from Leviticus 17 and 18:
1. No Idols (Leviticus 17:7-9)
They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves…
2. No Sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:6-23)
No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations…[or] your neighbor’s wife…[or] with a man as one does with a woman…[or] with an animal
3. No drinking blood (Leviticus 17:10-12)
… Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood – I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people
4. No eating strangled meat (Leviticus 17:13-14)
Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood
This confluence of revelation from God, testimony of experience, agreement between those of very different perspectives, the apostolic wisdom of a respected leader, the location of the experience in the scriptural account of the purposes of God, and the minimising of disruption and difference, might then offer us some kind of framework for decision-making in the contemporary context when faced with a sharp difference of view.
(It is rather striking that there is a complete absence of appeal to the example of Jesus, and this reminds of us two things in passing. First, Jesus’ teaching in the gospels does look very Jewish, and his mission is consistently portrayed as being ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15.24) even though there are clear pointers that it might in time develop further. Given the momentous significance of the decision to recognise the gentile mission, this suggests that the gospel writers were not adapting the stories about Jesus in order to answer questions that they had. The reference to the laws from Leviticus also undermines the popular notion that we are to ignore the OT law which has been displaced by the grace of God in Jesus. It is clear in Acts, and the rest of the NT, that we gentiles have been incorporated into the Jewish people of God, even without obeying all details of the Mosaic law, and we are not displacing them or superseding them.)
But, against that, we also need to note that the admission of the Gentiles was seen to fulfil, in OT terms, the ultimate goal of the eschatological purposes of God, indeed the whole point of the story and history of God’s election of a special people for himself in the first place. They were always to be a light to the world, that all people would be drawn to the presence of God enthroned in Zion, and the whole earth filled with knowledge of the glory of God. To that extent, this event is unrepeatable, so the example here needs to referred to with caution. In particular, it means that citing this example as justification for a contemporary change in the church on a specific issue would require us to argue that our issue was one which we can find expressed in the OT as an eschatological goal of God’s purposes in redemption—which is asking rather a lot.
There is a good exploration of this episode, as we might expect, in Ben Witherington’s substantial commentary on Acts, though the observations above are my own. Witherington leans heavily on the work in this area by Richard Bauckham.
There is a good and detailed exploration of this in relation to current debates on sexuality in Andrew Goddard’s Grove booklet, E 121 God, Gentiles and Gay Christians: Acts 15 and Change in the Church, which includes a sympathetic comparison between the two situations before drawing conclusions. He notes the significance of the four prohibitions on current proposals:
If this is the rationale underlying Acts 15 then the significance for its use in the current debates over homosexuality is revolutionary. The failure of ‘revisionist’ advocates to consider the limits placed on Gentiles by the Decree has always been a problem in their argument. The seriousness of that problem is now deepened if the Decree is based on Lev 17 and 18 and the prohibition of porneia therefore rooted in Lev 18.26. Among the ‘detestable things’ prohibited by that text are the male homosexual acts described in Lev 18.22. There is now strong evidence that viewing homosexual practice as acceptable for gay Christians is not only to push the analogy from Acts 15 further than it logically can go. To make such a claim would in fact explicitly contradict one of the requirements placed on those Gentiles who entered the church as Gentiles. (p 21)
(Published previously in revised form)