Relevant Verses: Acts 15
Leading Question: At the end of their missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas return to the church that sent them in Antioch. When they give their mission report, not everyone is happy. Why?
1. Acts 15 is a critical chapter. The church doesn’t all agree on the methods of Paul and Barnabas. The conversion of Gentiles is both good and bad news for many Jews. They are, of course, thankful that God was reaching Gentile hearts, but they were concerned that Paul and Barnabas had watered down the lifestyle changes necessary for a true disciple of Jesus. In particular, there seemed to be a concern over those issues that would have impacted social interaction and fellowship between the two groups. Issues such as circumcision and ceremonial law as it related to table fellowship loomed large (Acts 15:1-5). For example, some felt circumcision was absolutely necessar. Others didn’t. How would these issues that threatened the unity of the church be dealt with?
As is always the case, success in cross-cultural mission brings a mixture of joy and concern for the home church. There is joy that others have accepted the message, but concern, because the way the Christian life is lived will always look different in different cultures.
Drawing from Acts 15, what are the lessons we can learn about how to deal with these sorts of conflicts? (I think this question is the central question of this chapter. It deserves long and careful discussion.)
What must a person do in order to be saved? This is a question that is dealt with on several occasions in Luke’s writings. We should note that the answers that are given in the text aren’t identical. What should we learn from this? Is there a core set of beliefs and a core set of behaviors that are necessary, regardless of one’s culture?
Circumcision seems to be a fundamental requirement in the Bible. In fact, according to Exodus 12:43-49, it was required of slaves and foreigners who wanted to experience the covenant blessings of God’s people. How could this now be changed, and foreigners no longer be required to be circumcised? What does this say about the other explicit commands of the Bible if we can set this aside to make it easier for those who are turning to God?
In Acts 15, there is the explicit aim of making it easier for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Is this still a helpful guide? Should the way of salvation be broad and easily accessible, or does God require us to sacrifice everything to follow him?
Ultimately, what were the four requirements that were required of the Gentiles who were coming to faith in Jesus? Are these requirements still in effect? What surprises you about this list?
2. In recent times, churches who are facing internal conflict over issues of policy and global practice have turned to Acts 15 for guidance. Clearly, the apostles wanted unity.
If we want unity, what is the main message we can learn from Acts 15?
3. Some time ago, I was asked to read Acts 15 and reflect on how it ought to inform the way we deal with the diversity of practices within a global church. Should diverse practices be administratively ended, so the church can be unified? Are those advocating for diversity of practice troublemakers who are fracturing the unity of the Body of Christ? Here are a few paragraphs which address some of these issues. I include this brief commentary for your reflection.
First, the Jerusalem Council was not about establishing uniform practice or giving approval to limited variations, but was specifically about legitimizing diversity of practice which was already taking place. The Jerusalem Council clarified that the church does not need to maintain uniform practice across its territory to remain unified. In different geographic and cultural settings, believers could live out their commitment to Christ in different ways. This was already happening, and the Council affirmed that this was indeed appropriate. The challenge that precipitated the Council was not this diversity among the Gentile believers, but the demand for a uniform practice from Jewish Christians who expected circumcision of all believers. In their decision, the apostles noted how this Jewish group had disturbed and troubled the church (Acts 15:24). Ironically, it was the group clamoring for unity that was actually fracturing unity.
Second, the Acts 15 Council arrived at their decision as a result of the testimony of those who had seen God’s Spirit at work among the Gentiles, the very group accused of being “out of compliance” with the rest of the Church. According to the “minutes” of the meeting recorded in Acts, missionary stories told by Peter, Paul and Barnabas carried the day. By the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, God had already shown his acceptance of the Gentiles. Unity was based on this gracious act of God. In short, the reports of God’s inclusivity demanded a corresponding move toward inclusivity from the Church. As Peter said, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). Who would dare to stand against what the Holy Spirit had done?
Third, the decision of the Jerusalem Council was not quoted nor treated as authoritative policy to arbitrate disagreements moving forward. Just a few years later, Paul dealt with a controversy over idol meat among the believers in Corinth. This was precisely the issue that the Jerusalem Council had settled. There was a clear policy which answered the question by saying that believers must not eat food offered to idols. But Paul never mentions the decision made in Jerusalem! Why? Guided by the Holy Spirit, he must have realized that doing so would, in fact, fracture the very unity that the Jerusalem Council sought to preserve. In short, quoting policy to settle disagreements could never create the kind of spiritual unity the New Testament Church desired.