The First Great Council of the Church
Acts 15 : 1 - 21
Today in Britain, the Christian Churches have major issues to resolve. Over the near 2000 years of Christianity there were always major issues to resolve. Some got resolved and some did not. The greatest set of unresolved issues were formed at The Reformation. But before and after that event, the Christian Church was obliged to send representatives in large scale to major Councils to resolve pressing matters and find ways forward for the Church. The first of these great Councils is described in Acts 15. You may be familiar with the immediate causes and necessities but it is worthwhile rehearsing them. In a nutshell then, ‘Did you have to become a Jew to become a Christian?’ ‘How much of Jew, that is how much of the Law did you have to keep?’ ‘If you did not have to become a Jew. How would you live?’ You may think that these matters are somewhat obvious and scarcely needing such time and effort spent on them but we know that there was a serious battle to liberate Christianity from Judaism in the first century AD. Issues in British Churches today are not so dissimilar. The question ‘How should a Christian live?’ is at the heart of them.
A powerful disruptive Jewish Christian lobby started a campaign to have all newly converted Christian men circumcised according to the Law of Moses. They wanted Christians to bear the same physical mark of being chosen, of being the Elect on their bodies as Jews had always done. This was an attempt to keep Christianity within Judaism, as a reforming branch acknowledging Jesus as the true Messiah at the same time. Paul and Barnabas thought that this would be catastrophic for the mission of the Church. It would wreck the presentation of the Gospel as free grace. It would discourage conversions. It would narrow the scope and appeal of Christianity from its potentially universal possibilities to the character of a sect, associated with race and peculiar history and politics. It could indeed so damage emergent Christianity that it would all but disappear.
The congregation at Antioch where this confrontation had escalated decided to send the strongest possible representation to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and seek to resolve the matter. Paul and Barnabas headed this delegation. The basis of their case was that in fact and witness and testimony God had already made Christians of people without their having been circumcised. The Holy Spirit had been given to gentiles without them having become Jews first. That was the way God was working. The founding of churches was the simple evidence. The risen Jesus was not withholding His salvation from people just because they were not circumcised. So for anyone to try to place a limit and restriction on God’s saving work was wrong. Christianity was for all humanity not for a remnant of Jewish piety. Repentance, acceptance of forgiveness, self-surrender to Jesus Christ and living out the life of humble faith were the only means of becoming and remaining a Christian.
On their journey from Antioch they visited Christian Churches in towns and villages on the way. They built up a head of steam for their disputation by letting everyone know just how many gentiles had become Christians through the free preaching of the Gospel. On arriving at Jerusalem they were given a warm welcome. No doubt they had some great worship services together before getting down to business. They were filled with Holy Spirit and sung their hymns joyfully, praised God and prayed fervently. They were holy rollers indeed.
The Christian Pharisees or, if you prefer, the Pharisaical Christians stated their case first. ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’. When they had finished their presentation, the apostles and elders retired to discuss the matter at length. The text says ‘after much discussion’. We should think of this in terms perhaps of days rather than hours. The time is foreshortened in the New Testament narrative. Peter delivered his verdict. Remember he had been specifically and dramatically educated by the Holy Spirit into accepting gentiles as Christians. He had seen the Holy Spirit given to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family before they had even been baptised. Peter said, ‘God made no distinction between us and them for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?’ And he concluded with a clear statement, ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’.
Next, Paul and Barnabas were given the opportunity to speak and they gave glowing testimony corroborating Peter’s personal witness that indeed the Holy Spirit was moving freely among the gentiles and making them into Christians. Whether there was an impasse we do not know. Where the argument was going we do not know. We do know that a very significant person then spoke up and perhaps, he more than the others, carried the day. James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church. His leadership was moral and spiritual; he was not a chief executive nor an archbishop. He was Jesus’ own brother. 1 Corinthians 15:7, discussing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, tells us, ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles’. Jesus had specifically and individually appeared to his brother James after his resurrection'. Galatians 1:19 tells us that James interviewed Paul after his conversion and before he became an apostle. His nickname was ‘James the Just’ because he was such a good man. Church tradition says that his knees had become hard because of the time he spent in prayer. But he was also an Orthodox Jew who abided by the moral standards of his erstwhile Jewish Faith. He was unimpeachable. His decision would be final and whatever way he went the Church would go.
James quoted the Scriptures, Amos 9 : 11,12. ‘I will restore David’s fallen tent…and all nations that bear my name…will do these things’, declares the Lord. This powerful appeal to Scriptural authority and vindication was important. God had not departed from His Word - he was fulfilling it before their eyes. James then said, ‘It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the gentiles who are turning to God’. In other words, ‘We should not demand or expect circumcision as a condition of becoming a Christian’. That firm and clear principle was laid down and has been kept ever since. No Christian anywhere in the world is required to become as Jew in order to become a Christian. Fascinating it is though, that here in Scotland one identifying mark of Judaism held sway for centuries and still does in the Hebrides and in the lives of private Christians in many places. Keeping the Sabbath. Some here will remember peeling the potatoes on a Saturday evening. Some will remember not being allowed out to play on Sundays. And yet Jesus Himself had said. 'Then Sabbath is made for us, not us for the Sabbath’.
James recognised that in the mishmash of gentile culture certain Jewish customs might be respected out of consideration for Jewish sensitivities. He wanted to give them something. They had lost their case. It was decided. Definitive. No turning back. He too in his great piety, baulked at certain crudities which could damage Christian fellowship. Gentile Christians could easily accommodate them and it would help to distinguish Christianity from the temple based rituals which occurred in every place into which the Gospel had penetrated. Firstly, new gentile Christians should not eat meat which had been offered as sacrifice at any temple to any god. This may seem obvious to us. But any butcher might be selling meat from an animal that had been sacrificed. So Christians were to make enquiries before buying and eating. Many people do that today. Eggs are clearly labelled as to where they come from, caged or free range hens. It was the same sort of thing. GM foods is another example. Gentile Christians were asked not to eat meat from animals from whom the blood had not been drained, and not to drink blood either. Jews held that blood held life. The life of the animal was drained and returned to God and they ate the meat. This custom is still carried out in abattoirs in this country by Orthodox Jews who are given dispensation to do so. Muslims have similar rituals. In the passing a very loaded piece of ruling and advice was give also. ‘abstain from sexual immorality’. Then as now not all Christians understood that sexual promiscuity was not acceptable. Some people have often argued ‘Why?’. Paul tried to answer this by saying that this particular lifestyle choice harms and damages the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But everyone needed to be educated in these terms. Sexual licence was a way of life in the gentile world as it is in our world today. Christians were to live differently, said James. He decided to send written confirmation by his own messengers and when they and Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch the congregation erupted in joyful thanksgiving.
We may think that these disagreements and arguments don’t make much sense or at least seem to us unnecessary. But just look at what is happening today. The Church of England has decided not to allow women to be bishops at present and its bishops have just decided that celibate homosexuals can become bishops if the rest of the Church agrees at its Council later in the year. Christian love and grace are non-negotiable. However, the workings out of what they mean can be perplexing. They could do with James the Just to settle the matter. And so could the Church of Scotland in its present travails.
Over the last nearly 2000 years various Councils have taken place. The most famous are:
First Council of Nicaea (325)
First Council of Constantinople (381)
Council of Ephesus (431)
Council of Chalcedon (451)
Second Council of Constantinople (553)
Third Council of Constantinople (680)
Second Council of Nicaea (787)
The Council of Trent (Trento in Italy) sat from 1545 to 1563 in 25 sessions to try to deal with and respond to the Reformation. The Westminster Assembly of Divines sat in 1648 and formulated the Westminster Confession of Faith the doctrinal basis of the Reformation Churches in Britain. In 1870 The Roman Catholic Church held the First Vatican Council and formulated the doctrine of the Infallibility of the Pope. In 1963 the Second Vatican Council began its work returning worship language from Latin to current languages among other things. The World Council of Churches, that is of 349 Protestant Churches held its first World Assembly in 1948 and it is due to hold its 10th such Assembly in South Korea later this year. Of course this Church of Scotland meets annually in General Assembly in May as final collective arbiter of all matters spiritual and material.
Living the Christian life by loving and following Jesus is essentially simple. But by being large organised churches, lots of matters have to be resolved just as in any other walk of life. We should be thankful that at that first crucial Council the right decision was made and Christianity prospered as a result of which we here today and are free to love and worship God all our days.