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How a Church Council Saved Christianity

George Strickland

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Critical issues were confronting the young, struggling Church. Many Gentiles were joining the Church bringing with them a very different cultural background. Jewish Christians (the so-called "circumcision party," Christian Pharisees who were also called Judaizers), holding to their traditions, especially circumcision, insisted that the only way Gentiles could become Christian was to become a Jew first. Despite the coming of Christ, they taught, Mosaic Law still applied to Christians in its entirety. Saints Paul and Barnabas opposed this notion vigorously. In their journey through Asia Minor they had not required that their Gentile converts be circumcised or that they obey Jewish law, since salvation was not achievable through the Law but only through faith in Jesus Christ. Quite a debate raged in the Antioch Church, since the Judaizers were calling Paul and Barnabas' entire mission enterprise into question.

To settle this furious dispute, the Council of Jerusalem was convened (49/50 CE), as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. This was the first Church Council in the history of Christianity, and its importance was categorical for the survival of Christianity. But for the decision it made, Christianity would have not become a world religion; it would have remained an obscure sect within Judaism. The highest episcopal authorities in the Church were present -- the apostles and other leading lights who had gathered to consider the issue, with Saint James, the bishop of Jerusalem, presiding.

Believers from the party of the Pharisees spoke: "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses." (15:6).

No doubt a healthy debate ensued. Then Saint Peter took the floor:

My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (15: 7-11).

Silence fell on the assembly following the remarks of the great "Rock" of the Church.

Then Paul and Barnabas made their case by giving a sample of the sort of Gospel they had been preaching to the Gentiles. If they had preached a heretical version of the faith, their missionizing would have been utterly wasted.

Saint James now showed his bold and courageous leadership by bringing the Council to a conclusion. Unflinchingly and decisively, he sided with Peter, Paul and Barnabas. Arming himself with scriptural precedent from the prophet Amos, James announced: "My brothers, listen to me. ... Therefore I have reached a decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God," (15: 13, 19).

The more liberal position of Peter, Paul and Barnabas was confirmed as authentic to the Gospel! Gentiles could convert directly to Christianity without going through Judaism. The fourfold restrictions-three dietary and one moral-were very mild tokens asked of the Gentiles asked of the Gentiles so as not to offend their fellow Jewish Christians. (In rabbinical tradition, the three sons of Noah, who were thought to be progenitors of both Jews and Gentiles, had had the same restrictions placed on them.

But the Council of Jerusalem had clearly opted for the crucial redemptive word: salvation by faith rather than salvation by law, a momentous authority for the Christianization of the world. Now the Church could get on with her outreach, Jews and Gentiles together in one body. The Council of Jerusalem would not make it difficult for the Gentiles turning to God, but would uphold the unity of the Church, even in a multiplicity of cultures!

It was this redemptive word of the Council that St. Paul carried with him on his restless travels and that he was anxious to protect.

This same redemptive word is the reason why there are billions of Christians throughout the world today.

There is an important lesson from the Council of Jerusalem on how to solve controversies and quarrels in the Church. The Council's decision involved several elements:

  • A Face-to-Face Confrontation: There was no whispering campaign, no rush to publish, no indirect attacks or misunderstandings, but a candid exchange between reasonable people, not extremists.

  • Listening: Possibly one of the most important verses in Luke's report on the conclave is 15:12: "The whole assembly kept silence and listened."

  • A Scriptural Solution: Saint James based his decision on three prophets-Isaiah (45:21), Jeremiah (12:15), and Amos 9:11).

  • Compromise: While the word has both negative and positive connotations, there is no question but that the decision at Jerusalem, while not "compromising" (in the negative sense) a syllable of the Gospel, still found a "compromise solution (in the positive sense) between opposing viewpoints, for the sake of the unity of the Church.

Feuders-in-the-faith today might well look back to Christian origins for Christian solutions.

Dr. George Strickland Ph.D. is editor of the Directions to Orthodoxy website.

Orthodox Times

Posted: 16-Dec-06

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