Recently there have been debates, nationally and internationally. about culture and inclusivity. Within the church itself there has been a push for unity and understanding. In order to navigate the differing views and opinions, we search for templates, models of how things should be done. Similarly, the early Christian church looked for templates and searched for rules of conduct. They found that template in the life of Christ and in His word.
Let us back up a little and ask a few questions; specifically, what was the Jerusalem Council and how did it come about? First, we need to establish some background information. Paul and Barnbas have returned from their missionary journeys and are with the Gentile converts in Antioch. They spend a significant amount of time with these new believers being “missionaries,” living in and becoming part of the community at Antioch.
E. G. White, in Acts of the Apostles, paints a picture of the church at Antioch as thriving and active. However, the members in Antioch were not just Jews; they were converted Gentiles and as a result, their worldview, perspectives, and way of life were vastly different than those of the church in Jerusalem. As a result, their worship was different than the worship of the Jewish believers.
This differing worldview and understanding becomes the “problem.” According to Acts 15 (NIV), a member from the church in Judea visits Antioch and becomes concerned. This concern is two-fold: 1) The Gentiles do not appear to be following the ceremonial laws; they are uncircumcised, and (2) the lack of conformity, in the eyes of the Judean, waters down the Judeo-Christian faith and opens a door to compromise. After all, the Jews were chosen, set apart, and Jesus was himself a Jew. The lack of conformity could be interpreted as eroding that distinction.
The inclination when reading Acts is to jump forward, because we have insight, and condemn the members of the church at Judea. How could they force their beliefs onto the Gentiles? Aren’t they just creating barriers and excluding those who God has called to him?
Pause a moment and move forward to the present; before condemning the Judeans, look at the other side and consider how their concerns could be valid and could come from a place of apprehension and care. The compromise that causes the Judean concern is not solely one of appearance but one which is valid, in that, without biblically based standards, Gentiles converting to Christianity may not give up “customs that were inconsistent with the principles of Christianity.” (White, 1997). Don’t we also struggle with these same concepts? How do we welcome new believers without harming them? How do we teach biblical principles without alienating and excluding?
It is important to note that the church at Antioch was multicultural and included both Jewish and Gentile believers. “Christianity always wears cultural robes, just as Jesus Christ was born into human flesh and human culture.” (Doss, 2005). This statement brings to light one of the key factors in the conflict between the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers which led to the Jerusalem Council. How to integrate new believers into a faith that was manifestly Jewish and drew its identity from the uniqueness and distinction of the Jewish race and culture. In this conflict we see the early church grapple with concepts and perceptions that we still struggle with today.
Once the conflict arises, a council of elders, disciples, and representatives from Antioch is convened in Jerusalem. Those embroiled in conflict call on the the wisdom and counsel of the disciples, those who walked with Jesus and the leadership of the church. White describes the discussions as “warm,” implying that there were strong feelings on both sides about the question of circumcision and how to approach the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles within the Christian faith. Descriptions of the Council discussion in the book of Acts and in Acts of the Apostles emphasize the care and concern given to the Gentile culture and how holding these believers to certain ceremonial laws could discourage them. Paul spoke about the active faith of the Gentiles, while Peter pointed to his dream about accepting those who God has called.
A group that was included in the Council were the Gentiles themselves. This points to the need to hear the voices of other cultures about their experiences. While Paul could talk about what he experienced in Antioch and the atmosphere of worship and praise, he could not tell the Council about the conversion experience of a Gentile. As we move forward in “teaching all nations” we need to include the voices of those directly affected. We need to follow the template given in Acts 15 and prayerfully incorporate the cultural context of those who join our churches and make up our communities.
The members of the Jerusalem Council realized that, “When missionaries carry the gospel into another culture they translate the gospel not only into another language but into another whole culture.” (Doss, 2005). The Jerusalem Council illustrates the integration of cultures and standards within a faith community. The final decision was a compromise, to uphold the commandments and standards given by God and eliminate less important benchmarks that served as barriers. In the modern context we need to consider what are the barriers that we erect that fail to acknowledge the “great changes” an individual makes upon conversion and serve only as a way to discourage from following Christ (White, 1997).
The template provided by the Jerusalem Council should inform the way we conduct our missionary efforts as well as guide us in the questions and struggles we have about inclusivity. In making their decision, the Council sought guidance from the Holy Spirit, listened to the accounts of an eye witness (Peter), and the stories from those involved (the Gentiles from Antioch). The Council, although led by elders and disciples, was a collaborative effort. Each group with an interest was part of the process and through God’s guidance were able to reach common ground. A decision was reached that acknowledged the sovereignty of God yet upheld the cultural identity of the new believers.
G. Doss, The Jerusalem Council, Faculty Publications, Paper 5 (2005). http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/world-mission-pubs/5
E. G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Coldwater, MI: Remnant Publications, 1997).
Karon Powell is an attorney based in Washington, DC. She currently teaches at Southern Adventist University in the Global Community Development Department.
Image credit: Pexel
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