Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Council of Jerusalem

I was asked a question today about the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. At the council, leaders of the early Church, including Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas, write a letter to Gentile converts commanding this:

The Holy Spirit and we have agreed not to put any other burden on you besides these necessary rules: eat no food that has been offered to idols; eat no blood; eat no animal that has been strangled; and keep yourselves from sexual immorality.
Acts 15:28-29

How does this work for Christians? This is my answer.

The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was sparked by the situation in Antioch in Acts 15:1-2 (which probably also sparked Paul to write Galatians before going to the council).

Antioch was the first largely Gentile church, but it was also largely Jewish. Before then, Christianity had been almost entirely Jewish. But Antioch was a big city, and the new church there was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles as full and equal members. That caused two big questions.

The first one was the question of whether Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be Christians. Paul clearly argues not in Galatians.

But the other one was that Jews who hung out with and specifically ate with Gentiles ended up becoming less Jewish. Jews had strict food laws; Gentiles didn't; Jews weren't even meant to eat with Gentiles.

Word of that probably got to Jerusalem, and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem them came under a lot of pressure from other Jews because Christianity was seen to mean becoming less Jewish. But Gentiles were also much more promiscuous than Jews, and people started worrying that the Gentile Christians in Antioch were being sexually immoral, which caused even more problems for the Christians in Jerusalem.

So some Jews from Jerusalem (without the permission of the church leaders Acts 15:24) went to Antioch and tried to solve the problem. They told Gentile Christians that they needed to be circumcised and become Jewish. And they told Jewish Christians that they should stop eating with Gentiles. Paul gets very angry at both of those in Galatians, because they end up being salvation issues.

The Council of Jerusalem solves it differently. They expect the Jews and Gentiles to keep on eating together, and they don't tell the Gentiles to become Jewish. But what they do is they ask all the Christians in Antioch - both Gentiles and Jews to keep some of the basic Jewish food laws. That means the Jewish Christians keep a bit more of their Jewish identity, so it doesn't bother the Jerusalem Jews as much. The Council also tells them to avoid sexual immorality, just to make extra sure and so that it's clear to everyone that whatever is going on in Antioch, if it is getting Jews into eating blood and sexual immorality, it's nothing to do with the Christians in Jerusalem.

It's not compromising on any salvation issue, but it's asking the Gentile Christians in Antioch to hold back on their freedom a bit for the sake of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

But there's also the tension of Jews in full communion with Gentiles starting to abandon their Jewishness (e.g. eating with Gentiles, even eating non-Kosher food). It makes sense that that could cause Christians in Jerusalem to face accusations of not being really Jewish, and then start to get persecuted. In that situation, it makes perfect sense that you'd get some Christians from Jerusalem going to Antioch to tell the Gentiles to get circumcised and the Jews to stop eating with them. That seems overwhelmingly the most likely background for Galatians. So what does it mean for the Council of Jerusalem? It means the command to abstain from blood and from sexual immorality is a compromise to try to keep the Jews in Jerusalem happier (and reduce the persecution) without compromising on salvation issues. The sexual immorality prohibition may well be addressing unfounded accusations from Jerusalem, and the prohibition from blood stopping the Jews in Antioch from becoming less Jewish, while still allowing them to maintain table fellowship with Gentiles. So it doesn't apply to Christians today in the same way. But it probably would if (for example) I was involved in a church consisting largely of Jewish background believers (or Muslim background believers or whatever) where there were a large number of non-believing Jews / Muslims in the general community. It's pretty similar to Paul in 1 Corinthians 9.
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