The Jerusalem Council, Culture and Mission

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.

Resources:

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8954
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Deleted by Dog Tail. Happy Sabbath.

There were Pharisees who believed in Christ but were insisting on circumcision and observance of the Law of Moses.

By what authority do we interpret the Law of Moses as the ceremonial law?

Acts 15 clearly says “the Law of Moses.” A Pharisee who was a believer would know and accept that the ceremonial aspects of the sanctuary services finished when the veil was rent, when the True Veil on the cross died.

What’s more, Peter made it clear that the hearts of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles were cleansed by faith through the gift of the Holy Spirit, not by circumcision and observing the Law of Moses.

An hour ago I watched on TV the swearing in of the new Prime Minister of Australia. Same party but a new government. Similarly, Peter and Paul both recognised in Acts 15 that the old covenant was over. They were no longer governed by the Law of Moses.

The world church now was to operate under the new covenant. The old has gone. The new has come. The Apostolic leaders knew that all believers were to live by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses. Righteousness cannot come from the law. Ours is a righteousness from God that comes to us apart from law.

Circumcision and the Law of Moses was and still is a yoke that the Jewish fathers and the Apostles were not able to bear

Law kills. The Spirit gives life.

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The article doesn’t go far enough, Ray. Thanks for bringing it across the finish line!

Frank

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The author seems to believe the difference between Jewish and Gentile worship was cultural and their world view. I believe instead, it was Paul’s teaching that faith alone, without the law of Moses and its 613 commandments, could not save. In essence, Paul not Peter, James or John, practiced a faith that made the Torah void of worship value. This teaching resulted in a new form of worship, with doctrines and faith at the center, minus all the Jewish OT entrapments and ceremonies.

Within 50 to 100 years the early NT church consisted of nearly 100% Gentiles. When a Jewish person became part of the early NT church–they were forced to leave behind all their Jewish customs, language, culture and Torah inspired faith. Faith in Jesus alone offered forgiveness of sins and a new ethics. Moses becomes purely historical.

Remember that Roman or Greek gods were not worshiped through by faith or love. It was ceremonial ritual. Paul’s teachings was a radial change for Gentile religious culture. Perhaps this change was welcomed by some. Only later it became a source of trouble to the Roman Empire.

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I would say that both were part of the picture, Frank. But, I agree with you, the article doesn’t go far enough in identifying the issues. The death and resurrection of Jesus brought an entirely new end time situation into view, that found its focus and expression when Gentiles began to be converted…apart from the Torah. The idea that this was just about Gentiles adopting ceremonial laws is a Christian anachronism. Gentiles did not have to come under the entire yoke of Torah, a yoke that Peter said, " Neither we nor our fathers could bear."

The reason was more than cultural. Paul later stated that the law as covenant was part of the old age, its letter could only serve to condemn and kill, and life under it simply exacerbated the Adamic condition of humanity, Jew or Gentile. With the resurrection of Jesus, the new Adam, the old was gone and the new had come! New creation, of Jew and Gentile in him, was no longer to be defined by adherence to the covenant of Torah, and adherence to its letter. The new way of the Spirit had been opened, that brought Jews and Gentiles together, making the two into one newly united humanity in the Messiah. He broke down the wall contained in commandments and ordinances, i.e. the Torah, and made the two one.

Again, this was more than a cultural issue. It was a theological, and eschatological one. The gospel had brought the dawn of God’s kingdom in Christ, in a way that was anticipated by the Law, but that forever reshaped the role of the Law in determining belonging to the covenant people of God. It no longer did. We haven’t caught up.

Thanks…

Frank

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The bible passage of the decision of the Jerusalem council is another butchered section of Acts.
Paul sensed the trend early on when writing…“the mystery of LAWLESSNESS was already at work”

It is even used to abrogate the Sabbath commandment.
Typical of so many churchgoers who are stuck in the Rom 8:7 mindset.

“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).”

Living in Europe I offer the following “barriers” to fruitful interaction with unbelievers:

  • insistance on strict Sabbath observance from Fridaynight to Saturdaynight

  • no alcohol

  • no caffeinated beverages (tea, coffee, …)

  • distinction of clean and unclean foods (remember Peter’s vision)

Although all these points have a value and are good in themselves, it’s quite another thing to make them part of baptismal vows. I find that none of that was included in the Acts 15 decision. In other words I’d rather have the Holy Spirit tell a believer what to do - at the risk of not getting a strict SDA-standards-person.

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The primary reason Martin, who actually was very kind and said " the puzzle of SDA’s" was similar in focus to why he “questioned” and others called LDS a cult. They have a secondary source of authority. Those sources contribute to certain doctrines that are viewed as outside normal orthodox Christian understandings of faith and practice. It was not primarily about “sabbath” as 7th day Baptist are not considered a cult. Some of the main external difficulties had to do with the nature of Christ ,Scriptural authority, The Atonement/IJ & Salvation.
Andreason was ultimately influential on having QOD removed. He held that in the final phase of the sanctuary work mankind could have the same source of power and live just like Christ.
George Knight as many know helped reproduce the 2003 version with notes/comments of the original.
So, the “puzzle still remains” across the scope of Adventism with people like Des Ford being removed for challenging the meaning of Dan. 8:14 as interpreted by Uriah Smith and EGW. Question…, has the SDA church ever disagreed publicly with a perceived teaching of EGW? Is it not true in practice, if not official policy position, that eisegesis of her work upon scripture is what is read out in our “exegesis” of difficult text to us?
Regards

PS. We should be inclusive/commune with other Christian faiths and kind but theologically exclusive to non Christian faiths.

WELL, these thoughts were a response to “Dog Tail” who has since removed the post…but I will leave them for some uninformed to learn a little SDA history they may not be aware of. Cheers

I am seeing that the issue of contextualization is important in this discussion. One of the requirements set at the Jerusalem Council was abstaining from good sacrificed to idols (verse 29), but when Paul later wrote to the Gentile believers in Colossae, he said “Don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.” (Col.2: 16). He made an even stronger statement to the Romans (Rom. 14:14). Paul understood how important it was to contextualize the gospel.

In the same way, we must read Scripture contextually, and as we move further from the time of Ellen White, I think we should read her writings contextually too.

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These strictures in one’s lifestyle, are vows we make to God. A sound biblical case can be made for them all just as the Nazarites of the Old Testament times made vows more strict than their fellow Jews so Adventists are in the habit of making certain vows to the Lord as they embrace the way or discipleship.

We cannot understand Romans 8:7 without verse 6. "… the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace. As such we are subject to the law of God, not the law of Moses which was the point of conflict in Acts 15.

Christ has given us a new commandment. According to 1 John 3:23, seen in context, God’s commandment is that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He commanded us. According to Christ’s own words, our work is to believe in Him.

Our joy in Christ is to live by the Spirit, not by law and the ways of the flesh. Law kills. The Spirit gives life.

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But, the problem is that we encode these lifestyle choices into our baptismal vows. It says that full Christian belonging and fellowship is not possible unless one agrees to such things as food laws and sabbath observance. The question is, do Christians in other fellowships receive the Holy Spirit just like Adventists through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from sabbath keeping and following Lev. 11 food laws? If the answer is yes, and I don’t see how it could be any other, then why would we have such exclusive baptismal vows? Such walls of exclusivity are similar to what the Jerusalem council began to tear down.

Thanks…

Frank

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Peter,
I don’t object to SDA’s adding as many “self restrictions as they choose on themselves.” Col.2:23. But do you really think the things Romey said should be in baptismal vows? Are those who don’t do them disqualified or lesser Christians, simply not enlightened yet?
The problem, I believe Paul and later Peter after his vision realized, that these things should not be demanded of others. They are offered to God. Why do we judge another for not doing those things one does on foods, days etc? They are done to God not man . This is the crux of the problem.
If it seems good to you fine but don’t despise another or judge their salvation in Christ by them.

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I am glad for this line of discussion for two reasons.

  1. I question the use of the term “ceremonial law” that is often substituted for “the law”. I don’t get it but I do have some idea as to why the SDA Church does this.
  2. The outcome of the Council of Jerusalem asked that believers only do a very few things. As has been pointed out the SDA Church has seen fit to insert extra rules into what that council jettisoned. I find that very problematic.

I have often questioned these things in my church and have been met with much blow back. From this thread I see I am not the only one who finds these things questionable.

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There is a deeper learning to be had here. I think it is more important to ask why the Gentiles were asked to do these few things, rather than the things themselves.

  1. Food offered to idols: the food may or may not have been “unclean”. That was not the issue. The Greeks may not have seen the connection, but it was clear to the Jews.
  2. Sexual immorality: the practice of this was often associated with idol worship.
  3. Meat from strangled animals: this again was related to Jewish food laws.
    All of the above were as much a part of Greek culture as they were Greek worship. To not ask the Greeks to refrain from these, wojld have been indicating to the Jews that they should continue with their cultural practices. So restricting the Greeks here, was giving freedom to the Jews.

We also need to think - it may be OK for us, but we should not do anything that causes a brother to stumble (Rom 14:13-15)

The small list of requirements for Gentile converts has bothered me also. It seems that the Jerusalem council was dealing with a few narrow issues–food, blood, adultery and circumcision. These were the largest issues for devout Jews to welcome Gentile converts into their fellowship.

Circumcision was a statement of Hebrew faith and an obligation to follow the faith of Moses. Food and blood was at the root of Hebrew (Torah) uncleanness that classified one as a devout believer or an apostate. Adultery for Roman men was regarded as a right, especially with slave or captive women. Roman and Greek gods was all adulterous, thus giving permission for sexual exploits to be guiltless and godly. Think of the difficulties encountered when a uncircumcised Gentile came into an early Christians fellowship, having last night had sex with with several of his slave women and carrying with him unclean food offered to idols! (Horror at Potluck)

I don’t think this counsel intended to remove from converts all unethical behavior and a host of other Hebrew commandments and ideals. In Paul’s letters (sermons) he often dwelt on ethical issues as “works of the flesh,” as unacceptable behavior.

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One big issue for me is that Adventism doesn’t see itself as one of many denominations which just happens to be ‘more strict than their fellow’ brothers in Christ. Essentially, Adventists believe that:

  • they are the remnant - as opposed to all other Christian groups

  • if in the end one doesn’t join their ranks, the mark of the beast will follow, resulting in perdition

Therefore, the difference between a Nazirite and an Adventist is that you could voluntarily become a Nazirite if you wanted to make a vow, but this was entirely optional. Refusing to become an SDA is, however, seen as slighting the Holy Spirit with the effect of eternal separation from Christ.

I consider these strictures in one’s lifestyle a dangerous addition to the Word of God - not because they are bad in themselves but because pressure is exerted. This is opposite to the New Covenant, which says: "No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me…"He 8:11 NIV. I hear a lot of teaching, telling people to know the Lord by proper lifestyle. I wonder whether this is not because the New Covenant is not understood.

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Very good points. Well said!

Thanks…

Frank

I wonder if SDA’s are slighting the HS by not depending totally on the finished work of Jesus, and the HS working in us to become a new creation (born again), rather than depending and focusing on the writings of EGW and the law of Moses.

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