Some people mistakenly think that the early Christian Church was an ideal time of growth without challenges or theological disagreements. But nothing could be further from the truth. The book of Acts details how the apostles and elders struggled to understand God’s plan to include Gentiles in His Church. It seems that they were getting on the job training and inspiration as God called them to walk way outside of their comfort zones.
Some Jewish Christians found themselves at odds with Gentiles and some leaders, such as Paul and Peter. Probably the most clear example occurred in Acts 15:1-35. What amounted to the first ecumenical council met to discuss whether or not Gentiles had to follow Jewish customs if they were to be accepted as Christians.
The chapter on the Jerusalem Council covers a disagreement that arose in Antioch over whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and follow other Jewish laws. The dispute began when some Jews from Judea came and insisted that Gentile converts had to follow “customs taught by Moses.” This made sense to some Jewish Christians because the Jewish law came from God and Christianity started as renewal movement within Judaism. Paul and Barnabas argued against requiring Gentiles to act like Jews. The dispute was taken to Jerusalem to be decided by the apostles and elders.
The issue was far from trivial because it captured a key question as the Jewish and Gentile cultures clashed and new, revolutionary Christian concepts emerged. The key question was, “What exactly is essential to be a Christian in good standing within the Church?”
The above question had two major drivers – the need to keep Gentile Christians from falling into pagan, polytheistic practices and the desire to harmonize relations between Jews and Gentiles despite the religious barriers created by many distinct, Jewish religious practices. Gentiles came from a polytheistic, pagan culture that existed in sharp contrast to both Judaism and Christianity. Notice the discussion centered on practices not beliefs or doctrine.
Jews and Gentiles had been interacting as Christians ever since the mass conversions at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. But it appears that how they interacted and what was required to be a Gentile convert may have varied from town to town. The Jerusalem Council was convened to resolve the debate once and for all.
A thorough debate took place. God had already made it clear that the Christian Gospel was for Gentiles too. Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James built a case that made requirements of Gentiles without putting stumbling blocks in their way. Gentiles would have to break from some pagan practices without having to completely conform to Jewish ones. They had to abstain from meat scarified to idols, food that had been strangled or was not properly drained of blood, and sexual immorality. The apostles and elders accepted these limited essentials and then sent a letter to the church in Antioch declaring their decision. This provides insight into how today’s Church can address some of its disagreements over doctrine and morality.
What are the essentials? Is being a Christian more about what you believe or what you do? How do we live as Christ followers in a world that is just as pagan, pseudo spiritual and relativistic as the cultures encountered in Acts’ account of the early Church?