Robert Montgomery was the minister of the Cahaba Valley Church: An Ecumenical Church of Christ in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cahaba Valley Church celebrated the full participation of women in its work, worship, and leadership.
The Hardest Questions Never Go Away : Reading Acts 15 in a New Context
Acts 15 is traditionally titled “The Council of Jerusalem” and relegated to irrelevance as a strange controversy over drinking blood and eating ritually sacrificed animals. In that way, the chapter is a case study in how scripture is methodically tamed so that we do not have to hear what it has to say to us.
But Acts 15 is a stunning chapter of the Bible, loaded with continuing potential and challenge for the church in every age. It is not for the faint of heart: on the table are questions of biblical authority, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the centrality of God’s grace for all people.
Who and What Does God Accept?
The Council of Jerusalem was faced with the question that makes all religious arguments so singularly painful and frightening: Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?
The question of God’s salvific acceptance is what makes religious disagreements so very, very difficult. On the surface, it seems like a small thing, say, where someone sits at worship (as with Peter in relationship to some Gentile believers). But for the people who are involved, it feels like a life-or-death decision. Palms sweat, hearts pound, muscles strain, voices quiver. We feel like Stephen before the Sanhedrin or Luther before the Diet at Worms. Only if bullets started to fly through the air could the issues feel any more intense.
Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do? The question answers itself. The implication is that you are (a) stupid, or (b) evil, or perhaps (c) both. Behind it is another statement as well. “If you think that I am going to take the risk that you are taking, you must be crazy.”
But Christianity is a thoroughly risk-oriented faith, far more than the other religions of the world. The cross, the central symbol of our faith, tips us off right from the start. Taking risk is intrinsic to being a Christian, and as soon as you take a risk, the question will inevitably find you: Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?
Peter’s Gentile Risk
“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:25). As the disciples took the gospel away from Jerusalem following their expulsion (Acts 8:1), they gravitated to the Jewish community in each town; but Antioch was different. Named for the notorious Syrian rulers (such as Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who touched off the Maccabean Wars with his outrageously anti-Semitic atrocities in the very temple of Jerusalem), Antioch was a major, cosmopolitan, Greek-style city. Judaism was not at home in Antioch.
Indeed, the establishment of the church in Antioch was the direct result of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and the Holy Spirit recounted in Acts 10. An unhappy group of Jewish Christians had challenged Peter’s willingness to fraternize with, even eat with uncircumcised men, asking essentially that same question again: “Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?” But in his “orthodoxy hearing” in Acts 11 Peter convinced them by recounting first his own reluctance, and then his conversion by the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. The Jewish Christians who traveled north from Jerusalem followed what they now believed was the will of God by preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch, and when they responded, by accepting them with no ethnic distinctions whatsoever.
Barnabas, sent from Jerusalem to report on the happenings in Antioch, saw the joyful community there as an ideal starting place for someone else on whom God had taken a huge risk. He went to Tarsus, found the Jew with a Roman name Paul and brought him to preach in Antioch. It was here, in this context of no distinction between those in whom God was at work, whether Jew or Greek, that Paul’s ministry really took shape.
Things could not have been going any better in Antioch. The work there was so successful that the church sponsored Paul and Barnabas’ missionary trips to cities more like Antioch than Jerusalem and where the response among Gentiles exceeded all expectations. The warning signs of what was to come, however, appeared in Jewish opposition in many locations. It was not long after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch the first time that the inevitable question also arrived: “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ÔUnless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1, emphasis added). Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?
It was a cold knife stabbed into the heart of the Antioch church. All these people believed that they were walking with God, living by the Spirit of ChristÑGentiles waiting for the kingdom of God side by side with Jesus’ own disciples. Was it all an illusion? The preaching, the praying, the shared experience of the Spirit, the turning of old lives down new paths, the thrill of sensing God at work, the dangers faced, the difficult journey of Paul and BarnabasÑall for nothing? Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?
Scripture on Their Side
A couple of thousand years after the Council of Jerusalem, we snort, “Nonsense.” “Don’t listen to those trouble-makers,” we huff. “Anyone knows that you don’t have to keep the law of Moses to be saved. We’ve got a verse that says that. Where is that verse again? Okay, let me think.”
But the Jerusalem critics remind us, “The law of Moses was given by God, wasn’t it? And all scripture is God-breathed” And the frightening thing is, they are right. When those “certain individuals from Judea” came to Antioch and taught that lawkeeping was a necessity for all those who want God’s acceptance, they had Holy Scripture (not to mention centuries of tradition) on their side. They were people of the Book, and they could not imagine that God would act in a way that is inconsistent with the testimony of God’s Book. A few examples solidify the point:
“You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Exodus 31:14-15). “It is a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever” (Leviticus 16:30). Shouldn’t Gentile Christians have to keep the Sabbath? How could one be accepted by God if one did not?
Or concerning the covenant made with Abraham, which included circumcision as a necessary sign of the covenant: “There shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the LORD. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance” (Numbers 15:15). That passage would surely have been cited at the Jerusalem Council. Scripture did not make exceptions for Gentiles.
Neither was the Passover, a thoroughly Jewish festival, something that one could casually invite one’s Gentile neighbors to share: “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised. If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the Passover to the LORD, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:43-44, 47-49).
There were, moreover, specific warnings in scripture about in any way compromising with Gentile culture. “When the LORD your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them. You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-30a, 32).
The point is, only because we inherited the results of the Council of Jerusalem do we know for sure that Gentile Christians do not have to keep the law of Moses in order to be accepted by God, as overhearing any of our explanations of why Christians (most of whom we now assume are Gentiles) don’t keep the law would demonstrate. The preponderance of scripture points in exactly the opposite direction.
They Did What?
I have gone into depth on this point because the amazing part of the story is that the early church moved directly opposite of our expectation and so ran headlong into the question that normally turns everyone back: Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do?
The early church refuted the critics of the Gentile Christians in Antioch, in spite of the weighty scriptural arguments directing them otherwise. The Council of Jerusalem took the surprising, even shocking position that God does new things; or rather, the position that God has been working by degrees from all eternity to bring about something totally new and unexpected among peopleÑand as new chapters in that plan unfold, the old chapters must be seen in a new light or give way entirely. They did it over against a use of scripture designed to close people’s minds and hearts to the point that they could not consider the new work of God in their very midst.
The Council of Jerusalem reached back to recover the overarching plan of God revealed in scripture, which envisioned God’s blessing for the whole world, as God told Abraham (Genesis 22:17-18). It also had to reach forward, across a fear-based hermeneutic that assumed God would never do anything other than what God had been doing for generations. It was this forward-reaching mentality that led Jesus’ detractors to call him a blasphemer and ultimately to crucify him. Jesus proclaimed that God’s overall purpose was to create change, not for the sake of novelty, but with the specific purpose of reconciliation, the repair of relationships too long broken.
Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus
The early church correctly discerned the Spirit of Jesus in what was happening in Antioch. God was doing something new, and they embraced it, despite the obvious dangers of criticism and rejection by those who could point to book, chapter and verse. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, first Stephen, and later Paul showed that the exclusive law of Moses was designed to give way to the new work of God that includes the whole world.
Neither Jesus nor Stephen nor Paul won everyone over to that point of view. It is important to remember that Jesus himself was called a blasphemer, even Beelzebub. He was accused of preaching a convenient, self-serving message designed to lower God’s standards in exchange for making it easy for people to follow him and think themselves religious. Paul encountered the same charge. So did the church in Antioch. It could happen again.
What is it that separates Christians from blasphemers, then? Would it have really been so bad for Jesus to leave the law of Moses untouched? Simply do it the way it had always been done? Did Paul really need to argue that Gentiles should not be required to follow the law of Moses? What would have been wrong with producing unity through uniformity?
Of course, it would have been far easier for the Jewish Christians to have just gone along with what had always been. Even to appear to be arguing against scripture in any way was dangerous, as the stories of Jesus and Stephen revealed. Why do it? Stubbornness? Rebellious spirit? Satanic influence? None of the above, according to Jesus, Stephen, Paul and the Council of Jerusalem. Rather, it is a commitment to following the will of God in our lives, and that will alone.
Even the devil can quote scripture, as we see in the temptations of Jesus in the Gospels. Just because someone quotes scripture does not prove anything yet. The question is whether one is open to following the will of God wherever it leads, doing whatever the will of God urges, and enduring whatever it requires.
The work of the Spirit in people was crucial for the Council’s decision. The early church had no illusions that there were “nice people” just sort of knocking around the world, so to speak. The early church interpreted people’s hunger for God as a sure sign of God’s invitation. They interpreted prayers to God for salvation as the presence of God within those who prayed. They saw changed lives not as a monument to people’s good moral upbringing, but as a sign of the indwelling Spirit. They believed that bonds of love among those who are very different from each other were not just human efforts at camaraderie, but God’s lovely work. The fact that Gentiles had heard the word about a Jewish Messiah and accepted it, and the fact that Jews from families carrying deep scars from the Maccabean Wars had brought it to them, were only possible because of God’s Spirit.
Listening to People Being Called By God
The Council listened to the voices of people, both Jews and Gentiles, ardently and vulnerably telling them what God had done in their presence and through them as people. They heard Jews standing up for Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ. They heard Gentiles grateful to God for their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters who had told them about God’s salvation in Jesus. They saw eyes filled with faith, hearts full of love, words full of worship to Jesus. They concluded that it could only be God, and like Peter, they decided that it was not their role to resist God. God had been merciful to people, far more merciful than anyone had expected.
So, the early church bucked the criticism of the Pharisaic Christians and their arguments from scripture about what God can and cannot do. The church embraced the equality of the Gentile believers with all those who had believed when they were Jews. The Council of Jerusalem enacted what Paul wrote later in Galatians 3:28.
Some people undoubtedly went home complaining that the liberals had prevailed, despite the clear testimony of scripture. Those people probably returned to narrow Judaism or to a Christian movement called Ebionism, a point of view ultimately deemed heretical by the church because it argued that the law of Moses was eternal. The early church, on the other hand, went on in its efforts to include all people in a community of faith in Jesus, love for God and fellowship in the Spirit, which, it should go without saying, was marked by a commitment to mutual love, service and equality.
What About Us?
Acts 15 puts us on notice about some things that should get the church’s attention in every age.
1. That an idea seems frightening does not mean it’s not from God. Sure, your fear could signal that this idea is a temptation to be avoided. But it could also be signaling that God is at work. Peter was scared when he was called to Cornelius’ house, very scared and very reluctant. But Peter prayed, and took the risk of following what he believed to be the will of God. He overcame his fear of displeasing God early in the story.
Paul reports in Galatians 2, however, that even after his experience with Cornelius and his heartfelt testimony at the Jerusalem Council, Peter still found himself reluctant. He faced a new fear when the Jerusalem watchdogs showed up in Antioch: the fear of being criticized. Everyone who is sane is reluctant to be criticized. It is something we would all like to avoid. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of that dreadful question: Don’t you know that God won’t save anyone who thinks the way you think and does the things you do? Even when you know it’s not true, it’s miserable to be asked. Those who follow God’s surprising will must face their fear of criticism as a side effect of following.
2. Listening to people’s testimony about what they believe God is doing is not easy, but it is critical. Most Christians would have never heard the arguments before the Council of Jerusalem. They would have stopped listening the moment they felt the danger of the question, Don’t you know that God will not save people who think like you think and do the things you do? Listening is dangerous, because if you listen, you may hear noises of God working in unpopular people and unpopular settings.
George Stroup, a friend of mine who is a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, told me that listening had convinced him that women were being called to new forms of public ministry. So many women had sat in his office crying bitter tears over the pain and rejection they had repeatedly faced in their attempts to minister. “No one would want to do this, not at this level of pain, if they weren’t called by God,” he said. “If it were just these women, they would quit. It would not be worth the agony. Yet, they all keep telling me the same thing: they are just trying to do what they believe God wants them to do.”
3. Scripture must be heard with faith, not cowardice or defensiveness. This is the hardest lesson of all for churches where the contest seems to be who can find the most things to fear. In churches such as that, the mentality of the one-talent man reigns. We consider ourselves Christian because we do nothing that could be criticized. We consider ourselves faithful because we take no risks. We do the safest thing, no matter what. We resist change, no matter what. We cannot be criticized because we are armed with scriptures that we believe tell us that we know what God can and cannot do with people. We mainly interact with others by telling them how wrong they are, how displeased God is, and how they can only be saved by becoming like us.
Instinctively conservative Christians want to be very careful with their relationship with God. We must all respect that instinct. The scriptures unquestionably call us to take our relationship with God seriously. There is a difference, however, in being careful and becoming the one-talent man. Just as we respect the careful instinct, we must also respect the Spirit in each of us that calls us to take risks in our life of faith. We must believe the best about the bold Christians who risk criticism and rejection to follow the will of God. Risk is inseparable from being a Christian. God’s work among people is far from done. So is ours.
4. Patience is required when everything is turned on its head. The Jerusalem Council, in the position they reached concerning Gentile believers, essentially asked for patience from all those whom the change would affect. In most ways, of course, the Council was a victory for Peter, for Paul and Barnabas, and the church in Antioch. The new status of Gentiles as fully equal to Jews, solely because of their relationship to Jesus, was vindicated and affirmed by the highest level of leadership in the church. Yet, the Council’s decision as communicated in their letter (Acts 15:23-29) showed clear signs of mercy, even for the critics.
First of all, there was no denigration of the opposition, certainly no trumpeting the wonderful virtues of Gentile culture as compared to Judaism. This was not a case of an innocent culture being vindicated. When we look at people as Asian or African or European, or when we speak of a “black church” and a “white church,” we are still not seeing what the Council saw. It is solely on the basis of our relationship with Jesus that any of us have a relationship with God. Paul in Romans reminded some headstrong Gentiles about that when they thought God simply liked Gentiles better than Jews. Gentiles have no reason to brag, the Council reminded.
Secondly, however, the Council asked Gentiles to help the cause of Christian unity by showing their commitment to a new way of life. Such a commitment would lead away from some of the more infamous and objectionable practices of Gentiles: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).
Paul put those two sets of instructions in different categories. Fornication was never acceptable, but meat offered to idols was negotiable, as he argues in 1 Corinthians. The point is that the Council’s letter struggles toward unity, aware of human frailty on both sides. It recognized the vulnerability of Gentile culture in the area of sexuality. On the other hand, many Jews would continue to struggle with having Gentiles so close by, sitting next to them during the Lord’s Supper. “Help them out,” the letter says if we read between the lines. “Make it as easy as you can for the Jews to be among you, too.”
And finally, what about the practice of drinking blood? Well, as far as we know, no further conversation took place. Maybe that’s a further reminder to be patient, that not everything that seems like a crisis today remains a crisis tomorrow.
5. The Jerusalem Council’s work is never finished. In every age, the church has to discern again, “Does this new thing contribute to the future God has promised?” It is tempting to believe that all the difficult issues were settled long, long ago; and that all we have to do is keep things the way they were when we were kids.
It is a sign of God’s Spirit that the church is always wrestling with new questions about God’s work in the world. We are those who care passionately about God and dream of a future that is different from the past. It is not a facile optimism that things, or people, always get better. Christian hope is not a shallow faith that assumes God owes us a better, easier life than our parents had.
No, the Spirit of God is the Spirit of the future, of God’s future founded on the resurrection of Jesus, a future in which we will all be changed far more dramatically than we can imagine. There will be no more wars or conflict, there will be no more poverty or suffering or pain, no more dying or crying or mourning. And there will be no longer any division between rich and poor, young and old, Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female. That is our future, because it is the future God is creating.
Our work on earth is to stay ready and open for just such a future and to embrace it when it comes close enough for us to touch it with our hearts and our hands. And to speak out, as the Council did, when we see God at work in people in new and unexpected ways.
6. Acts 15 asks us, at the end of the day, whether we believe the gospel or not. What makes Acts 15 one of those watershed moments in human history is nothing other than the gospel itself. In short, the gospel makes it impossible for things to remain as they were before it arrived. The gospel was not a contradiction of Judaism, but it certainly did not leave it untouched.
The story of the Jerusalem Council comes to bear on the contemporary issue of the status of women in our churches. We turn to Acts 15 in our own context because it shows us the meaning of the gospel all over again. The gospel calls us to embrace new visions of one another, new ways of relating to one another and to God that were simply not possible before its arrival.
The Jerusalem Council took a huge risk on embracing the new future that the gospel was opening up. Jews and Gentiles, with much hesitancy at first, finally stepped into that new future. There was no desire to create anything new and different out of a heady, youthful enthusiasm. This was not 1776 or some kind of Christian Independence Day.
It was, actually, far more profound and much more far-reaching. The gospel proclaimed that God’s gracious choice in Jesus was no longer bounded by ethnicity or by geography. It no longer had anything to do with the arbitrary circumstances of one’s birth. God as the Creator had proclaimed the ultimate acceptable time and was now welcoming all into the fellowship of the Christ strictly by grace.
To have kept mouthing the words of the gospel while allowing the old divides, the old ways of relating to continue would have been to undermine the gospel from within. It’s a constant danger for the church. Our fear is aroused by a future we have not yet seen or experienced, and all we have to rely upon is the God who gave us the gospel. Will that be enough to safeguard all that is holy? Will it be enough to keep us safe? Will the gospel be enough to show us the way to a new humanity gathered around a new Adam?
That is the question of faith and fear constantly before the church. The early church felt all the fear we do now as the implications of the Gospel reach deeper and deeper into our relationships as people, across the divides of race, gender, ability, wealth and education, as well as every other barrier that we seek to set up on earth to separate “us” from “them.”
Finally, we face the question the father puts to the older brother of the prodigal: Shall we refuse to celebrate the arrival of our siblings? Shall we keep the old barriers in place and fence in the gospel by fencing out those who do not meet our standard of the familiar?
The early church chose to celebrate and embrace the new thing God was doing in their midst. May we, with all the humility we can muster, do the same ourselves.