At the first Council in Jerusalem, a deliberate and profound decision was made: Gentile believers were free to develop their own distinctive expression of church without the imposition of Jewish cultural norms. For many Australians today, Christianity is just as foreign as Judaism was to the Gentiles. It is time for the Council to meet again.
Throughout the history of the church, particularly during its first few hundred years, significant Councils have taken place in order for definitions of Christian orthodoxy to be thrashed out by church leaders.
The first recorded Council in Jerusalem is described in Acts 15 of the New Testament. The early church had an interesting problem. The gospel had jumped the ethnic fence. Gentiles were becoming followers of Jesus and were approaching their faith with a different worldview than the Jewish converts. Despite predictions from as far back as God’s covenant with Abraham, to say nothing of the predictions of Jesus, emergence of these new and different communities of faith took longstanding Christians by surprise.
It’s not hard to imagine that for some people, steeped in an historical religious paradigm, this was cause for concern. They moved amongst these new Gentile communities of faith, imposing Jewish traditions and culture onto their religious practice. Their motives were probably quite pure, however they gave the impression a Gentile first had to become a Jew in order to become a Christian.
The purpose of the Council in Jerusalem was to formulate a response to this new and potentially threatening development.Acts 15 is often misunderstood. Some have used it as a template for dispute resolution and problem solving. The emerging consensus from their deliberations has been highlighted in Baptist theology as a model for congregational government: it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Actually we’re not certain how decision-making happened in Acts 15. As well as supporting models of democracy it could equally be argued James listened to all the discussion, then made a unilateral authoritarian decision… but let’s not confuse Baptist historians with the facts!)
I think the strategic significance of Acts 15 was much greater. Jesus-followers from different backgrounds forced the first generation church to wrestle with the distinction between religious culture and genuine saving faith. In missiological terms, Acts 15 was an early example of contextualization. How transferable were religious stereotypes from one culture to another? To what extent could new manifestations of church communities develop their own unique styles?
The Jerusalem Council settled the issue. They gave new expressions of church permission to be bona fide without being Jewish. Gentile spirituality was free to find its own distinctive cultural expression with only a core set of theological values.
To use the language of open and closed sets, Jewish theology majored on boundary fences to distinguish those who were “in the club” from those who were not. There were fences around dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping and obligatory religious performance. The Jerusalem Council flattened some of those fences and replaced them with wells in Gentile fields, which held the flock together by the attractiveness of the gospel: fewer boundary rules and more kingdom magnetism.
The cultural backgrounds of non-Jewish seekers meant God’s agenda in their sanctification was different to those who came from Jewish backgrounds. People with a Gentile past approached Jesus from different angles. The emerging church in a Gentile world needed freedom to explore different ways of being church and the Council of Jerusalem gave them that freedom.
I have a sense, metaphorically speaking, that the Jerusalem Council is once more in session. Those of us with a long personal Christian history need to appreciate that God is doing something new in our world, and the shape of the future will likely be very different from the past. We also need to face the fact that non-church Western society no longer understands us. In many ways, we speak a different dialect. Certain theological boundary fences and emphases don’t make sense and have little to do with our core message.
A friend of mine was a youth pastor in Baptist Church and developed an outstanding ministry to local skaties. He attracted hundreds of them and on Friday nights they erected ramps and jumps around the church car park. Little by little he was introducing them to Jesus (which sometimes meant turning a blind eye to what was being consumed or sniffed out of their brown paper bags). One of the young people decided to check out church on Sunday morning. He wore his best outfit: baggy jeans halfway down his backside, boxer shorts showing above the belt-line, baseball cap on back to front. As he walked through the church foyer he met a matriarch of the church who confronted him, “Young man, you do not wear a hat like that in the house of the Lord.” He didn’t stay, and nor did his friends.
What an appalling missiological tragedy! It makes my blood boil every time I think of it. Didn’t Jesus suggest those who cause little ones to stumble should have a millstone tied around their necks and be thrown into the sea?
By contrast, a church in Southern California experienced a powerful move of the Holy Spirit during the 1960’s. This was a prim and proper church: the men wore suits and the women wore hats. One Sunday, partway through the service, the back door opened and a young hippy walked in. It was a new experience for this straight-laced church. The young man walked down the aisle, and proceeded to sit cross-legged on the carpet in front of the pulpit. The congregation exchanged embarrassed looks and wondered what would happen next. The chairman of the Deacons began walking down the aisle, and many assumed he would grab the young hippy and throw him out. He approached the young man, and in his expensive three-piece suit sat down beside him, cross-legged on the floor, throughout the rest of the service. Long story short: lots of the hippies living nearby came to know Jesus in that church.
I’d be interested to discuss with church leaders how we might respond to people from different backgrounds exploring Christian faith. What are some of our expendable boundary fences that we’ve erected by assuming everyone thinks like us?
Another pastor friend of mine was leading his church through the 40 Days of Purpose. In one of their small groups two women, not yet Christians, had been invited to join the group. It turned out they were a lesbian couple with children and had been together for years. Great to touch such people with the gospel, but the leaders were challenged by what would need to happen when they came to faith. What were the rules on morality that they would need to enforce and what ought they leave to God’s agenda and timing? What would happen to the children who knew nothing other than two mummies?
Why aren’t we facing questions like this more often? Could it be that we are somewhat impotent when it comes to reaching people with a different background or worldview?
One of the key players in the Jerusalem Council was Barnabas. He was an amazing, yet understated, New Testament character. When the first Gentile converts emerged in Antioch he was dispatched to check them out.
Acts 11:23 says of Barnabas, “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” Interestingly, Barnabas was a Levite (Acts 4:36). His background culture, theological training and priestly experience must have screamed at him, “This is wrong!” Jews and Gentiles didn’t sit down to a meal together, let alone entertain one another in their homes. Yet Barnabas could see the new thing God was doing, and he encouraged them.
The Jerusalem Council employed a deliberate and profound decision not to impose cultural norms from one group onto those from a different background. The Holy Spirit was doing something new and they resolved to go along with it. We’re all experientially grateful to the Council of Jerusalem for that decision. Had they decided differently, we might not be here today! Now might be our turn to do something similar. Let’s embrace experimentation in mission and outreach, and deliberately give creative expressions of Christian mission room to find their place. Who knows, we might just cooperate with a fascinating new movement of the Holy Spirit!
Brian Winslade is married to Liz and lives in Brisbane. They have three adult children. Brian serves as National Ministries Director for the Baptist Union of Australia, combining the roles of National Director of Crossover, and BUA National General Superintendent.