Donald L. Norbie, Greeley, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Considering the issue of Acts 15
Some may react negatively to this title. Spiritual compromise? To be spiritual you do not compromise. One must stand for truth and never back down, Prov. 23. 23. Youth especially tend to see all issues as black and white. And some older people retain that same mentality. But most of us with the passing of time come to realize that there are also some grey areas.
A fierce conflict of ideas
A fierce conflict of ideas developed in the early church over the entrance of Gentiles into the churches, which had previously been Jewish. How were they to be treated? Must they become Jewish proselytes, undergoing circumcision and then keeping the Law? Or could they enter the churches and become members as Gentiles? The leaders of the church that met in Jerusalem came together to consider the issue, Acts 15. Its seriousness gripped them. Would this issue divide the churches? Would there be Jewish churches and Gentile churches, separated by the Law? But did not the Lord Jesus say, ‘There will be one flock and one shepherd’, John 10. 16?
Note the participants
Note the participants in the debate, ‘Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter’, Acts 15. 6. This was no matter for the young and inexperienced to decide. It required wisdom and maturity. Today, assemblies still need to be led by godly elders. Note the procedure. There was no quick, dictatorial decision by Peter or James. There was dialogue. All views were aired. Paul and Barnabas told of their work and their convictions. Peter recounted his experience with Gentiles in Cornelius’ house, affirming that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews did. Then there was a decision to be made on these critical issues and an appeal to scripture. James, the halfbrother of Jesus, who was converted after Christ arose, was a pillar in the Jerusalem church, Gal. 2. 9. He summarized their findings. The Gentiles were obviously being saved; Peter had affirmed this as well as Paul. James then quoted the prophet Amos as predicting this conversion of the Gentiles, Acts 15. 13-17; Amos 9. 11-12. James said, ‘Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God’, Acts 15. 19.
The critical issue of salvation by grace
Gentiles should not be required to become Jews. The critical issue of salvation by grace and that the Gentiles need not adopt the Jewish law was affirmed. There was no compromise on the essentials. But there was a spirit of loving consideration of the feelings and convictions of the Jews. Gentiles often bought meat offered to idols and meat not properly bled. This would offend their Jewish brothers and they should abstain. ‘But that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled and from blood’, Acts 15. 20. Paul could say later, ‘It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak’, Rom. 14. 21. It was a non-essential.
Gentiles should consider the feelings of their Jewish brothers. Also, since immorality was so prevalent among Gentiles, they were warned against sexual looseness. God is a holy God; sexual immorality must be put away. After James finished his remarks unity prevailed in the assembly and a consensus was formed around his judgement. All recognized the wisdom and righteousness of the course suggested. This consensus spread to the whole church. Luke writes, ’It pleased the apostles and the elders with the whole church’, Acts 15.
This united decision was not simply human
As they wrote a letter giving their decision to the other churches, they were keenly aware that this united decision was not simply human. ’It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’, Acts 15. 28. How many divisions and how much confusion might be avoided if God’s people acted similarly. Such decisions need wise men, true shepherds. There should be a dialogue and discussion; all views should be presented. The critical issues need to be decided and a stand made on principle. There should be a yielding spirit on nonessentials. And above all there should be a dependence on the Holy Spirit to give wisdom and unity to His people.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.