How should a church come to a decision on a doctrinal matter, a moral question, an organisational query, or even a practical problem?
We have not been left without guidance on this. The young church was faced with problems and difficulties, and its decisions have had effects reaching down to our days. Some of those early Christians saw the distant implications of the choices they had to make; they recognized the frightening thing into which a seemingly unimportant yet wrong decision could grow. They dealt with apparently small matters in a serious way. Thus they protected the church from Satan’s wiles.
For our help, the Holy Spirit has recorded in The Acts the way in which several of these decisions were made. In chapter 1 a decision was made about apostolic leadership, and in chapter 6 one on the practical care of theGreek-speaking widows. Butchap-ter 15 contains the fullest account of a church decision, and one which will repay careful study since it illustrates the three bases of decision—the recognition of God’s sovereign intervention, an appeal to Scripture, and the application of wisdom in the particular situation. We also learn about who made the decision, about fellowship in the decision, and about communicating the decision.
Of course, it was in the apostolic era; the letters which now enshrine revelation about church behaviour were not yet written. And so the question was carried from Antioch to Jerusalem where the apostles were, v. 2. There are no apostles in Jerusalem or anywhere else on earth now to whom we can submit our problems.
The particular problem that faced those Christians does not concern us at the moment, except to say that on the face of it there were strong arguments in favour of Gentile converts being circumcised. A close relation between the old and new covenants would have been established; much persecution from the Jews would have been avoided; the Christians could have been accepted in the synagogues; these Christians would have been placed squarely under the law of God through Moses, v. 24; and the Gentile believers would have been able to prove their acceptability before God, v. 1. However, two men, Paul and Barnabas, saw where this was leading, v. 2. It whittled down the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. Because of this, they argued against it with all their might, and were willing to take the 300 mile journey to Jerusalem so that a godly decision should be made. May we, too, see the implications of Satanic doctrine, and oppose it through the gracious power of God.
At Jerusalem a happy report meeting, v. 4, provoked some Christian Pharisees to suggest that the converts to the faith needed to be circumcised, v. 5. What a good thing it was that these believers felt free to make known their scruples, and that the climate of the church discouraged them from harbouring wrankling thoughts! The issue might never have been resolved had these not spoken. But notice that there sc ms to have been no discussion of the matter by the church, and no public argument. The church had complete confidence that the elders (with, in those early days, the apostles) should and could deal satisfactorily with the question.
These men arranged a special meeting devoted to settling the matter, v. 6. We notice the freedom with which they fully discussed the problem, v. 7, and the way in which the apostle Peter, so unlike the Peter of the Gospels, withheld his comments until much discussion had taken place. Then he broached the first criterion for a right decision in a contention among believers: had God by sovereign action demonstrated His will in a connected situation Peter’s relatively long experience brought to mind such evidence, vv. 7-9. Perhaps we can understand now why an elder appointed by the Holy Spirit will not be a novice, 1 Tim. 3. 6. In briefly recapitulating the story of Cornelius, Peter emphasized God’s choice as to which gospel messenger He would employ (and also which Gentiles should be saved), God’s confirmation in His omniscience that their hearts were converted, God’s work of justification (through faith), God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those Gentile believers, and God’s identical treatment of Jews and Gentiles. To ignore what God had already done, and to make a decision at variance with this experience, would be, said Peter, to tempt God, Acts 15. 10. We should never lightly overlook the evidence of the hand of God in past experience, either individually or as a church. Peter continued that a wrong decision would be a neck-yoke on Gentile believers whom God had destined for liberty, as indeed it had been for Jews. Then, in words which we would expect to discover in a Pauline epistle rather than from the lips of Peter, he concluded by stating the believers’ conviction that the grace of the Lord Jesus had already been displayed in salvation on equal terms for Jew and Gentile, v. 11.
The apostles and elders then seem to have waited for Barnabas and Paul to confirm the evidence that God Himself was really intent upon blessing Gentiles. They were able to say that God had used them to do signs and wonders in the audience of Gentiles.
James, presumably one of the elders in the church at Jerusalem rather than an apostle, was now free to sum up and make a concluding suggestion, vv. 13-21. He accepted the evidence that it was at the initiative of God and for His own glory that Peter had seen Cornelius and his household converted, v. 14. To this James was able to add the second basis for recognizing the will of God in the matter. The Scriptural revelation of God’s mind agreed with the sovereign action of God in their experience, v. 15. Of course this must be so: one without the other should always create the suspicion in our minds that our interpretation of either Scripture or experience must be at fault. James quoted the most apt portion in Scripture, and that from the minor prophets, Amos 9. 11-12, quoted in Acts 15. 16-17. Evidently James knew his Bible very well, and he had probably prepared for this meeting by searching the Scriptures. We need men who can bring the Word of God to bear on the questions we face today. The emphasis in James’ quotation matched Peter’s prior account of Cornelius’ conversion: the Lord had sovereignly acted through the Son of David attracting Gentiles to Himself. Indeed, the Lord “doeth all these things”. It seems to be James’ inspired comment that, in the fulfilment of this Scripture in their days, they were seeing the foreknown purposes of God, v. 18. On the two bases for decision, the evident action of God and His purpose revealed in His Word, James confidently suggested a course of action—that the church should not act contrarily; with the Gentiles having turned to God, Jewish believers could not think of interposing onerous restrictions, v. 19.
Only at this point did James introduce the third basis of the church’s decision. Sometimes we are tempted to make this the first or only basis. He considered the local or special context, and suggested that it was wise and expedient to take this into consideration. The contemporary church had a massive majority of Jews; many of them still attended the synagogues. Week by week since childhood they had listened to the reading of the books of Moses, v. 21. They were steeped in that God-given law. From Peter’s experience on Simon’s rooftop, Acts 10. 10-16, we can see how deeply repugnant was the breaking of those laws to the devout Jew. This environment of the early Christians was unique, and we see from Scripture that the suggestions which the church adopted that day were very soon overtaken by events. Nevertheless, many conflicts and hurt feelings were avoided at that time because James suggested the four things from which Gentile Christians should abstain: pollutions of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood, 15. 20. We should refer to I Corinthians 8 and 10 to see how sensitively Paul deals with the first of these prohibitions, and how he upheld the second, whereas he ignores the last two (refer, too, to Galatians 2, and especially verse 10). At the time Paul and Barnabas were willing to transmit this advice to the Christians at Antioch, where it was understandingly accepted with joy, Acts 15. 31.
It appears that the apostles and elders at Jerusalem wholeheartedly accepted James’ conclusions as their unanimous decision, and when the church heard it they also agreed, associating all the believers with this course of action, vv. 22, 25. This was the unison which is to be expected of a true church, when decisions are reached in this Scriptural way.
Through their deliberations, the Christians were completely convinced that they knew the mind of God over the problem that had arisen. In their letter they were able to declare this with certainty, writing, “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us”, v. 28. Would it be audacious to announce a decision of a church today in these terms? The four items that the Gentiles were then to avoid were called “necessary things”, v. 28, and the compliance of the Christians at Antioch was expected with the words, “ye shall do well”, v. 29. These are hallmarks of their having the mind of God.
Let us pursue the story to see how carefully the decision was executed, and what precautions were taken to avoid any misunderstanding. The decision was transmitted to the believers in Antioch in a letter with two witnesses from the church at Jerusalem and two from Antioch so as to confirm what the letter said and to provide the sense intended, vv. 22, 23, 25-27, 31 -32. Incidentally, the letter gives a clue about what may be surprising to some; why the church at Jerusalem should be concerned with what happened in the church at Antioch. Beside the fact that the apostles were then at Jerusalem, the teachers of false doctrine who had come to Antioch, v. 1, purported to have the fellowship of the church at Jerusalem, but they were repudiated in the letter, v. 24. This, perhaps, explains why the church at Antioch approached that at Jerusalem through Barnabas and Paul.
And the outcome? After the godly exercises of the church at Jerusalem, resulting in an authoritative decision and transmitted in a gracious letter, the result amongst the recipients was almost a foregone conclusion: “when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation”, v. 31. Historical records confirm that the believers at Antioch went on to become an outstanding church in their day. It might have been otherwise, if the churches had not risen to their responsibility to make a right decision before God.
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