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Christians First, not Church Members -- a reminder from Acts 15 "The Jerusalem Council"

Can we keep the main purpose of the gospel our main purpose?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 15

Early church leadership had to confirm for these new non-Jewish Christians that salvation was truly through faith alone—and not through these other Jewish behaviors. That declaration would change the culture of the church forever, having massive effects for generations. It was also right.

We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are (15:11)

[This post began as a newsletter for teachers. I'm putting older resources up for reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

This week’s lesson is on the “Jerusalem Council” from Acts 15. To this point, basically all Christians had been Jews, so they all behaved like Jews. Now, all of a sudden, non-Jews were becoming Christians, and they weren’t behaving like Jews (go figure). That caused a lot of problems, and this council essentially said that you don’t have to behave like a Jew in order to be a Christian. We take that for granted today, but there are lots of new ways we tend to make people behave in churches today, and I think that sets us up for all kinds of interesting discussions!

Culture Shock / Culture Stress.

If you Google “Missionary Culture Shock”, you’ll find several blogs on the challenges missionaries face. Some of them are about adapting to a new country. (Some of them are about becoming "American" again when they come back.) They say that the great challenge of being a missionary is the neverending assault of culture—new language, new food, new customs, new stores, new friends, new entertainment, new devices, new climate, new clothes, new house, and so on. And all the while you’re trying to share the gospel while being sensitive to local custom and culture. Sound tough?

Ask your group this question: do you know anyone who has ever tried to start a new church? What kind of challenges did they face? What surprised them? I’ve heard about challenges in areas with a strong religious history (i.e., everyone grew up Catholic but no one went to the Catholic church anymore). Education level, primary language, primary industry, all of things affect a church planting method. I know one guy who moved his “Sunday morning service” to Friday afternoon because that best fit the shift workers for the major town industry. You’ve probably heard stories about changing the style of music, the “pace” of events, and the types of fellowships (i.e., not a Wednesday night covered dish but a Saturday fish fry). In the background is the hardest question of all: how do we connect with all of these people in new ways without changing the eternal truths of the gospel?

And if that doesn’t work, ask this: have you ever made a big move to a very different part of the country? What surprised you about the differences? Here are some unexpected challenges: if you’re a hugger and you move somewhere where people only shake hands; if you like to have people over for dinner and you move somewhere where everybody eats out; if you’re used to having private discussions in, you know, private and you move somewhere where people have those discussions in the middle of the street. You’ve moved to the beach and you don’t know how to surf; the mountains and you don’t know how to ski. Those kinds of differences make building relationships more challenging. And I hope you can see how those things might make it harder for starting a church or sharing the gospel. That’s what’s going on in the background of our passage this week. The cultural differences between the Jews and these new Gentile Christians were so great that they really couldn't work together—not until they made some significant concessions.

This Week's Big Idea: Two “Heavier” Discussion Topics

Here are two things that I think you should try to work into your discussion at some point—maybe as an icebreaker if you think it will start conversation.

Making Decisions, Accepting Consequences.

All of us have had to learn this lesson—all of our choices come with consequences (sometimes unintended). If you choose to finish your garage, you can’t park there when it’s icy. If you choose to stop smoking, you probably have to change your life routine more than a little bit. And sometimes there are consequences you didn’t see coming. Churches are in the same boat. In the Book of Acts, the early leaders realized that if salvation is by faith alone, then the Gentiles couldn’t have to follow Jewish rules to be a part of the church. But that would make a major cultural impact on the church! Imagine a church of rich people that all of sudden became half-filled with poor people. Or a rural church that all of a sudden had a city spring up around it. Of course we know it’s the right thing to open our doors to the people around us, but sometimes that means giving up our long-held expectations for church (and church behavior). Have you ever been in a church that made a conscious effort to reach out to a new demographic—and had that process be bumpier than expected? Ora major push to bring in kids from the community only to find out that kids are messier and louder than senior adults, meaning that the church had to hire more custodial help and physically move some programs. Or a major push to bring in un-churched families only to realize that they didn’t know (or like) “the old hymns” and so had to go through the painful process of teaching and learning new music. Or a major push to update old/obsolete facilities only to realize that the expense would require volunteer hours and budget dollars that had previously been allocated elsewhere. Those things are the “cost” of such decisions. But if the church knows that it’s the right thing to do, then everyone should be willing to ride out the hard learning curve.

But here's the real point of this topic: did God create the church for our comfort, or to equip us to take the gospel to our community (and beyond)? I hope you don't need me to answer that question. And as we take the gospel to our community, did God intend us to take it just to the people who are most like us, or to everyone? Don't blow the answer. And if our church exists to reach our entire community with the gospel, then shouldn't our personal preferences be low on our list of priorities?

How Do We Add to Salvation Today?

This is the bigger issue, and I do hope that you make time for this. How does one “get saved”? By trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. In other words, you don’t really have to do anything except believe. We have a formula: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. What was happening in Acts is that the Jewish Christians were saying “salvation is by faith alone and by keeping the law of Moses”. Paul stopped them in their tracks -- because they were wrong.

Today, Christians can still do the same thing. And I’m not talking about formal doctrines, like in the Catholic church in which they also are told to take certain sacraments in order to be saved. I’m talking about informal “hints” that we drop. I’ve heard things like “you cannot be a Christian and do drugs.” Wait, what?

“You cannot be a Christian and wear certain clothing”. ?!

“You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat”. Huh??

I’ve heard those things said. Now, what I think the person saying them meant was “such-and-such action or decision is out of character with what I think being a Christian means”. That’s a very different statement! And the outside world doesn’t understand that nuance. To the outside world, when we emphasize those behaviors, being a Christian = a specific set of behaviors.

In other words, salvation = Jesus + not cursing. Or salvation = Jesus + dressing modestly.

No! That’s the same problem Paul was dealing with in Acts 15! Putting certain behaviors in the mix of salvation confuses people as to what salvation is. Yes, being saved should result in some behavioral changes, but those behaviors do not cause salvation. (Furthermore, Christians still debate what those behaviors even mean. Does “drugs” include prescription drugs? How much? How wide a spaghetti strap is appropriate? Can we vote Democrat if that person is the most qualified and most Christian of the bunch?) Come on, y’all—just because you have strong opinions about things doesn’t make you right for all people in all places at all times. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We worry about those other things later.

Bonus Topic: Salvation vs. Church Membership.

But let’s point out one last and major distinction that people don’t always understand. Church membership is different than salvation. You don’t have to be a member of a church in order to be saved! But individual churches can say, “This is what we believe the Bible teaches about such-and-such, and we expect our church members to hold that view as well.” This is why Methodists are not Presbyterians are not Baptists, etc. As a Baptist, I believe that God has given churches the right to interpret the Bible for themselves and put as many (or as few) restrictions on membership as they seem appropriate. (And I believe God will hold them accountable for those choices.) But I also recognize that this can be confusing to the outside world who won’t understand that being saved is not the same thing as being a church member. That’s why I think it is very important for every church to have a “new member class” or a “more about the church class” in which church leaders explain these things.

Now—where am I going with this? FBC has a membership covenant. Find it and read it in your group. What are the things we find important as a church? Can all of your group members find where in the Bible we got those statements? Most importantly, does everyone in your group understand that the things in that covenant are a result of salvation, not a cause or condition of it? In Acts 15, the Jerusalem leaders gave the church in Antioch a short list of things they thought appropriate for the young church to adopt (which the church did).

Some churches did not believe that the Jerusalem Council went far enough, and so they had much stricter rules. As you can imagine, it was very difficult for churches to cooperate who had much different views as to what a church member should be. From time to time, that resulted in major splits (look up Donatism and Novatianism—those were two groups who believed so strongly that church members must behave a certain way that they formed their own churches). That still happens today, even here in Thomson! We have Baptist churches that keep other churches “at a safe distance” because of disagreements over how church members should behave. Of course, those sorts of divisions also result from beliefs—can Christians drink? can Christians be homosexual? can Christians listen to vulgar comedy? Those behaviors are rooted in beliefs. And let me add one final layer to this confusing discussion: people disagree as to how important those beliefs are in the first place! For example, if you have a Christian who thinks that tithing isn’t a big deal and another who thinks it’s a really big deal, do you think they’ll have some tension working together in a church? Lord, help us all!


Something Else to Think About: The “Slippery Slope”

When you look up “slippery slope” in Google, you’ll find it listed under the “logical fallacies”. It is the idea that little decisions today will lead to major consequences down the road. For example, if we legalize gay marriage today, soon we will be legalizing polygamy. The reason this kind of argument is called a logical fallacy is there is no way to prove that the first action caused the second. Further, there is no way to know that the second action will happen when making the first decision.

I appreciate that this sort of argument would not hold up in court. It is impossible to prove. However, I think we all know that there are consequences to our decisions. And sometimes we don’t see the hidden consequences for years—even for a generation. Once people have grown up in an environment that believes and teaches a certain thing, it will become much easier for that generation to take a further step (i.e. language and attire that is commonplace today would have been anathema 30 years ago).

As a church leader, I have two concerns here. First, let’s make sure we are worried about things that are truly important. Not every decision is life-or-death. But second, let’s be really careful and thoughtful in our decisions! Sometimes we act really quickly without considering all of the consequences. God gave us church families so we can make decisions together—see one another’s blind spots and weaknesses and work together to consider all of the possibilities. The Jerusalem council made a church-altering decision; you know that the debate must have been fierce! I’m glad they took it seriously.


Part 1: No Distinction (Acts 15:6-11)

The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers and sisters, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”

Read up on the setting: Paul and Barnabas have been sharing the gospel with Gentiles, but now some Jewish Christians are telling them that they also have to follow the law of Moses. This would be very confusing to a brand-new Christian! But don’t get too upset with the Jewish Christians. After all, God had given them those laws, and so they rightfully thought they were very important. Think of some good church/Christian traditions you had growing up. When you saw younger/newer Christians not doing them, were you tempted to indoctrinate them?

Note that all of the church leaders had gathered to discuss this—this was too important. And it is very important that Peter stood up to close the debate; God had earlier chosen to give Peter a vision that had predicted this very moment (Acts 10), and even though Peter was older and not seemingly as involved in the work, his words still carried great weight (think of Billy Graham today; others do most of the work, but they still care what he says). Realize that this is the very last we hear of Peter in the book of Acts! His role had changed. This speech also (to me, at least) explains why God did the odd thing of waiting until the apostles were present before giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles (Acts 10:44)—undeniable proof that God had accepted Gentiles as Gentiles, not waiting for them to be circumcised. This section is your chance to talk about the simple gospel, how it’s available to all people through simple grace and faith, and how we can make it too complicated. The reference to a “yoke” (the thing they put on ox for plowing) is a great chance to put your group members on the spot: have they ever gotten upset with a new believer for a certain behavior only to have to admit that they’ve done the same thing from time to time? (I.e., you get upset about someone’s potty mouth but drop the occasional curse? You get upset about a lack of biblical knowledge but couldn’t find Philemon without a table of contents?)


Aside: Elders, Authority, Seminary

So, this is an interesting passage. It mentions “apostles” and “elders” and talks about councils. Presbyterians, for example, have used this passage to mean that churches should have councils telling them what to do (see the back page). Here, “apostles” refers to the remaining 12 disciples of Jesus. “Elders” refers to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (see Titus 1). Before we get too caught up in semantics, who carried the biggest stick in the argument? The apostle Peter. The one man appointed by Jesus Himself to be the leader of the young church. How many Peters are there today? With all due respect to my Catholic brethren, none. Today, we are all responsible for working together to discern the meaning and application of God’s Word to our lives and churches.

But I think it is important to remind us why we send people to seminary. That council was making a decision about what it meant to be a Christian. That’s a big deal! We want people who have done the hard work of study, prayer, and practice leading such decision-making gatherings! And that’s the whole point of seminary—to put Christians “through the wringer” of history, doctrine, application, etc., in order to help them be better qualified to lead churches in biblical conversation.

That intersects in “authority”. In some traditions, leaders have authority simply by virtue of their position. “I am the bishop therefore I am right”. For Baptists, we choose to invest certain people with authority based on their experience and manner of life: “We trust you therefore we want you to lead us in our debates”. Do you see the difference?

Authority/leadership should be earned.


Part 2: Clear Expectations (Acts 15:24-29)

“From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, To the brothers and sisters among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts, we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.”

This might seem strange, but put yourself in the shoes of the new Christians. They don’t know much of anything right now. They want encouragement, and they need to be able to understand it. So this letter is as clear as it could possibly be: “the thing you’ve been told is wrong; Paul and Barnabas are right”. You might find it strange by saying they agreed with the Holy Spirit, but remember that these Gentiles don’t know much about the Holy Spirit. “Some ghost told us what to say . . .” No, but rather, “We confirmed what we believe to be God’s divine counsel with careful study, prayer, and discussion.” Ultimately, the word is that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. So then, why did they add these four requirements? Isn’t that the opposite of what they just said?? Here it helps to remember the situation: this letter is not about how to be saved; it is written to people who are already Christian (“brothers and sisters”). Rather, these requirements are about building bridges between the Gentiles and Jewish Christians. Ask your class this question: if you were to describe in one sentence to a brand new Christian what the Christian life should look like, what would you say? In other words, what behavioral changes would you start with for a brand new Christian? In the world these Gentiles lived in, the apostles thought that 4 behavior changes would both jumpstart their identity in Christ and make it easier for the Jewish Christians to accept that “they’re trying to change”. In Antioch, the anti-Christian religious/social behaviors revolved around pagan feasts and sexual practices. Distance yourselves from those things right away! Today, depending on the person who just became a Christian, we might say, “you should stop doing drugs immediately” “you should stop sleeping with your girlfriend” etc. But please, please note the wording: “you would do well”. The apostles are not commanding, they are suggesting. This is a big difference, and I think it’s a very important part of Christian leadership that all of us would do well to do. When you command someone, you are putting yourself over them and making yourself accountable to God. But when you suggest and explain, you are making that person your equal and giving them ownership of their spiritual walk with God.

[Aside: What’s the Deal with Blood/Strangling?

We talked a little about this when we went through Exodus/Leviticus. Leviticus 17:11, “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” A lot of pagan cultures believed that drinking animal blood was a way of gaining that animal’s “life force” and is all in all messed up. God instructed the Jews to slaughter their sacrifices by slitting their throat and draining the blood. “Strangling” an animal to death meant that it would not bleed out, and so all of the blood would still be in the animal when it was eaten.]


Part 3: Secure Encouragement (Acts 15:30-31)

So they were sent off and went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter. When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

And the result is just what had been hoped. The church at Antioch heard Paul and co. read the letter and they rejoiced as to what they heard. (1) They heard that the “mother church” in Jerusalem cared about them and respected them enough to go through a fierce debate. (2) They heard that salvation was by grace alone—they did not have to question their standing before God. (3) They heard that the Christian life does involve behavioral choices, and they should stay the course. From a historical perspective, this letter changed the church forever, not just because Gentiles did not have to become Jews. Antioch would go on to be the primary church in the East after Jerusalem was destroyed, and they would be a leading voice for “conservative” Christianity for hundreds of years. No early church spoke more strongly in favor of taking the words of the Bible seriously and interpreting the Bible as literally as possible. I have to think that was a consequence of this letter directed specifically to them.

[Aside: Adopting Greek Writing Habits. Even the format of this letter is an example of being culturally sensitive. The Greek style of letter writing was very different from Jewish. It involved a clear (1) opening greeting, (2) personal blessing, (3) careful statement of argument, (4) summary exhortation, and (5) benediction/miscellaneous personal comments. Clearly, the church in Jerusalem adopted that style of writing to build a bridge to Antioch. Note that the message was still clear—just the format was changed. We would adapt our presentation if we were talking to a high school assembly, a government panel, or a quilting group. Just another example of modifying the method without losing the message.]


Closing Thoughts: The Jerusalem Council and Baptists

Here are the three primary ways people organize churches. Both Episcopal and Presbyterian are “top-down” structures. The difference between the two is that in Presbyterianism, each level of authority is with groups, whereas the Episcopal structure is with individuals. You see that I have two versions of Congregational governance: one in which the pastor tells the church what to do, and one in which the congregation works together with leadership to make decisions. That’s the one I believe the Bible teaches. Even here in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council didn’t tell the church in Antioch what to do or believe—they got together and prayerfully sent a suggestion for their consideration. The church at Antioch received it, considered it, and chose (wisely) to listen to the council of the apostles in Jerusalem. That’s how this is supposed to work—not some person behind a desk telling everyone what to do and believe, but a congregation struggling through the Word of God together, considering the council of people respected as wise and learned in the Bible.


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