Posted by George Crowder, 4 Dec 2019
George Crowder takes a look at Acts 15, to see what we can learn about gospel faithfulness from the council of Jerusalem.
With what does our evangelical integrity stand or fall? Not in terms of our doctrinal commitments themselves, but in terms of ecclesial collegiality? How do we express our doctrinal commitments in our inter-church relationships?
Acts 15 presents a test case. To require circumcision for all new Gentile believers was not much short of an insult to the death of Christ. When Paul addressed the Galatians on the matter, he refers to it as a different gospel (Galatians 1:6). While the Spirit carried the gospel to the Gentiles, advocates of this teaching had been at large in Jerusalem. Some of them had since come to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were stationed in furlough after their first mission. Unsurprisingly, sharp dispute erupted.
With echoes of Acts 13:2-3, when Paul and Barnabas were sent on their first missionary journey, they are appointed and sent back to Jerusalem. As an apostle, Paul is once again called by God, but for the second time, God calls him and Barnabas through the assembly of the church. On the way, they reported how the Gentiles had been converted and, “this news made all the brothers very glad,” v.3. When they got there, v.4, “they reported everything that God had done through them.”
Inevitably the issue presents itself immediately, v.5. Peter responds with a powerful testimony in v.7: “God made a choice among that Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” Silence then fell, v.12, as Paul and Barnabas spoke of the mission to the Gentiles. James rejoins with prophetic endorsement of the inclusion of the Gentiles. His concern – that it should not be made difficult for them, v.19.
At stake is one thing: faithfulness to this gospel mission and this gospel calling. Yet what does that mean in practice? Setting the apostolic synod of Acts 15 in its juvenile ecclesial context, I notice eight vignettes of faithfulness.
1. Faithfulness means visiting and encouraging
In Acts 14:21-22, Paul and Barnabas set about visiting the churches, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” No less a motive pulled them to Jerusalem to address the matter of circumcision in an assembly of elders and apostles in chapter 15. Some time after the meeting in Jerusalem, 15:36, Paul talked to Barnabas about it again, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Again, in 16:4-5, “As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”
If planting churches is a normative activity, then surely so is visiting and strengthening.
2. Faithfulness means enduring hardship
Why is the encouragement so vital? Paul’s message in 14:22 is, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Gospel faithfulness means enduring hardship because opposition to the gospel is inevitable. Ominous manoeuvres on the matter of circumcision were no surprise.
Let us also understand the implication: we are weak. We don’t like it when the going gets rough. We are tempted to give in.
3. Faithfulness means appointing elders
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church, 14:23, committing them to the Lord. Note too that he went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders, 15:2.
This now means recruiting, training and ordaining full time ministers and part time ministers, and investing properly in lay leadership. What legacy will the gospel have if we do not attend to the next generation of gospel ministers?
4. Faithfulness means commitment to churches
Paul had a ministry of not giving up on inter-church fellowship. When something went wrong in a local church, he threw himself into winning them over. He is passionate for Christ and he is in love with the church. It’s the pretext for his meeting in Jerusalem.
In Acts 18:11, Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half teaching them the word of God. Despite that they were plagued with worldliness, syncretism, infighting and apostasy. Paul never gave up on them. He wrote letters, but not letters setting out why he was no longer in fellowship with them. They are letters which rejoice in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, then call them to repent of the immorality they have not addressed, or the wrong teaching they have tolerated.
5. Faithfulness means conferring together
The circumcision issue was a doctrinal matter with pastoral implications. It also transcended the local church.
When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed. These were the brethren who sent them to Antioch in the first place, 11:22. They share genuine relational capital as well as a high level of investment in the gospel cause. Notice the description of the speakers in v.5. “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” They may be in error, but they are still acknowledged as believers. The assembly is gathered to address them, to listen to them and to reason with them. The assembly is gathered because other churches are affected too. The assembly is gathered for the sake of the faithful, to keep them faithful to the gospel.
Time invested in building the relationship between church leaders is not wasted. Faithfulness needs fellowship for accountability. For accountability to have any valency requires equal amounts of mutual trust and shared conviction, which needs to be built up.
6. Faithfulness means agreement together
Conferring together has the goal of agreement. It has the purpose of uniting the fellowship of churches in the gospel of Christ. The apostles, the elders and the whole church decided together on a course of action.
Gospel faithfulness calls believers to stand together, to unite, to declare the same faith. Not unity for the sake of unity, but unity for the sake of the truth of the gospel.
7. Faithfulness means showing grace
Granted that the wrongfulness of sexual immorality is a given, the mention of blood in v.20 probably indicates a rabbinic holiness list. I think there are two things going on here. Firstly, whilst James refused the demands of the Judaisers, he showed some deference to the Jews. Secondly, he recognised that some churches had become flooded with ‘the preaching of Moses,’ v.21, and possibly required a little time to turn around. Whatever it is, there is an element of bridge-building and gentle compromise for the sake of the gospel. It is giving some leeway for those who are not there yet, allowing room for growth and showing grace.
There is great emphasis on selecting and sending people with the letter, vv.22, 25. I think this is key to the whole business of gospel faithfulness. Gospel faithfulness is expressed in a dynamic relational unity in the truth of the gospel which extends across churches. Like a diocese, or a denomination.
8. Faithfulness means parting ways?
Acts 15 ends on what seems like a sour note. After all the effort to hold things together, Paul and Barnabas have a bust up over John Mark and part ways. How is that faithful? Sometimes things don’t work out, even between faithful Christian brothers. Luke doesn’t take sides, so we can’t make a judgment on who was right and who was wrong. What matters is the gospel work continued; both men set off to visit and strengthen churches, and to plant new ones.
Does faithfulness ever mean breaking away on matters of doctrine? I haven’t really said anything about that, but I note that John suggests that the move away is by those in error, 1 John 2:18-19.
That said, I think we can draw some very positive conclusions from this survey of Acts 15:
1. Gospel faithfulness is driven by gospel calling and gospel mission and is principally concerned with the strengthening of local churches.
2. Gospel faithfulness is inextricably linked to an accountable fellowship in the gospel between churches, and particularly between church leaders.
George Crowder is the northern Regional Director of Church Society and vicar of St John's, Over.
Photo by Jean Baptiste Paris
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