Disputes among Christians in the Church have happened since the days of Paul. ACTS 15 provides record of the first formal conference to set matters straight. ◊
It was only 15 years or so after Christ was killed and then resurrected that the early Church was facing an internal crisis.
While hundreds had seen Christ alive over a 40 day period after the crucifixion, the miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2) in Jerusalem was the catalyst 10 days later in which 3,000 Jewish people converted on the spot to the faith of Jesus and the disciples, some called The Way.
By the late AD 40s, both Gentiles (Non-Jews) and Jews were converting in and around Jerusalem and as far north as Antioch in Syria and cities in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).
The problem was that strong-minded Jewish leaders who had become Christ-following Christians were of the mindset that Jewish laws and customs still needed to be followed by converted Jews and Gentiles alike:
Certain people came down [to Jerusalem] from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1-2)
The Jewish misunderstanding was that Christ, the perfect lamb of God, died once and for all mankind so that Jewish law was now obsolete and unnecessary. It’s purpose was completed, pointing the way to Jesus. There was no further need for Jewish practices and customs like circumcision or the eating of certain foods. This issue was causing lots of disputes:
So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The 1st Elders Meeting
Think of this as literally the first meeting of elders coming together to address Church matters and concerns. Peter steps up and addresses the theological debate:
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)
Then Paul and Barnabas give live testimony of God’s impact among the Gentiles. James, the brother of Jesus, also contributes some Old Testament context:
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written [Amos 9:11-12]:
“‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name…” (Acts 15:12-17)
James finishes with a recommendation that they eliminate any barriers for Gentiles beyond a common godly, moral code that was known to everyone since the law of Moses was preached in every city.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
The Drafted Letter
Here is the text of the letter they drafted for the growing Christian community:
The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Acts 15:23-29)
Disputes – Even for Christians
Of course, this was not to be the last of disputes within the Church. Centuries have passed and theological arguments both large and small have led to strife, division, battles and death. The fault does not lie with Jesus Christ, the Bible, or with Christian truth, but rather with men/women, and pride, and power, and greed.
And we today are not much different. We are all but fallen and forgiven human sinners who disagree on variations of beliefs that range from major to minor in significance.
So what are the major essentials of the Christian faith?
Briefly, I believe they are as follows; the sovereignty and eternal nature of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, the viability of the Holy Spirit, the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and the death and resurrection of Christ as the atonement of all mankind (Jews and Gentiles!) through faith/belief in that saving grace.
These are the key fundamental pillars of the Christian faith. Other elements cascade from these major pillars and give rise to debate and varied beliefs. Any compromise from these Christian essentials is worthy of a discussion or perhaps a meeting with wise elders.
Are you clear on your Christian beliefs?
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. – Acts 15:30-31