Connectional Table

Remembering the mission during disagreements: A reading of Acts 15 and 16

While the new Christian community in Antioch was growing and attracting large numbers of Gentiles, rumors began to spread that they were pushing the limits of sound Jesus teaching and of the Jewish tradition. For some time, the leadership at the center of the movement in Jerusalem had accepted the move from an exclusively Jewish interpretation of Jesus’s sending to a broader understanding that included all people (Acts 11). 

This leadership had not come to this new understanding through the study of scripture or through discussions about the teachings of Jesus, but rather through divine revelation sealed by the falling of the Holy Spirit on the Roman gentile Cornelius and his family as the convincing affirmation of God’s guidance. 

Though the leadership in Jerusalem wholeheartedly embraced the new understanding, several elements in the new practice remained unaddressed and thus unsolved. 

Two paths to the Christian faith

Over the following decade, the way to become a Christian and how to live as a disciple became an increasingly important questions in the expanding Christian movement and due to the diverse cultural contexts the answers varied. In the mother church in Jerusalem, predominantly composed of Jewish disciples, circumcision of new pagan believers appears to have been the practice. While in the Antioch church, planted in the wake of the first synod in Jerusalem and predominantly composed of Christians with a pagan Hellenistic background, they did not practice circumcision.  Furthermore, most likely the churches in Asia Minor started from Antioch followed the Antiochian pattern.

Growing tension

After nearly 14 years of diverse practices concerning circumcision, a group of conservative visitors from Jerusalem raised serious concerns about the faith in the church in Antioch. They were not sent by the leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 15:24-25); however, they represented a position held by several and they managed to create quite a bit of anxiety and confusion, as they turn circumcision into a matter of salvation. They were not questioning if the gospel is for the Gentiles, but they were claiming circumcision to be a condition for salvation. 

This was by no means a small issue. To the visiting Jewish Christians, circumcision was a matter of faithfulness to tradition and ultimately a question of salvation. To Barnabas and Paul, the request for circumcision of gentile converts would seriously jeopardize the mission in Antioch and in Asia Minor.

As they were unable to solve the matter in Antioch, Barnabas and Paul were sent to the headquarters in Jerusalem to discuss the question.

In Jerusalem, Luke pointed out the three groups. Barnabas and Paul would need to negotiate with the church, the apostles and the elders. Apparently, there was a loud faction of disciples from the pharisaic tradition in the Jerusalem church advocating for a stricter interpretation of the church’s openness to reach out to the Gentiles (Acts 15:5). They wished to make circumcision a requirement for all members of the church. Whether this or circumcision of Gentiles was a question of debate in the Jerusalem church, the practice in the church remained unclear. However, it was obvious that the former pragmatic approach without specific boundaries needed to be revisited, and there was much debate on how to deal with the issue.

Charismatic or traditional authority

The apostle Peter—who God had used as a recipient of vision and revelation on a rooftop in Joppa and, later on, in the house of pagan roman officer Cornelius in Caesarea—stepped onto the scene. Peter called the assembly away from trying to define boundaries and instead focus on the center. He warned them against burdening the Gentiles any further and reminded them of their communal experience in the past—that no one was able to carry the burden of fulfilling the law. He pointed to the center by lifting up faith through preaching (Acts 15:7), salvation by the grace of Jesus Christ (Acts 15:11), cleansing of the heart by faith (Acts 15:9), and God’s affirmation through the sending of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8). The center was what unified the church and not the boundaries. 

Peter considered himself selected by God to be the vessel through which the gospel will be heard and received by the Gentiles. God sealed and affirmed that the gospel should include the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to “them” as well as to us. Without any reference to scripture or to the teachings of Jesus, Barnabas and Paul made their account on how God through their ministry had performed numerous signs and wonders among the pagans (Acts 15:4, 12).

Such arguments were sufficient at the first synod, when Peter initially introduced the expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles. However, the leader of the church in Jerusalem—James the brother of Jesus—realized that experience and revelation would not suffice in convincing the conservative group in the church. 

James made reference to Peter using “Simeon,” the Aramaic form of Simon, and made the case that Peter’s revelation and insight was affirmed by the prophets. James quoted from Amos (9:11-12)—we can even trace a certain influence from Isaiah (Isa 45:21) in verse 18. The Septuagint text, more than the Hebrew text, offered a positive interpretation of the situation of the Gentiles. The rebuilt house of Israel was the Church, the new Israel, and the church encompassed all people. In fact, it was rebuilt to make all people seek God. James emphasized God’s continued acts of salvation. New important steps were made when Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his house, and Barnabas’ and Paul’s ministry was the natural continuation of God’s mission.

The decree — A compromise

James concluded his argument saying that no additional burden in terms of circumcision or observation of the law should be put on the new Gentile Christians (Acts 15:19-21), and then added a few guidelines to assist the church in its new missional reality. Edvin Larsson says: ”The statement is in all its modesty revolutionary. James’s proposal implies that the requirement for circumcision and obedience to the law will be left out. They will disregard the provisions of Scripture and Jewish tradition prescribing Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be admitted into Judaism. There was no Jesus word to waive the Gentiles from the requirement for circumcision available.” (Larsson, 341)   

Witherington emphasizes that the decree is particularly for Gentiles living in the diaspora (Witherington, 464) while not regarded incumbent on “the stranger within the gates,” a Leviticus expression for the Gentiles living in the land of Israel. If this is true, the church in Jerusalem retained the traditional understanding requiring circumcision for pagans converting to Christianity, while at the same time accepting another practice in a different cultural context. No doubt the rationale for this bold revolutionary step in the development of the young church was God’s mission. 

Freedom with some limitations

The Gentiles had turned to the true and living God and all they were being asked to do was to abstain from idolatry and the accompanying immoral acts. Abstaining from idolatry and immorality were the basic requirements of the Mosaic Law, which was not unknown as the Mosaic Law and, not least, the Ten Commandments were widely known throughout the Roman Empire due to the teaching in the synagogues. The witness of the Gentile Christians was important to James and the Jerusalem Church, and they knew the mission could easily be jeopardized if the Jews in the diaspora found reason to complain that Gentile Christians were practicing idolatry and immorality (Witherington, 463). Again, the mission was the driving force behind the Church’s thinking and the final decision of the Jerusalem church.

James was the de facto the decision maker, and his decision was affirmed by the church. However none of this is  perceived as a purely human decision, but rather as decision in agreement with the Holy Spirit. Then the apostles, elders and the whole church selected two prophets—Barsabbas and Silas—to accompany Barnabas and Paul back to Antioch in order to affirm the decision made in Jerusalem. The decree was put in an official letter that gently explains the decision. 

The Galatian perspective

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, we find his own perspective on the Jerusalem synod. Paul emphasized his charismatic authority based on his original encounter with Christ on the Damascus road and continued throughout his ministry as a missionary to the Gentiles (Gal 1:10 – 2:21). Fatum makes the point that Paul’s charismatic authority is put in contrast to the traditional authority represented by James and Peter. In the Galatian perspective this conflict can be perceived as a symptom of the growing power and influence of the traditional authority, which gradually became dominant in the church (Fatum, 81). Furthermore, Paul pointed out that the mission after the synod in Jerusalem was split between Peter and him—Peter would be the apostle for the circumcised and Paul for the uncircumcised.

Furthermore, Paul described a later incident in Antioch, when Peter visited the city and changed his behavior and abstained from eating with the Gentiles, as soon as a group from church in Jerusalem arrives at the scene (Gal 2:11-21). The passage clearly shows the continued tension around the circumcision question. Even Barnabas is affected by Peter’s “betrayal,” and Paul found it necessary to stand up against and confront Peter.   

Back to the mission field

Once the church had come to a decision about the place of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation and the people of God, Luke’s narrative again focused on Paul’s and Barnabas’ participation in God’s mission. 

Paul and Barnabas were ready to set out on a new journey to follow up on the people and places where they had preached the gospel earlier. It is noteworthy that they had just overcome a major theological dispute in the church, and now they got into a heated argument over an apparently insignificant matter involving trust in one of their co-workers, John Mark. The outcome of their disagreement was that Barnabas and Paul split and they journey in different directions. 

Barnabas traveled with John Mark, while Paul asked Silas, the prophet from Jerusalem, to accompany him. They traveled to Derbe and Lystra. In Lystra they met a young Christian, Timothy, and now something really interesting happens. 

Is Paul betraying his own position?

Paul, the leader of the Gentile mission, had just invested a lot of effort in convincing the Christian movement to accept and formally confirm a new missional practice: Gentiles didn't have to be circumcised to convert to Christianity. When we read the second chapter in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we immediately understand how important this question was to Paul. There was no way for him to compromise, and he even blamed Peter (Gal 2:11-14) for giving in to pressure and accused him of hypocrisy.

However, when he wants young Timothy to accompany him he immediately circumcises him, because of the Jews in the cities they were going to visit (Acts 16: 3). Why didn’t Paul champion the newfound rights of the Gentile Christians?

Greek or Jewish

Luke noted that Timothy’s father was Greek and his mother was a Christian Jew, but Timothy was not circumcised. 

From a Gentile perspective, Timothy could be considered a Jew born by a Jewish mother, if he was raised in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish view on mixed marriages was ambiguous. He could be seen as a Gentile due to his Greek father; on the other hand, he might also be considered a Jew due to his Jewish mother, and the latter became the dominant understanding among Jews during the Second Century.  If Timothy was considered a Jew, it would seem legitimate for Paul to perform the circumcision. (Larsson, 354)

Mission: The guiding imperative and principle

I believe we need to look beyond the immediate question of Timothy’s religious and cultural identity. Considering Paul’s strong statements in Galatians (Gal 2), some scholars claim it to be highly unlikely that Paul would have chosen to circumcise Timothy. However, Witherington rejects this and points to Paul’s missional statement in the First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:20-23). In order to win Jews to the Christian faith, Timothy is willing to become a Jew. He is willing to become all things to all people that he might win some. He is willing to do all things for the gospel—this is Paul’s missional imperative and principle, which informs and guides his ministry. “There is no reason to assume he wouldn’t encourage other Christians with some Jewish heritage to do the same, as a missionary tactic” (Witherington 476f). 

The missional imperative and principle allowed Paul to disregard the previous obtained freedom and act contrary by circumcising Timothy. It appears that a similar missional principle made James disregard Jewish tradition and scripture mandating circumcision, and instead place higher value on scripture affirming the revelation that God’s salvation includes the Gentiles and conclude that the church should not put any special conditional requirements on them.

Insights from reading for reflection

The center of the faith seems to be what unified the early church and not the boundaries. According to the Apostle Peter, the center is: faith through preaching (Acts 15:7), salvation by the grace of Jesus Christ (Acts 15:11), cleansing of the heart by faith (Acts 15:9), and God’s affirmation through the sending of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8). 

The United Methodist Church appears to be occupied with either defining the boundaries or with removing boundaries to achieve as much freedom as possible. What would happen to our relationships if we focused on describing and defining the center? What are the non-negotiables of our faith?

If it is true that the young church was able to exist with two different views and practices in different cultural contexts—Jerusalem, Antioch and beyond—when it comes to requirements for membership, what would a similar approach look like in the worldwide United Methodist Church? How might this help us in our current impasse?

Transferring the Jerusalem-Antioch tension to 21st century United Methodist reality, we might describe the positions in this way: 

“The Gentiles have the right to be part of church, we cannot be exclusive when Jesus was always inclusive, we hurt the Gentiles by saying that they don’t belong by putting extra requirements on them.”

“Scripture says circumcision is ordered by God, even Jesus was circumcised as an infant, we cannot disregard such strong evidence, and we would be unfaithful to scripture.”

What perspectives would Paul’s missional imperative and principle have on our current division over human sexuality?

Finally a question from my own context: In a highly secular and post-Christian culture, how do we realistically balance faithfulness towards the center and missional impact?


Bishop Christian Alsted serves the seven conferences in the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference. He currently co-chairs the European Methodist Council and is the chair of the Connectional Table.

Content originally published July 30, 2019 by Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism, an online forum sponsored by the Connectional Table.

 

References

1 Fatum, Lone ed., "Læsninger i Galaterbrevet," Forlaget Fremad, København, 2001

2 Larsson, Edvin, "Apostlagärningarne 13-20," EFS, Uppsala, Sweden 1987.

3
Witherington, Ben III, "The Acts of the Apostles – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary," Paternoster, Grand Rapids MI, 1998.