The success of the early church inspires us and maybe makes us wonder if that kind of growth is possible today. For the first three chapters of its existence, the church flourished with thousands responding to the gospel of Jesus. The first hiccup came in Acts 5 with the death of Ananias and Sapphira, but, besides that, the church appears to have a relatively smooth existence as far as internal struggle goes.
The problems began, as they often do, when diversity was introduced into the church with the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentle. This conversion made Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles possible, and he, along with friends such as Barnabas, travelled all over preaching the good news of Jesus to people of every nation.
But there was a problem.
The Jewish Christian and the Law
The Jewish Christians continued to keep the Law. From the very beginning, they continued to meet regularly in the temple and in synagogues (Acts 2:46; Acts 13:5). Luke quotes James and the Jerusalem elders who said that there were “many thousands” of believers in Jerusalem who were “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20). In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes a quick comment about the “churches of the Gentiles” which implies that there were also churches of the Jews (Romans 16:3).
How might these Jewish churches and Gentile churches differ? Meeting times? Customs? Traditions?
These Jewish followers of Jesus had heard what Jesus had preached, “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
So, what were they to do? Did they treat the Gentiles like proselytes and demand that they keep the Law? Or were the Gentiles entering into a different kind of covenant with God that didn’t require keeping these commandments?
This dilemma might seem odd to us, but keep in mind that these laws were how they determined who was in versus who was out. They were the difference between being clean and unclean. They decided who could be in the presence of God and who could not. Imagine how hard it would be to not bind those traditions on someone else when they defined what is acceptable and what is abominable for generations upon generations.
Peter’s Argument: Experience
The disagreement finally demands that Paul, Barnabas, and their opponents travel to Jerusalem to present their cases to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. After much debate, Peter stood up and laid out the following argument.
- God chose Peter to teach the Gentiles.
- God, knowing the human heart, baptized Cornelius (who was uncircumcised) with the Holy Spirit, showing that he had believed in Jesus and received the forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43).
- If their hearts were cleansed by faith and this faith demonstrated that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, why would they need to keep the Law?
- Our fathers weren’t able to bear the Law, so why should we put that yoke on the Gentiles?
- Everyone must be saved by the grace of God, not by works.
Peter’s argument is based upon the experience he had in Acts 10. Surely, there were scriptures he could quote, but he doesn’t mention any, at least as far as we know from Luke’s record. While we typically emphasize other ways of knowing, such as a more scientific approach, our experiences do matter when we are trying to make a difficult decision as a church.
Often, these experiences are discounted, but even Jesus emphasized the importance of experience when he said that false teachers are known “by their fruit.” That is, they are known by the impact their teaching has on the world around them. Peter knew through his experience with the Gentiles that God had accepted them.
James’ Argument: Scripture
After Peter finishes speaking, silence fell upon the crowd as Paul and Barnabas recounted their tales form their missionary journeys. Once they finished, James spoke up and delivered a speech based on Scripture.
He took Peter’s experience along with Paul and Barnabas’s stories and added a thought from Scripture. He quoted the prophet Amos to show that it was God’s intentions from long ago to include the Gentiles in the covenant community.
Peter’s argument was valid. It had the power to silence both sides of the debate. James’ argument supplemented Peter’s by showing how Peter’s experience was in line with God’s plan from the very beginning.
Adapting this to Our Day
This flow can serve as a model in our churches today. When we are trying to make a decision, we should consider people’s experiences, listen to testimonies, and compare these to the flow of Scripture by asking the question, “Will this decision bear good fruit for the kingdom or will it bear bad fruit?”
We can consult prophecies, look at the experiences of the early church, and research the teachings of Jesus. Then, we must decide what seems good to us.
Yep. Notice Acts 15:28: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
All of that debate. All of that discussion. The stories. The testimonies. The Scripture. And the best we get is a “seemed good.”
A few years later, Paul would write and talk about how one of their recommendations, eating things sacrificed to idols, really wasn’t all that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things since those gods don’t exist anyway, but it may be important in certain situations (1 Corinthians 8:8).
Perhaps we would do better if we learned to be content with a “seemed good” after our meetings. Of course there will be mistakes. Of course we’ll make changes on down the road. Instead of putting the pressure on ourselves to reach an eternal decision that will stand throughout the ages and perfectly please everyone, let’s put a “seemed good” stamp on it and use wisdom in the future when the time comes to challenge that decision.
Sometimes new experiences will show that old ones may not have told the whole story, like when scientists reach conclusions according to the available data and that data ends up being not as conclusive as they thought. Or maybe more stories come to light which challenge our old assumptions, like the idea that Gentiles were perpetually unclean. Perhaps even our interpretation or understanding of scripture changes over the years and we have to reevaluate earlier decisions based on these developments.
I think the best thing to do is hold these kinds of decisions loosely. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong. Give grace in these situations. This means understanding where unity comes from. It means learning to be okay with a “seemed good.”