Upon reflection, I am sometimes more than a bit amazed that I went into pastoral ministry and have continued in such for four decades now. I have very clear and distinct memories from my childhood of church controversies and nasty congregational meetings that my parents discussed very openly and vehemently in front of me. Beyond that, I lived through a few of them in early ministry years. So it is with great gratitude that, in spite of our imperfections at TSF that begin most obviously with the Lead Pastor, we as a church have had little of the broiling contention common to so many congregations.
Church fights and controversies are the stuff of legend. In fact, they go back to the very beginning of the church era. For the next four days we will look at the first dispute of grand significance that arose, threatening to undercut all of the early positive effects of the gospel mission.
With the center of Judaism being in Jerusalem – the place also of the death and resurrection of Christ and the Day of Pentecost – it is no wonder that the church in that city would be seen in the earliest years as the “mother church” most embedded with authority. There too remained the bulk of apostles and earliest disciples. We would be accurate as well to say that there also remained the largest number of Jewish background Christians who retained many affections for their history and past.
These Hebraic Christians had already made some big personal changes and shifts in thinking and belief, having accepted the minority position within the Jewish community that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. They had accepted his new teaching of grace and payment as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. But more changes were on the horizon for them, coming in reports of a great influx of Gentiles to faith also in Jesus. That Gentiles would become proselytes to Judaism and align with the idea of the God of Israel as the one true God was nothing new. But to see so many accepting the teachings about Jesus, and seeing a ministry that was developing more directly to reach them apart from pure Jewish roots … well … this was more change than some were ready to receive. This was more than just shifting gears, this was a matter of replacing the entire engine and drive train!
Questions were raised as to what elements of the past should be retained, whereas as others were now to be replaced or modified. And sure enough, for certain traditionalist Judaizers, the entire issue of circumcision and legalistic keeping of the Law was raised as something still necessary – to both be in right relationship with God and to live appropriately.
The issue really hit the fan in Antioch as we read at the beginning of Acts 15 …
Acts 15:1 – Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. 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. 3 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. 4 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.
Acts 15:5 – 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.”
I’ll say it again – I just love Paul’s boldness; and really, he has to have New Jersey roots! But Paul understood that this particular issue was not the typical church fight about the color of the carpet, the thermostat setting, or the volume of the worship team. No, this issue about demanding Gentile believers to observe Jewish prescriptions cut to the heart of the gospel message of faith alone. It was bringing a “works” perspective into both salvation and sanctification. This could not be tolerated, and it had to be resolved. The problem was not only in Antioch, but it too was a divisive issue in the newly-founded churches of the first missionary journey (as we wrote about Friday, and as Paul deals with in the book of Galatians).
The need for a definitive word had to involve the primary players and personalities of the first church and followers of Christ in Jerusalem. The excellence of the Antioch church is seen in the wisdom of the decision to send not only Paul and Barnabas to share their stories, but other witnesses as well who could collaborate the truth.
This gathering is known as “the Jerusalem Council” in church history (occurring probably in the year A.D. 49). Other church councils happened in the early centuries of Christianity as well, including those that wrestled with theological issues such as the deity of Christ and the authentication of the canon of Scripture (“canon” meaning those writings accepted as divinely inspired).
All of this makes me grateful to live and minister at a time with the completed canon of Scripture to use as authority. God has spoken; we have His completed Word. The Greek word for canon (κανών) means “measuring stick” or “rule.” And this is our resource for dealing with controversy and establishing truth. And we are blessed.