Commentary on Acts 15:1-6
We begin today an account of the very first Church council.
Scripture scholars find many conflicting difficulties in the structure of the narrative in chapter 15. All these difficulties may be explained by supposing that Luke has combined two distinct controversies in one text with their varying solutions. Paul distinguishes them more clearly in Galatians chap. 2. For our purposes here, we need not go into these textual problems.
As often is the case, the matter did not concern a central doctrine of faith but a tradition. Two issues are going to come up:
1, Should Gentile converts be obliged to observe the Jewish Law?
2, What should be done to assuage the mutual cultural sensitivities between Gentile and Jewish members of the Christian communities?
Then, as now, the community could be said to be divided between conservatives who saw the need for continuity with the past and those who saw the need for change with changing circumstances. The issue at stake was circumcision.
Many of the early Christians, especially those in Jerusalem, were converts from Judaism. And among these were Pharisees. They believed that Christianity was simply a development of their Jewish faith and not a renunciation of it and that they should continue observing their Jewish traditions.
Circumcision, like many of the other practices of the Jews, was, at least for men, a crucial identifying mark of God’s people, even though the original reason for the practice may well have been hygienic and preventive. (Nor was it by any circumstances a custom confined only to the Jews of ancient times.)
With the acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian community, the issue of circumcision became a delicate one. Should the new non-Jewish converts be forced to undergo such a painful (and perhaps in their view a disfiguring) operation? Was it really central to the Christian identity?
It seems that the Christians in Antioch were not enforcing it on their new Gentile converts and this was causing some concern among Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. They sent delegates to Antioch with the strong message: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Although they were given a hearing, they may not have represented all the apostles and elders in Jerusalem but a more legalistic group within the church there.
It is clear from Luke’s account that there was a deep conflict between the Jerusalem delegates (who may have been predominantly Pharisees) and Paul and Barnabas who had seen how genuinely many Gentiles had accepted the Christian faith. They did not see that compulsory circumcision should be part of the package. It was, of course, a telling point that Paul himself, a Pharisee, was against compulsory circumcision for Gentiles.
As a result, a group from Antioch, including Paul and Barnabas and “some of the others”, went down to Jerusalem. Among those “others” could have been Titus, who was of mixed parentage, part Jewish, part Gentile. Paul mentions his presence in Galatians 2:1-3.
On the way they passed through the territories of Phoenicia and Samaria telling the Christians they met about their successes in evangelising the Gentiles in Asia Minor. This, in a way, was a clever public relations act because they picked up a great deal of support from those they met on their way. They therefore brought with them to Jerusalem a fairly considerable constituency of support.
When they reached Jerusalem they gave the same message about their great success in bringing Gentiles into the Christian communities. And it is clear that they were cordially received by the Jerusalem church.
But they were challenged by the conservatives of the day, converted Pharisees who again, as in Antioch, insisted on the absolute necessity of circumcision for all converts. Perhaps they had Titus in mind. Although his mother was a Jew and his father a Gentile, he had not been circumcised nor had Paul insisted on it.
The whole group then proceeded to discuss the matter in depth. Tomorrow we will see the outcome.
There is much for us to learn from this experience of the early Church. There is certainly a need for continuity if the Church is to retain its identity and its links with its origins. That is why the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is the foundation on which our faith is built and why we need to come back to it all the time.
At the same time, if the Church is to present its message in a way that is meaningful it must also be ready to make the necessary adjustments in areas which, though they may have a long tradition, are not central and have outlived their meaningfulness.
We see this happening both in situations where the Church is trying to make itself at home in cultures which are far removed from that of Europe and, even in Western areas where deep cultural changes are taking place. We see this happening especially today in the area of sexual morality and sexuality generally – artificial contraception, treatment of AIDS/HIV, married priests, women priests, homosexual priests, same-gender unions… Churches are being torn apart by these issues.
There will always be a measure of tension between these two movements, the conservative and the progressive. And both are necessary and a sign of a living church. As long as it is a matter of diversity and not division.
What is vital is that people on each side be open to frank and sincere dialogue. In spite of serious differences, we see that dialogue taking place in today’s reading.