The Troubles with the Council of Jerusalem

Despite what a great many evangelicals, and charismatics of the like may want you to believe, the Bible is not and has never been an inerrant, perfect opus. Rather, the endless doctrinal clashes stemming from various assemblies have defined Christianity – even before the liturgical canonization. The story of the Council of Jerusalem has persisted as one of these aforementioned gray areas in the Christian tradition. One may easily overlook this event in the Greek scriptures – it is rarely highlighted by pastors, nor explored in small groups. This negligence, still, is quite understandable. It appears on the surface to be a futile argument between Peter and Paul on the sanctity of circumcision, a practice many modern Christians do not consciously deliberate. However, when analyzing the underbellies of the two arguments they prove to represent two distinctive directions in early Christianity. Further, there are contradictory accounts of the convention in the Greek scriptures. The Pauline letters of a volatile, heated affair being a far-cry from the orderly consultation as described by Luke.

Paul’s divergent interpretation of Christianity had, to some extent, been under assault from the existent church leaders and establishment, many of whom knew Jesus personally. This, rursus, leads Paul to develop a hostility towards them. He formulates such a sentiment in Galatians 2.1-6 when he refers to many “false teachers” presiding over the meeting and, most brazen when he declares, “those leaders contributed nothing to me”. But this confliction was not limited to his writings. In fact, while in the Council Paul describes that he “opposed him (Peter) to his face”, probably implying a physical altercation. Paul does not stop their – he refers to advocates of circumcision as their own “faction” and frequently attempts to delineate a segregation until ultimately, a consensus favoring Paul’s case is advanced. Through the eyes of Paul, such a meeting was not the apogee of godly men, to say the least.

Luke’s account is unsurprisingly lukewarm. He exhibits the meeting as having no trifling instances, and goes as far to state that the “whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 15.12). This coming after Acts 15.8-9, where Luke describes that Peter was not only silent during the meeting, but even welcoming of Paul and Barnabas’ testimony – irreconcilable with Galatians 2.11.

However vivid these differences, like the entire theme of the bible – fact is discerned from the instances of the story that do overlap. In both accounts, the Council concludes circumcision is unnecessary for the salvation of Gentiles, leading us to reasonably detect it as reality. More importantly, this is the first instance of cross-reference where James, Peter, and John begin referring to Paul as their equal, having a legitimate hand in fellowship. Yet the most significant similarity is that the Council of Jerusalem opens the floodgates to rapid conversion without the initial, tangible precondition of circumcision. Such a change is paramount to Paul’s once divergent interpretation of faith alone, and almost over night propels it to legitimacy. Moreover, the distinctions between Gentiles and Jewish believers, for the most part, break down after the congregation, and what is left sets forth the development of a considerably unitary Christian theology until the reformation.

But we are revisiting the Council from a post-reformation era, one that has a plethora of interpretations to choose from with no fear of imprisonment for exercising. It may be best in such a different time to take a critical stance on the outcome of the Council – and its compounding effects on Christian doctrine. Foremost of these criticisms, being the persistence of a “faith alone” interpretation of the bible, that although rings true, may have contributed to a Lutherian rejection of all “works” as necessary. It is no secret that Luther had an effervescent hatred of James and his symbiosis of faith and works in his letter, preferring the Pauline rhetoric. Such a council gives credence to Paul and that very same rhetoric parroted years later by Luther, expanded upon by Whitefield, and ultimately contorted by modern evangelicals.

Although a pivotal concord, it is imperative to constantly re-examine consensus, and unload the ire of organized papacy from calling us heretics. God’s dominion over man has been continual over time, and will persist into foreseeable eternity. Such a perpetuity means ideas will come and go, assemblies will commit to truths and then disperse – but the ultimate sovereignty of god will remain unchanged.

2 thoughts on “The Troubles with the Council of Jerusalem

  1. Interesting read. You mentioned about the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. I find the early church to promote an anti-semitism that really fractured the relationship with the Jewish people. I can understand today why many Jews who haven’t accepted Jesus as their Messiah are skeptical. In my opinion, it’s because modern Christianity has forgotten their historical roots.

    1. Appreciate you taking the time to read it.

      I completely agree – When talking about Jews and Gentiles I was more referring to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians converging as a result of the Council, not Jews that rejected Jesus. Just clarifying as not to confuse that I believe anti-semitism was eradicated, far from it.