For Moses has been preached in every city since the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath. (Acts 15:21)
Acts 15 begins with the church in conflict about entrance in the community. The members of the party of the Pharisees believed that the Jewish rite of circumcision should be required of all new Christians. In order to be Christian, they had to first become Jewish and become obedient to the law. Paul and Barnabus were vehemently opposed to this measure, citing God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. The two groups met in Jerusalem and brought their question to the apostles and elders: What does it mean to be Christian? How Jewish do you need to be?
The apostles and elders discuss and eventually arrive at a startling conclusion: circumcision is not required, new converts are asked only to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. There are still behavioral requirements, but one of the primary markers of Jewish identity and covenant membership – circumcision – is not required. As Paul would argue in Colossians, baptism has replaced circumcision for entrance into the community of God’s people.
The Church in Acts is not the only church struggling with identity and inclusion. Many churches (and denominations) in our context struggle with what it means to be church. Who gets in and who doesn’t? How ‘redeemed’ does your life need to be before you can be a member of the church? What does it mean to be Reformed, Lutheran, Evangelical, or even Christian? How Reformed do you need to be in order to come to our church? Even as our own denomination and others seek to regain our sense of God’s call to mission within our communities, we have questions about boundaries for membership and inclusion within the community.
The decision of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is instructive. Full Jewish membership and obedience to the law is not required, but it is expected that members would live into at least a basic pattern of the Christian life by abstaining from practices which contradict sole allegiance and worship to Christ. While the decision itself is instructive, I happen to think the logic voiced by the apostles and elders may be even more instructive for the church in the 21st century.
There are two primary arguments, one made by Peter and one by James. Peter’s argument is doctrinal, rooted in the basic teachings of the church. “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus we have been saved, just as they are.” The core teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ forms the backbone for inclusion to the community. We are not Christians because of our good works or even our relative health as Christians, but because of the grace found in Jesus Christ. Peter’s argument rests on the theological foundation of salvation itself: only Jesus saves, not circumcision. Gentile inclusion into the community is based upon God’s grace, not obedience.
James’ argument, while in total agreement with Peter, comes from a different angle. The context of the worshipping life of the Christian community makes Gentile inclusion possible. After his brief list of behavioral prohibitions, James includes a line I had never noticed before. “For Moses has been preached in every city since the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). By my reading, James assumes that the Old Testament (particularly the Torah – the first five books of the Bible) are being preached and taught in the synagogues and in the churches. There is no need for James to fully detail what it means to follow Jesus as his disciple because he trusts that the Word of the Lord is being taught in the churches. God will use worship to shape the people, not into perfect Jews (read: like us) but into the image of Christ. James assumes that the worship of these new converts will embody and encourage a life fitting of the kingdom of God. Gentile inclusion assumed a robust Christian worship that lived out Jesus’ command to “make disciples.”
Our churches today continue to struggle with identity and inclusion. We continue to wrestle with how to be faithful Christians in our contexts. As we continue to discuss, pray, and discern how to follow Christ in mission (and even when we enter into ‘sharp dispute and debate’), I hope that we remain mindful of the words of both Peter and James. I hope that our churches would listen to Peter and be rich in grace and deep in our doctrinal convictions. And I hope that our churches would listen to James and be robust in our worship, embracing the whole Scripture as the only rule for faith and life. I pray that we would live into Paul’s injunction to Timothy, that “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” I pray that this all would include not just Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, but Moses, Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah as well.
Peter and James remind us that our doctrine and our worship belong together and we will need both as we follow Christ into challenging new spaces.