After seeing the umpteeth debate about church authority in general and Roman Catholic authority in particular, I got hit with a lightning bolt out of the Word. And no, it wasn’t for blasphemy. Who says that the account of Acts 15 is a church council? I have involved myself in long discussions on the implications of the Jerusalem “Council” and its view of church authority, but if this isn’t a council then all of those arguments are fruitless(of course many of them may have been fruitless anyway). I know that the Bibles I look in show that heading over the text in some cases, and everywhere I search online there is a mention of this as the “first church council”. But stay with me for a minute while we take an inventory. What starts the situation? Some people come up from Judea, where Jerusalem is located and go to Antioch and start some trouble in the area. They start insisting that Gentile believers become Jews, ect. The church at Antioch gets upset about this, and rightfully so, and they send representatives to Jerusalem(the source of the offenders) to discuss the matter. Did every church get involved in this dispute? Not that we can see from the Bible text. Did every church get affected by the decision? It doesn’t appear that is the case either since the letter from the “council” is only directed to the churches in the affected area of the original trouble (Acts 15:23). Let’s take an in depth look at this passage with fresh eyes.
In Acts 15:1 some men go from Judea (Jerusalem is in Judea) to Antioch. They start teaching the church there that everyone who believes in Christ has to be circumcised or else they aren’t really saved. This doesn’t go over well, because Paul and Barnabas are part of the Antioch church and oppose these teachers. The Antioch church decides to send Paul and Barnabas to represent their point of view about the situation to the leaders of the Jerusalem church (verse 2). When they get to the church of Jerusalem in verse four they give a report to the church leaders in Jerusalem of all the stuff they have been doing(mission trip slides and such). At this point, some of the church members in the Jerusalem church(in this case Pharisee converts) speak up and repeat the same teaching that created the big problem in Antioch. We can now see where the folks who went up there must have gotten the idea(verse 5). After that outburst from the congregation the leaders of the two churches met to consider the issue(verse 6). The rest of this discussion from verse 7 to verse 21 is a “church-level” working out of Jesus’ command in Matthew 18:15-17. In fact, it was probably this command from Christ that set this whole thing in motion in the first place. All of Acts 15 can be viewed as a practical application of this teaching. What happens as a result? Well, we get a good outcome. The church in Jerusalem, which is the source of the offense, sends a letter of apology and clarification to the churches at Antioch, plus Syria and Cilicia (which were in the same area and probably had the same people come stir up trouble in their churches). This isn’t a letter of doctrinal pronouncement. This is an apology and a clarification. They are telling the churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia that the teachings that those men brought and represented as theirs were not theirs and they are sorry for the misunderstanding. They add clarity to what is accepted doctrine to make sure there is no further misunderstanding. But now you may be saying that this is indeed a church council because they made this proclamation of doctrine. If you just said that in the last few minutes, I urge you to look again. This letter was sent to three churches in a specific area. These are not the only Gentile churches in existence. Paul and Barnabas had already completed their first missionary journey and planted churches in several Gentile communities(Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13; Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in Acts 14). Peter had begun a Gentile church in Caesarea in Acts 10. None of those churches were given this letter. It wasn’t addressed to them. The reason why is because they weren’t involved in the dispute. They weren’t a party to the issue. Thus this isn’t a “church council”. This meeting isn’t some grand gathering of churches. It is a dispute between two churches and nothing more. Note what happens after this meeting. Paul and Barnabas go back to Antioch with the letter from Jerusalem and two representatives from that church and take the letter to the church in Antioch. They read the letter there and stayed there. End of story. Well except for the part where Paul and Barnabas have a themselves over Mark and then Paul goes to “strengthen the churches” in Syria and Cilicia.
Author’s disclosure: When I started this post I immediately decided that I cannot have been the first person to have this thought. I did several Google searches that produced absolutely nothing of significance except a few commentaries about the “Council of Jerusalem” and other things that mentioned it as a council. I even got a hit to one of my favorite blogs, The Internet Monk, who had posted a commentary on Acts 15a year or so ago. But several searches turned up nothing that hit me and I went back to writing the post. As I was finishing up, I tried a different tactic (at one point I put the phrase Acts 15 was not a church council in quotes, which got nothing) for my google search and finally came up with a hit on the second page of results that matched very closely with what I had been thinking. It showed me that I was correct in my presumption that I wasn’t the first one to think this way and also that this line of thought has been out there for a while. You can check out the article I found(the only one like it that I found in several pages of search results I might add) at this link. It looks to be a longer, fuller explanation than what I have attempted here, but I haven’t read it all yet.