Do you remember when I mentioned that the first century church was not a perfect church by any stretch of the imagination? This chapter contains an account of a time when the church was not of one voice on an issue and their attempt to resolve the dispute. This is the one and only council meeting in which we see the early first century church take part. Here was the problem. I think I mentioned it earlier. There was a group of Christians, they were from the believers who were Pharisees by background. Now when we call someone a Pharisee it is not a bad term. A Pharisee was actually a very learned religious leader who followed a certain school of thought. Today we understand that when a church body calls someone a priest, or a pastor, or a minister, or a reverend it all basically means the same thing. Each denomination has their own way of identifying their spiritual leader. A Pharisee came from that school of thought within the Jewish community which was more legalistic than, say, the Sadducees. They also tended to appeal more to the masses and were not considered the elite of society, like the Sadducees were. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, and so this was important. He would have been going against many who believe similarly to what he believed.
So on to the issue at hand. The Christians who came from the Pharisee school of thought believed that anyone who came to know Jesus had to follow all of the Jewish laws which included circumcision, dietary restrictions, wearing of certain clothing…and other incredibly restrive forms of living. Paul, Peter and others thought that all which was necessary was as vs. 11 states: “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about the grace of Jesus, and not our ability to follow Jewish law, or any laws for that matter.
What is fascinating to me is that Peter says his thing and then the debate continues. We have always been told that it is Peter who is the head of the church (Remember the picture with Peter holding the keys?). But who brings this debate to a close. After Peter speaks there is silence and then finally James speaks up. Look at vs.19. We find James saying: “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” He reached a decision? He made the final call? Where have we ever heard in church history that James was the head of the church? Here, in Acts 15:19 we find that it is not Peter who makes the final decisions for the church, but it is James. There is no other debate after his declaration and the verses continue as if this is the end of the council and the discussion was finished and what James said was installed as policy of the early church. It is absolutely stunning to me that James has not taken on a much more important role in the history of the church than what we have been taught.
So you would think after this council and people have made a decision that everything would work out just right. Well, not so much. Look starting at vs.36 and you will see that there is a bit of a disagreement between Barnabas and Paul. Remember back in chapter 13:13 when John was accompanying them and then he abruptly leaves? Well, apparently there is more to that story and it is continued here in chapter 15. Paul and Barnabas decide to go back to the church that they had founded to check in on the believers. Barnabas wanted to take John who had been instrumental in setting up the early churches. But Paul says they should not take someone who had deserted them in the work. I’m not the biggest fan of Paul. He seems to carry a grudge. I love Barnabas. He decides that he is going to move forward with John even if it means that he and Paul have to go separate ways. Vs.39 says that the disagreement became so sharp that they had to part company.
This week begins the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 222nd General Assembly. It is a time when every two years leaders from our denomination gather to decide on issues that ultimately affect the life of the church. Two years ago when the general assembly met it was a very contentious and difficult meeting. It was one that produced a decision on gay marriage which I simply cannot and do not support. But like the disciples I continue to believe in the church that was created by God and do not go off and sulk and take my toys and go home. I believe that God is still working powerfully through our denomination as I see daily God working powerfully through our church in Strasburg. If you wanted to livestream the General Assembly or just get information on what is going on here is the website that you can use: http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/222nd-general-assembly-2016/