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The First Christian Heresy & First Church Council

HeresySo, I’ve been discussing Torah food laws and how the two main texts that Christians appeal to for ignoring them are improperly interpreted. Mark 7 is talking about Halakic regulations popular during Jesus’ day which sought to drive a wedge of hatred between Jew and Gentile, abandoning the Jewish commission to the world. Acts 10 praises Peter’s dedication to Torah while shaming his willingness to allow these same Halakic regulations to keep him from reaching out to Gentiles with the gospel.

Even so, I keep saying, I do not follow Torah food laws, and feel no guilt about it… other than what my cardiologist might try to put on me.

Why is this, you ask? Good question.

The issue comes down to the role that Peter’s episode with the gentile believers in Acts 10 plays in the first Jewish council in Acts when first Peter and then Paul and Barnabas confront “the circumcision party” in the church’s first battle with heresy… an event that comes to a fuller head with Paul & Barnabas in Acts 15.

Let me summarize.

  1. The earliest Christians (minus perhaps a handful of followers from among the gentiles like the Demoniac from Mark 5:1ff) were all Jewish. They were all members of an established covenant community having become participants in those communities by being circumcised into the Abrahamic covenant and being strict Sabbath keepers, tassel wearers, and Torah food law eaters as signs of their commitments to the Mosaic covenant as a covenant.
  2. They all “came to Christ” (i.e. entered into the new covenant of Jesus’ blood) through faith, being baptized as a sign of entrance into that new covenant, and were vetted/validated by the giving of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Peter has now gone to gentiles and baptized them into Jesus without requiring them to enter into this new covenant in the same way that these Jewish believers did. He did not require them to become Jewish before becoming Christian. He did not require them to be circumcised into Abraham, or swear oaths of obedience to the Mosaic system (and a good portion of the Jewish Halakah to boot).
  4. So the question is put to the counsel. Does a person need to become Jewish, in all that it means to be Jewish, in order to be a Christian, to be a functioning member of the New Covenant community?

What was the council’s decision?

First, Peter tells his tale. He summarizes, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-17)

Then the council decides. “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

This rather loose rendering of decision to leave the gentiles be (i.e. not force them to become Jewish) becomes a spreading practice abroad until Paul and Barnabas confront a group who is still demanding that gentiles become Jewish in order to become Christian.

Acts 15:1-2 reads, “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”

Here, the council’s decision is more explicitly laid out.

“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:6-11)

James says, “…my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,  but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.  For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

And the council sends a letter and representative with Paul and Barnabas to spread the word.

“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord…For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:24-29)

I summarize, “You gentiles are not required to become Jewish in order to be Christians, but show sensitivity in your eating because you need to share space with Jewish believers, avoid the lure of idolatry, and don’t be immoral.”

Here, the gentile’s relationship to Torah codes is shifted away from covenantal obedience to the letter, and toward a heart reflection of the character, purpose and will of God.”

Enjoy your lobster.

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