Discernment (Stephen Spence)

This post is by Stephen Spence, Dean at Tabor Adelaide.

Acts 15, a Model Church Meeting

I would have started out on the wrong side of the greatest debate in the history of the church! I just hope that I would have had the good grace to end up on God’s side by the end of the debate.

Do we get to “discern” the way the apostles did? Do we sometimes go “beyond the Bible” to live out the Bible? Safeguards in and safeguards aside, when have you done this?

In Jerusalem, in 49 A.D., some argued that all God’s people needed to be circumcised. The Bible clearly taught that it was the sign of God’s eternal covenant (Gen 17:10-14). This was not just a matter of a few proof texts; all of Scripture clearly distinguished between Jews (circumcised) and Gentiles (uncircumcised). Jesus had been circumcised, and nowhere had he rejected (or hinted at rescinding) this clear biblical teaching.

Despite this unambiguous teaching, some had welcomed the uncircumcised into the people of God.

By the end of ‘the Jerusalem Council,’ it had been agreed that new believers were neither required nor expected to be circumcised. How could the church go against the clear teaching of Scripture and the unbroken practice of God’s faithful people? Acts 15 tells the story.

The Apostle Peter told of a vision and the Pentecost-like experience of some Gentiles. Barnabas and Paul gave reports of signs and wonders done by God among the uncircumcised. In light of this and the Jesus event, James gave a surprising interpretation of Scripture that spoke of God doing a new thing which was consistent with the flow of God’s grand narrative.

It is clear from all this that in rejecting the requirement for circumcision the church had correctly discerned God’s living word to his people. We discern God’s leading best when we read Scripture with our eyes open to what the Spirit of the living God is doing in the world and amongst God’s people. This involves more risk that just repeating the teachings of the past, but faithfulness to the living God requires that we take those risks.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • J.L. Schafer

    What made the Jerusalem Council’s decision even more unlikely were the facts that (a) Jesus was circumcised and (b) although Jesus did explicitly overturn many requirements of the law (e.g. he declared all foods clean), we have no record of him negating the requirement of circumcision. One could have easily argued that retaining circumcision was being faithful to Jesus. This makes me wonder what kinds of risky breaks with the past the Church is being called to at this moment in history.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Clearly many in current biblicist sects would never allow people to go uncircumcised now. This really is an amazing example of how we can use our reason to understand what can be allowed.

    This would certainly divide the church today if it were not already decided.

    Thanks for this.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    At the same time when I look at the Supercessionism that stemmed from this decision, and the centuries of anti-Semitism, or more specifically, anti-Judaism, officially sanctioned by the Church which it engendered, I wonder whether that decision was wise and good.

    I also note that in a lot of areas where people are currently clamoring for this notion (of going beyond Scripture or against Scripture because of the Spirit’s prompting) they are not willing to wait for a consensus of the assembled Church leadership but “prophetically” forge ahead with their idea.

  • RJS

    Wolf Paul,

    I don’t think it is fair to say that supercessionism and the centuries of anti-Semitism stemmed from this decision. I think these problems stemmed from basic human fallenness.

  • James Petticrew

    This is a really tough question. Its a live issue to as I have had a very similar expression of this question put to me about the church and its attitude to homosexuality. The argument was that the circumcision was clearly commanded by Scripture but in Acts 15 the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit decided to “ignore” that clear command and as an expression of the universality of god’s grace and love allow uncircumcised men into the church, the visible expression of god’s people.

    The argument then went, well in the same way under the guidance of the Spirit we as a church are choosing to negate the clear commands against homosexuality and allow openly practising gay people to active members of our church and will recognise their committed relationship as marriage on a par of heterosexual marriage. We are simply doing what the church did in Acts 15 in our contemporary situation.

    I suspect the differences are that 1) … The whole unified church made this decision not indvidual expressions of church, would it take some modern ecumenical council to be an equivalent body today? (highly unlikely that would happen 2) …. Paul speaks of the Apostles as beng foundational to the church which suggests to me in some way their ability to making authorative decisions for the church is of a different order than that of church leaders today?

    Still not sure,

  • JoeyS

    “What you loose on earth…”

  • J.L. Schafer

    James #5,

    I am not a proponent of church-sanctioned gay marriage. But I suspect that tension within the Church regarding how we ought to treat gays is much, much closer to an Acts 15-type dilemma than many of us would like to admit. When western missionaries went to Africa and encountered polygamy, they were faced with similarly difficult choices. Is it ok to baptize and commune a polygamist? Modern western Christians are nearly unanimous in their understanding that monogamy is biblically correct. But polygamy is present in the OT and early church and is never categorically condemned. And neither is slavery.

    It was not until the early Church engaged in cross-cultural witness that it had to wrestle with the fundamental question of what the gospel really is. If we remain in isolated in sectarian, monocultural ghettos, we are easily lulled into thinking that our understanding of the Bible is ultimate truth. But when we leave our ghettos and enter into relationships with people who look, act, speak and behave very differently from us, then the work of the Holy Spirit that we encounter will challenge our assumptions and theology. Out of this conflict and crisis something beautiful can grow. This is when the gospel really comes alive. It’s where we begin to see how outrageous the teachings of Jesus really are, and how shocking are the implications of the gospel are, both for the unconverted world and for the Church.

  • Scot McKnight

    James ,

    Yes, of course, homosexuality must be discussed on the basis of a hermeneutic.

    But, I don’t think it works with circumcision — here’s why: circumcision was the fundamental covenant marker, and it was a marker for a nation, and suspending it was either suspending the covenant (the final fear of the Pharisee Christians here in Acts 15) or suspending national identity marker, and Acts 15 does not deny Israelites’ right to the rite, but instead says it is not necessary for Gentiles — and this means without circumcision Gentiles can enter into the one People of God and not be second-class citizens. One could then argue that all that happened here was the leaders affirmed the Torah itself, a Torah that did not require the blade for anyone but Jewish males.

  • Robert

    Nobody ever said Gentiles had to be circumcised. Torah was given to the Israelites, not to all humanity. The Noahide Commandments, believed to have been given to all via Noah, don’t include circumcision or food laws either.

  • http://www.thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com Christy Thomas

    I appreciate the insights here–and have been thinking for some time about this passage and the radical shift it was in the theological thinking of the day. Assuming that the purpose was to eliminate the second-class status for Gentiles as part of the People of God, I also think it has implications for those in the GLBTI community–who are so often told that their status is being the recipient of this statement, “Hate the sin, love the sinner, ” which, in my opinion, is a simply dreadful state. We have changed our theological thinking on the status of people of color, and most mainline Christian denominations now affirm women as fully human with the Imago Dei stamped upon us as well as men. Each of these shifts was huge and challenging and many will say, “violate the clear teaching of Scripture.” But this situation in Acts suggests that “clear” is not always all that clear and is often quite nuanced–and must be seen at a distance, rather than in the detail.

  • Kristin

    I thought this statement from #7 was worth repeating:

    “If we remain in isolated in sectarian, monocultural ghettos, we are easily lulled into thinking that our understanding of the Bible is ultimate truth. But when we leave our ghettos and enter into relationships with people who look, act, speak and behave very differently from us, then the work of the Holy Spirit that we encounter will challenge our assumptions and theology. Out of this conflict and crisis something beautiful can grow. This is when the gospel really comes alive.”

  • michael

    @ #7. I appreciate your reference to polygamy in Africa in the discussion of homosexuality. While many missionaries settled on urging them to stay together in light of the devastation to families if they broke apart these relationships, most did teach those not yet married that Gods way for marriage was one woman and man. Dealing with what an established homosexual relationship is vastly different from changing the orthodox teaching regarding marriage.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Pete Rollins tackles this Issue directly in his book “Insurrection”. I don’t want to presume to speak for him because his writing and thought are much more nuanced and complex than what I can say here, but he argues that we are finding ourselves now in the midst of a new “circumcision” question: is RELIGIOUS belief in God necessary to follow Christ?

    It’s a really really good question.

  • BradK

    I think Robert @9 is on track here. Did the apostles really go “beyond the Bible” in Acts 15 or did they just make a correction to others who were doing so? The Bible clearly taught in Genesis 17:10-14 that circumcision was an eternal covenant, but it does not seem so clear that it teaches that all of God’s people for all time must be circumcised. Jesus was a descendant of Abraham. For him not to have been circumcised would have violated the commandment that Abraham “and [his] descendants after [him] throughout their generations” must keep that covenant. But what about those who were not descendants of Abraham, who were not “born in [his] house or bought with [his] money”? It’s certainly not unambiguously taught that they must be circumcised, is it? God was not constrained by what he had said to Abraham to never extend that covenant or to make a new one with others, was he?

    How could the church go against the clear teaching of scripture? Well, it looks like they didn’t. Did they really reject the requirement for circumcision or did they just pay close attention to what the requirement was? This doesn’t really seem to have as much to do with the early church being open to the spirit of God or with their discerning the “living word” but rather with their careful reading and understanding of the written word.

    Fwiw, it’s probably wise to be pretty cautious when it comes to these “discerning the living word” type discussions. Often they tend to be motivated by desires to do something that seems to be prohibited by scripture. If all one needs to do is “discern the living word” then next thing you know you have believers saying things like “I know it looks like the scriptures say that I can’t dump my wife and family and run off with this pretty young woman I’ve met, but I simply must follow the leading of the spirit of the living God and discern the living word rather than the written one.”

  • J.L. Schafer

    BradK #14,
    Luke’s account in Acts 15 shows no evidence of the kind of reasoning you suggest. Peter’s argument hinged on the work of the Holy Spirit that he witnessed in himself and in Gentile believers.

  • Scot McKnight

    J.L. Schafer you are mostly right: Peter’s experience was decisive, but don’t forget the accumulation of elements: vision from God, speaking from God, Cornelius’ witness, and don’t forget that Peter didn’t make the decision — James did, and James’ argument is scriptural and eschatologically driven.

  • Scot McKnight

    BradK, I don’t buy your suggestion about motive. I have read this discernment stuff from Bob Stein (on divorce), Howard Marshall and Kevin Vanhoozer and Tom Wright (various hermeneutical points being made) and those who have carried the day on this one — I should mention too Bob Webb and yours truly in Blue Parakeet — have not had specific agendas in mind when they developed these ideas.

  • http://www.infinitelyhigher.com Brad

    As Scot mentioned earlier, circumcision (along with the New Testament’s relaxing/removal of food restrictions, feasts and festivals) was a removal of symbolic markers from the Law, not behaviors. And I would further argue that this is why you see the apostles affirm the behavioral aspects of the Law (e.g. – we “uphold the law” through faith in Jesus as Paul argues in Romans 3) while relaxing/removing those symbolic foreshadows of Christ that found their fulfillment in Jesus (i.e. – the explanations given in Hebrews 8-10). Homosexuality is a behavior, and like lying, cheating, hypocrisy, adultery, stealing and a host of other sins that Scripture calls out as sin, it is a behavior contrary to the character of God. Since homosexuality is not an ethnic marker or skin color, it shouldn’t be treated as such in light of Acts 15.

  • http://www.wanderprone.com Nate

    I do buy BradK’s caution, for that’s what it was, a caution…and based on my experience, a well advised one:

    Fwiw, it’s probably wise to be pretty cautious when it comes to these “discerning the living word” type discussions. Often they tend to be motivated by desires to do something that seems to be prohibited by scripture. If all one needs to do is “discern the living word” then next thing you know you have believers saying things like “I know it looks like the scriptures say that I can’t dump my wife and family and run off with this pretty young woman I’ve met, but I simply must follow the leading of the spirit of the living God and discern the living word rather than the written one.”

  • http://www.infinitelyhigher.com Brad

    Another interesting hypothetical…that might just be plain foolishness. What happens if Acts 15 hadn’t occured, because the tension between the symbolic (that foreshadowed Jesus) and the reality (his Advent, life, death and resurrection) would have still lingered on if the council had never occured. You have to think that someone would have eventually asked the question, “Why are we still doing all this ritual stuff when Messiah has already come?”

  • J.L. Schafer

    Scot #16, thanks for your comment. I didn’t express myself very clearly. I was thinking of Peter’s vision in Joppa and his interaction w/ Cornelius (which was the work of the Holy Spirit) which played a major role in his decision.

    And Brad #16, I didn’t mean to suggest that acceptance of homosexual behavior is akin to acceptance of non-circumcised people into a fellowship. I agree with you. The two are not alike. Personally, I would prefer to build a case against homosexual behavior based on the big themes of the Bible, in a similar wsy that NT Wright builds a case against polygamy in Scripture and the Authority of God. But that case against homosexuality does not automatically tell us how to deal with practicing and non-practicing homosexuals in our midst.

    For an awesome discussion of the Jerusalem council and its implications for evangelism & missions, I recommend The Open Secret by Lesslie Newbigin.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Brad#20, great question. I think that if Acts 15 hadn’t occurred, Christianity would have remained a subsect of Judaism.

  • scotmcknight

    Brad, they did and Paul expresses it in 1 Cor 9:19-23.

  • scotmcknight

    J.L. Schafer… had Acts 15 not occurred there would have been two churches, one Jewish and one Gentile.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Good point. The majority of Gentile believers would not have submitted to circumcision regardless of what the council said.

  • BradK

    Sorry, I’ve been away for a few days and haven’t been able to follow up here.

    First, Brad @18 and @20 is not me. Just for clarification. :-)

    J.L. @15, I think Scot already addressed it, but it seems pretty clear to me that James did base his judgment on the scriptures and not just on what he saw the Holy Spirit doing. “And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written…”

    Scot @17, I wasn’t actually selling anything. :-)

    Fwiw, I am not claiming that every time someone claims to be led by the spirit to do something “new” or “different” that they are motivated by an agenda. For example, I agree with your take on women in ministry (though I think it is something that the early church had right but was lost.)

    But if you think that some people don’t engage in sinful behavior and defend it by claiming they were led to do so by the Spirit, you may be naive. It happens in the church all the time. Surely you have seen and been shocked by some behaviors among believers that are defended by claims that they are doing what God wants? I have seen it many times. On the other hand, I’ve also seen people use novel interpretations of scripture to do the same. I once knew a man who tried to use 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 to justify having sex with his teenage daughter. We humans have an enormous capacity to self-justify and rationalize our sin.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X