tonight we looked at acts 15:1-35. on the face of it, i suppose, that might not seem terribly exciting stuff - a disagreement on what does or doesn't make someone a Christian, an example of how the early church worked through the issue, and how the two disagreeing parties were to be reconciled afterwards. (in fact, just typing that brings a fresh light to my thinking on this as well - evolution in opinion on reflection! stay tuned...)
in brief, luke records that men had come down from judea to (syrian) antioch teaching that unless believers were circumcised according to the law of moses they could not be saved; that this led to much debate in the blended church in antioch and that a delegation, led by barnabas and paul, should go to jerusalem to discuss the matter; that the aopstles and elders met over the matter of mosaic lawkeeping for the new gentile Christians; that peter recounts God's work in the matter of cornelius, and paul and barnabas tell about the signs and wonders done among the gentile believers; that james refers to scripture (amos 9) regarding the inclusion of gentiles into israel; that the jerusalem council sends a letter advising the believers in antioch on the matter, and which is a joyful encouragement and strength for those who received it.
in our study, one question (after addressing verses 1-5 and 6-12) turned a simple reflection on decision-making into a lively debate on the deeper issue of the passage: "the issue appears to be the acceptance of gentiles. in fact the issue is far deeper. the very nature of what it means to be a Christian is under dispute". do you agree with this statement? the discussion came to a point after verses 13-21 through another question: what does james suggest as being the appropriate course of action? why?
on the surface, the judgement is rendered in verses 19-21:
"Therefore 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, esv]
"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." [acts 15:19-21, niv]
does this mean that gentile Christians are saved by grace and not required to obey the jewish law... except for these four rules? if four, why not three? or five? why not one, or even eight hundred-odd? peter says that the yoke of lawkeeping was too much for the jewish fathers to bear, so why lay it on the gentiles? and if this is so, does this then mean the council was deciding how light a yoke was kosher, so to speak?
why then these rules? the line taken by many in our study (and, it seems, many commentaries) is that these rules are about table fellowship - allowing the gentile Christians and jewish Christians sufficient common ground to be able to eat together without offending one another. jewish law was pretty strict about what was and wasn't okay to eat and gentiles might very well have eaten anything they pleased, provided it wasn't sacred to whatever god they happened to worship i suppose.
why then is that not spelled out in the letter that luke quotes for us in verses 23-29? (from... to... since... therefore... so, four rules... cheers!) why is there no exhortation to peace within the church in antioch? and i can't really see paul sitting comfortably for this: is this a get-out-of-getting-over-kosher-food free card from the jerusalem council for jewish Christians? when he writes to the romans about causing brothers to stumble, is paul talking about people eating food of questionable provenance (food sacrificed to idols) or of questionable ritual cleanness (not unclean according to moses)?
i do not see a question of table fellowship here at all, except in the working out of the liberty i see gentiles being afforded here. the rules they are given seem to me to have more to do with the way of life that many pagans would have had in the first century. temple prostitution and eating meat sacrificed in pagan temples were common practice; these rules would have set that way of life firmly in the "former way of life" category. paul's letter to the galatians is a clear exploration of exactly these issues: liberty from law permitting love that leads to peace.
what i see james saying here is to turn away from their old way of life (meat, blood, sexual immorality - temple cult) and not to worry about chasing after the jewish way of life (moses has been preached...). their old way of life was an empty worship of idols, and the jewish way of life was based not on grace but on works that were impossible to live up to. if this new liberty is to be taken seriously then table fellowship will be the natural consequence: jewish Christians will be freed from the food laws required in the law of moses; gentile Christians, saved by God's grace apart from law, will be gracious to those coming out from under it.
by returning at every point to the first principles of salvation - grace apart from works for jew and gentile alike - and the golden rule for a relationship with God - love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength - and with others - love your neighbour as yourself - surely a peaceful table must be the natural outworking! the council's words, "if you keep yourselves from these you will do well" ("these" being strangled and sacrificed meat, blood, sexual immorality) are very nearly the understatement of the first century!
i can see how a "table fellowship" understanding is borne from this passage now but i'm not convinced that was its primary purpose. the question prompting paul and barnabas' journey to jerusalem - did gentile Christians need to be circumcised to enjoy salvation? - was not a table fellowship question, but an earnest search to understand the nature of God's offer of salvation to the gentiles.
i'm still turning this over in my mind, but would love feedback, comment and discussion!