James’s ruling at the Council of Jerusalem.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 March
Acts 15.12-21 KWL
12 All the crowd was silent.
They’d heard Barnabas and Paul explain all the miracles God did,
and wonders among the gentiles because of them.
13 After their silence James answered, saying,
“Men, fellow Christians, hear me.
14 Simon Peter explained just how God first chose
to take a people for his name out of the gentiles.
15 The prophets’ words harmonize with this,
just as it’s written:
16 ‘After this, I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
I will rebuild its ruins. I will lift it up.
17 Thus whenever the remnant of the Lord’s people might earnestly search,
and all the gentiles who had been called by my name…
says the Lord who does these things,’ Am 9.11-12
18 well-known in that age.
19 So I judge to not further trouble
those of the gentiles who repent to God.
20 Instead we’re to write them about abstaining
from the contamination of idolatry—
porn, strangled idolatrous sacrifices, and blood.
21 From the earliest generations, the Law of Moses
has been read in synagogue every Sabbath
in the cities which proclaim him.”
Previously:
  • “The Council of Jerusalem.” Ac 15.1-12
  • To recap: Certain Christians from Jerusalem had gone to Syria, to Barnabas and Paul’s church in Antioch, and were teaching gentile Christians they needed to first become Jews before they could be saved. This was after all what Jews believed and taught: Messiah is king of Israel, king of the Jews—not the world. So if any non-Jews wanna be included in his kingdom, they needed Jewish citizenship. They had to become Jews. Starting with ritual circumcision. Whip it out; we’re gonna cut you!

    Barnabas and Paul objected: Messiah is king of Israel and king of the world. Becoming Jews isn’t necessary. And in fact, requiring it has the side effect of telling people our works save us; not God’s grace. We’re not saved by jumping through hoops. We’re saved only by turning to Jesus.

    Simon Peter pointed out God himself confirmed this by granting the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and the first gentiles he ever preached the gospel to. If God didn’t require ritual circumcision before gentiles could become Christian, why should Christians? What business do we have in adding any prerequisites to salvation?

    As I said before, Roman Catholics like to imagine Peter led the church back then, as its first pope; later as the first bishop of Rome (notwithstanding the leaders of any other churches in the city of Rome before Peter eventually moved there). But by this point he had stepped back from leading the Jerusalem church, to concentrate on other ministry. So Jesus’s brother James had stepped up, and in his capacity as the Jerusalem church’s supervisor (Greek ἐπίσκοπος/epískopos, “bishop”) presided over this council. As president, same as the president of a synagogue, his job was to moderate: Recognize the speakers, stop discussion when it turned into bickering, and make the final ruling. It’s exactly like being a judge.

    James’s ruling.

    There are some Christians who are really bugged by the idea of James making this ruling. Not just Catholics, who wanna do some interpretive jiggery-pokery and claim James was just following Peter’s lead ’cause Peter was really in charge. And not just Christians who know nothing of the historical background of the church, and wanna know why James got the last word. What, was he taking authority just because he was Jesus’s sibling? Brother goes to heaven, so that leaves him in charge?

    Christian tradition makes it pretty clear James merited his job. This is after all the guy who wrote James. Although I don’t know that Christian leaders always got their jobs on merit back then; I’m quite sure the Holy Spirit had a say in it, and he doesn’t always pick the leaders we’d expect. Note Gideon, David, Amos, or even Peter.

    Still, American Christians prefer to imagine the church oughta be governed democratically—either by all its members; or all its recognized leaders, its presbyters. A bishop having final say?—it feels way too much like a dictatorship and monarchy. Isn’t only Jesus our king?

    And yeah, as an American who’s used to democracy, I admit it bugs me too. But it’s consistent with how governments ran back then. The ancient Greek and Roman experiments with democracy were long gone by that time. The Roman senate was an oligarchy; you couldn’t be a senator unless you were from the senatorial caste. It was presided by an emperor from that caste, who usually terrorized the senate into doing his will. The Judean senate was likewise made up of nobles, but was relatively powerless: It could rule on matters of the Law of Moses, but any civic matters could easily be overruled by the prefect of Jerusalem, or any other ruler the Romans put over ’em.

    So James and the church just mimicked the leadership style they saw in the world. Kinda like we do, when we let church members vote on stuff. God’s kingdom isn’t a democracy!—Jesus is king, and you don’t vote for kings. But when Jesus doesn’t make any ruling, and leaves us to sort things out for ourselves… well, we humans tend to default to whatever method we’re used to. In democracies, we vote. In empires, the bishop makes a decree.

    If the bishop was wise (and James had a reputation for wisdom; it’s what his letter is all about) he’d listen to the people of the church, and what these people claimed the Holy Spirit told them. He’d hear them out, rebuke them whenever they went astray… and ultimately follow their consensus. If he wasn’t so wise, he’d do his own thing; whatever he thought best, whether the people liked it or not.

    In other words he’d rule the same as every king before him, and the same as every president after him.

    And James’s judgment is considered the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem. Not Peter’s speech, although it gets a lot of attention ’cause it’s Peter. Not Paul’s interpretation of the council, which we read plenty about in Galatians. James was the one who established Christian orthodoxy in this matter.

    In summary it’s this: “I judge to not further trouble those of the gentiles who repent to God.” Ac 15.19 If they’re Christian, if the Holy Spirit deigns to indwell them, they clearly didn’t need to become Jews first, and they don’t need to become Jews afterward. They can remain gentile.

    There are some folks who think his idea of reminding gentiles to shun idolatry is just a different form of legalism. It’s really not. Remember, Greco-Roman pagans were used to worshiping lots of gods, and thinking that’s okay. And some might’ve got the wrong idea—that they could worship Jesus and Zeus, same as certain Christians who imagine they can dabble in other religions and still stay true to Jesus. But it’s simply wise for former idolaters to stay away from pagan worship practices lest they get sucked back into idolatry. So, no more temple prostitutes; not even for fun. No eating meat where the blood hadn’t been drained properly; not just because Jews thought eating blood was nasty, but because those animals were usually strangled as part of pagan ritual, and Christians didn’t need to buy and eat that stuff, and in so doing, finance pagan worship. Oh, and no more blood.

    Yeah, Christians who ignore the kosher rules don’t pay too much attention to those last two things. And whether you eat pork and shellfish or not, you really oughta care about it. When people don’t care how their meat was killed, all sorts of atrocities can—and regularly do!—slip into the meat-packing industry, and our apathy makes us complicit in that. Don’t be those people.

    Quoting Amos.

    James’s proof text for why God includes gentiles in his kingdom comes from Amos:

    Amos 9.11-12 KJV
    11 In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: 12 That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this.

    Israel had been sinning against the LORD, as usual, so God was gonna let their enemies have at ’em. But he wasn’t gonna let the enemies utterly destroy Israel; he’d sift out the sinners, and they’d be destroyed. Am 9.8-10 Then he’d restore the kingdom, and they’d possess Edom… and in time, the rest of the “heathen,” as the KJV puts it; the Hebrew word is גּוֹיִ֔ם/goyím, “ethnic groups.” Gentiles.

    That prophecy about Edom? Happened under King John Hyrcanus around 125BC. The Nabateans had driven Edom out of their homeland, so they resettled south of Judea, in a land they named Idumea. John told ’em if they were gonna live there, they had to become Jews, and be incorporated into the Jewish nation. He didn’t make it voluntary either: The Edomites/Idumeans became were forcibly absorbed into the nation. They’re Jews now.

    So… is the same thing gonna happen to us Christians? Well we’ve been incorporated into God’s kingdom, but not forcibly like John decreed: We choose to follow Jesus, and if he’s truly our king we’re gonna act like his subjects. And if he’s not, we won’t. And ultimately, our “nation”—our ethnic background—makes no difference. Anybody of any nation can become Christian, same as any other Christian; same as even Jewish Christians like James, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. There’s no difference between Jew and gentile anymore: Christ Jesus eliminated that distinction in his body. Racists may try to pull us apart again, and even create their own twisted racist churches. But in so doing they’re clearly not following Jesus.

    Racists among the Jews had developed an unhealthy belief that only they were God’s people, and gentiles weren’t. Only they were holy, but gentiles were ordinary; or as the KJV put it, “common.” The Holy Spirit had to cure Peter of this attitude.

    Acts 10.9-16 KJV
    9 On the morrow, as [the Romans] went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: 10 and he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, 11 and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: 12 wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. 14 But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. 15 And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. 16 This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.

    God had never declared humans, as a species, to be ritually unclean. And though God had chosen Israel for a special relationship with him, God also has relationships with other people-groups and countries. They may not know him as closely as ancient Israel did, or as closely as predominantly Christian countries do now (and how well ancient Israel and today’s countries know him, is extremely debatable). But they were his people nonetheless. As Amos quoted the LORD, all these “heathen” were “called by my name,” and God has every intention of saving the gentiles same as he saved, and wants to save, the Jews.

    So yep, there’s Old Testament precedent for the New Testament idea. There’s Old Testament precedent for all the New Testament’s ideas; those Christians who insist God changed dispensations on us, don’t know what they’re talking about.