Acts 15 - Associations and Conferences
The meeting recorded in Acts 15 is used by the Roman Catholic Church to support their practice of a general church council. This meeting is affirmed by them to be such. According to Bertrand L. Conway, "St. Peter, not St. James presided at the council at Jerusalem . . . Paul, Barnahas, James and the rest were present as teachers and judges, just as bishops were present at the Vatican Council, but Peter was their head, and the supreme arbiter of the controversy, as Plus IX was in the nineteenth century." (Question Box, p. 152.)
This meeting is used by denominationalists to support their practice of conferences, synods, and associations. This is an unwarranted use of this chapter and is affirmed to be so by historians from various branches of denominationalism. Mosheim's summary of the matter is this. "The churches, in those early times, were entirely independent; none of them subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each one governed by its own rulers and its own laws. For, though the churches founded by the apostles had this particular deference shown them, that they were consulted in difficult and doubtful cases; yet they had no juridical anthority, no sort of supremacy over the others, nor the least right to enact laws for them. Nothing to the contrary is more evident than the perfect equality that reigned among the primitive churches; nor does there even appear, in the first century, the smallest trace of that association of provincial churches, from which councils and metropolitans derive their origin. It was only in the second century that the custom of holding councils commenced in Greece, from whence it soon spread through the other provinces." (Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, p. 107.)
"The meeting of the church of Jerusalem, mentioned in the 15th chapter of Acts, is commonly considered as the first Christian council. But this notion arises from a manifest abuse of the word council. That meeting was only of one church and, if such a meeting be called a council, it will follow that there were innumerable councils in the primitive times. But every one knows, that a council is an assembly of deputies and commissioners sent from several churches associated by certain bonds in a general body, and therefore the supposition above mentioned falls to the ground." (Ibid., Footnote, underlining mine, AKM.)
Brethren in Christ are using this meeting to justify area wide promotional meetings that they might plan some project under a sponsoring-church--sponsoring eldership" arrangement. These applications of Acts 15 are not true to the statements in the word of God. Thev are unwarranted applications of the statements therein contained. We present the following for consideration.
1. This was not a conference or an association attended by elders or leaders from a number of congregations. There were elders from one church present, along with the apostles who were in Jerusalem at that time. The persons from Antioch were as follows: Paul, who went up by revelation (Gal. 2:1-2); Barnabas and certain others (Acts 15:2); Titus was among this number (Gal. 2:3). Paul went to Jerusalem because Christ revealed to him to do so. (Gal. 2:1-2). He did not go to learn the truth on the question of circumcision of the Gentiles. He had been teaching the truth. This is why he and Barnabas had no small dissension with the false teachers. After the meeting in Jerusalem he said, "They, I say, who were of repute imparted nothing to me" (Gal. 2:6).
2. This was a case of apostolic authority in which the statements were the product of divine inspiration, a case of binding and losing (Matt. 16:19). This decision affected the souls of men and their salvation. This no other body of men has ever had the right to do. This meeting was for two purposes: (a) To answer the charge of the false teachers that they represented the position of the Jerusalem church on the question; and (b) to set forth the truth on the question.
3. This meeting was not composed of representatives from congregations in a district, however small and there were churches in Judaea at that time (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14). The churches of Syria and Cilicia did not send representatives. Paul went up by revelation and the charges made by the false teachers that they represented the position of the Jerusalem church was investigated and settled once and for all.
The epistle which was sent to the brethren in Syria and Cilicia was to inform them of the position of the church in Jerusalem which the false teachers had misrepresented and the necessary things for the Gentiles to do. This epistle was the product of inspiration and applied to every Christian in the same way that the Scripture applies to every person today.
The fifteenth chapter of Acts and the second chapter of Galatians give the proceedings of the meeting as they took place. Here is a chronological listing of the events that occurred. Paul, Barnahas and others arrived in Jerusalem and were received of the church, the apostles and elders (15:4). They rehearsed with them all things God had done with them, But certain of the sect of the Pharisees, who believed, rose up and said, "It is needful to circumcise them and to charge them to keep the law of Moses" (15:5). This, the first meeting ended here. A second meeting is described in 15:6. The apostles and elders gathered together to consider this matter. It was for the purpose of answering the charge of the false teachers, informing the church on the question and bringing all the brethren to one accord. This was done (Acts 15:25).
Now between the first and second meetings described in Acts 15:4-5 and Acts 15:6-21, the meeting of Galatians 2 took place. In Galatians is recorded a private meeting of the apostles, in Acts is recorded two public meetings of the apostles, elders and the whole church. Paul informs us of the private meeting in Galatians 2. Paul laid his gospel before them which he preached among the Gentiles but privately before them who were of repute, lest by any means he had gone up in vain. Titus, who was a Greek, became a TEST CASE. Not even Titus was compelled to be circumcised! The originators of the controversy were false brethren privily brought in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ. These brethren were false. They were brought in unaware or under the guise of being Christians. This was an effort of the Circumcision party to get into the fold of Christianity and to try to destroy it from within. Their design was to establish circumcision and observance of the law of Moses as a condition of salvation for the Gentiles. This would divide the house and it could not stand. Christianity would be reduced to the level of another warring sect of Judaism and its force in the world would be nil.
Paul gave way to them NO NOT FOR AN HOUR that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. James, Cephas and John gave to Paul and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship. There was no difference between them on the question. They recognized and taught the same thing. There was ONE gospel and two spheres of work; Paul to the uncircumcision and Peter to the circumcision. Paul's statement is, "They, I say, who were of repute imparted nothing to me" (Gal. 2:6). They told him to remember the poor and this very thing he was alreadv zealous to do (2:10). There was, therefore, no division among the apostles on the question. Each believed the same thing and taught the same thing. They were of one accord and in full fellowship. What now remained to be done was to gather the church together, answer the charges of the false teachers and bring the brethren to one accord. This they did (Acts 15:6-2).
Peter reminded the assembly of his mission to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile who was saved by the gospel of Christ, without circumcision and observance of the Law of Moses. God purified their hearts by faith. God knew their hearts and gave them the Holy Spirit. They will be saved by the grace of God even as the Jews. To bind circumcision on the Gentiles is to place a yoke on them that we nor our fathers were able to bear.
Paul and Barnabas rehearsed the signs and wonders God had wrought by them among the Gentiles. The multitude kept silence. James spoke afterward and affirmed that salvation of the Gentiles was a subject of prophecy and followed the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David. At the captivity of Judah the Dynasty of David came to an end. None of his seed would reign and prosper in Judah again until he came whose right it is. Christ is the seed of David and was raised from the dead to sit on David's throne (Acts 2:30-36). The coronation of the King is announced in Acts 2. James affirms from Amos 9:11 "that the residue of men may seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called" (15:17). We conclude then that the tabernacle of David has been raised up; Christ is the King on David's throne and the Gentiles have a place in the kingdom of Christ on the terms of the Gospel. Their admittance is not on the basis of circumcision and observance of the law of Moses.
These speeches by Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James answered the charges of the false brethren on the question and brought the whole church to one accord. The charges of the false teachers were answered in the epistle in the statement, "Forasmuch as we have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls; to whom we gave no commandment" (15:24). The epistle was written and sent to the brethren, who are of the Gentiles, in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Judas and Silas were sent along as witnesses who would tell the same thing by word of mouth.
4. The meeting of Acts 15 is not, therefore, an example of a conference, council, association, district meeting, or an area-wide promotional meeting. It is not an example of the sponsoring-church arrangement. The New Testament limits the organization of the church. Its organization is local under the rule of elders in each local congregation (Cf. Acts 14:23). The limit of the authority of elders is to the congregation over which they have been appointed Bishops (Acts 20:28). Their charge is, "Tend the flock of God among you" (I Pet. 5:2-3). Let us respect the limits of divine authority and use all of our efforts in constructively building up the kingdom of God. "Unto him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen" (Eph. 3:21).
Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box. New York: The Paulist Press, 1929. p. 152.
Truth Magazine IV:5, pp. 6-8