We often look to the church in Acts as an example of a vibrant and unified church. But when we look at it more closely we can see they had many of the same problems that we do. The Jerusalem Council convened in Acts 15 provides a detailed look at the decision making process by the NT leaders. We can we learn much from their example.
In the NT, nearly all the initial Christians were Jewish. It would be quite natural for them to continue many of the cultural and religious practices of their ethnicity. Eventually, as Gentiles were converted, it seems inevitable that questions would arise as to which practices were REALLY necessary to the Christian faith and which were optional. In particular, were Gentile believers required to be circumcised in order to be accepted as Christians?
The Jerusalem Council
Paul and Barnabas, along with some other leaders, were sent to Jerusalem to engage the issue with the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2-3). After reporting on God’s work among the Gentiles they presented the issues. The passage says there was “much debate” (v. 7), so it seems that they had a very robust dialogue. As part of the dialogue, Peter, one of the key leaders, “stood up” and shared how God had used him to first bring the Gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 10-11:18). He was referring to his experience with Cornelius in which God gave him a vision that it was acceptable to have fellowship with non-Jews. Peter concluded by reminding them that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by God’s grace alone (Acts 15:11).
Then it sounds like Paul and Barnabas spoke at the council meetings as well, after which James, thought to be the senior leader, brought the dialogue to a close with his verdict (Acts 15:13-21). He cited Scriptural support for bringing the gospel to the Gentiles and then concluded by saying:
“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” –Acts 15:18-20
After this the council members composed a letter summarizing their decision and sent it back with Paul and Barnabas along with some representatives from the elders in Jerusalem.
What Was the Decision Making Process?
- Robust dialogue was perfectly acceptable. There was a range of opinions represented in this meeting and they openly dialogued about them for quite some time. This should be an encouragement to us when we have different opinions, because even the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem did not always see eye to eye. We must assume it was humble and respectful dialogue – in keeping with the rest of the NT imperatives.
- Respected servant leaders summarized the issues. After a period of open dialogue the two most respected (and senior) leaders summarized the issues. Peter was a leader among the apostles, and ministered mostly to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8). His word would have carried a lot of weight among the Christians with a Jewish background.
- James apparently made the final decision. James seems to have been the chairman of the council. After there had been a thorough dialogue, he addressed the larger group with his conclusion. Notice that he said “Therefore, it is my judgment…” (Acts 15:19, emphasis added). Apparently he had the final authority to speak for the group. Having said that, it doesn’t appear that James made a unilateral decision, but that they had created a prayerful consensus building culture. James listened to all sides and then made the final decision. There is no record of any vote.
The decision represented a wise compromise
The final decision represented a wise and respectful compromise based on the concerns of both parties. They could not require Gentile believers to be circumcised because that would endanger salvation by grace alone. Yet they did admonish the Gentile believers to refrain from certain practices that were particularly offensive to the Jews. So, the more culturally Jewish group did receive respect and recognition in the decision.
All agreed to support the decision
Even at this point it is certainly possible that not everyone was 100% happy with the decision, but nevertheless they all gave their support to the outcome. The letter that they composed came from “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” (v. 22), not just from James alone.
What principles guided their decision making process?
- They stood firm on the core truths of the faith (salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone).
- They were sensitive to important cultural issues, especially those issues that would make it difficult for Jewish believers to have authentic fellowship with non-Jewish believers.
- Clarity resulted in unity. Most of the restrictions in the letter had to do with food and because most churches have a lot of meals together, this was an important decision — on at least two levels.
- They were respectful in their response. The Jerusalem leaders sent additional representatives out of respect:
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul…” (Acts 15:24-25).
 The James mentioned was not James the Apostle, because he was martyred earlier in Acts 12:2. It was James the half-brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul was there, but he was not yet recognized as a key servant leader at this point.
Adapted from an article by Ken Carlson.