14 May 2011

Acts 15:1-6

"Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them." (vv. 1-2a)


This passage is a painful clash of two cultures within the early Church. The expansion of the new faith from Judaism into the Gentile (non-Jewish) world raised huge issues of identity. The Judean church did not deny the possibility of Gentiles being saved but they insisted that they had to be circumcised. For centuries, going back to Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14), this had been the external mark of belonging to God's covenant people. The Judean Christians argued that to be a follower of the Jewish Messiah required obedience to this ancient covenant tradition. But Paul and Barnabas disagreed. Access to this new covenant they believed was through faith and not by external ritual.

The argument became deep and entrenched. Luke (the Gospel writer and author of Acts) says that there was a sharp dispute and debate between the two parties. Neither group was prepared to step down. For both the principle that they cherished overrode the threat posed to unity.

To resolve the issue, the Gentile Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to the elders of the Jerusalem church. Because of their history and leadership, the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem were perceived to be the only ones able to resolve the issue. Their initial reaction was to welcome them with joy, but they soon had a very difficult decision to make. The reality was that they were not going to be able to please every one. Any decision was going to offend one party. It would appear that being a leader in the early Church must have been at times very difficult.

Luke makes the fault line between the two tectonic plates very clear. Twice in five verses he repeats the nub of the issue (verses 1 and 5). For Luke this was a pivotal moment. He places it symbolically at the centre of Acts. Everything now turns on the decision. The stakes were very high. He knew that for the early Church and those that would later read his book, much turned on this moment.

To Ponder

Both sides of the circumcision debate believed that they were right and refused to budge. What are the things over which you will not budge?

Jonathan Sacks the chief rabbi said, "The Jewish people love a leader but they don't always like to be led"? To what extent is this true in Methodism and other groups you know? How can you support leaders when they face tough decisions?

If you had lived in the time of early Church would you have been a moderniser like Paul and Barnabas or a traditionalist like the Judeans? What are the strengths and weaknesses of both?

Bible notes author

The Revd Tony Morling

Tony ministers in the Methodist Forest Circuit of London. He has a particular interest in making connections between faith and contemporary culture.