This is the first part of an essay I drafted a few years ago, intending to publish it in the now-defunct Reformed Presbyterian officers’ newsletter, Semper Reformanda.
A dozen or more years after the ascension of Jesus to his place of rule, the young church faced a crisis of identity and unity. Having been birthed among Jews and grown through the conversion almost exclusively of Palestinian and Syrian Jews, worshippers of the Jewish Messiah were confronted with a very happy problem: how to think about followers of “the Way” that did not start out as ethnic children of Abraham or proselytes to Judaism. At this point the Church had not gained a discernibly distinct identity: it was only when the Gospel reached a truly Hellenistic city (Antioch) that the believers began to be called “Christians” to distinguish them from regular Jews.
After the conversion of some Gentile believers in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas (themselves Jews from the Diaspora and therefore comfortable in a Hellenistic social setting) took an unprecedented step: they willingly set out on a journey to bring the Jewish Gospel to Gentiles, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah that Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles” and “My witnesses … to the ends of the earth,” mandates that had been repeated with new meaning by Jesus prior to his ascension. The church having set them apart for this work, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, the two made a trip through the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, preaching and establishing communities of believers along the way.
It seems odd to us, members of an almost entirely Gentile 21st century church, that anyone would think it wise to impose Jewish regulations on Gentile Christians. But it was quite natural in the first century for Jewish followers of Christ to think of themselves as “Jews the way they ought to be” and of Gentile converts as at best Jews in the making. By the time we reach the crisis of Acts 15, believers from a Pharisaic background have been telling Gentile converts in Antioch and later the Asian churches that they must be circumcised and follow Jewish law in order to please God. Even Peter had joined the fray (on the wrong side, though he seems to have taken Paul’s rebuke to heart by the time the first council of the church comes together).
We could walk through each step of the Jerusalem meeting but I want to cut to the chase. The Holy Spirit led the leadership of the Church to see what He was doing in and through the conversion of the Gentiles. This potential crisis of unity and diversity is resolved through “laying on” the Gentiles in Antioch and elsewhere “no greater burden than these essentials”. What follows is a simple list: abstain from idolatry, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. Although the Jews will continue to follow the Mosaic code in appropriate detail, they do not impose it on Gentiles.
I want to point out that in a weighty debate, unity in Christ was not understood to demand uniformity of practice. The standard established for fellowship and mutual recognition was not “minimalist” in the sense of finding out what believers could “get away with”; rather, it was “essentialist”—it sought to uphold what was required of all and to demand no more.
In the next few posts I want to talk about what applying the deep unity of the church might look like, practically, for the Reformed Presbyterian Church.