ow should the church, when confronted with internal tensions and challenges, make decisions in harmony with the will of God?
Our first recourse must be, of course, to go to the Word of God and to learn from it. That’s why, in this article, we’ll survey how the early Christian church made crucial decisions regarding difficult issues.
The persistent question is this: What can we learn from how the early church dealt with its divisive issues that will help us deal with our own?
The apostle Peter was exceedingly puzzled. It was noontime, and he had been praying on the roof of a house in Joppa. Ravenously hungry, he wanted nothing more than to eat. While food was being prepared, though, he had fallen into a trance in which he had seen heaven open and something like a large sheet lowered to the ground by its four corners. In the sheet were all manner of four-footed creatures, reptiles, and birds. He had heard a voice command him to get up (anastas
), kill, and eat.
As a law-observing Jew, Peter interpreted this command as directly contravening the Scriptures. He emphatically protested, saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:14).* Peter knew his Scriptures. But the command was repeated and emphasized: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (verse 15). This curious exchange occurred three times, and Peter was now “greatly puzzled” (verse 17).
While Peter was still struggling with the meaning of this startling experience, three men sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion from Caesarea, called out from the gate of the house where Peter was staying. No response emerged from Peter, who was still deep in thought about the vision.
At this point the Holy Spirit—the one who continues the ministry of Jesus as testified in the Gospel of Luke, the hungered-for blessing to all peoples as promised to Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:3; 22:18; Acts 2:38, 39; Gal. 3:14)—directly intervened.
Thus far in the account, the Holy Spirit’s intervention had been of an indirect nature, through an angel and a vision (Acts 10:3, 10, 11). Now Luke recounts that the Spirit Himself
said to Peter, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up [anastas
], go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them” (verses 19, 20). No doubt still puzzled, Peter came down from the rooftop to meet the three servants of Cornelius.
The Unexpected and Unpredictable
The next day Peter and his fellow believers set out with Cornelius’ three envoys to Caesarea, a distance of more than a day’s journey, requiring Peter and the Jewish believers to lodge once more with their Gentile companions. Finally, two days after Peter’s remarkable vision, they arrive at Caesarea and the house of Cornelius.
Things both unexpected and unpredicted begin to occur. Turning centuries of revered tradition on its head, Peter and his fellow Jewish law-observing followers of Jesus enter into fellowship with their Gentile hosts. Peter justifies this unexpected turn of events when he states to his Gentile audience, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (verse 28).
This is the completely unexpected: The Holy Spirit is leading Peter and his Jewish colleagues in a totally different way than they had been accustomed to.
Events unfold in a manner that no one, Jew or Gentile, could have predicted, and that does not follow any previous pattern. In the story of Pentecost the followers of Jesus are first filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4); then they preach (verses 6-36); and finally a baptism occurs (verse 41). In Acts 8 the order varies: first, Philip preaches (Acts 8:5, 12); a baptism follows (verse 12); and last, the new believers receive the Holy Spirit (verse 17).
In Luke’s account of Peter and Cornelius, we have another variation in the order of events. First, Peter preaches the good news about Jesus. Luke records that while he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell “upon all those who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). Finally, Peter orders his fellow circumcised believers to baptize the Gentile believers on whom the Spirit had descended (verses 47, 48).
This variation in the sequence of events is just one of many ways in the book of Acts by which the Holy Spirit is portrayed as the dynamic and driving force in the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It also reveals how the Holy Spirit helped the church make its crucial decisions.
The dynamic leadership of the Holy Spirit in Caesarea, however, created problems back in Jerusalem, the location of the apostles and the elders of the church. Upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter encountered criticism from “those of the circumcision” because he was fellowshipping and eating with “uncircumcised men” (see Acts 11:2, 3). Unremarkable as it might seem to us, this was an issue that could have caused a serious split in the young church.
The events in the long account of the Holy Spirit’s changing Peter’s attitude toward Gentiles in Acts 10:1-48 are repeated, almost verbatim, in Acts 11:5-17. As elsewhere in the Bible, repetition signals emphasis. The report given by Peter serves not simply as a triumphant account of conversions, but rather as a candid testimony to the leaders in Jerusalem that their ecclesiology—their understanding of how the people of God are constituted and defined—had to catch up with, and incorporate, the works of the Holy Spirit as witnessed in Caesarea. Peter concludes his account with this stark appeal: “If then God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us [Jewish believers] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (verse 17).
When his audience hears this, even the critics among them are silenced and praise God (verse 18). This further demonstrates that they truly understand the significance of the change required in their thinking. Confounded by the evidence of the Spirit’s activity, they declare, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (verse 18).
More Internal Disputes
More change—more development—in the thinking of those early believers was still needed, though. In Acts 15 we read that 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’ ” (verse 1). Remarkable as the evidence of the Spirit’s new course was, some in Jerusalem still clung to the comforts of tradition. The issue raised in Acts 11 was quite obviously not yet resolved.
After much dissension erupted among the believers in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem and reported to the church, apostles, and elders, “all that God had done with them” (Acts 15:4). Believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees responded by maintaining that it was necessary for new believers to be circumcised and “to keep the law of Moses” (verse 5). Their reading of the Scriptures failed to take into account the acts of God recently manifested among the Gentiles in Caesarea. Then, in a more select gathering involving only the apostles and the elders, the issue was further debated. Peter reaffirmed his previous report that, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God had erased the distinction between Jew and Gentile (cf. verses 8, 9; Acts 11:12-17). Barnabas and Paul once more recounted “all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).
What happens next is highly significant in understanding the development of the early church—and also speaks to God’s church today. In light of the acts of God in the ministry of the missionaries Barnabas and Paul, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, interprets Scripture by placing a new emphasis on Amos 9:11, 12 (see Acts 15:16, 17), verses in which Gentiles are portrayed as seeking the Lord, with no indication of circumcision as a requirement (cf. Acts 15:19, 20).
While this new interpretation “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (verse 28) and addressed the circumcision of Gentiles, it left unresolved the issue as to whether or not circumcision remained a requirement for Jewish believers, as testified by the later accusation against Paul that he was teaching Diaspora Jews living among Gentiles “not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:21; cf. Gal. 5:2-6). The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 addressed only one issue; more were sure to emerge. And the church’s understanding of how the people of God were to be defined would need even more expansion in the future.
In Acts we see a new and remarkable development in the church’s understanding of how to perceive God’s will. The Spirit-driven spread of the word of the Lord into new areas actually precipitated theological growth back in Jerusalem among the apostles, elders, and believers.
Just as Peter was puzzled by the vision of animals, I confess a degree of surprise, if not puzzlement, by Luke’s account of church growth, both numerical and
theological, in Acts. As a fifth-generation Adventist, a third-generation pastor, and a first-generation teacher of the New Testament, I am well used to our familiar pattern of understanding the will of God: theological understanding, derived from our study of the Word, drives and shapes our teaching and practice. Plenty of scriptural evidence affirms this approach, and it guards against us being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
Our understanding of the Holy Spirit, given by Jesus to comfort and instruct His disciples, is and should be derived from Scripture. But Scripture points to more than one way to understand God’s will: Luke’s account of church growth in Acts should equally be borne in mind.
For Luke, the Holy Spirit dynamically drives the church forward, and it is the theologians and administrators who play catch-up, seeking to interpret and understand the acts of the Spirit in light of Scripture. This is not a phenomenon of only the first-century church. The development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s twenty-eighth fundamental belief, voted in 2005 and addressing the phenomenon of spiritualism in many people groups, may be seen as evidence of this process working within God’s church today. The preamble to the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Statement of Fundamental Beliefs captures nicely the dynamic role of the Spirit in guiding the church: “These beliefs . . . constitute the church’s understanding and expression of the teachings of Scripture. Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”
The Lukan model of decision-making resulted from the tensions between Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Antioch, and it requires us to ask, not just whether a belief or practice is scriptural, but also whether it is driven by the Holy Spirit. While Scripture remains a constant, our interpretation of Scripture may require further growth and development. This truth requires that as a church, whatever procedures we use to deal with internal issues, we must always surrender to the dynamic leadership of the Holy Spirit. He will lead us into “all truth” (John 16:13)—if we are willing to be led.
* Bible texts in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Cedric Vine is a professor of New Testament Studies at Newbold College in Binfield, England. This article was published October 18, 2012.