Acts 15 – Defining “Christian”

Church Keep OutThe first major controversy the early church dealt with strikes the modern reader a strange.  Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem they need to solve was the status of the Gentile who has faith in Jesus.  Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, at what level should they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”?  Are they Proselytes? If there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile believers, how does that status effect their participation in the church?

Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul had success among Gentiles and established several churches with mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. Some Gentiles may have been “God Fearers” who worshiped in the synagogues, but others may have been converts from paganism with no grounding in the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. Jews would have continued to keep the Law as Christians, but what about these Gentiles? Should they “fully convert” and submit to circumcision?

This was not a minor difference in practice. It was seriously controversial for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. Prior to the Maccabean revolt, the practice of circumcision was suppressed and families that had their son circumcised were put to death (1 Mac 1:60-61). Some Jews forcibly circumcised Jewish boys if their families did not follow the tradition (1 Mac 2:46). This imposition of circumcision was described as “They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings” (1 Macc 2:48). Given the rising Jewish national of the middle first century, it is not unexpected some Jews might insist on circumcision for all people claiming to be Jews, including the new Messiah Jesus movement.

Second, for many in the Greco-Roman world, circumcision was one of the most ridiculous practices of the Jews.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94). The practice was seen as a strange mutilation of the flesh and a sign of extreme dishonor. For this reason, some Jewish men underwent surgery to reverse the makes of circumcision (1 Macc 1:15, see for example Neil J McEleney, “Conversion, Circumcision and the Law,” NTS 20 [1974]: 319-341.)

Third, Paul was teaching his Church in Galatian there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the Body of Christ (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if Jews rejects the Law and behave like Gentiles, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is God is creating something different than Judaism in the present age. The “church” is not a form of Judaism nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

Authorized-PersonsFor Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.”  This would have been radical in the first century Jewish world, but it is still remarkably difficult for Christians two thousand years later.  There is a perception people have to “act like a Christian” to be right with God. There are certain “boundary markers” defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Most of the time these are unacceptable behaviors: matters of food and drink, entertainment, etc. While doctrine is important as well, I have seen more exclusion based on how someone looked before finding out what they believe.

I do not want to reduce the controversy over circumcision to a trite discussion over whether Christians can get tattoos. Acts 15 represents the first time Christians thought about what the people of God were in the new age of the Spirit. To what extent does modern Christianity elevate practice to the level of a boundary marker? Do we still exclude people from the Body of Christ on the basis of ethnicity or social status? How does the decision of Acts 15 speak to these issues?

17 thoughts on “Acts 15 – Defining “Christian”

  1. It’s incredible to me how much passion can be stirred up on this issue. So much dissention and disunity is creeps into the Body because of the varying beliefs of what it should look like to be a Christian. Each generation has their own rebellious view and they are positive their parents and grandparents were completely wrong. In fact, we all think we are right. As much as this topic may be confusing and even frustrating, the Bible offers clear answers. Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Trying to form our opinion with the limited perspective we are able to have is like trying to draw specific lines of a dim reflection (1 Corinthians 13:12). The more one stares at it the more frustrating it becomes, especially in the company of others who do not agree with your own deciphering. The truth is none of us is right. We all form our own opinions where scripture is not clear and in reality we are all a little off. The goal is not to be the closest to being right or to impress God with how close we get to understanding. The goal and the command is simply to trust in the Lord with all that we are.

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  2. I would say that in modern christianity there is some exclusion that still occurs today. Acts 15:8-11 tells us that it is not right for us to make a distinction on who should have Christ or not. In verse 11 it specifically says “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” I believe not only during Paul’s ministry but also today this verse applies in that we are all in need and should not make distinctions between one another. In Acts 15:19 it commands the assembly not to make it hard for the Gentiles. I would say that in modern Christianity we make it hard for others to hear Christ’s word by our actions, and who we associate ourselves with. I think we should step outside of our comfort zones to welcome new believers everyday.

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  3. I see In Acts 13-14 BARNABAS and Paul were sent out together, and together they had success among Gentiles and established several churches together as a team of two. Then after they finished “the work they had now completed”, they returned and “reported” to those leaders in Antioch who had sent the two of them out together according to the will of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 14:26-28]

    In Acts 15 Luke is very careful, and goes to great pains in a number of verses, to make it clear that Barnabas and Paul were NOT Apostles. He also shows us that PETER lead the way going to the Gentiles, which is appropriate, since Peter was the first among equals of the 12 Apostles.

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  4. This post makes me think of how the Jews needed signs and like you said, circumcision was a huge identity marker. Food laws, purification laws, and circumcision would have been very clear signs of one’s involvement in Judaism. But when Jesus came, he didn’t preach a new law, he brought freedom from the law. Rather than being identified by external measures, we are to be identified with him internally. He says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). In Acts 15:1 the controversy is over salvation. These men coming and preaching that you can’t be saved without salvation are still stuck under the external manifestations of the law which identified them with God. But we know that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 4; Rom. 10:9). What is awesome is when you see people with varying beliefs on theology come together and grow and serve Christ. When we understand where salvation is really coming from, we will be willing to accept people who have different theological stands outside of salvation than us. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).

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  5. I agree with Leah in that the Jews needed signs in order to tell if someone practiced Judaism or not. Circumcision was a huge sign that many who practiced Judaism did in order to identify them as Jews who practiced the Law. Today, external signs, such as circumcision, are not something that one can look at and say they are a “Christian”. It is all about identifying ourselves with him internally. We must have faith in Jesus Christ. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Certain boundary markers that establish who is a Christian and who is not could be based on the way a person acts as well as how they look. Today, some Christians find it hard to accept others who do not look and act the way that they do. I think that it is important that we not get comfortable in the way that we live our lives. We should step outside of our comfort zones and learn to accept cultural differences. I attend a Christian hip hop church and everyone dresses in regular clothes, some have tattoos and they rap about Christ. The people who attend that church love God and it is evident by the way that they live out their lives. They are accepting of anyone who walks through the doors of that church and try to meet them where they are. It is important not to exclude someone based on how they look before getting to know what they believe.

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  6. The Church is supposed to be an accepting place because those who meet in it are the worst of the worst. We all deserve death and hell not matter what sin we have committed it is still sin. It is interesting that certain people are not welcomed because of their social status or who they are or the types of sin they have committed. The church needs to do a better job at showing Christ’s love to those who are not welcomed in the regular society. The thing that binds us all together is that we were created by the same God and we can partake in the same faith for Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Most of the time the Church is the outcast of society because we go against certain principles that society finds acceptable. Romans 3 9-12 says, ” What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all both Jews and Greeks are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside together they have become worthless; no one does good not even one.” This verse illustrates the pride that we can have thinking that we are better than others, but in reality we are all on the same level because we all need a savior to save us from our sins.

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  7. I believe that the church should be a place where anyone can go to and feel free. You should not go to church and feel unaccepted or bound. I read Anna post and she said something that I really agree with. In her post she said, “The Church is supposed to be an accepting place because those who meet in it are the worst of the worst” (Veldink 2015). I agree with that 110%. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” With that being said, that means no one is perfect. With no individual being perfect, it gives us no right to judge or exclude others from the body of Christ based on ethnicity, social status, or things of that nature. God does not care about an individual’s ethnicity or social status, but He does care about the heart. I think that in Acts 15, it shows an example of basically everything that I stated above. In this passage, it talks about how God knows the heart of a person, and He does not discriminate but he purifies hearts. Something that opened my eyes when reading this passage is when Peter asked “why do you try to test God?” They replied to Peter by saying, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” So I think that Acts 15 speaks in the way that we should not discriminate or exclude people from the Body of Christ based on ethnicity or social status.

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  8. This was a difficult time for the Jews in the sense that the “law” had been fulfilled by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.( Jews had live under the law for hundreds of years.) That is the Gospel that Paul was preaching. This also meant that “Jewish Traditions” such as circumcision were no longer required. The whole basis for the “law” was to prove that man could not keep it because of his sin nature. The only salvation that was possible was through Jesus Christ who was perfect. He was typified in Jewish tradition through sacrifices such as lambs without blemish etc.
    These so called “boundary markers” really don’t have anything to do with who is or isn’t saved since we are saved by grace thru faith in Jesus Christ, not by keeping the law. Paul and Barnabas disagreed on the whole circumcision thing that’s why Paul separated from him for a while. Barnabas had a hard time wrapping his mind around the whole grace thing too. Paul also teaches that it’s not a bad thing to stay away from certain things and that some “traditions” are good for us too. Acts 15:28,29. Staying away from meats offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication are good things – but they won’t save us. The “church age” or “age of grace” sort of takes away the distinction between Jew and Gentile, and any other division except the distinction between who believes thru faith that Jesus Christ is Savior and who doesn’t believe. Yet we can’t totally disregard “lawful” things. We still should be obedient to God and his will for our lives. I don’t know where the comments on Christians getting tattoos fits in here though. Tattoos sort of fall under self-mutilation which was practiced by pagans such as Baal worshippers. Not related to circumcision in my mind at all. I think the next to the last question about excluding people from the Body of Christ does happen in some groups. This is an error since the only thing that “excludes” a person from the “body of Christ” is unbelief.

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    • Megan,
      If you read the words of Jesus recorded by Matthew Mark Luke & John (including Acts and Revelation), you will see that Jesus never spoke the word “grace” there. If we are in the “age of grace” isn’t it strange that Jesus never mentioned this? I’m wondering where exactly this terminology came from….

      Also, when Jesus walked the earth in the flesh, did He have a tattoo? Since the obvious answer is NO, why would we want to get a tattoo if we trying to become more like Jesus was?

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  9. I think the church, because it’s made up of worldly-minded people, has always had issues with one’s physical signs that they are a Christian. We long for tangible proof. For example, if someone came into my church with a t-shirt of a bloody skull and crossbones and covered in tattoos of pin-up girls, even though my church is rather accepting of different people from different backgrounds, most people would hardly consider for a second that person could be part of the church. After all, many 21st century Christians, myself included, have tattoos and some people see them as horrendously sinful. Although the change that takes place at salvation doesn’t happen externally, we think that it should. This is similar, I think, to the problems the church was having in its early days. People from heavily secularized culture were joining the Jesus movement every day, and the question logically came up about their physical appearance in accordance with their new ideology. Likewise, what is the church supposed to do, and how is the church supposed to act, toward a man with racy tattoos and grungy attire who has just come to faith in Christ and joined their church? Obviously, we would want to extend grace to them as they are just figuring out what this new life means for them, but at some point a change should occur. Do we expect them to pay thousands of dollars to get their offensive tattoos removed? Although some things may need to be removed, I think it is beneficial to have some sort of sign of your past life to show where God has brought you and how far you’ve come through his grace.

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    • Trentcerra,
      You wrote, QUOTE:
      “I think it is beneficial to have some sort of sign of your past life to show where God has brought you and how far you’ve come through his grace.”

      Is there anything that Jesus said or did in the pages of Scripture that causes you to have this opinion? I cannot think of anything – but maybe I misssed something.

      Did Jesus ever bring up the pre-conversion sins (the sinful past life, before becoming a follower of Jesus) of his followers in the pages of Scripture? Or did Jesus wipe them away, and choose never to be “the accuser of the brethren” reminding us of our past life?

      The woman at the well was not a follower of Jesus when she first met Him.
      The woman caught in adultery was probably not either, but even if she was, “Go and sin no more” is not bringing up her specific pre-conversion sins.
      Did I miss something?

      Or are you simply following Paul’s example writing to the church he abandoned in Corinth, and the human traditions that have grown up around Paul and his writings?

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  10. Much similar to what most people said in their comments, I think the church should not exclude anybody. As Christian we I called to love each other no matter who they are or what challenges they bring. The perfect example of accepting others is Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus Christ showed a lot of love to people who other Christians ignored and didn’t want to involve themselves with. One topic that many churches choose to ignore, is homosexuality. Should homosexuals be excluded from the church or should we love them as people ? Just as Christ loved everyone. Acts 15 says “He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith”. Acts 15 simply tells us that God doesn’t look at anything besides the heart. Jesus Christ accepted everyone. As Christian and a body of Christ we should accept everyone without judging them no matter what their ethnicity, social status, or anything else in that matter. We don’t have to agree with the choices of others but we are called to love them.

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    • Asu,
      According to Jesus,
      .1) which one is the first and greatest most important commandment,
      .2) and which one is the second?

      hint: Matthew 22 & Mark 12

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  11. Circumcision was the Jewish way of outwardly showing that they lived under the Law. It was a very obvious physical feature that was used. But when Christ came, he came with the intention to free us from the Law. Now, as Christians today, we are no longer called to show our faith outwardly, but our faith is an inward decision. We don’t have any physical marks that people can see and for sure say “that person is a Christian”.

    As for the second part, about whether we exclude people from the body of Christ based on their ethnicity, social status, or any other human “flaw” (for lack of a better word):
    The modern church today is made up of humans, with human minds, and as humans, we are all at least a little bit naturally judgmental. We make snap-judgments about people before they even open their mouths to say something, based solely on what they look like. The church is called to love everyone, but because the church is made up of humans, we have a hard time accepting everyone who wanders into the front doors of the church. Much like the Jewish Christians viewed uncircumcised Gentiles of the time, we tend to look at people who don’t look or act like us as wrong, and sometimes go as far as to push them from the church. You don’t often find people covered in tattoos, with outrageous colored hair and facial piercings sitting in a “normal church” today. The first time my husband ever entered a church, he wore a Metallica tshirt and ripped blue jeans, and he was asked to leave.
    But also, the council did send out a letter to the Gentiles telling them the things they should avoid as Christians. I think that, even though we are called to love these people who may not appear normal in our church, if their lifestyle or physical appearance is doing anything that would be considered sin (and can be backed up with scripture, I’m not talking tattoos, more like immodesty or inappropriate messages on clothing), we are still called to confront them

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  12. Before we criticize ourselves because
    ” We make snap-judgments about people before they even open their mouths to say something, based solely on what they look like”,
    let us consider:

    Jesus reminded us from the Law,
    “at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female'” [Matthew 19:4, quoting Genesis 1:27]

    No one was born with tattoos, or purple hair, or facial piercings. A Metallica tshirt costs more than a plain one, and for most people here today, ripped blue jeans are a conscious fashion statement, not a sign of poverty.

    People spend their money on these things and wear them, often flaunting them, because they WANT other people to make snap judgments about them based solely on what they look like. It’s a form of advertising, looking for “likeminded people’ who have similar value systems and interests.

    I’m not saying we should not love all people with the Love of God. We should. Because God first loved us, we should Love God first, and love people second with God’s Love. God is patient with us, so we need to be patient with people. Yet, that is not the same thing as saying that “I want to be all things to all men to save some,” (like Paul, supposedly), so I’ll get a tattoo and a nose ring and dye my hair green to attract people like that. 🙂

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