Acts 15 concerns the first major controversy in the early church, although the issue seems strange to modern readers. Unlike later theological debate over the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity, or modern concerns over how to properly worship in church or who can (or cannot) be ordained as a minister, the earliest church struggled to know what to do with Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Are these Gentiles “converting” to a form of Judaism? If that is the case, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God fearers Gentiles,” people welcome in the synagogue without having to fully convert? If they are fully keeping the law, does this imply a secondary status for Gentile believers?
Primarily as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission, the percentage of Gentiles was growing in Christian communities. Some Jews thought that it was necessary for the Gentiles to keep the whole Law, starting with circumcision.
Based on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision. Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora. After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.
Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.
This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice. Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening 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 nor Gentile), gender (neither male nor female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).
For 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 view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later. One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.
To me, this is what makes Paul unique in the early church (or to use Michael Bird’s recent phrase, Paul is an “anomalous Jew”). Although Gentiles could convert to Judaism, and many did, no other Jewish writer in the Second Temple Period would have said Gentiles can be right with God without keeping any of the Law. In Acts 10, Cornelius was accepted without circumcision but he was already considered a righteous man because he was doing the sorts of things the Law commands. Yet Paul is teaching his Gentile converts to not submit to circumcision since it implies they are becoming Jews. The Church is not a new Israel, Paul’s churches are neither Jew nor Gentile.
There are many ramifications of this new teaching and we will return to many of these things when we get to Galatians. What is the practical benefit for Gentile believers if they are not expected to keep the Jewish Law? Does this help Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles? Certainly he has success among the God-fearers who were already attracted to the ethical content of the Law, but would this Law-free gospel of Jesus attract Gentiles who were not already interested in Judaism?