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Church Meetings in Acts – Acts 15:6

Posted by on Mar 4, 2010 in gathering, scripture | 5 comments

The next occurrence of “gathering language” in Acts is found in Acts 15:6 –

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. (Acts 15:6 ESV)

Once again, the “gathering language” in Acts 15:6 is found in the Greek verb συνάγω (sunagō) which generally means “I gather” or “I bring together.” The ESV translated the verb as “gathered together” in this verse. Again, the verb is passive.

This verse falls in the middle of what is generally called “the Jerusalem Council”. After Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch (Acts 14:27), some believers come down to Antioch from Jerusalem teaching that all people must be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). They all go to Jerusalem to sort things out.

(By the way, remember that the church had already recognized and accepted that God has extended his grace to Gentiles in Acts 11:18. Thus, this discussion seems similar to many denominational distinctives today, where others are recognized as “saved” but perhaps barely saved since those people don’t hold to the right distinctives.)

Apostles, and elders, and the church (Acts 15:22) were gathered together to here both sides of the situation. Interestingly, Luke does not use different language for this type of gathering than for other gatherings of believers. He apparently sees this as another gathering of believers, this time for the purpose of determining whether or not circumcision was required.

While Peter’s and James’ speeches are recorded for us, apparently there was “much debate” about this issue (Acts 15:7). The deciding factor in the argument was based on the work that God was already doing among the Gentiles. Since the people could not deny that God had extended his grace to Gentiles, they recognized that the Gentiles must also be accepted as brothers and sisters without circumcision.

Luke does not tell us how the people reached an agreement on this issue. He does not tell us if some refused the accept the agreement. Instead, we are only told that everyone (elders, apostles, and church) agreed with James’ conclusion that they should ask the Gentiles to abstain from certain things that offended Jews.

So, the decided action had nothing to do with acceptance of Gentiles, but in laying the groundwork for mutual relationships between Jews and Gentiles. Notice that when they mentioned certain things (abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. Acts 15:20), they did not associate these things with salvation, but only that these things were taught to Jews (Acts 15:21). The Jewish believers simply asked the Gentile believers not do anything that was cause a Jewish brother or sister to stumble.

So, the outcome of this “council”, which was really nothing more than a meeting of the church, was an recognition that God has extended his grace to Gentiles apart from keeping the law (specifically circumcision), and a request that the Gentiles abstain from certain things around Jews that the Jews would find offensive.


5 Comments

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  1. 3-4-2010

    Alan, thanks for doing this series. I have had some discussions with an elder in our church who is a good friend, about elder meetings and the elders making all of the decisions for the church.

    I have not found any evidence in the scriptures that elders ever sequestered themselves for elders meetings. To my friend, it just seems natural for the elders to have their monthly board meeting to discuss church business. They will occasionally come to the church body to get input about big decisions etc.

    The point I am concerned about is that I believe the whole body should be involved in this process. I don’t believe the elders should go off by themselves and make these decisions.

    It seems Acts 15:22 bears that out. Am I missing something here?

  2. 3-4-2010

    Thanks for the post Alan. I am in general agreement with much of your post, but I wonder what you mean by your statement that the Jerusalem Council “was really nothing more than a meeting of the church.” If you mean something like a local church meeting then I would suggest that this is problematic for several reasons.

    (1) This is not a meeting of any church, but the church in Jerusalem. Jerusalem in general, and the church in Jerusalem in particular, serve an important centralizing function in Luke-Acts. One might also note that although there are a number of Christian meetings in Acts, many interpreters note that the meeting in Acts 15 is a watershed moment. (2) The Council included Christians from outside of the church in Jerusalem. This is not merely a local meeting. In fact, it is interesting to note that the for whatever reason, the church at Antioch did not feel sufficiently able to address the issue “in house” as it were, and thus chose to settle the issue in Jerusalem (a fact that supports point 1 above). (3) The Apostolic Decree is not directly intended for the church in Jerusalem, but for the broader church in general (or at the very least the churches at Antioch, Cilicia, and Syria to whom the decree is addressed).

  3. 3-4-2010

    Jack,

    The only possible “elders meeting” that I’ve found in Scripture is in Acts 20, where Paul meets with the elders from Ephesus. But, I don’t see any kind of decision making in that meeting.

    Charles,

    Believers from outside Antioch had already met with the church in Antioch (Acts 11:22; Acts 11:25-26), so the fact that there were believers from outside Jerusalem present at the meeting is not unique. Also, the church in Jerusalem had already decided that God had extended his grace to Gentiles (Acts 11:18), so there is nothing new decided by this “council”. So, why did Paul and Barnabas go to the church in Jerusalem? Because that’s where “some men” who were teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved came from (Acts 15:1).

    In reality, the only thing new that came out of the “Jerusalem Council” was a request that the Gentiles not do things that would offend their Jewish brothers and sisters.

    -Alan

  4. 3-4-2010

    Alan:

    Maybe I missed the intention of your original post, but I don’t see that you were making a point about the novelty of the decision but the context of the decision. Furthermore, my point was basically about the fact that the Jerusalem Council was more than “a meeting of the church.”

    In any case, it appears that you continue to minimize the significance of the Jerusalem Council. If everything was as settled as you suggest then obviously the men of 15:1, 3 (who are generally regarded as Christians) apparently “did not get the memo.” I think that it is important to recognize that paradigm shifts are usually not like light switches but rather take time to assimilate. Also, as I have already noted, the Jerusalem Council is considered by most interpreters to be very significant. For example, Ben Witherington states, “It is no exaggeration to say that Acts 15 is the most crucial chapter in the whole book.” (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Social Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 439). Luke Timothy Johnson calls Acts 15 a watershed chapter (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992], 280). And according to I. Howard Marshall, Acts 15 is “the centre of Acts both structurally and theologically” (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentary [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980], 242).

  5. 3-7-2010

    Charles,

    I’m sorry I haven’t been able to reply until now. What reasons did Johnson and Marshall give for viewing Acts 15 to be either “the most crucial chapter in the whole book” or “a watershed chapter”?

    Rhetorically, it looks to me like Acts 10 is more important, with the chapters from Acts 10-15 commenting, explaining, and working out what happened in Acts 10. Even Peter’s and James’ speeches in Acts 15 point back to Acts 10 (and Peter’s description in Acts 11).

    Like I said before, I don’t really see anything in the text that indicates that this passage records something different than other church meetings. There were no new decisions made by this “council”, and later in Acts, we continue to see Jewish believers disagreeing and causing trouble for Paul and others.

    -Alan