During the first five centuries of Christian history, a number of ecumenical councils were held. Tradition says that these councils settled outstanding theological disputes. For example, the Council of Nicea in AD 325 is said to have established the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not really true. The theology of the Trinity is settled in the nature and character of God, not by human councils. Those who listen to the Spirit of God will find the truth, whereas human councils will usually arrive at a convenient compromise.
Christian historians who back the council movement identify the meeting of elders and apostles in Jerusalem that is recorded in Acts 15 as the first ecumenical council. A careful reading of the text does not support this view. This meeting was not a council that set a pattern for the church; it was actually a shambles that made unwise decisions.
The problem arose when the gospel spread to Antioch. At first the gospel was only preached to Jews, but eventually the Gentiles began to receive the gospel. Some Jewish Christian arrived in town and claimed that gentile Christians should be circumcised according to the law of Moses.
Paul and Barnabas had a relationship with apostles and elders in Jerusalem from the time when they both lived and preached there (Acts 9:26-30). They were sent up to Jerusalem to talk to the about the problem (Acts 15:2).
The apostles and elders met to consider this question (Acts 15:6).
Several things went wrong at this council.
The apostles did a lot of talking, but no one sought the wisdom of the Spirit.
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them.
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about...
When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me" (Acts 15:7,12,13)
There was lots of talk, but no listening to the Holy Spirit. Although prophets were present, no one brought a prophecy. At the end of the discussion, James stood up and just announced a decision. This is not the best way to find out God's will.
The decision of the elders was bizarre. They had just been told about a critical breakthrough for the gospel: the Gentiles were beginning to accept Jesus as Lord. The good news was going into all the world. The apostles should have been rapt. The elders should have been excited. Yet the best that they could do was set down a set of rules.
abstain from food polluted by idols,
abstainfrom sexual immorality,
abstainfrom the meat of strangled animals
abstain from blood (Acts 15:20).
This is bizarre. They were addressing a group of new believers and all they could do was hand out some rules about what to eat. They did not urge the believers to "take up the cross" or to "love one another". None of Jesus challenges recorded in the gospels were mentioned.
Rules are the beginning of religion. This meeting between the elders and apostles was the first step in turning Christianity from a relationship with Jesus into a set of rules.
Although the apostles had not sought wisdom of the Holy Spirit, they claimed to be speaking on his behalf when they wrote their letter.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements (Acts 15:28).
This is the sort of wishy washy statement that a committee will produce. "It seemed good". Clearly they were not certain about what they were writing. The letter was a compromise put together by a committee. They could not be totally certain about it, so they lapsed into committeespeak. They then tacked on the words "and the Spirit" to add some validity to their words, even though the Holy Spirit had not spoken during the meeting. Things do not "seem good" to the Spirit of Truth. He knows what is good.
The decision was a compromise. Peter knew that the Holy Spirit wanted to move in the hearts of the Gentiles (Acts 10). Yet he went along with a compromise that was contrary to an amazing vision and spiritual experience. That is the major problem with councils and committees. The best that they can do compromise. God does not work through voting and compromise.
One of the rules that the council gave to the Christians at Antioch was morally wrong and later had to be corrected. Abstaining from sexual immorality is good advice, although it is not the most important thing to say to new Christians. Avoiding blood is also good hygiene. Avoiding strangled animals likewise, although there is no evidence that this was an issue in Antioch. However, the command to abstain from meat offered to idols was not based in the Law of Moses. Paul later proved that this was not a requirement for Christians.
One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him (Rom 14:2-3).
God does not care about meat offered to idols. Provided it does not cause a weaker brother to fall, Christians can eat meat offered to idols. Clearly, the elders were not listening to the Holy Spirit, if they thought that he said something different. Fortunately, the apostles decree was quickly forgotten.
The apostles and elders should have told the Jewish Christians who were causing the problem to "pull their heads in". They should have explained that they did not understand the gospel. This would have nipped the problem in the bud. Instead, this issue of forcing gentiles to comply with the ceremonial law became a "nasty sore" all over Asia Minor. The problem spread because the apostles and elders in Jerusalem did not deal with it before it got out of hand. Paul and Barnabas gave them an opportunity to deal to this issue, but they compromised, and an opportunity was lost.
The problem arose, because the apostles had stayed at the centre instead of moving out to the cutting edge. If Peter or James had been in Antioch, they would have understood the seriousness of the problem and done something about it. By staying in Jerusalem, they became part of the problem. They were out of touch with what was happening in the newer fields. The best people should be out at the cutting edge, where they can deal with problems as they arise.
Some passages in Acts provide an example for us to follow and others provide a warning of things to avoid. Acts 15 is a warning that councils and compromise lead to bad solutions. Democratic councils should be avoided. Acts 15 does not provide a justification for subsequent ecumenical councils.
In this case the apostles and elders messed things up in Antioch. A fresh new move of God was given a pointless set of rules that could have choked life from it. Fortunately the situation was partially recovered by the prophets. Judas and Silas, who were sent to deliver the letter, were both prophets (Acts 15:22).
Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words (Acts 15:32).
These two prophets did not muck round with stupid rules. They concentrated on encouraging the disciples, which was what they really needed.
Silas actually caught the vision of Antioch and became an apostolic prophet. He became Paul's partner on his second apostolic advance and shared in some of his greatest adventures (Acts 15:40).
Before departing this topic, it is worth looking at where the authority really lay.
The Judean Christians had no authority over the Christians in Antioch. One group of Christians cannot tell another group to do things. Prophets can say what they believe the Lord is saying, but their listeners are free to ignore these words, if they believe they are not correct. Experienced Christians can explain the truth, but they cannot make others do things.
The elders in Antioch, like Paul and Barnabas, had authority over the Christians in Antioch, because these new Christians had submitted to them. This was Voluntary Authority. The Antioch Christians were free to withdraw that authority, if the elders lost the plot.
The apostles in Jerusalem did not have authority over the believers in Antioch. Only the apostles in Antioch had authority over the Christians there. The Christians in Antioch had freely submitted to them as elders.
By submitted their problem to the elders and apostles in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas gave them temporary and limited authority over Antioch. They gained authority with respect to the issue that had been submitted to them. Once their decision had been made, their authority ended.
God did not give a council of apostles authority over Christians everywhere in the world. He does not use meetings of Christians voting democratically to decide theological issues. Jesus said that the Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:12). He is the guardian of true theology. We do not need a church council to determine the truth.
Judas and Silas were given authority to speak on behalf of the Elders and Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:27). This temporary authority was very limited to the issue at hand.
Once the Christians in Antioch, realised that Judas and Silas were men of God with a clear prophetic voice, they submitted to their authority. When the prophets returned to Jerusalem, this authority came to an end.
The shambles described in Acts 15 shows the dangers of trying to deal with problems on the mission field with councils, committees and government.
Return to Governmental Apostles.