By Bob Lupton
Decisions, decisions, decisions. How was this little band of uneducated, ecclesiastically inexperienced disciples going to organize a global religious movement (a Kingdom, the Master had called it), one that would reach to the ends of the earth? And yet, it was their responsibility. Sort of. But it wouldn’t be as simple as collecting signatures and tallying membership rolls.
Supernatural things had been occurring. There were powerful forces at work way beyond the apostles’ experience or control. Like what had happened unexpectedly at the Feast of Pentecost – the deafening roar of a mighty wind, tongues of fire that appeared to land on the disciples, mysterious languages that allowed all the foreign visitors to hear in their native dialects, and hundreds (maybe thousands) of Jews spontaneously embracing the message of the risen Messiah. Inexplicable happenings! How would eleven ill-equipped leaders ever organize and manage such a mysterious movement?
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Who was in charge? Peter? A three-man leadership team? A committee of twelve? Who would replace Judas? How would they select his replacement? Draw straws? Vote? And where would they set up headquarters? Galilea where it was safer, where they owned some real estate? Or Jerusalem, perilous epi-center of Jewish political and religious life? It was all happening so fast!
As if things weren’t complicated enough, a zealous fellow by the name of Saul, a rising star in the Temple establishment, was making a name for himself by harassing Christ-followers. His menacing attacks were making the political climate increasingly tense for Christ followers, actually life-threatening. Then mysteriously, the young fanatic was struck down blind, had a dramatic spiritual conversion, and became a devout believer in Jesus.
He changed his name to Paul and became a zealous evangelist to (of all people) the gentiles! And he was quite successful at it. Of course, this influx of “unclean” converts only added to the confusion of the fledgling church. Debates raged over who could join the movement.
Some argued that since the gift of the Holy Spirit was also being given to non-Jews, this was a sure sign that God was welcoming “unclean” members into this new Kingdom. Other strong voices demanded that gentiles must first convert to the Jewish faith before being accepted as full-fledged Kingdom members. This was, after all, a Jewish movement and Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
The issue became serious enough to convince apostles Peter and James to call for a high-level meeting of the leadership of the extended church. It was billed as the Council of Jerusalem.
The purists at the council were resolute in their conviction that all believers must embrace Orthodox Judaism - circumcision, dietary laws, purification rites, Sabbath observance, temple tithes… the works. Others contended that adherence to such burdensome rituals and rules was totally unnecessary. The debate was long and loud. But in the end, it was finally agreed that the non-Jewish believers would be exempt from most Jewish religious practices. There were, however, three essentials everyone agreed upon: (1) don’t eat meat offered to idols, (2) eat only kosher meat, and (3) abstain from fornication.
That was it. The three most important non-negotiables of the early church. Not the inerrancy of scripture, not the doctrine of the Trinity, not predestination. Just two dietary restrictions and a prohibition against sexual impurity. I guess you had to be there to understand how these three issues were deemed to be bedrock essentials.
Actually, when you think about it, these were hardly tangential issues. They went to the very heart of the essentials Christ Himself had taught. (1) The Great Command was about loving God first and foremost, which surely meant avoiding any sort of idol worship (including the support of their temple meat-markets). (2) The New Command Jesus gave His disciples emphasized the importance of loving each other, subordinating their preferences, even laying down their very lives for one another. Serving kosher food when dining with Jewish church members was a very sensitive way to show respect and honor their conscience. (3) And sexual fidelity has everything to do with integrity in relationships, faithfulness to one’s spouse, harmonious life in the Body.
No, these “non-negotiables” were not peripheral matters. They may even have relevance to the Western church of the 21st century.
Avoid idol worship – Do we really need to explain to the wealthiest, most materialistic, most self-indulgent church in the 2000+ years of church history the importance of this prohibition?
Practice “kosher” relationships – If we were subordinating our cultural tastes and doctrinal preferences as the New Command instructs, Sunday morning would probably not be the most segregated hour of our week. Enough said.
Sexual fidelity – The divorce rate among Christians and non-Christians in our culture is approximately the same.
Suppose it’s time for another Jerusalem Council to reinstate some bedrock basics of what it means to behave as Christians?