Samuel Johnson is reputed to have once said: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” It’s true. As the deadline for this article approaches each month, questions begin to bounce around in my head like ping pong balls in a bingo cage. Finally, when I actually have to write this darned thing, my focus concentrates to the point that one of them actually pops out ready for the caller. This month’s question:
What if the Council of Jerusalem had said “No”?
For those of you who missed that lesson in Sunday school, the Council of Jerusalem was one of the first convened by the early church. It seems that Paul and Barnabas were busy converting Gentiles to Christianity when some of the folks at the home office said “Wait a minute. It’s not enough just to believe in Jesus. If you want to be a Christian, you have to be circumcised, too.” Well, as you might imagine given the state of first century urology, this was a really, really big deal for a lot of uncircumcised Gentile would-be Christians.
Paul and Barnabas saw this as pretty substantial disincentive to becoming Christian; and they asked the “apostles and the elders” to convene a council at Jerusalem to decide whether Gentiles could become Christians without being circumcised. Fortunately for the future of Christianity the Council said “Yes. You can become a Christian without first being the main attraction at your own bris.” The reaction to this message was exactly what you might have expected: “When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter [which contained the decision of the Council]. When its members read it, they rejoiced….” (Acts 15:30-31).
But what if the Council had said “No”? What if it had insisted on circumcision as a precondition to joining the church? Would Christianity still have spread throughout the whole world? Would fully a third of the world’s population have become followers of Jesus? Or would Christianity have been consigned to the same dustbin of irrelevance as Zoroastrianism or Mithraism or all those other “ism’s” that exist only as footnotes in the history of religion?
This is not just an idle question or a moot point. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the reason the Council of Jerusalem dispensed with the circumcision requirement was to eliminate a significant barrier that was keeping people from becoming followers of Jesus. (Acts 15:19: “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God….”). Yet it seems that we in the modern church just cannot help ourselves. We cannot stop ourselves from doing exactly what the Council of Jerusalem was trying to avoid. We are constantly erecting barriers, constantly finding ways to discourage new believers, constantly “troubl[ing] those Gentiles”.
We don’t do anything nearly so dramatic as demanding circumcision of believers, but we find ways to erect barriers that are just as effective. Every time a congregation squelches a new idea because “We’ve never done it that way”, we erect a barrier. Every time a congregation turns its back on someone new, someone different, we erect a barrier. Every time a congregation turns its focus inward rather than outward into the community, we erect a barrier. It’s not something we do out a sense of evil. It’s not something motivated by any conscious effort to be exclusionary or elitist. We don’t do it out of some perverted belief the Jesus demands that we keep everyone but ourselves at arm’s length. But it is something that we all do, consciously or unconsciously. Each time we erect one of these barriers, we not only turn our backs on the person shunned. Even more importantly, we turn our backs on the clear imperatives of the Gospel.
The Council of Jerusalem had the good sense to say “Yes”. Isn’t it about time that we did the same?
Tony Stoik, Associate Conference Minister