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While I was living in Germany, a group of German-speaking Christians from Russia moved into our community. When they attended our church, there was an immediate cultural clash because some of their customs were strange to us, while some of ours, especially women's dress, were totally offensive to them. They wondered how people such as us could really be Christians. We could have adopted their cultural patterns, but would that not have imposed a rigid legalism upon us that would have stifled church growth? Yet their consciences struggled with our way of life. How could we live together in one church without on the one hand compromising the grace of Christ in legalism or on the other offending the sense of decency of some good Christian brothers and sisters? That is precisely the issue that the early church is struggling with in Acts 15:29.
The cultural issue according to Acts was whether circumcision (that is, becoming a Jew) was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). Peter voiced the eventual solution: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15:11). James agreed, referring to "all the Gentiles who bear my name" (Acts 15:17, quoting Amos 9:12 in a form somewhat different from the Hebrew Old Testament). In other words, the Gentiles might remain Gentiles and still be saved. Circumcision was not necessary. From this it seems that Paul and the Gentile mission have been victorious. But in spite of his apparent agreement, James added the stipulations of this verse both in his advice to the council and in the letter to the Gentile believers. What is more, he prefaced them with "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," which makes them sound rather binding. Is this a case, then, in which Paul won the first round but was knocked out in the end? Does this not contradict all that Paul stood for? And if it does not, is it binding today? Must the Germans give up Blutwurst and the English black pudding? All of these questions press in on us in the reading of this verse.
First, we must be clear about what the council did not do. It did not require circumcision or the keeping of the sabbath or tithing or (in their full form) the kosher regulations (the Jewish die-tary laws). These rules marked out a Jew from a Gentile and, in the end, were not enforced upon Gentile Christians, although James adds, perhaps as a concession to the Pharisaic party in the church, that since the Mosaic books were being read in every synagogue their teaching was available to any Gentile to whom it might commend itself. Paul surely would have been satisfied with such a situation, for his concern with "works" and "law" in Romans and Galatians is not with moral rules, but with those practices that marked out Jew from Gentile. That they were not necessary for salvation is a point of agreement between Paul and the council.
Second, we need to be clear about the nature of a worship service in the first two centuries of the church. Typically the Christians would gather in the home of one of the members, perhaps the person with the largest house. A city church would have many such cells, each with an absolute maximum of perhaps sixty people, given the size of even large rooms in those days. The central feature of the service was a meal to which every member contributed what they could. At the beginning a loaf of bread was ritually broken and shared, and at the end a cup of wine was likewise shared. But between the two a full meal was eaten. This means that if they were in the same church Jews and Gentiles would eat together and share each other's food in the context of worship. Therefore the Pauline discussions of food in 1 Corinthians 8--10 and Romans 14 were not to regulate one's private behavior at home, but to assist a church in living together.
Third, while Paul never refers to the decree of the council (nor would it have been advisable for him to have done so, since he was often accused of being secondary to Jerusalem), all of the regulations are explicitly or implicitly contained in his letters. The issue of meat in Romans 14, for example, is mainly an issue over whether the animal had been properly slaughtered, that is, whether it had been strangled and whether the blood had been properly drained. The discussion in 1 Corinthians 8--10 revolves around the issue of meat that had been offered to idols. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul discusses sexual immorality. None of these issues was foreign to Paul and on none of them does he take a position different from that of the council.
Finally, what do these rules mean in their context in Acts? All of them have to do with the Mosaic law and are drawn from Leviticus 17--18. The first issue in those chapters is the sacrificing of an animal to anything other than Yahweh--or even sacrificing it to him outside of the appointed place. Thus a Jew would find it impossible to eat meat that came from a sacrifice to a god other than Yahweh. Most meat found in pagan markets was in some way associated with sacrifices to idols. Paul does not believe that this contaminates the meat (1 Cor 8--10), although he rules out actually going to a meal in an idol temple. But in 1 Corinthians 8 he states clearly that love would make one refuse to offend a "weaker brother" (that is, a Jew) on this issue.
The second issue of Leviticus 17--18 is that of blood. Here both this regulation and the previous one are applied not only to Israelites but also to aliens, the Gentiles who might live among the Jews. There were two ways in which blood might be eaten. On the one hand, it was common in many cultures for blood to be eaten directly (as in the examples of Blutwurst [blood sausage] and black pudding mentioned above). On the other hand, in some cultures the manner of slaughter might lead to the retention of blood in the meat, perhaps as a deliberate means of keeping it tenderer or juicier. But neither the direct eating of blood nor retaining the blood in the meat through strangling the animal were acceptable to the Jew. The blood must be poured out.
All of these regulations have to do with meat, not with vegetables, grain or fruit. The reason for this is simple. Meat was at the core of Israelite sacrificial rites, as well as the rites of other religions. Furthermore, Jewish kosher practices had virtually nothing to say about vegetables. So one could share bread or vegetables freely between Jews and Gentiles. It was when meat was served at the Lord's Supper (as it normally was) that the issues arose, as we see clearly in Romans 14.
The third issue of Leviticus 17--18 is that of sexual relations with inappropriate women, mostly with women who were too closely related, although the same group of regulations also prohibits adultery (defined in the Old Testament as a man having sexual relations with a married woman who was not his wife), bestiality and homosexuality. Again the regulations are applied to both Israelites and aliens. This, then, is what Acts means by "sexual immorality." It would be highly disturbing to a Jew to have table fellowship at the Lord's Supper with a person and his partner if the relationship was one that God had labeled an abomination. Paul opposes just such a relationship in 1 Corinthians 5, ending with a general prohibition of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:11). In the specific case in Corinth, Paul believed that even the Gentile world would disapprove of the relationship. However, many of these types of relationships would be approved of in Gentile cultures but would make table fellowship in the church difficult.
What we are talking about, then, is Paul's rule of love in Romans 14, summed up in the principle "The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). If the Gentile Christians would keep the minimal food standards, not so much in what they did privately at home but in what they brought to church or served Jewish believers, and if they would observe minimal rules of sexual decency, then Jews and Gentiles could live and function together in the church. As long as the principles were based on love and unity, Paul had no problem. It was only when the legal rituals became a means of salvation that he put his foot down.
Are these principles binding today? It is true that we find a similar rule in Revelation 2:14, 20, which may have been written later than Acts. And there are examples of Christians in the late second and early third centuries who feel bound by the rules. But at the same time there is often an observing of the rules and an ignoring of the reasons for them. In a context in which people of differing cultures must relate in the church these or analogous rules (depending on the sensitivities of the cultures) would be applicable. But as permanent principles we should let Paul be our guide. He clearly prohibits sexual immorality for all Christians everywhere, leaving the dietary rules to our own conscience before God and ourlove for our fellow Christians.
Perhaps the best available description of such a meeting is that of Robert Banks in Going to Church in the First Century (Auburn, Maine: Message Ministry, 1990).