Relevant Verses: Acts 6, 10, 11, 15
Leading Question: How does a community, or an individual, know when a conflict is one that needs to be solved by firm confrontation, or by finding a way to allow both views to exist or co-exist within the community?
This week’s lesson addresses three specific instances when the early Christian community faced conflict, and worked their way through to a solution. These are represented by the narratives in Acts 6, 10, and 15.
1. Question: When it came to the distribution of food and other supplies to Jewish and Greek widows, the Greek widows claimed that they were not being treated fairly. Is the method that the church to address this issue (Acts 6) one that can benefit the church today?
Comment: The early Christians had apparently decided at this point that people of a non-Jewish origin could now be a part of the community, though the tension between the two seems to lurk in many parts of the New Testament. This approach of learning to live together stands in sharp contrast with the “solution” used at the time of Ezra/Nehemiah. In Ezra’s day, the women of foreign extraction were sent away with their children (see Nehemiah 13).
2. Question: In Acts 10, God used the image of eating unclean meat to teach Peter that he should call no person common or unclean (Acts 10:28). How could Peter safely come to this conclusion when there was no clear OT precedent for such an action?
Comment: Eating with Gentiles was something that Peter had never done before and he clearly was petrified at the prospect of doing what God had commanded him to do (cf. 10:28-29). Nothing in the Old Testament legal code could be seen as paving the way for this change, yet in the name of Jesus he vowed to move ahead, which he did. Acts indicates that it was the outpouring of the Spirit that was a convincing factor for Peter’s six Jewish companions. When they saw the Spirit being poured out on the Gentiles, Acts says that they were “astounded” (Acts 10:45). But there is more to the story in Acts 15.
3. Question: How does the method used in Acts 15 (“It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . .” 15:28), differ from the decision-making procedures in the Old Testament?
Comment: Decision-making in the Old Testament typically was authoritarian and top down. A possible exception could be seen in the days of Moses when, on the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law, Moses improved the decision-making process by the appointment of “able men” to help him and to decide minor cases (Exodus 18:21). But in the days of Joshua, to disagree with the leader, Joshua, marked a person for execution (Josh 1:18), though the circumstances surrounding that fate is described more in terms of outright rebellion and disobedience, rather than mere disagreement.
The following article, originally published in the NPUC Gleaner in 1992, uses the model of a castle to illustrate the issues discussed in Acts 15.
“Pictures to Help You Study Your Bible: THE CASTLE”
By Alden Thompson
cf. Gleaner, August 3, 1992
The Castle is a picture to help you know who the true Adventists are. It’s a picture about drawing lines and building boundaries. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Given our Adventist tendency to stand off on a holy hill by ourselves, away from the troubled world, some will wince at what might appear to be an attempt to isolate us even further.
But not so fast. I believe our failure to talk candidly about boundaries is part of the reason why some Adventists are isolating themselves from the world at the same time that others are disappearing into it. And let’s remember that even when we talk about boundaries, indeed, especially when we talk about boundaries, we must test everything by the Two great commands: Are we making it easier for us and for others to love God and each other?
But now to the Castle and its three important parts:
1. The Keep. This is the inner fortress, the safest and most secure part of the Castle. Here we find the core beliefs accepted by all. The first Adventists to organize a local conference (Michigan) put a simple church covenant in the Keep: “We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name of Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ” (M. E. Olsen, The Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists [Takoma Park: Review and Herald, 1925 (3rd edition: 1932)], 251. That was it. Simple, clear, straightforward.
2. The Courtyard. Although not as safe as the Keep, the Courtyard still enjoys the security of the Castle complex. It allows more freedom than the Keep. The air is fresh; there’s room to run, jump, and shout. The Courtyard is where Adventists discuss the meaning of what is in the Keep and ponder whether or not to put in something new or take out something old. Yet all such discussions are still within the Castle. You can be a good Adventist and run, jump, and shout in the Courtyard. Example? Belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ is in the Keep. But we discuss his divine/human nature in the Courtyard.
3. The Outer Wall. This is the great boundary that separates the church from the world and marks the Adventist position among Christians. Adventists who go beyond the Outer Wall can’t enjoy the security of the Castle. They are no longer part of the community. Example? The Sabbath is in the Keep; but what it means and how one celebrates its sacred hours are matters for the Courtyard. If, however, someone no longer believes that the day is blessed by God, that person has moved beyond the Outer Wall.
The Castle picture won’t please everyone. Conservatives would prefer one boundary, not two. The Keep would take over the Courtyard. But that’s a recipe for splintering the church.
Liberals are tempted to move in the opposite direction and drop all boundaries. But is there any difference then between the church and the world? With nothing to join, no one would.
But now let’s apply The Castle to Acts 15, the story of the Jerusalem Council. The Castle helps us visualize the difference between the “covenant” (Decalogue) which went inside the ark and the “statutes and ordinances” which went into a book beside the ark (Exod. 25:16; Deut. 4:13-14; 31:26).
“Covenant” God spoke to all from Sinai and wrote with His own finger on two stone tables. The church can’t touch it. Ever. But Acts 15 shows how the church, under the guidance of the Spirit, can and must “touch” the other laws, moving them in and out of the keep and preserving unity through a certain diversity.
At the Council, circumcision was the issue: Must converts from a non-Jewish background be circumcised? Some believers, reflecting codebook-type thinking, argued that circumcision was still binding on all. Both Peter and Paul took the opposing view, however, arguing that non-Jews should be exempt.
After vigorous discussion and much prayer the Council came to some remarkable conclusions. The “official” preface indicates that it was a Church decision, guided by the Spirit: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28, NRSV). The Castle can help us visualize the four major results of the Council’s action. I’ll summarize them briefly here. (For further discussion see Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers [Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1991], 147-50; second edition, [Energion, 2016], 177-181)
1. An Old Testament law, circumcision, was taken from the Keep and put into the Courtyard. The Old Testament gives no hint that circumcision would cease. But the church concluded that it was indeed one of those divine laws that were only temporary applications of God’s greater law of love.
2. A new law, prohibition of food offered to idols, was put into the Keep. Just as the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (cf. Ex. 24:36) apparently addressed dangers raised by Canaanite fertility rites, so the prohibition against food offered to idols was significant in the emperor-worshiping Greco-Roman world. Moses didn’t face this issue. The apostles did. That’s why they put the prohibition into the Keep.
3. For practical reasons, Paul still circumcised Timothy, even though the Council had moved circumcision out of the Keep into the Courtyard. In order to be all things to all people, Paul still followed Jewish practice with Timothy, circumcising him so that he could work effectively among Jews (Acts 16:3).
4. Even though the Council had just put the prohibition against food offered to idols into the Keep, Paul was laying the groundwork for taking it out again. In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Paul says that food offered to idols is only a problem to those who think it is. Today in North America Adventists don’t check labels to see if the food was offered to idols. It’s not an issue for us.
Adventists have always said that the One principle of Love, the Two great commands, and the Ten are in the Keep. But it’s been harder to admit that not all God’s commands stay in the Keep forever. I believe being honest with Scripture would help us identify other areas where we simply need to agree to disagree. Not all Adventists would be ready to say amen to that, at least not yet. But that’s a topic for our next picture, the Pie.
In the meantime, the Castle reminds us that a few important things belong in the Keep. That’s where we come together and say amen. But as a world church, we also need a Courtyard with fresh air, with room to run, jump and shout. May God grant us a safe Keep, a spacious Courtyard, and a solid Outer Wall. That will make His church strong until He comes to take us home.