The Jerusalem Council: Consensus Decision Making

This entry is part 15 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

We often look to the church in Acts as an example of a vibrant, Spirit-filled, unified church. But when we look at it more closely we discover that they had many of the same problems that we do. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 provided perhaps the most detailed look at the decision making process of NT leaders. What can we learn from this example?

In the NT, at first nearly all the Christians came from a Jewish background. Naturally, they continued many of the cultural and religious practices from their Jewish background. But eventually as greater numbers of Gentiles believed it was inevitable that questions would arise as to which practices were really necessary to be Christians and which were optional. In particular, were Gentile believers required to be circumcised in order to be accepted as Christians?

The Jerusalem Council

Paul and Barnabas, along with some other leaders, were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2-3). After reporting on God’s work among the Gentiles they came to the key question. The passage says that there was “much debate” (v. 7), so it seems that they had a very spirited discussion. After a period of time, Peter “stood up” and shared how God had used him to first bring the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1 through 11:18). He was referring to his experience with Cornelius in which God give him a vision to convince him that it was alright to have fellowship with non-Jews. Peter concluded by reminding them that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by God’s grace (Acts 15:11)

Then it sounds like Paul and Barnabas spoke some more, after which James brought the discussion to a close (Acts 15:13-21). He cited Scriptural support for bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, and then concluded by saying:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.

After this they composed a letter summarizing their decision and sent it back with Paul and Barnabas along with some representatives from the elders in Jerusalem.

What was the Decision Process?

There is much more that could be said about the decision and its significance in the book of Acts, but that would be the topic for another article. For now, I want to focus on what we can learn about the decision process itself.

  1. There was a spirited debate
  2. There was a range of opinions represented in this meeting and they openly discussed the issues for quite some time. This should be an encouragement to us when we have different opinions, because even the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem did not always see eye to eye.

  3. Respected leaders summarized the issues
  4. After a period of open discussion the two most senior leaders summarized the issues. Peter was the leader among the Apostles, and ministered mostly to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8). His word would have carried a lot of weight among the Christians from a Jewish background. The James mentioned was not James the Apostle, because he was martyred earlier (Acts 12:2). This was James the half-brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul was there, but he was not yet recognized as a top leader at this point.

  5. James made the final decision
  6. James seems to have been the chairman of the council. After there had been a thorough discussion, he spoke up with his conclusion. Notice that he said “Therefore, it is my judgment. . .” (Acts 15:19). Apparently he had authority to speak for the group. I don’t think that this was a dictatorial decision, but after hearing all sides he was the one to make the final decision. As a leader in a consensus culture, he worked to bring everyone together to a decision that all could accept. There is no record that they took any sort of vote.

  7. The decision represented a compromise
  8. The final decision represented a compromise based on the concerns of the various parties. They could not require Gentile believers to be circumcised because that would endanger salvation by grace. But they did require the Gentile believers to refrain from certain practices that were particularly offensive to the Jews. So the more culturally Jewish group did get some recognition in the decision.

  9. They all agreed to support the decision
  10. Even at this point is is possible that not everyone was 100% happy with the decision, but nevertheless they all gave their support to the outcome. The letter that they composed came from “The apostles and brethren who are elders,” not just from James. The letter gives strong support to the ministry of Paul and Barnabas and expresses disapproval of those who were trying to force Gentile believers to be circumcised.

What principles guided their decision?

Finally it is helpful to look at some of the principles behind their decision:

  • They stood firm on the core truths of the faith (salvation by faith alone)
  • They were sensitive to important cultural issues, especially those that would make it difficult for Jewish believers to have fellowship with Gentile believers
  • They were concerned about the unity of the church. The Gentiles were asked to give up some of their freedoms in order to keep from offending the Jews. Most of the restrictions have to do with food. Because most churches had meals together, there fellowship was hindered if the Gentiles did not observe the Jewish dietary laws.
  • They were diplomatic: the letter did not even mention the word “circumcision,” which was the biggest issue!

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • How was their decision making process like and unlike what takes place in our churches today?
  • What can we learn from this example that helps leaders in bi-cultural churches?
  • To what extent do you think it is feasible for us to follow this model in our leadership groups?
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"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." -- C. S. Lewis