I spend a lot of time in committee meetings. Maybe you do too, perhaps at work, or in a church or school. Even when the issues being discussed are relatively minor, a great deal of time can be spent quibbling over minutiae (just watch a roomful of academics wordsmith a new policy to death).
When truly important issues are at stake, passions run high, and disagreements easily flare up into arguments. We’re supposed to be on the same team. But when people stop listening, the blood pressures go up and so do the decibels.
It happens even on church committees. After all, it’s difficult to handle disagreement well when you are absolutely certain that God is on your side.
You probably know the awkward and sometimes maddening atmosphere that comes with deep disagreement; this is how I imagine the council meeting Luke describes in Acts 15. At the beginning of the chapter, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” (vs. 2, NRSV) with the believers who had come to Antioch from Jerusalem, on their own authority, to tell the Gentile converts they had to be circumcised. Luke’s phrasing is a polite way of saying there was a loud argument rather than a calm discussion of differences.
Luke then uses one of the same words later to describe the “debate” (Acts 15:7) in Jerusalem among the apostles and elders. That doesn’t mean that people were throwing chairs. But passions were probably high, perhaps particularly so among the Pharisees whom Luke tells us were pushing to require circumcision (vs. 5).
Only after the the debate had gone on for some time did Peter stand and retell the story of his encounter with Cornelius. I believe Peter’s plea on behalf of the Gentiles was a humble one (as opposed to a self-satisfied first-century mic drop) — and when he was done, the room fell silent.
Barnabas and Paul were up next. Luke portrays them as witnesses as opposed to being part of the deliberation. They were there to testify to all the miraculous ways God had worked through them on their recent missionary trip. And when they finished, James (the brother of Jesus), who was presiding over the meeting, took charge.
If James had any response to the stories they had just heard from Barnabas and Paul, Luke doesn’t say. Instead, he referred back to Peter’s comments: “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14, italics added).
As some commentators note, the wording may be significant. The root word translated as “Gentiles” (ethnos) can mean “people” or “nations.” But the word translated as “people” (laos) is usually used of Israel, that is, of God’s people in distinction to other nations. James, in other words, even before rendering his final judgment, had already given his verdict: What Peter’s story tells us is that these Gentiles are God’s people just like we are, a people for his name.
In support, he cited the prophet Amos, who had been sent from Judah to call the northern kingdom of Israel to repentance. The message of judgment, destruction, and exile is a stark and frightening one. But it ends on a hopeful note: one day, there will be restoration. James quoted from the Septuagint (i.e., Greek) version of Amos 9:11-12, which explicitly states that God will restore and rebuild what has fallen “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord–even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called” (Acts 15:17). It’s been God’s intention all along, James was thus suggesting, to embrace Gentiles as his people.
One can imagine some of the Pharisees thinking, That’s all well and good, but you still haven’t answered the question. It’s one thing to welcome Gentiles into the fold. But it’s another to do so without conditions. Shouldn’t they be required to observe the rite of circumcision? Are there to be no ritual requirements at all?
James, of course, anticipates the question and has an answer. If the Gentiles are to be a people called by God’s name, there will indeed be requirements.
But as we’ll see, they may not be the ones expected.