We have an ambivalent relationship to rules.
On the one hand, think of how a typical toddler reacts to the word, “No.” We never quite outgrow that negative reaction to having someone else limit our freedom.
On the other hand, toddlers need rules to feel secure. Rules let them know where the limits are, the difference between bad and good, the actions for which they will be punished or praised.
As adults, we may not appreciate being bossed around. Yet we’ll pay good money to have a self-help guru tell us what to do. A book or seminar that gives us the three or four steps to achieving some goal may give us the concrete direction we crave. Just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it.
Well… at least until I get tired of it.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, in the early days of the church, a council had to be convened in Jerusalem to deal with an important question: should Gentile converts to Christianity be required to submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision? They were, after all, professing belief in and allegiance to a Jewish Messiah. Shouldn’t they therefore take on the mark that had distinguished membership in God’s people for centuries?
Paul’s answer was adamant: absolutely not, for to make one’s status before God dependent on any kind of religious rite would contradict a gospel of grace. Peter, having waffled on the subject in Antioch, had also come back to the centrality of grace, a truth which he had only temporarily forgotten. He thus pleaded with the council: God’s gracious intentions for the Gentiles are clear. Don’t get in the way. Don’t put the burden of circumcision on them.
And James, presiding over the council meeting, agreed. The enfolding of the Gentiles into God’s people, in fact, was to be understood as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. But he hadn’t yet answered the question: Circumcision or no? Will anything be required of these new Gentile converts?
James’ answer was yes:
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.Acts 15:19-20, NRSV
This may seem like a rather odd list of requirements to a modern-day Gentile. Okay, I get the thing about fornication. Christians aren’t supposed to mess around, right? But what about the rest of this stuff? And why isn’t Paul turning purple with rage, listening to this? After all, he got mad at Peter for less…
This is not a political ploy on James’ part. He is not trying to throw the Pharisees a bone, as if to say, I’ll make you a deal. If you concede the circumcision issue, I’ll give you these four ritual requirements in return. That way lies a never-ending debate and the continued perception of the Gentile converts as second-class members of the community. Moreover, it’s clear that James is not in negotiating mode; he is making an authoritative pronouncement.
What, then? Scholars, of course, debate the meaning and significance of James’ words. But I would agree with those who argue that the essence of the four requirements boils down to this: You belong to this God now, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and David, of Jesus, in whom you have believed. So what is required of you? Only this: that you give up the things associated with your former ways of idol worship.
James, in other words, shifts the focus of the debate from what the Gentiles must be required to do to what they must be required not to do. Instead of telling them what Jewish rituals they must adopt, he tells them what pagan rituals they must abandon. They must make a clean break with their pagan past, a past marked by temple prostitution and ritual sacrifice to false gods.
In hindsight, the pronouncement seems downright prescient, for Paul will later find himself wrestling with just these issues as he attempts to disciple the fledgling church in the highly pagan city of Corinth.
James ends with this: “For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). This cannot mean, “Do these four things because Moses says so” — otherwise, why not insist upon circumcision? Rather, it sounds more like a word of encouragement to the Pharisees in the room: “Don’t worry. Just because we’re not insisting on circumcision doesn’t mean that we’re throwing the teaching of Moses out the window. Every one of those Gentile cities has a synagogue, and the teaching of Moses will continue to be proclaimed as it always has.”
James, therefore, is giving the Gentiles neither a carte blanche, nor The Four Rules for Being a Christian. Instead, he is calling them to turn away from their past life. In our time and place, we may find the rule to avoid eating meat from animals that have been strangled to death (as they sometimes were in pagan ceremonies) odd and irrelevant. But surely we can identify with the call to do what it takes, concretely, to live in newness.
There is no contradiction between that and a gospel of grace.
What concrete suggestions, then, might James have for us?