Acts 15 is a fascinating story about how to handle complex disagreements. Of course, we know the “end” of the episode, where gentiles were welcomed into the faith and were not necessarily required to follow past traditions. But there were still some very compelling arguments on the “other side.” We still somewhat have this debate nowadays, too, with arguing over how to apply the biblical text. Is the bible the only thing we must consider for our faith?
In the Hebrew bible, there were clear instructions and traditions for the Israelites to follow. Circumcision was just one of many practices that I highlighted in my sermon. But other rules, regulations, provisions, and laws might come to mind. Consider the 10 commandments of Exodus. These were obviously part of a rich tradition of following God. Other laws include doing righteousness, not creating idols, remembering the oppressed, teaching one’s children about God’s commandments… the list goes on and on. Many traditions are incredibly good, and we ought to still hold onto them!
So with this in mind, it does make sense that some people in the early church believed that the gentiles ought to adopt every single Jewish practice of old. It was clearly and consistently outlined in the scriptures they had studied as devoted Jews.
The Jerusalem Council leads us to consider what kind of foundation we have for our faith. For some, scripture itself was the only allowable guide. Abram was circumcised in scripture, so they argued that gentiles in the time of Acts ought to be, too.
Paul encourages us to think more broadly about the issue at hand. Yes, holy writings are important, but there are several other parts of our “faith foundation.” For starters, God is concerned about justice and righteous living. In fact, many of the prophets of the Old Testament revealed this message to Israel, arguing that they had forgotten to truly follow God’s laws. Most notably in Amos 5:21-24…
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amos 5 is such a fascinating passage. God actually condemns religious services, as they were presumably empty and without meaning! Yet throughout scripture, there were so many rules about how to worship God and have these very services. I’m sure some of Amos’ audience would have been confused (“Well, what do you mean, God? We worship you in the temple every week! Shouldn’t this be enough?”). Instead, God clearly wanted something “deeper” than the surface-level teaching contained in the law. God sought justice and righteousness from God’s people. Likewise, in addition to the literal teachings of scripture, we must also include things like life application, integrity, justice, and compassion in our “faith foundation.” We need all these things to fully follow God.
Sometimes Christians struggle with being so rigid about the bible. Perhaps you’ve encountered someone (or even struggled with it yourself) who was very knowledgable about the contents of the bible, yet mistreated others. People have even used the bible to justify or overlook issues like domestic violence, citing vague terms like “submission” and “obedience.” Perhaps most infamously, many in past centuries used scripture to support unjust institutions like slavery.
Sometimes we struggle with thinking that the bible is the only thing there is to consider. We think knowing facts are what will save us. But words on a page don’t amount to much. God wants us to actually live them out with our words and actions. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit guides and counsels us on what to do. Hebrews 4:12a puts it this way: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.”
Scripture is clearly important for our faith. I cannot emphasize this enough. We learn about God and his work throughout all of human history. But our “faith foundation” must also include the Holy Spirit, too. Just like Paul preached in Acts 15, God’s Spirit might be moving us to new things. If we aren’t living out the broad teachings of scripture and listening to the Spirit, we will miss out on what God is doing.