A few days ago I highlighted a “shocking Bible contradiction.” I’ve listened here and on Facebook to some great points that have helped me consider these two passages and how they fit together. I want to share a fundamental issue that will help us as we study these passages (and all others).
I met an interesting fellow at the coffee shop the other day. I had been intently studying while he was focused on his computer at the next table. He started to get his things together, ready to go. He stood up to leave, but then started talking to me.
“Has anyone close to you ever died?” he asked.
(If you landed on this post without seeing the others in this series, let me explain what is going on here. Thursdays is my day to talk about God’s way for our congregations. Right now I’m in the middle of a series on the Jerusalem church and it’s success. This is the fourth post in the series. I encourage you to check out the introduction to this series to know more about what is going on and to find an index of the posts in this series as they are put up. Enjoy.)
No doubt, the Jerusalem church is the most successful church in all of history. It grew in times of peace. It grew in times of adversity. It was the start of every other congregation in its day; in essence the start of every other congregation throughout all history. Because of the work the Jerusalem church did, when the first persecution hit in earnest, the members were ready to take their message to other cities and towns. When other churches were started, even after so many were scattered, the Jerusalem church sent helpers to strengthen the fledgling congregations.
As we continue to examine the Jerusalem church, we can very quickly develop some mistaken perceptions. We can highlight the wrong things and miss what really made them so successful. We need to make sure we keep the Jerusalem vision clear or we will not be able to have the success she enjoyed for so long.
The Jerusalem Vision: An Examplary Church, not a Mother Church
Sadly, many modern Christians turn to Acts 15:2 and misunderstand the Jerusalem vision. They see a mother church. They read into this verse 1500 years of Catholicism and 400 years of Protestant denominationalism. They think Paul and Barnabas were traveling to Jerusalem to learn what they were supposed to teach about the circumcision issue or to participate in a meeting to decide what they were to teach. They were going back to the mother church to learn the truth so they would teach correctly. This is often seen as the first “church council” or “synod” in a long line of many.
That, however, is not at all what is going on here. Paul was not traveling to Jerusalem to find out what to teach. They were not having a council to figure out what all the churches should teach. Remember what Paul said in Galatians 1:11-12:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, not was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul did not learn what to teach about the gospel by going to the apostles or to the Jerusalem church. He didn’t learn the gospel message from a church council or synod. He received direct revelation from Jesus Christ Himself. The next two chapters are Paul’s detailed explanation of how he didn’t get his message from men.
In fact, look at Paul’s own participation in the Jerusalem debate. There is no question. There is not, “Let us find out what to teach.” There is simply his own teaching that he had confirmed by the work of the Holy Spirit during his ministry. “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”
What is going on then? First, notice what prompted Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1).
However, the letter the Jerusalem church wrote at the end of this debate gets even more specific.
“Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions…” (Acts 15:24).
Why did Paul and his companions from Antioch travel to council with the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem? Because that was the source of error that had gone out. They were not going to meet with a mother church to find out or figure out what to teach. They were going to a church to find out why teachers of error were coming out from them. Apparently, the Jerusalem church was divided on this issue and hadn’t realized it yet. This was not a debate to determine what all churches would teach. This was a debate to determine what Jerusalem would teach. Paul and Barnabas were not traveling to learn, they were traveling to teach and correct.
Of course, we still ask why this matters. If Jerusalem wasn’t the mother church, who cares what her teachers taught? Even though she wasn’t the mother church, she was an exemplary church. After all, she was the first. Further, she did have the apostles. While other churches did not bow to the church of Jerusalem, they did look up to her.
If we are going to be like Jerusalem, we must not seek to make our congregations mother churches. Sadly, there are organizations of churches cropping up everywhere. Some church has success and starts spreading out satellites all over the nation, establishing themselves as a mother church. We must not do that. Jerusalem did not. Certainly, we can and should seek to be exemplary. We should seek to be an example of godly conduct and proper congregational work and teaching. There is nothing wrong with others looking to our congregation for good advice and council. But each church should be left to govern itself with the shepherds the Holy Spirit has raised up among them submitting directly to the Chief Shepherd (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:1-4).
Yes, we will be looking to the Jerusalem church. But we will not do so because she was the mother church. Rather, she was an exemplary church who blazed the trail for us in so many ways.