Throughout the history of the Christian Church, Church Councils played a major role, both positive and negative. They were often instrumental in setting doctrinal standards, and at other times in leading the church astray. At times there had been a political agenda, as well as some personal agendas. Nonetheless, God steered His church through some rough times by means of these councils, and rectified heresies and other corruptions, using the leaders in His church.
In this series I am going to look into some of these councils. The aim is to determine the impact that each of them made on the life of and faith within the church. In order to do that, I will be looking at the historical context of each council under consideration. Nothing in life happens in a vacuum, and this goes for these councils as well. Each council had a reason or a collection of reasons, and these need to be clarified. Related to the historical context, are the specific topics that were dealt with at each council. I will also look at the decisions made and the impact that had on the church then and its relevancy for the church historically, applying it to the current situation.
I will take a chronological approach in studying these councils. There is an important consideration for this. It reveals a chronological development of doctrine, as well as the fact that the decisions made at one council often resulted in or led to a second council, which in certain instances attempted to refute a previous council’s decisions. This is evident, especially during the time of the Reformation.
In undertaking a study like this, one is faced with a couple of hurdles, of which the biggest of these would probably be the expansion of the church throughout history. For the first millennia, we find it easier to navigate through the councils as the playing field was less complex, but from there on it only gets more difficult. After the split between the Eastern and Western churches, we are suddenly confronted with a more diverse scenario, and each council would have to be interpreted in this light. This complexity increased exponentially with the Reformation and the following diversification of the Protestant groups.
A second stumbling block is the perception people have about these councils, which is more often negative than positive. Because of our modern-day view of business meetings, and their frequency, we tend to view the councils of the church in the same way. In so doing, we forget that they were much focused on the immediate issues at hand and that the demands of the time forced most of these councils to be convened. They were not meant to determine business and growth strategies, or do financial planning, or discussions on the maintenance of church buildings, but to combat heresy and the challenges and onslaughts of a pagan world. Therefore the aim of this study is to show that this perception is wrong and changing it opens a whole new world of knowledge and understanding and appreciation of the place of sound doctrine in the church.
Council of Jerusalem
The first Church Council we read about is found in the book of Acts chapter 15, which took place in the year 49 or 50 A.D. Although not an officially organised council in the sense that we might understand it, the importance of this council should not be underestimated. In fact, this is the only Council that received canonical status and whose decision is normative for everyone, be it believer or unbeliever. Although other councils met and made decisions, there is still a chance that their decisions could be changed if not in accord with the Scriptures. Not so with the Council of Jerusalem. It is Scripture, carries the authority that it is God’s Word, and cannot be refuted or altered.
Furthermore, this is the only council of its kind (if we disregard Acts 1 and the election of the successor of Judas) where all the Apostles were present and an official letter containing their unanimous decision was issued. Although the Apostles were not alone in this meeting, they played a major role. Scripture teaches that the church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Ephesians 2:20), and here in Acts 15 we find a great example of this in action. The doctrine that was fixed here, is unchangeable, never to be revoked by any subsequent Church Council.
In chapter 13 of Acts we find the church in Antioch receiving a command from the Holy Spirit to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary trip (verse 2). The rest of chapters 13 and 14 then describes the successes and hardships that they had to face on this trip, ending with them returning back to home base (14:25-28). Chapter 15:1 opens up with the situation that then led to this meeting in Antioch:
“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.”
What we see here then is a group of people spreading a false doctrine of salvation, in other words a heretical soteriology. This group would later be known as Judaisers, because of their absolute insistence on obeying the laws of Moses in order to secure salvation. It was this false teaching that prompted Paul to write the letter to the Galatians, in which he tackles this heresy head-on. It is clear that they held a “salvation through works” view, which forces man to achieve his salvation through external means – in this case circumcision as taught in the Old Testament. They introduced a system of legalism into Christianity as the basis of salvation.
Legalism challenges the notion of man’s inability to attain salvation by any other means than himself. It does not deny the sinfulness of man, but it does deny that man is incapable of freeing himself from the effects of his sinful inclinations. Therefore, legalism teaches that man can save himself, or stated differently, man can attain salvation, by following a strict set of laws which then results in salvation. With this it also holds the erroneous idea that man is himself capable of following these laws or rules.
It should be clear that legalism is in its core a denial of salvation as a gift from God on the bases of the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work, and as a result of faith in this finished work of Christ. This, in the legalistic mind, is contrary to man’s ability and responsibility in salvation.
This viewpoint was driven to its pinnacle in Acts 15 and, in a very definite sense, forced the New Testament church to respond to its claims. Paul himself debated this group of Judaisers, but this proved to be insufficient. The church needed to answer to their claims, which then led to the meeting in Jerusalem (15:2). We read that they were met by “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (verse 5) and were almost immediately confronted with the question that brought them to Jerusalem, namely fulfilling the law of Moses in order to secure the salvation of the Gentiles who came to believe in Christ (verse 5).
It is clear from the language in Acts 15 that the issue at hand was not an easy one. Already in verse 2 we are told that the debating was intense, and now even amongst the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem (verse 6), we see an intense discussion (verse 7).
From the narration in Acts, we see two important preparatory events preceding this assembly. First of these would be the conversion of Paul from Judaism. The importance of his conversion in this event, should not be underestimated. Later in his life, while writing to the Philippians, he explains the power of legalism in the mind of the Judaiser (3:4-6). The adherence to and dependence on external deeds is a powerful force in “securing” confidence of salvation. With his conversion and subsequent preparation, Paul was stripped of all his reliance on the law and external works in favor of a faith that relied solely on the grace of God. To the Philippians he proclaims that he is found “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). In Ephesians 2:8-9 we read from his pen:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The change of position as to the means of salvation would prove to be a strong motivator in this assembly as the Gentiles experienced exactly what Paul had to learn: salvation is by faith alone, a gift from God and is not to be earned.
A second incident is described in Acts 10 was the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Peter had to “unlock” the gospel to the Gentile world, and this involved a considerable personal change in his own viewpoints. Coming from a Jewish background, God had to break down any prejudice towards Gentiles, and this was accomplished by means of changing Peter’s view on clean and unclean food (10:9-18), laws that were inherently part of the Jewish nation and system of faith. These laws separated Jew and Gentile, and in Christ this separation was removed, to the extent that the Church was born as a new entity, combining Jew and Gentile on the bases of faith and not the law.
With this event in mind, Peter then stood up in the assembly of Apostles and elders and started to interpret what has happened with Cornelius and applied that to the rest of the Gentile church (Acts 15:7-11). Afterwards, Paul and Barnabas had the opportunity to relay what they experienced as the spread the Gospel to the Gentile world (15:12). After this, James applied the prophecies of the Old Testament to the issue at hand (15:15-18), and proposed a solution (15:19-20), which was accepted (15:22) and implemented (15:22-31).
The Means of Attaining Salvation
It is clear from the historical data in Acts that the occasion that lead to this council in Jerusalem was one that challenged the very means of attaining salvation, and this touched the very heart of the Gospel message. Legalism insisted on external means as an added, mandatory, extra (Acts 15:1, 5). Salvation is not complete without adhering to these external means.
In the opinion of the representatives of the council, this view troubled the Gentile converts, and unsettled their minds (Acts 15:24). This had to be dealt with. The Gospel they received directly from Christ could not be earned – not by man’s ability, nor by any other inherent qualities of any external achievement, be it circumcision, the abstinence from unclean food, or some other regulation.
The assembly came to their conclusive decision based on three interlinking aspects, i.e. the way in which the Gospel was unlocked to the Gentile world, the reception of the Gospel message by the Gentiles, and the supporting prophetic word.
The Gospel Unlocked to the Gentiles
Peter explained how the Gospel was unlocked to the Gentiles, referring to his encounter with Cornelius. He grounded the expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles in his personal calling (Acts 15:7). He referred to Christ’s words recorded in Matthew 16:19. Peter was to be the one that would be instrumental in “unlocking” the Gospel message to the Gentiles, and to this Christ employed Peter in bringing Cornelius and his family to faith (15:8). Important is the comparison that Peter made between the Jewish and Gentile believers in coming to faith in Christ.
Two common aspects emerge from his encounter. The first is that all believers receive the same Holy Spirit. This was evident in the actual pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius which was similar to the Spirit’s outpouring on the Day of Pentecost (compare Acts 2 with Acts 10). This similarity eradicates any distinction between Jew and Gentile when it comes to matters of faith in Christ. The second aspect is that faith touches the heart of the believer, making no cultural, or any other distinction that might have been built up by prejudice. In Peter’s mind, under the guidance of the same Spirit, the way that both Jew and Gentile come to faith in Christ, is exactly the same, with no distinction in the result. Faith cleanses the heart and the same Holy Spirit is given to both, regardless of background. With this, Peter actually placed Jew and Gentile in Christ on the same level, with no distinction allowed.
Denying this, is nothing short of an attempt to manipulate God to put a yoke on the Gentile believers that not even the Jews were able to carry (15:10; Matthew 23:4). In Peter’s understanding, the decision has already been made in the divine realm – man will be saved by grace without the yoke of legalism and ritualism required. To think otherwise in the current situation, would be nothing less than renouncing that divine decision and thus tempting God. Peter cuts to the heart of legalism, i.e. that man is able to achieve his salvation by obeying external laws and performing external rituals, which in turn leads to worshiping man himself. He thrashes this high view of man by telling the assembly that no man is able to gain redemption by his reliance on his own abilities and performing external duties as a display of his inward power.
The Reception of the Gospel by the Gentiles
Paul and Barnabas confirmed Peter by bearing witness as to how the Gospel was received on their missionary trip (15:12). Their testimony revolved around the signs and wonders that accompanied their preaching. They knew that signs and wonders were God’s way of displaying His salvation might and power and confirming the message of the Gospel. These miracles were to them affirmations of God, displaying His salvation to a Gentile world ignorant of His true identity. Recall when Moses confirmed the covenant regulations with Israel, he asked the following:
Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him (Deuteronomy 4:34-35).
His miracle working power was known to the people of Israel as a fact of history, but also as an obligation to teach them to the generations to come so that they might choose to walk with their God (Psalm 78:4). Israel was well aware that signs and wonders were performed by God as a sign of the salvation He grants by grace. This was confirmed in the ministry of the Apostles, to which Acts regularly appoints us. These signs and wonders were not the works of man, and neither could man utilise them for his own purposes (Acts 8:9-25). It was purely a work of God who performed them when as He saw fit.
The testimony of Paul and Barnabas supported Peter’s explanation that God worked in the Gentile world, bringing them to faith in His Son, not on the bases of any external requirement to be obeyed or performed by them, but by Him drawing them to Himself by acts performed by the same Spirit that changed their lives.
The Supporting Prophetic Word
James confirms Peter, Paul and Barnabas, by pointing to the Scriptures. What happened in the Gentile world is nothing less than the fulfilment of prophecy. He refers to Amos 9:11-12 where the promise is made that a restoration will take place in which the Gentiles will hold a significant place. In this there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as both will be restored according to the promises of the Old Testament prophecy. According to this prophecy the Gentiles were not made into mere Jewish proselytes, requiring of them to adhere to the Law and its rituals. Instead they bear God’s name, and are therefore regarded as His people. They therefore need no initiation ritual to become Jews. On the contrary, with the believing Jews, they become a new man in Christ (Ephesians 2:15). This is all the more significant considering that James, Jesus’ brother and writer of the letter that bears his name, points to the fulfilment of prophecy. He was the leader in the Jerusalem church and a strong proponent of the Law.
Notice that Scripture authenticates what has been said by the parties involved, and with this the primary issue at hand was acknowledged and affirmed: the means of attaining salvation is not dependent on man’s ability, nor his adherence to and performance of external duties or works, but the grace of God that changes man’s heart through faith and He seals this by the gift of His Holy Spirit.
Freedom in Christ
Flowing from this primary issue, we notice a few secondary aspects that James suggests. These are related to the theme of salvation, but it is clear that these are not seen as adherence to the works of the Law in order to be saved, but are crucial aspects relating to idolatry. These touched on how the Jews viewed their God in relation to the pagan gods, and therefore James suggests that the Gentile believers, who were used to enjoy all these pagan rituals and foods, should abstain from them. These are called by name, i.e. abstinence from pollution by idols (cf. Exodus 20:3; 34:17; Deuteronomy 5:7; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13), sexual immorality (especially the orgies associated with the worship of pagan god’s), eating food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:14; Numbers 25:1-5) and from blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17; 17:10-12). The history of Israel was full of instances where these practices led them astray from the Lord their God to worshiping the gods of the pagans. These led to numerous atrocities and gross moral decay. Therefore, with wisdom James mentions these as principles that undergird the freedom found in the Gospel message.
The issue at the core of all these prescriptions was not “salvation by works”, as this has been dealt with. Rather, it brings to the front the believer’s freedom in Christ. Through the grace of God and Christ, salvation is attained and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This, however, does not mean that the believer, be it Jew or Gentile, is now free to do as he wishes. The opposite is true. Through salvation the believer now adheres to a higher moral standard, as stipulated in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Historical writings. These standards are adhered to not as a means of salvation, but as a result of salvation, and is made possible by the indwelling presence and work of God’s Spirit of Holiness, who seals redemption.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul would later address this same aspect of the believer’s freedom in Christ. Against the context of this congregation and its pagan and idolatrous background and practices, Paul refutes the attitude of irresponsible misuse of their freedom in Christ by addressing two of their arguments.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”-and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).
Furthermore he tackles the same issue in relation to their lack of discernment with regards to idolatry (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). In verse 9 he admonishes them to “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” He proceeds with the practical implications:
“Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (verse 12).
Again he raises the same issue with regards to food, eating, a concern for fellow believers and the glory of God in chapter 10:23ff. Again he feels the need to refute a corrupt and irresponsible viewpoint that they harbored in the belief system (verse 23).
Paul is clear in all these instances that freedom in Christ does not grant a license to live as you please. There are more at stake than being saved from the wrath of hell. There are other factors that come into play when salvation is granted by God. These include God’s glory, purity, caring for the conscience of fellow believers, and the mind being renewed daily away from the world, and focused on the new life in Christ.
Although salvation does not require any merit, any initiation ritual, or any adherence to some sort of external script, the freedom gained by coming to faith in Christ does not permit the believer to live a life based on principles contrary to that of God’s Word. Living a morally good life as a means to attaining a good standing with God is, in the view of the Council at Jerusalem, a futile exercise, and leaves man in the same corrupt and lost state as someone who lives a careless life of sin and worldly pleasures.
The importance of the Council in Jerusalem lies in the fact that it decisively laid down the means of attaining salvation. It is the free gift of God, by the grace of Christ Jesus, and applied and sealed by the Holy Spirit. It is therefore a work of God in man, and not a work of man to attain salvation. The Jerusalem assembly thrashed the idea that man is capable to work his way into heaven.
With this, it also laid down the principle of the right understanding and application of the salvation freedom. No burden should be placed upon the believer, except to abstain from a life unworthy of the God who saves.
It is true that the official declaration of an assembly does not necessarily change the attitudes of those that are being corrected. We know that only takes place through repentance. This does not, however, take away the validity of the decisions laid down. The council in Jerusalem did not eradicate legalism and ritualism. We see these tendencies right through history, even in our day. It also did not get rid of the idea that man is capable of working out his own salvation. This idea surfaces every now and again and stands up as a monster against the true message of salvation through God’s grace alone. The principles of Jerusalem’s assembly stand grounded for eternity: man is incapable of saving himself by following external rules, laws and performing rituals. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, based on the finished work of Christ alone and brings glory to God alone.