I’ve been struggling with the tradition that we should attempt to pattern ourselves after the first century church. This assumes that the first century church was filled with people who perfectly lived out the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This passage makes a strong case for this not being true. Despite that there is an example here that we do need to consider.
Paul arrives in Jerusalem after spending years planting churches among the Gentiles. He comes to Jerusalem with a significant gift from those churches to the Jewish church in Jerusalem. While James and the elders praise God for the work that God is doing among the Gentiles, they are faced with a very real problem. The congregation that they are leading is zealous for the law. When Luke says this I’m confident he’s not describing a passion for loving God and others. He is describing a continuing passion among Jewish believers for preserving their identify which is found in Sabbath, circumcision, and diet. Rather than being “in Christ” these believers were still “in law”. They found hope in the resurrection, but their identify remained in their Jewishness.
What a mess! I can empathize with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. They are experiencing a time of peace and growth and here comes Paul to totally upset everything. They should have been confronting this identity issue. I can empathize. Helping people to change their core identity is a very challenging thing, and the resulting confrontations can be painful. Following the example of these leaders would not be helpful for congregations that are struggling with identity issues today.
That brings us to the second example. Paul is asked to do something that will demonstrate to everyone his Jewishness. He submits to the elders and he does it. The result is a beating and being sent to prison for years. Why did Paul submit? I don’t think it was because he thought that James and the elders were wiser than he was. Instead, I think that Paul understood authority and desired to show that he respected these men and their position. Since they were not asking him to do anything that violated his conscience he went ahead. He trusted God for the results.
We know the rest of the story. Jerusalem is wiped out in 70 A.D. and is no longer the center of Christianity. Paul spends years in prison and writes much of the New Testament. Paul knows what he’s talking about when he writes this:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:21 NIV)