Early Church Controversies

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No age of Christianity, not even the early church, has been without its difficulties, controversies, and corruptions. The presence of Judas among the Apostles, and of Ananias and Sapphira among the first disciples (Acts 5) were proofs of the power which moral evil possesses to combine itself with the holiest works.

Two early church controversies would set the tone and direction of Christianity for years to come. The first one took place roughly five years after the Apostle Paul was converted while the second burst onto the scene just before his second missionary journey.

The first great controversy in the early church centers around a unique vision given to Peter and its meaning as it relates to the distribution of the gospel message. It answers the then burning question of whether the gospel should be preached strictly to the Jews or if it should be taken to all people. This singular event, initiated by God, directly challenged the prejudices Jews, like Peter, still harbored toward all others whom they considered as heathen (e.g. Gentiles, non-Israelites, etc.) and inferior.

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The second, and far more heated, controversy in the New Testament church ignited in Syrian Antioch and came to a head in Jerusalem. The gospel, at this time, was being spread among the Gentiles with great success. The issue now was whether or not Gentile converts should be required to receive the symbol of the Old Covenant relationship between God and his people known as circumcision.

Peter's Vision

The Apostle Paul is converted, in 33 A.D., on his way to Damascus. Roughly five years later, and still several years before Paul's first missionary journey, God gave a vision to Peter, at Joppa, that would lead to the opening up of the early church of God to Gentiles. The man God choose through which his will would be manifested was a Roman Centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10 - 11).

The trance into which Peter fell at the moment of his hunger, the vast sheet descending from heaven, the promiscuous assemblage of clean and unclean animals (see Leviticus 11), the voice from heaven which said, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat" is invested with the deepest meaning. The vision was timed by God to occur when the separation of Jews and Gentiles, in both the social and religious aspects of life, was at its sharpest.

The words heard by Peter in his vision came like a shock on all the prejudices of his Jewish education. He had never so broken the Law of his forefathers as to eat anything it condemned as unclean. And though the same voice spoke to him a second time from heaven and stated, "What God has cleansed, you are not to call common" (Acts 10:15), it required a wonderful combination of natural and supernatural evidence to convince Peter that the Eternal is "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). God, instead, in every nation, accepts anyone who "fears Him and works righteousness" (Acts 10:35).

Peter, after receiving his vision, did not have to wonder very long on what to do next. Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea, was also given a vision. He was told to request Peter come visit him. When Cornelius' two servants arrived in Joppa they asked the apostle to visit their master (Acts 10:17 - 22).

Jewish converts to Christianity who were with Peter, who also harbored some of the same biases against Gentiles, also traveled with him to Caesarea. They were astonished when they saw "the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out" not only on Cornelius but also his entire household (Acts 10:44 - 45)! They knew that much dissatisfaction and controversy would be created in the Church when intelligence of the whole transaction came to Jerusalem.

On Peter's arrival in Jerusalem, his having "gone into men uncircumcised and eaten with them" (Acts 11:1 - 3) became a controversy and was arraigned as a serious violation of religious duty. Peter explained the entire situation to those who accused him and appealed to the evidence of the six brethren who had accompanied him. His accusers not only were silenced, they also were so convinced that what had happened represented God's will that they exclaimed, "Then to the Gentiles also has God indeed granted repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18).

Subsequent events, however, too surely proved that the discontent at Jerusalem was only partially allayed. Hesitation and perplexity began to arise in the minds of the Jewish Christians, with scrupulous misgivings concerning the rectitude of Peter's conduct, and an uncomfortable jealousy of the new converts. And nothing could be more natural than all this jealousy and perplexity.

A firestorm erupts

The smouldering feeling of discontent, which had existed from the first, increased and became more evident as new Gentile converts were admitted into the early church. The results of Paul's first missionary journey, which ended in 46 A.D., must have excited a great commotion and controversy among the Jewish Christians. It had become evident that, "He Who wrought in Peter for the apostleship of the circumcision wrought in Paul also toward the Gentiles" (Galatians 2:8). And we cannot well doubt that both Paul and Barnabas had freely joined in social intercourse with the Gentile Christians, at Antioch in Pisidia, at Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, as Peter "at the first" (Acts 15:14) had eaten with Cornelius at Caesarea.

At Antioch in Syria, it seems evident that both Jews and Gentiles in the church lived together in amicable intercourse and in much freedom (Galatians 2:4). Nor, indeed, is this the city where we should have expected the Jewish controversy to have come to a crisis, for it was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas had first been sent as missionaries to the Heathen (Acts 13:1) and where the united body of believers had first been called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).

Jerusalem was the metropolis of the Jewish world. The exclusive feelings which the Jews carried with them wherever they were diffused were concentrated in Jerusalem in their most intense degree. It was there, in the sight of the Temple, and with all the recollections of their ancestors surrounding their daily life, that the impatience of the Jewish Christians kindled into burning indignation and a major controversy for the early church.

The Jews saw that Christianity, instead of being the purest and holiest form of Judaism, was rapidly becoming a universal and indiscriminating religion, in which the Jewish element would be absorbed and lost. This revolution could not appear to them in any other light than as a rebellion against all they had been taught to hold inviolably sacred. And since there was no doubt that the great instigator of this change of opinion was that Saul of Tarsus whom they had once known as a young Pharisee at the "feet of Gamaliel," the contest took the form of an attack made by Pharisees upon Apostle Paul.

The firestorm of controversy was early set ablaze when some "false brethren" (Galatians 2:4) from Judea visited Syrian Antioch (Acts 15:1). The course they adopted, in the first instance, was not that of open antagonism to Apostle Paul but rather of clandestine intrigue. They came as "spies" into an enemy's camp, creeping in "unawares" (Galatians 2:4) that they might ascertain how far the Jewish Law had been relaxed by the Christians at Antioch. Their purpose was to have the whole Church require all those wishing to become Christians to submit to circumcision. Their simple but far reaching demand they wished to foist on the church was, "Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).

Such a doctrine must have been instantly opposed by Apostle Paul with his utmost energy. He was always ready to go to the extreme verge of charitable concession, when the question was one of peace and mutual understanding. When the very foundations of Christianity, however, were in danger of being undermined, when the very continuance of the truth of the Gospel was in jeopardy, it was impossible that he should allow such heresy even "for an hour" (Galatians 2:5).

The dissension and disputation (Acts 15:2) which arose between Paul and Barnabas and the false brethren from Judea resulted in a general anxiety and perplexity among the Syrian Christians. The minds of "those who from among the Gentiles were turned unto God" were troubled and unsettled by the controversy (Acts 15:19). Those words which "perverted the Gospel of Christ" tended also to subvert the souls of those who heard them in the church (Galatians 1:7, Acts 15:24).

It was determined, therefore, that Paul and Barnabas, with certain others, should go up to Jerusalem about this question. It was well known that those who were disturbing the peace of the Church had their headquarters in Judea. Such a theological party could only be successfully met in the stronghold of Jewish nationality. Moreover, the residence of the principal Apostles was at Jerusalem, and the community over which James presided was still regarded as the Mother Church of Christendom.

Paul's companions on his journey to Jerusalem were carefully chosen with reference to the controversy that would be tackled. On the one hand was Barnabas (Acts 15:2), a Jew and a Levite by birth (Acts 4:36). On the other hand was Titus (Galatians 2:1 - 5), now first mentioned in the course of our narrative, a convert from Heathenism, an uncircumcised Greek. From the expression used of the departure of this company it seems evident that the majority of the Christians at Antioch were still faithful to the truth of the Gospel.

Conference in Jerusalem

Apostle Paul came to Jerusalem as the leader of the greatest revolution which the world has seen. It was now undeniable that Christianity had spread to a wide extent in the Gentile world, and that he had been the great instrument in advancing its progress. He came to defend his own principles and practice against an increasing torrent of opposition, which had disturbed him in his distant ministrations at Antioch, but the source of which was among the Pharisees at Jerusalem.

The Pharisees had been the companions of Apostle Paul's younger days. Death had made many changes in the course of years, but some must have been there who had studied with him "at the feet of Gamaliel." Their opposition was doubtless embittered by remembering what he had been before his conversion. Nor do we allude here to those Pharisees who opposed Christianity. These were not the enemies whom he came to resist.

Many of the Pharisees, after the example of Apostle Paul, had believed that Jesus was Christ (Acts 15:5). But they had not followed the example of their school-companion in the surrender of Jewish bigotry. The battle, therefore, which had once been fought without, was now to be renewed within the Church. It seems that, at the very first reception of Paul and Barnabas at Jerusalem, some of these Pharisaic Christians "rose up" and insisted that new converts should be circumcised according to the law of Moses (Acts 15:5).

The whole course of Apostle Paul's procedure among the Gentiles was here openly attacked. Barnabas was involved in the same suspicion and reproach, and, with regard to Titus, who was with them as the representative of the Gentile Church, it was asserted that, without circumcision, he could not hope to be partaker of the blessings of the Gospel.

But far more was involved than any mere opposition, however factious, to individual missionaries, or than the severity of any conditions imposed on individual converts. The question of liberty or bondage for all future ages was to be decided and a convention of the whole Church at Jerusalem was evidently called for.

The Apostles and elders in the church came together to consider the controversy brought by those from Antioch (Acts 15:6). Apostle Paul had private conferences with the more influential members of the Christian community (Galatians 2:2) and especially with James, Peter, and John (Galatians 2:9). Extreme caution and management were required, in consequence of the intrigues of the "false brethren" both in Jerusalem and Antioch.

Peter was the first of the Apostles who rose to address the assembly (Acts 15:7 - 11). He gave his decision against those "of the circumcison" and in favor of Paul. He reminded his hearers of the part which he himself had taken in admitting the Gentiles into the Christian Church who had not, before they received the Holy Spirit, been circumcised. They were well aware, he said, that these recent converts in Syria and Cilicia were not the first Heathens who had believed the Gospel, and that he himself had been chosen by God to begin the work which Apostle Paul had only been continuing.

And then Peter went on to speak, in touching language, of the yoke of using God's law as a means in which salvation was earned. Its weight had pressed heavily on many generations of Jews and was well known to the Pharisees who were listening at that moment. They had been relieved from legal bondage by the salvation offered through faith. It would be tempting God to impose on others a burden which neither they nor their fathers had ever been able to bear.

The next speakers to the church that was gathered were Paul and Barnabas. There was great silence through all the multitude, and every eye was turned on the missionaries, while they gave the narrative of their journeys. They had much to relate of what they had done and seen together. They appealed to the miracles which God had worked among the Gentiles by them. Such an appeal must have been a persuasive argument to the Jewish converts who were familiar with God interactions in the Old Testament.

The opinion of another speaker, however, still remained to be given. This was James who, from the austere sanctity of his character, was commonly called, both by Jews and Christians, "James the Just." No judgment could have such weight with the Judaizing party as his. Not only in the vehement language in which he denounced the sins of the age, but even in garb and appearance, he resembled John the Baptist, or one of the older prophets, rather than the other Apostles of the new dispensation.

After alluding to the argument of Peter, James turns to the ancient prophets, and adduces a passage from Amos to prove that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. And then he passes to the historical aspect of the subject, contending that this fulfillment was predetermined by God Himself, and that the Jewish dispensation was in truth the preparation for the Christian.

Such a decision, pronounced by one who stood emphatically on the confines of the two dispensations, came with great force on all who heard it, and carried with it the general opinion of the assembly to the conclusion that those "who from among the Gentiles had turned unto God" should not be troubled with circumcision as it relates to salvation.

In accordance with these principles it was enacted that the Gentile converts should be encouraged to continue to obey God's law which was read every Sabbath (note that the Biblical Sabbath, on Saturday, was considered still valid by the conference) in every city (Acts 15:21). They were told to abstain from food which had been polluted by idols, from the flesh of animals which had been strangled, and from eating blood.


Paul's ministry confirmed

Certain other points decided in the church conference held in Jerusalem had a more direct personal reference to Apostle Paul himself. His own independent mission had been a center of controversy and called in question. Some, perhaps, said that he was antagonistic to the Apostles at Jerusalem, others that he was entirely dependent on them.

All the Judaizers in the church agreed in blaming part of the ongoing controveries on Paul's course of procedure among the Gentiles. This course was now entirely approved by the other Apostles. His independence was fully recognized. Those who were universally regarded as "pillars of the truth" gave to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship. They agreed that Paul and Barnabas should take the gospel to the Heathen while they went to the Jews.

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