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Lesson 2: The Controversy *

Introduction: This will be a shock. Our lesson this week, our second lesson in our study of Romans, has no readings in Romans! Here is what we are doing, and I think you will agree this is a good idea: to better help us understand Paul's letter to the Romans we are studying the background for Paul's letter. Our main study is the record in Acts 15 about the biggest controversy in the early Christian church. Let's plunge into our study and learn more!

  1. The Showdown

    1. Read Acts 15:1. This is a pretty serious charge - salvation turns on being circumcised! What is the basis for this claim? ("The custom taught by Moses.")

      1. Would you rely on a "custom" for your theology?

        1. Is it true that they were merely relying on a "custom?" (Hardly! Read Genesis 17:9-10 and Genesis 17:12-14. Now we can understand why the pro-circumcision party claimed you could not be saved. Genesis 17:14 says that if you are not circumcised, even if you are a "foreigner" who is part of the household, you have broken your covenant with God and are "cut off" from God's people.)

    2. Read Acts 15:2. What is Paul's view on this issue? (He strongly disagrees ("sharp dispute").)

      1. How do they propose to solve this dispute? (By taking it to church leadership.)

      2. One of the precepts of the Protestant Reformation is the "priesthood of all believers." (See 1 Peter 2:9.) Why does Paul go to the "apostles and elders" in Jerusalem? I know lots of people who merely change churches when they disagree with the church policy. (Two things. First, the current policy had not yet been decided in the early Christian church. Second, Paul would not have gone to the leadership if he thought that the position of the church was unimportant. I'm reading a book right now that argues that the idea that everyone can be his or her own "pope" is a theological problem. I'm not far enough along in the book to judge the merit of its argument.)

    3. Read Acts 15:4-9. What is the basis for Peter's argument? What authority is he claiming?(That the Holy Spirit revealed the will of God on the issue.)

      1. What event do you think Peter is talking about? (Skim Acts 10 to learn more about Peter's vision of the sheet with unclean animals and his visit to Cornelius the Roman centurion. Read Acts 10:44-47. I think this is Peter's point of reference.)

      2. We need to consider this. Genesis 17 is very plain and part of the written text of the Bible. Against this, Peter relies on his vision and the working of the Holy Spirit among humans. What would you decide if you were among the Jerusalem leaders? (In general, this would make me very nervous. The written word is plain, and God says that He does not change (James 1:17).)

    4. Read Acts 15:10-11. What argument is Peter making here? (A pragmatic argument: no one is able to keep all of the laws. He argues that righteousness by faith is correct, because the "yoke" of the law is something the Jews have not been able to carry.)

    5. Read Acts 15:12. What is the implied argument made by Paul and Barnabas? (The Holy Spirit approves going to the disciples because He powers "miraculous signs and wonders" among them.)

      1. Read John 10:25-27. Jesus used miracles to prove He was the Son of God. Should miracles be conclusive proof? (Read Jesus' warning in Matthew 24:24-25. Paul cites miracles as evidence that God approved the work among the Gentiles.)

    6. We have three recorded arguments: the working of the Holy Spirit, practical considerations and miracles. These are opposed to the plain teaching of the Bible. How would you decide if you were facing those kinds of opposing arguments today?

  2. The Decision

    1. Read Acts 15:13-18. What does James add to Peter's arguments? (He adds the part I consider to be the most important test of a theological argument. He cites the written word of the Bible ( Amos 9:11-12) to show that God intended the gospel to go to the Gentiles.)

    2. Read Acts 15:19-21. Who is speaking on behalf of church leadership? (James. "It is my judgment.")

      1. How does James decide? (He agrees with the no circumcision argument.)

      2. Consider carefully James' conclusions. Is he voting for the leading of the Holy Spirit in opposition to the text of the Bible? (No! He cites the Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit for the decision of the church. This, I think, is an incredibly important point. To create a doctrine based solely on the claimed leading of the Holy Spirit, when the uniform teaching of the Bible is contrary, is a mistake. However, if the Bible is uncertain, and has arguable conflicts, then the Holy Spirit is the place to look for a correct conclusion.)

      3. With regard to this area of conflict. Is Genesis 17 in conflict with the prophecy that the gospel will go to the Gentiles? (When American judges consider whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between statutes, they ask if both can be enforced. Here, both could. You could have the gospel go to the Gentiles and you could require them to be circumcised.)

        1. I'm not suggesting that James and the early church made the wrong decision. But if I'm right that there is no irreconcilable conflict, what is the lesson for us today in resolving major conflicts in the church?

    3. Re-read Acts 15:20-21. Is that it? I'm a Gentile. Is this odd group of rules the only ones that are to be imposed on me?

      1. Consider the Ten Commandments. Read Exodus 20:3-6 and compare it with Acts 15:20. Of all of the requirements to worship only God and not worship idols, are the Gentiles only required to abstain from meat offered to idols? All other idol interaction is just fine? (This conclusion is just too ridiculous to accept. When you look at the very limited list James makes, it seems that he is describing some very limited application of the ceremonial law transmitted through Moses. The specific reference in Acts 15:21 to Moses being read in the synagogues reinforces that idea.)

    4. Read Acts 15:22-23. What does this tell us about the authority of James' conclusion? (This is the decision of the leadership of the early Christian Church.)

    5. Let's read the official letter in Acts 15:24-29. What is the conclusion with regard to circumcision? (Clearly, circumcision is not a requirement that is listed.)

      1. Why do you think circumcision is not even mentioned in the letter? Why not mention the very issue upon which the debate centered?(Read again Acts 15:5. The actual issue was not just circumcision, it was also obeying "the law of Moses." Thus, the official opinion letter covered the issues debated.)

      2. What do you think is meant by the "law of Moses?" (If you scan Exodus 19 and 20 you will find that God spoke ( Exodus 20:1)the Ten Commandments in the hearing of the people. I don't think that any serious student of the Bible believes that Moses made up the rules and regulations contained in Exodus and Leviticus. They all came from God. But, the fact that only the Ten Commandments were spoken by God directly to the people could form the basis for arguing that they are not part of the "law of Moses.")

    6. Read Galatians 2:11-13. Those readers regularly following the lessons know that we just finished studying Paul's letter to the Galatians. What controversy do we find in Galatians? (The same issue! Peter is even temporarily on the wrong side of things. The text says that the pro-circumcision people came from "James." We can see this was a big issue in the early church, with even the main players sometimes uncertain.)

    7. Friend, how do you approach disagreement in the church? If you are in opposition to the leadership of the church, what does the Acts 15 example teach you? What does the Acts 15 resolution teach about the sources of authority for conflict resolution? Will you apply these principles to today's conflicts?

  3. Next week: The Human Condition.

* Copr. 2017, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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