A lot of skeptics find the Old Testament to be a problem. A lot of Christians, if they are honest, do too.
But at the first great church council, in Jerusalem, in Acts 15, you get the impression that the earliest Christians were willing to get rid of the legal requirements of the Old Testament, in order to reach more people, with the Gospel. Staunch Jewish members of the early church resisted this, wanting Gentile converts to become circumcised, as a condition for salvation. But those like the Apostle Paul convinced the church leadership to conclude otherwise:
- For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (Acts 15:28-29 ESV)
In other words, if the Gentiles Christians were willing to adhere to these four basic requirements, they could remain in the church, without (at least the men) falling under the knife. At first, this sounds straight forward, until you read elsewhere later in the New Testament, where the exact requirement for abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, appears to be set aside as a “disputable matter,” as explained by Paul in Romans 14 and 15, where Christians can follow their consciences, as long as they do not cause other believers to stumble.
The main point seems to be that Christians should put an emphasis on unity, and that the requirements laid down in Jerusalem were more about keeping peace, than they were about adhering to moral principle.
One of America’s most influential pastors, Andy Stanley, of one of the largest churches in Atlanta, Georgia, North Point Community Church, has gone a step further, in a 2018 sermon that has caused a firestorm of controversy. Stanley lands his message by saying, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.”
Andy Stanley has received quite a bit of pushback (Dr. Michael Brown at Charisma magazine, Wesley Hill at First Things). In understanding the Old Testament to be a problem, for many people today, is pastor Stanley throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
If you look at Acts 15, I find that many modern Christians have a problem with even the basic requirements adopted at the Jerusalem council. With respect to the requirement to abstain from “sexual immorality,” a lot of evangelicals are quick to lament how same-sex marriage, and other traditional, sexual immorality issues are being compromised, in certain quarters of the church.
But with equal force, we see the early church condemning, at least here in Acts 15, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, consuming blood, and eating the meat of animals that still have blood in them (what has [not] been strangled). And yet, how many Christians do you see today worrying about eating any food, in connection with idolatry?
Even more unsettling, and more relevant to modern Christians, what about eating red meat? Do you like your steak rare or medium rare? Are you violating the requirement laid down by the first great council of the church?
What are we to make of the binding force of the Acts 15 decree, for today’s Christians? How are we to relate to the Old Testament, rejecting what is an obstacle to faith in Jesus, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Andy Stanley’s Argument: Let Us Unhitch the Old Testament from Our Faith
With some measured criticism, I have defended Andy Stanley in the past (#1, #2, and #3), but I can very much see the problem that his critics raise on this issue. While admiring Stanley’s passion to reach the lost and disenchanted with the Gospel, critics cite Stanley’s message as an example of a kind of incipient Marcionism… (a little reflection on who Marcion was, and his threat to the church, can a long way) 1.
I do not really want to focus on either defending or criticizing Andy Stanley here2, but for the sake of getting the full context, you can view the 3-part sermon series here (#1, #2, and at the minimum, #3 … the most controversial one… below), which you really should do first, before passing judgment on pastor Stanley. Otherwise, skip over this, and come back to it later, as I mostly want to explore some basic questions regarding Acts 15 that keep me awake at night, below…. and then I will briefly return to Andy Stanley.
About Acts 15: How Should This Be Applied to the Church Today?
So, my concerns are broader, and more troubling than what Andy Stanley has stirred up with his sermons. Even if you dismiss Andy Stanley as missing the mark on this one, it still leaves the question open as how we are to deal with Acts 15, and the decision arrived by the Jerusalem council. In short, am I being hypocritical, if I like my hamburger cooked with a little pink in it?
But before I launch into what really troubles me, let me just say that there is some good help as to how to navigate Acts 15, in ways that pastor Stanley overlooked, but which is really important. First, let me say that despite all of the discussion on the matter, Acts 15 is still very much relevant today.3
Secondly, it is quite remarkable to consider that many of the arguments used to call for the acceptance of same-sex marriage within the church, often make the appeal to Acts 15 to support their case. There are a number of problems with doing this, but the largest obstacle I see is that despite what writers like Matthew Vines claim, namely that the restrictions against same-sex relations were mainly Old Testament in scope, there is a strong case to be made that the Apostle Paul believed that the prohibition against same-sex relations does explicitly carry forward into the New Testament era, as in Romans 1, thus nullifying the appeal to Acts 15.4
Thirdly, we should observe that the four specific requirements established by the Jerusalem council, to be binding on all believers were actually derived from the Old Testament itself. In particular, these four requirements had to deal with rules placed on Gentile people; that is, not physically circumcised, who were sojourning among God’s covenant people in the land of Israel, as taught in the Book of Leviticus. In other words, Paul, James and Peter were not trying to “unhitch” the Old Testament at all when it came to making peace within the church.5
And lastly, yes, there is the question about how “food sacrificed to idols” plays into this, but there is good evidence that there are important nuances involved that show how Acts 15, Romans 14-15, Revelation 2-3 and 1 Corinthians, that addresses the “idol food” question, should be handled within the framework of their specific historical contexts.6
Beyond Andy Stanley: What Troubles Me
Okay, back to what really troubles me…..
To put my concern another way, here is a thought experiment: Was the decision at the Jerusalem council the right one to make? Or did it direct the church down a potentially slippery slope that only became apparent years later?
Here is what I am getting at: By removing circumcision as a requirement for being a Christian, it took down a HUGE barrier for people to enter the church of God. Within a just a few hundred years, Christianity would become the de facto religion of the Roman Empire, and by the end of 4th century, during the reign of Theodosius, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. What drove this phenomenal growth was the powerful testimony of the church regarding the resurrection of Christ, what some call the “Easter Effect.”
But there was a tragic cost associated with this remarkable growth. The church moved from being a primarily Jewish movement to become almost an entirely Gentile movement, even within decades. The sad reality is that the Jews, who themselves clung to circumcision, who also originally gave birth to the Christian movement, became more sidelined. Eventually, antisemitism made its way into the Christian culture, and the Jews became marginalized. Despite attempts by those like Augustine to find a place for the Jews in society, the Jews mostly found themselves isolated into ghettos. Pograms resulted, and many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or even killed.
Jewish Christianity all but died out. There was very little identifiable “messianic Judaism” in the latter part of the early church period, like we know about today, through ministries such as Jews for Jesus. Most Jews who became Christians, in those years, and throughout the medieval period and even into the early modern period, simply gave up most of their Jewish distinctiveness to fit into the wider Christendom culture.
The deal is, once you let the genie out of the bottle, it is almost impossible to put him back in. Once the Christians loosened up the restrictions on circumcision, it was only matter of time before those who promoted circumcision would be easily outnumbered by the non-circumcised, and the circumcised (Jewish Christian, along with non-Christian Jews) placed on the margins.
The irony of this all is that we see this same type of narrative being played out in contemporary culture, and conservative Christians are finding themselves more and more in the position that the Jewish Christians found themselves in the early church. Particularly in view of rapid changes happening in society with respect to gender identity and sexual ethics, Christians have become more and more at odds with the dominant society, unlike they were several hundred of years ago when the existence of Christendom was not even questioned. Nowadays, we hear talk of things like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, or James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World as answers to facing the dominant culture.
Now, one could say that what happened with European Jewry across the centuries was indeed horribly tragic, but nevertheless, the ghettoization of the Jews miraculously preserved the culture, and with it, ironically preserved the Old Testament, for the benefit of the Christians. You could say that this was all in God’s Providential plan. Fair enough.
Nevertheless, we see this tension, that is so remarkably preserved and modeled for us in the Jewish/Gentile controversy of the early church, lived out in today’s church. As the culture continues to exert tremendous pressure on the church to “get with it,” and discard “out of date beliefs,” factions in the church will want to drag the rest of the church, kicking and screaming, towards making concessions to the culture, for the sake of reaching the world with the message of the Gospel.
On the other side, there will be other factions that will needlessly draw hard and rigid lines, in an effort to keep the church more tethered to its Scriptural, and particularly, its Old Testament roots, but who end up becoming “Judaizers” in the process. There is a crucial need for the evangelical “middle” to step forward, and claim the center ground between these two divisive strains within the church.
I do not have any readily satisfactory answers to solve this crisis. Perhaps we need another “Jerusalem council” to settle these matters. I suppose we just have to keep praying, and wait to see what God might be doing.
Getting back to Andy Stanley one last time, the problem with trying to “unhitch” our faith from the Old Testament is that Christians have tried this before, and the consequences, particularly concerning Jewish-Christian relations, have been deadly. Many things in the Old Testament have been superseded by the New, but not everything. Christian ignorance about the Old Testament is not helping. Andy Stanley’s focus on Christ’s resurrection, as the central theme that might lead to revival in the church and catapult churches to extend their evangelistic outreach is to be commended, but we need not needlessly “unhitch” the Old Testament in the process.
1. Marcion was a notorious early church figure, a wealthy man who became very involved in the influential 2nd century church in Rome, where he flatly rejected the Old Testament (Andy Stanley is NOT doing that). But the tendency towards ideas that remind us of Marcionism is something that we must all wrestle with, and resist when necessary. Kevin DeYoung at the Gospel Coalition has good explanatory article about who Marcion was, and his legacy today., Longtime readers of Veracity will know that this subtle tendency is essentially my beef with James Bryan Smith. ↩
2. I will just add that this series of sermons is pretty consistent with the original vision for Andy Stanley’s church, as laid out in this video, which specifically draws on Acts 15. More on Andy Stanley’s approach to Acts 15 can be found in this PDF. Note that in the main body of this blog post, I am referencing more mainstream evangelical critics of Andy Stanley, that are thoughtful and penetrating. There are those on the radical fringe right, like Seth Dunn, that are altogether sophomoric and vengeful, but sadly all too common. ↩
3. We can at least address the “can I eat a rare steak” issue. Michael Patton at the Credo House ministries gives a general overview of the issues in Acts 15. I lean towards Patton’s #4 option, that suggests that the apostle James was using the Old Testament as a means of making peace between the quarreling parties in the church, and I strenuously object to option #1, that suggests that the James was simply wrong in making his pronouncement, on behalf of the church. For another look, that suggests that draining the blood out of every animal was not completely possible, even for Jews to adequately perform, you might be able to retain your rare steak eating habit by reading this from Apologetics Press. At Bible.org, Robert Deffinbaugh gives a broad overview of the chapter (Acts 15). ↩
4. At the SpiritualFriendship blog, Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill, one of Andy Stanley’s friendly critics, who are both celibate gay Christian men, address how passages like Acts 15 have been misused to allow for same-sex marriage in the church. ↩
5. Ian Paul, at the Psephizo blog, does a masterful job with his exegesis of Acts 15. IF YOU READ NOTHING ELSE THAT I HAVE FOOTNOTED IN THIS BLOG, PLEASE READ THIS. Losing the Old Testament context for the four requirements, established by the apostle James, has impoverished the Christian’s ability to understand Acts 15, a deficiency that not only cripples us today, but that has also crippled the church throughout its history. My only quarrel with Ian Paul is that the solution at the Jerusalem council really was an “agree to disagree” matter, in that there is no indication that the Jewish Christians gave up on circumcision, despite allowing for the Gentile Christians to remain physically uncircumcised. For example, there is no evidence here that Jewish Christians agreed not to circumcise their male infants. Both Jew and Gentile retained table fellowship, and considered one another “saved,” but they most probably continued on with separate practices regarding circumcision.↩
6. British pastor Andrew Wilson has a series of three blog posts (#1, #2, #3) that go into technical detail, from his PhD dissertation, about the “Idol food” question. A lot to chew on but well worth it. In summary, Wilson contends that the prohibition against eating idol food is absolute because the context of the Bible passages indicates that this is referring to eating food as part of a pagan worship ritual (see Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-22, Revelation 2-3., and possibly 1 Corinthians 8.). However, this is very different from eating such food outside of the context of a pagan worship ritual. For example, it would be permissible to eat food prepared in a pagan temple kitchen, if it was eaten in a private home, just as long it did not offend the conscience of others who were gathered for the meal, or otherwise make for some stumbling block for faith (see I Corinthians 10:23-31 and Romans 14-15 ). Eating “idol food” in this context would fall within the category of a “disputable matter.” The moral of the story here is that while “idol food” is addressed in different contexts in the New Testament, sexual immorality is not. In every case, sexual immorality is always prohibited. Therefore, you can not reasonably appeal to Acts 15 to justify same-sex marriage in the church.↩