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?