It’s normal in Baptist circles to interpret the so-called Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) as a local church business meeting. I remember when I first came across this interpretation in Paul Jackson’s little book on Baptist polity. More recently, Kevin Bauder wrote:
Sometimes called the Jerusalem Council, this assembly was not really a church council at all. It was a business meeting of the local church in Jerusalem. The need for the meeting developed when teachers from Jerusalem came to Antioch with the message that circumcision was essential to salvation.
Acts 15 was a church business meeting? Where, pray tell, was the potluck? I don’t think this argument really holds up, and Acts 16:4 is one reason why. But first – a brief survey of the text.
Big Trouble in Little Antioch
Certain men “from Judea” (not necessarily the Jerusalem church) came down to Antioch and began teaching that people had to follow the Mosaic law (specifically ritual circumcision) in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul wrote against this heresy in the book of Galatians.
After Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” with these brigands, the church at Antioch appointed them to head to Jerusalem and go “to the apostles and elders about this question,” (Acts 15:2). It seems Antioch recognized the apostles’ inherent authority, and the Jerusalem church’s status as the “mother church.” A church plant naturally looks up to the parent church. The leaders in Antioch looked up to the apostles in Jerusalem. They sought advice and consensus.
They arrived in Jerusalem and “were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders,” (Acts 15:4). Paul and Barnabas explained how God’s grace had clearly gone out to the Gentiles. This was too much for some of the Christians “who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” They protested, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses,” (Acts 15:5).
The fight was on. It is interesting that James and the others in the Jerusalem church had to know this was simmering below the surface, yet they apparently did nothing. The Jerusalem church was always characterized by a velvet-glove approach to this issue (cf. Acts 21:20-25).
The church did not gather to hash this out; only “the apostles and elders” did (Acts 15:6). “Much debate” ensued (Acts 15:7). Peter spoke (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas gave testimony (Acts 15:12). Then James issued his judgment – “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,” (Acts 15:19).
James didn’t mention Antioch. He mentioned “Gentiles” in a generic sense, indicating he was speaking to a much larger issue. The dispute in Antioch was the impetus for a decision which had implications far beyond that single city. The letter the council sent with Paul and Barnabas was not for Antioch – it was for the entire region encompassing “the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia,” (Acts 15:23). This was a circular letter.
The letter read, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things . . .” (Acts 15:28). This is not the language of a friendly suggestion. It is the language of an ecclesiastical superior to an inferior. A Pastor of a church cannot “lay upon you” a burden to another church. He can offer friendly advice. This is not what happened here.
The Dogma of Acts 16:4
If Acts 15 simply depicts a Baptist church business meeting (minus the casserole potluck and fried chicken), then why does Acts 16:4 read thus:
As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).
This is strong language. Paul and Timothy are passing through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), apparently revisiting “the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord,” (Acts 15:36). As they passed through these cities, they “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.”
It is very possible this circular letter hadn’t yet reached the region beyond Antioch. Paul and Timothy were making sure it did. Notice the language Luke used. This letter is not a suggestion. It is a dogma. It is an ordinance, an order, a decree. It was a decision reached by the “apostles and elders” at Jerusalem. It carried authority. It was “delivered to them for observance.”
Does Acts 15 still sound like a local church business meeting?
To make matters worse, the word the RSV translates as “decision” is actually much stronger than that. It was more than a decision – it was an order.
The phrase here is τὰ δόγματα (“the dogma”). It is well attested in the LXX, the NT and the early post-apostolic era. Silva wrote the semantic range encompasses the concepts of decree, ordinance or doctrine.
- In the LXX, we read that Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree (i.e. an order) that all the wise men of Babylon be brought forth, to interpret his dream (LXX Dan 4:3). Later, Darius issued a decree (i.e. a law) that no man could pray to anyone except him for 30 days (LXX Dan 6:9; see also 6:11, 13, 14, 16, 27).
- In the NT, we read about the decree (i.e. an order) which went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world must be taxed (Lk 2:1). The Jews in Thessalonica claimed Paul and his companions were advocating for another king, in violation of Caesar’s decrees (i.e. laws; Acts 17:7). Paul wrote that Christ abolished “the law of commandments and ordinances,” (i.e. regulations; Eph 2:15). He also stated that Christ “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands” (i.e. regulations; Col 2:14). Kittell wrote that “In Ac. 16:4 the word signifies the resolutions and decrees of the early church in Jerusalem which are to be sent out to the cities of the first missionary journey. In the post-apostolic fathers the word comes to be applied to the teachings and prescriptions of Jesus.”
- In the early post-apostolic era, Ignatius wrote that Christians must “be diligent therefore to be confirmed in the ordinances (i.e. commands, orders) of the Lord and the Apostles,” (Magnesians 13.1). Barnabas wrote, “there are then three doctrines (i.e. teachings, commands) of the Lord,” (Epistle 1.6). The Didache reads, “and concerning the Apostles and Prophets, act thus according to the ordinance (i.e. command, order) of the Gospel,” (11.3).
So, how should we understand “the dogma” which Paul and Timothy delivered for observance to these churches? It is clear from this short survey that something anemic like “decision” is a poor fit. It is doubtful the translation law will do; the Jerusalem Council was not a civil body with legislative authority. Perhaps regulation or ordinance is best. To be even more blunt, perhaps we can bring things down to the bottom shelf, so to speak, and drop ordinance in favor of order. After all, the very word “ordinance” means an authoritative decree or a law.
The word originally meant opinion or belief in the early classical period, and its usage gradually morphed into something like judgment, decision or resolution (NIDNTTE, 1:752). But, don’t see evidence to suggest Luke was using the word to convey this weak of a meaning.
Basically, I don’t think you can escape the fact that this was not a suggestion from the Jerusalem Council; it was a decree, an order. Some might seek to soften it and say decision, but I don’t believe you can justify that weak of a translation from the word’s usage in the LXX, the NT or the early apostolic era (contra. NASB, RSV, ESV, NIV).
So, What Now?
I am a Baptist who leans heavily towards a dual-elder congregational view of church government. But, I think there are two ditches to avoid here:
- Interpreting Acts 15 to be a Baptist business meeting. This is what many Baptists do.
- Taking an apostolic ecclesiastical situation and imposing it in a post-apostolic era. This is what Presbyterians do.
There are no apostles today. There is no “mother church.” The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in those days was a one off, a non-repeatable event. Robert Reymond, a Presbyterian, wrote, “Clearly, these congregations were not independent and autonomous. Rather, they were mutually submissive, dependent and accountable to each other.” This is correct. But remember – this was an apostolic situation, not a normative situation. James is dead, and the Jerusalem church is gone. I fear Baptists are reading polity back into Acts 15 that simply isn’t there.
There was no business meeting in Acts 15, and there was no potluck following. Maybe next week.
 Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: RBP, 2012), 97.
 For a grammatical discussion of Acts 16:4-5, see my translation here.
 For a full discussion, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 1:752-753.
 Gerhard Kittel, “δόγμα, δογματίζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 2:231.
 Michael Holmes (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989]) translated this as “precepts.”
 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “ordinance,” 1a, 1b.
 Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 901.