How “Jewish” did you have to be in order to be included in the church before Acts 15? After Acts 15?
What forces led to this change?
Why does this matter today?
The meeting of the Apostles and elders in Acts 15 could be considered to be the first “church council.” Like church councils of the future, the meeting addressed issues occurring prior to the meeting, and then set the appropriate direction for the future.
The conflict occurred between what might be described as Cultural Judaism (Acts 15:5) and Biblical Judaism (Acts 15:2), and which group's actions correlated with “true” Christocentric Judaism. The view of Jews who rejected Jesus Christ as the Messiah was obviously not considered since they did not view “Jewish Christianity” as an acceptable form of Historic Judaism (as seen in Stephen's stoning).
Rumblings no doubt arose from those aligned with Cultural Judaism's tenetswhen unclean and uncircumcised Gentiles were repeatedly included in worship and church meetings by the followers of Biblical Judaism. Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch and Peter's blessing of Cornelius' house were events that likely fueled the fire of debate. The pivotal moment in Antioch, where the church was first identified as something different by outsiders, probably left many questioning the future of their Jewish heritage and identify in light of Christ, especially as they saw it deviating from Jewish cultural norms and identity markers.
Since the Acts 15 council's ruling, “true” Christocentric Judaism would coincide with Biblical Judaism's view that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish Law, the prophetic promises, and the culmination of Abraham's divine revelation (Knoll, 26). Since one's identity now came from Christ, the council nullified Jewish identify markers without the loss of their Jewish roots. However, the decision didn't appease everyone promoting Cultural Judaism, as seen throughout the New Testament writings. Paul's vehement defense against the Judaizers who preached circumcision in his epistles is legendary (Galatians 5:12), and promotion of Gentile believers resulted in his imprisonment (Acts 21:27-29). Aside from speculation, the Judaizers motives are absent, and therefore potentially inconsequential, but seeing whether the desire for power or the desire to preserve fueled their beliefs would be enlightening.
Most modern-day Christians are indebted to the Acts 15 council decision, as Gentile believers (non-Hebrew lineage), for our inclusion in God's holy people through Christ's reconciliation. As Paul explains in Romans 11, we have been grafted from wild plants in and among the natural Jewish branches and therefore share the roots of Biblical Judaism. As a result, Christians and Jews still question what it truly means to be Jewish or the nation of Israel.
The council also gives us a case study to follow as history repeats itself with a similar conflict escalating between Cultural Christianity and Biblical Christianity. As more self-proclaiming Christians readily adopt syncretistic beliefs and practices promoted by the prevailing culture, what it means to be Christian has been called into question. In this ironic reversal, the compatibility of Christian identity markers, a sacrificially loving and morally upright life empowered by the Holy Spirit rooted in Judaism, is in sharp contrast with cultural expectations.
Whether or not a modern church council decision is looming, Acts 15 also reveals that Christ's Apostles established early on that the church has the authority to denounce and repudiate those who disregard the teachings of the Word of God.