Today’s First Reading from Acts 15 touches on the background and the results of the Church’s very first ecumenical (Church-wide) council, held in Jerusalem about 50 A.D. This gathering of apostles and presbyters solved a vexing problem for the early Church and set a precedent for future councils.
First, we need to understand the issue behind the council. Certain Jews who had embraced the faith of Christ were hesitant to let go of their previous customs, to the point that they wished to impose them on others. These Judaizers taught that in order to be saved, a man had to be circumcised according to the Jewish practice. This purported doctrine was severely disturbing to other Christians, especially the Gentiles who were beginning to join the Church. They were understandably hesitant about adopting Jewish ways, particularly circumcision, and confused about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, between the Law and the grace of Christ.
The Christians in Antioch decided to take action. They sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to present the issue to the larger Church and receive some advice about how to handle the situation. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the apostles and presbyters of the Jerusalem Church welcomed them and listened to their testimony about the conversion of the Gentiles. Hearing this, some Christians who were also Pharisees (and therefore tended to be quite strict and rather legalistic) spoke up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
Something clearly had to be done to sort out this dilemma, to circumcise or not to circumcise, so the apostles and presbyters met in council to discuss the problem and come to a decision under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They debated for a long time. What was the role of the Law in this new era of grace? How much of it should be enforced and with whom? Was circumcision necessary for Gentiles? How about Jewish dietary laws? How was Christianity different from Judaism? How would the Church respond to Christian believers who had never been Jews?
Finally, Peter got up. Now here was an authority figure. After all, Jesus had once told Peter, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Peter was Jesus’ chosen vicar, His representative on earth, the keeper of the keys.
Peter had already dealt with the issue of the Gentiles. A while back, he had received a vision of unclean animals and heard a voice telling him to kill and eat them, something impossible for a devout Jew. At Peter’s protest, the voice had continued, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This vision and instruction was repeated three times. By then, Peter had gotten the message. The Gentiles were welcome into God’s Kingdom. They were not unclean. God had made them clean, and they were equal to the Jewish believers. Shortly afterward, Peter was summoned to the home of the centurion Cornelius, who with his family, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, much to the dismay of the circumcised believers who were with Peter. Peter, seeing God at work, baptized the whole household. He stayed with them and ate with them, letting go of Jewish customs that would have kept him from such activities. Further, he did not insist upon circumcision. The gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism were enough for Peter to know that Cornelius and his family had been saved by the grace of Christ. Nothing more was necessary. As Peter said, “...who was I to be able to hinder God?” (See Acts 10-11.)
Now, at the council, Peter reminded the others of this incident. He said, “And God, Who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as He did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith He purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
The debate ended right there. Peter had spoken. That was enough. Paul and Barnabas reinforced his words with more stories about the signs and wonders God was working among the Gentiles, but the decision had been made.
James stood up to speak. As the Bishop of Jerusalem, he presented the final decision to the council. He began by quoting Scripture, reminding the others that God had promised to draw the Gentiles to Him. Then he gave the council’s ruling: “...we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.” Essentially, then, the Gentiles were excused from Jewish practices like circumcision and dietary laws. The moral laws would still apply to them, of course, and they would have to take special care to avoid idolatry and immoral sexual practices, to which the Gentiles of the age were especially prone.
The council decided to promulgate its decision by both word of mouth and by a letter, which we hear in today’s reading. Writing directly to the Gentile Christians, the council emphasized that their decision was not made merely by men. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us,” they wrote, “not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities...” The letter then went on to list the four provisions James had laid out earlier: abstinence from meat sacrificed to idols, blood, the meat of strangled animals, and unlawful marriage. “If you keep free from these,” the council concluded, “you will be doing what is right.”
The Christians were “delighted” by the decision. The Holy Spirit was clearly working in the Church, helping the leaders make decisions according to the will of God, and the apostles and presbyters were open and willing to follow that Spirit, Who spoke through Peter, Christ’s vicar. The problem was solved. The Church was internally at peace.
There have been twenty-one other ecumenical councils over the nearly two thousand years of Church history, the most recent being the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Each council has gathered together bishops and priests from all over the world to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. Guided by the Holy Spirit and led by the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, they have made decisions, clarified doctrine, and presented the depth and richness of the Catholic faith.
For more information on the ecumenical councils, see New Advent (http://www.newadvent.org/library/almanac_14388a.htm); Catholic Online (http://www.catholic.org/prayers/councils.php); or Catholicism.org (http://catholicism.org/the-ecumenical-councils-of-the-catholic-church.html).