Why Debating is a Biblical Mandate

IMHO, Acts 15 is the 2nd most important chapter in the book thus far. It gives us a brief overview of the first great debate for the people of “The Way”. At issue: was circumcision a requirement for salvation (v5)? There are several parts about The Great Debate (or “The Jerusalem Council” as it’s more commonly called) that strike me as intriguing:

  • v5. It was the “Pharisees who believed” that rose up saying that these Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Laws of Moses.
    We tend to notice the “Pharisees” part – but are we equally quick to note that they were also “believers”? (not everyone in our BSF leader’s group caught that part). So the question is – what did they believe? What did they *not* believe? And, of course more importantly, what did they *refuse* to believe? More on that later.
  • v6. The apostles and elders gathered to consider the matter.
    Why didn’t the apostles just issue a decree giving their opinion and ending it right there? Why even bother to discuss it? In this passage, we don’t see that the apostles had any difference of opinion – only the Pharisees that believed. (In Gal, we see Peter being hypocritical about it and Paul needing to publicly withstand him to his face [possibly at this council], but in Acts 15, everything he says is spot-on, and even in his Gal 2 hypocrisy, he knows what’s right and what’s wrong) So why even open it up for discussion? Why didn’t the apostles simply say “Thus saith the Lord – get over it. Circumcision isn’t a requirement.” Do our churches open up for discussion things that non-leaders believe? Should we?
  • v7ff. Peter affirms from direct observation and personal experience the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gentiles w/o their needing to be circumcised (ie, Cornelius and his family speaking in tongues). James follows up and concludes the matter by pointing to the OT to say Gentiles will get salvation (he quotes Amos, but there are TONS of passages saying that salvation will come to the Gentiles – even in Gen 12 and God’s covenant with Abe). ..but if all this is good and nice and they’re not required to keep the Mosaic Laws, why does James stipulate that Gentiles should
    a) abstain from things polluted by idols
    b) abstain from sexual immorality?  But what about greed? lying? stealing? covetousness? – the rest of the Ten Commandments?
    c) abstain from blood/animals strangled? It can’t be for sanitary reasons because the Levitical code had tons more on sanitary issues that are skipped here (eg, infectious diseases, etc)
  • And if the moral of the story is that circumcision isn’t required, why does Paul, in the very next chapter, circumcise Timothy – one of his converts who lived in Lystra, a city where Judiazers plagued Paul by demanding that these Gentiles be circumcised? Is Peter a hypocrite for eating, but Paul is not for clipping?

The fact that we debate is paramount! In its proper use, it’s not just a vetting of personal opinions, it is the method by which God’s people wrangle over God’s Word in order to better ascertain what God’s Spirit is teaching us. As with the issue of circumcision and *any* other relevant doctrine, the nature and reason for healthy debates is truly spiritual life or death. It’s that serious!
– if we believe correctly, we are saved.
– if we believe incorrectly, we will quench the Holy Spirit …and despite what we may think, we may not even be saved! We should always pray for correction in ourselves and others.
– if we refuse to believe correctly and refuse to be corrected, we most certainly are NOT saved!

That last line may sound extreme, but look at the extreme things Paul said about those who refused to lay aside the Mosaic Laws and demanded that these Gentile believers be circumcised:

  • As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:9, ESV). “Accursed” is not just a naughty 4-letter word to be corrected by washing out one’s mouth, nor is it merely a recommendation for church discipline. Paul means in no uncertain terms for them to experience the Judgment of Christ and go to hell! Not just their teachings, but them personally. See 1 Cor 16:22.
  • I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:12, ESV) He’s saying that those people who are still demanding the ‘snip’ should go ahead and cut their whole dang thang off! Can you imagine that coming from our pulpits today?

Here’s where I have to challenge myself: If we did not have Paul’s over-the-top warnings on this, would we just simply say “Those silly Judiazers! There they go again. But they’re still brothers!! After all, they believe just like we do, so that means they’re saved! They just also believe in keeping the Mosaic Covenant while we don’t. But we’re still brothers in the Lord, so let’s all get along peacefully.” I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us in Christendom would welcome them as brothers with a slightly different set of “distinctives” and not as enemies of the Gospel.

Yet Paul considered them accursed.

We need to be careful how we understand these doctrines (not just circumcision, but other “doctrines of demons” 1 Tim 4:1-5), teach them well, and make sure we apply them with the zeal that the Bible demands.

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