Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 23, 1963

The Jerusalem Controversy

Ronald G. Mosby

There has been an attempt on the part of various brethren from time to time to make the Jerusalem controversy over circumcision (Acts 15) strictly a congregational matter, i.e., "a church fuss," and that any inspiration attached to the calling of such a meeting was purely coincidental. From such faulty reasoning brethren have looked to the 15th chapter of Acts as authority for elders of one congregation to invite elders preachers, and other Christians from other congregations in the city, and even from other states, into their assemblies either to take active part in the settling of some local problem or to act as witnesses to the procedures in the settling of the same.

Brethren, this is not right. This smacks with the very thing faithful brethren are trying to combat in the centralized control arrangements. But someone will say, "there is no formal congregational representation, or, the elders and preachers are not here as elders and preachers from local congregations." That's like saying, it's all right to support the Herald of Truth as long as it is kept strictly on a voluntary basis, thereby (kidding yourself) not surrendering any congregational independence. Brethren, when a congregation has a problem, let the elders and members of that congregation settle their own problem and let other Christians outside that congregation, be they preachers or elders, be they invited or uninvited, learn to mind their own business.

In consideration of the question as to whether Paul's journey to Jerusalem with Barnabas in Acts 15:2 is the same as recorded in Gal. 2, let us notice what the Bible says regarding this incident. First of all, that Paul was converted at Damascus, I believe there will be no argument. (Acts 9:18, 19) Secondly, from Damascus, Paul went to Arabia for an unknown period of time and then back to Damascus. He had not yet been to Jerusalem for the first time. (Gal. 1:17) Thirdly, three years after his conversion, including his time spent in Arabia which Luke does not record, Paul journeys to Jerusalem. The careful reader will note that Paul did not journey with Barnabas to Jerusalem this time because Barnabas was already there. (Acts 9:27) Generally speaking, Luke records that Paul was brought by Barnabas to the apostles. (Acts 9:27) Paul, more specifically, states that he saw only Peter and James the Lord's brother. (Gal. 1:19) Fourthly, Barnabas never went anywhere with Paul until he returned to Antioch with him after looking for him at Troas. (Acts 11:25, 26)

The first time Paul and Barnabas were together in Jerusalem (second trip for Paul) was during their return trip from Judea after having fulfilled their mission among the churches in that area. (Acts 12:25) Their stay at Jerusalem on this occasion must have been very brief due to the heavy persecution at that particular time. James, one of the apostles, had just been beheaded. Peter, the only other apostle around at the time, was in prison. In his book on the life and work of Paul, Farrar put the evidence very succinctly when he wrote: "In the two narratives the same people go up at the same time, from the same place, for the same object, in consequence of the same interference by the same agitators, and with the same results." The above evidence should be conclusive enough for any one that Galatians 2:1,2 and Acts 15 refer to one and the same incident.

It has been affirmed that the church at Antioch (Acts 15:2), acting independently from any command from the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:2), sent "Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them" to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders about this question, and, to help the Jerusalem church settle their local (church fuss) problem. In answer to this false assumption, let us remember that it is said of the same church (Antioch) at an earlier time that they sent them (Barnabas and Saul) away on their first journey together. (Acts 13:3) Yet, did they do so irrespective of the command of the Spirit? It would seem in both cases that the Antioch church merely concurred in the decision of the Spirit. Paul says himself that he went up by revelation. (Gal. 2:2) McGarvey writes: "This revelation requiring him to go was made because it was the divine purpose to settle the question at issue, not for the church in Antioch alone, but for all the world and for all time." (Commentary on Acts, Part Third, Page 58)

Brother Roy E. Cogdill, in his refutation of brother Woods' argument on Acts 15 in the Birmingham Debate, said: "Well, Acts 15:1-32 is not a pattern of the church sending help to anybody, so far as that part of it is concerned. Why the apostles rendered a decision in Acts 15. Paul consulted with them. He went up by revelation. The letter was written by James, an apostle. They called the elders of the church in and made known unto them, they concurred in the matter. The letter, written by James, an epistle was sent out unto all the churches. That's divine revelation, Guy. That's neither evangelism nor benevolence. You missed the point on both there. You don't have an example of either. There's a decree of the apostles of our Lord, dictated by the Holy Spirit of God, and he's trying to make that a matter of evangelism on the part of the church or benevolence. And he missed the point completely." (Cogdill - Woods Debate, page 217)

Again, in his commentary, Lightfoot personates the apostle Paul and says concerning his journey to Jerusalem with Barnabas: "And here again I acted not in obedience to any human adviser. A direct revelation from God prompted me to this journey." And again, he wrote: "What I did, I did not owning to circumstances, not as yielding to the pressure, not in deference to others, but because the Spirit of God told me it was right" (Commentary on Galatians, page 102,125)

Again, McGarvey states in his commentary: "In truth only three of the older apostles, as the sequel shows, took part in rendering the decision. (Gal. 2:9) In these two essential particulars the step taken by the Antioch church differs from all modern appeals from lower to higher ecclesiastical courts, and it furnishes no precedent for the latter."

If you ask a Methodist his authority for his Annual Methodist Conference, if you receive any answer at all from the scriptures, he would probably cite Acts 15. The same passage would probably be cited by all other denominations in an effort to justify such procedures. Even the seemingly innocent meetings of brethren on an inter-congregational basis, which ultimately resulted in the Missionary Society, would more than likely be justified, allegedly, by Acts 15. But again someone will cry, "the elders and Christians have not come as representatives of the congregations, and no decisions will be made at these meetings!" That may have been true at one time, but look back over the divided bloodstained battlefield of digression now!

It is a dangerous trend among brethren when elders of one congregation invite elders, preachers, and other Christians of other congregations into an open meeting where they (the inviting church) are reviewing and discussing their local business even though the outside visitors are not formal representatives of their own congregations and even though they do not take part in any decision that is made. Brethren, this is walking on dangerous ground. Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that it is wrong for elders to counsel with whomever they choose in order that their decisions might be the best possible. But what I am saying is this: There's quite a difference in counseling with someone privately about a matter or having a gospel preacher (or preachers) come in and preach on a particular subject, or to face some slick-tongued local preacher in debate, and in having local elders call an open meeting of every Christian in the city to come into their assembly to hear their local problem reviewed and discussed and (1) either to ask questions concerning it, or (2) to act as silent witnesses to all proceedings, thereby becoming a part of a majority pressure system (in addition to the word of God) to be used in settling the problem!

Brethren, let us get back to the congregational way of settling our local affairs according to the scriptures and quit trying to coordinate churches and preachers to back some local plea. Since congregational autonomy is practiced among churches of Christ out of respect for the silence of the scriptures, let us continue to respect the silence of the scriptures and quit trying to seek out passages in an effort to justify some idol we have already created in our own hearts.

— Valley Station, Kentucky