Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15)
An example of the radical reorienting of social interactions in the Christian community arises during a deep dispute about whether Gentile Christians must adopt Jewish laws and customs. In hierarchical Roman society, the patron of a social organization would dictate the decision to his followers, perhaps after listening to various opinions. But in the Christian community, important decisions are made by the group as whole, relying on their equal access to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The dispute actually begins in chapter 11. Peter experiences a surprising revelation that God is offering “the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) to Gentiles without requiring them to become Jews first. But when he travels to Jerusalem in the company of some uncircumcised (Gentile) men, some of the Christians there complain that he is violating Jewish law (Acts 11:1-2). When challenged in this way, Peter does not become angry, does not attempt to lord it over the men by reminding them of his leading position among Jesus’ disciples, does not denigrate their opinions, and does not impugn their motives. Instead, he tells the story of what happened to lead him to this conclusion and how he sees God’s hand in it, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Notice that he portrays himself not as wise, nor morally superior, but as one who was on the verge of making a serious mistake until corrected by God.
Then he leaves it to his challengers to respond. Having heard Peter’s experience, they do not react defensively, do not challenge Peter’s authority in the name of James (the Lord’s brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church), and do not accuse Peter of exceeding his authority. Instead, they too look for God’s hand at work and reach the same conclusion as Peter. What began as a confrontation ends with fellowship and praise. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God” (Acts 11:18). We can’t expect every dispute to be resolved so amicably, but we can see that when people acknowledge and explore the grace of God in one another’s lives, there is every reason to hope for a mutually upbuilding outcome.
Peter departs Jerusalem in concord with his former antagonists, but there remain others in Judea who are teaching that Gentiles must first convert to Judaism. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses,” they say, “you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch at the time, and they, like Peter, have experienced God’s grace to the Gentiles without any need for conversion to Judaism. The text tells us that the division was serious, but a mutual decision was made to seek the wisdom of the Christian community as a whole. “After Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2).
They arrive in Jerusalem and are greeted warmly by the apostles and elders (Acts 15:4). Those who hold the opposite opinion—that Gentiles must first convert to Judaism—are also present (Acts 15:5). They all decide to meet to consider the matter and engage in a lively debate (Acts 15:6). Then Peter, who is of course among the apostles in Jerusalem, repeats the story of how God revealed to him his grace for the Gentiles without the need to convert to Judaism (Acts 15:7). Paul and Barnabas report their similar experiences, also focusing on what God is doing rather than claiming any superior wisdom or authority (Acts 15:12). All the speakers receive a respectful hearing. Then the group considers what each has said in the light of Scripture (Acts 15:15-17). James, functioning as the head of the church in Jerusalem, proposes a resolution. “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19–20).
If James were exercising authority like a Roman patron, that would be the end of the matter. His status alone would decide the issue. But this is not how the decision unfolds in the Christian community. The community does accept his decision, but as a matter of agreement, not command. Not only James, but all the leaders—in fact, the entire church—have a say in the decision. “The apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided …” (Acts 15:22). And when they send word to the Gentile churches of their decision “to impose on you no further burden” (Acts 15:28b), they do so in the name of the whole body, not the name of James as patron. “We have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you” (Acts 15:25). Moreover, they claim no personal authority, but only that they have tried to be obedient to the Holy Spirit. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28a). The word seem indicates a humility about their decision, underscoring that they have renounced the Roman patronage system with its claims of power, prestige, and status.
Before we leave this episode, let us notice one more element of it. The leaders in Jerusalem show remarkable deference to the experience of workers in the field—Peter, Paul, and Barnabas—working on their own far from headquarters, each facing a particular situation that required a practical decision. The leaders in Jerusalem highly respect their experience and judgment. They communicate carefully about the principles that should guide decisions (Acts 15:19-21), but they delegate decision making to those closest to the action, and they confirm the decisions made by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas in the field. Again, this is a radical departure from the Roman patronage system, which concentrated power and authority in the hands of the patron.
The beneficial effects of the practice of uniform education about mission, principles, and values combined with localized delegation of decision making and action are well known because of their widespread adoption by business, military, educational, nonprofit, and government institutions in the second half of the twentieth century. The management of virtually every type of organization has been radically transformed by it. The resulting unleashing of human creativity, productivity, and service would be no surprise to the leaders of the early church, who experienced the same explosion in the rapid expansion of the church in the apostolic age.
However, it is not clear that churches today have fully adopted this lesson with respect to economic activity. For example, Christians working in developing countries often complain that they are hampered by the rigid stances of churches far away in the developed world. Well-meaning boycotts, fair-trade rules, and other pressure tactics may have the opposite consequences of what was intended. For example, an economic development missionary in Bangladesh reported about negative results of the imposition of child labor restrictions by his sponsoring organization in the United States. A company he was helping develop was required to stop buying materials that were produced using workers under sixteen years old. One of their suppliers was a company consisting of two teenaged brothers. Because of the new restrictions, the company had to stop buying parts from the brothers, which left their family without any source of income. So their mother had to return to prostitution, which made things much worse for the mother, the brothers, and the rest of the family. “What we need from the church in the U.S. is fellowship that is not oppressive,” the missionary later said. “Having to comply with well-intentioned Western Christian dictates means we have to hurt people in our country.”
Name of source withheld at his request due to security concerns. Notes taken by William Messenger at the Theology of Work Project conference, Hong Kong, July 29, 2010.