The Jerusalem council (or conference) occurred c. 50 or 51 A.D. The reason for this meeting concerned a controversy in the church. Did gentiles need to be circumcised and keep the law (of Moses) to be saved? (Acts 15:1-5). Some Judean believers of the sect of the Pharisees were teaching that they did. Paul and Barnabas, who had recently completed what is commonly referred to as Paul’s First Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14), were in strong opposition to this. Acts 15 mentions three speeches. (1) Peter spoke (Acts 15:7-11). He reminded them that God had sent him to the gentiles (Cornelius’ house cf. Acts 10-11). Yet, he was not instructed to bind circumcision or the law of Moses on them. (2) Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:12). They spoke of how God had worked miracles and wonders by them among the gentiles. Yet, they were not instructed to bind circumcision or the law of Moses on the gentiles. (3) James spoke (Acts 15:13-21). He pointed out that the prophets of old spoke of gentile inclusion (e.g., Amos 9:11-12). Yet, it was not said that they had to first become circumcised and keep the law of Moses. However, he did point out four things that the gentiles should be taught to abstain from: (a) things polluted by idols; (b) sexual immorality; (c) things strangled; (d) blood. These are things which have been taught in every dispensation [Patriarchal – (1) idols (Gen. 35:2); (2) fornication (Gen. 38: 24; 39: 7-9; (3) blood (Gen. 9:4). Mosaic (1) idols (Exodus 20:3, 23); (2) fornication (Leviticus 20; Deuteronomy 22:13-ff); (3) blood (Leviticus 17:10-11; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23). Christian – (1) idols (1 Corinthians 5:11; 10:14; 1 John 5:21); (2) fornication (Galatians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 18; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Peter 4:3); (3) blood (Acts 15:20; 21:25)]. Why these things? James Burton Coffman comments, “These prohibitions do not imply that other sins of dishonesty and immorality were permitted.” Instead, this probably refers “to sins ‘which were so common among the gentiles that they were not even recognized as wrong until Christian teaching denounced them’” (Coffman Acts p. 299 quoting Orin Root).
The meeting concluded with the apostles, elders and the church united. A letter was written showing this unity. It was sent to the gentile brethren in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:22-29).
All of this is background to the real subject that I wish to address. Some today use Acts 15 to justify church councils, synods, and conventions to settle disputes and to set a uniform position for all the local churches. This is what I wish to address.
Consider these points: (1) It should be recognized that if Paul’s authority had been properly recognized, the meeting would have been unnecessary (cf. Galatians 1:1, 11-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). Paul’s teaching was from God. (2) It should be recognized that while it is true that the church at Antioch wanted Paul and Barnabas to take the issue to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-2), Paul actually went up by revelation (Galatians 2:1-2). God revealed to him that he should go up to this meeting. (3) The decision that was stated in the letter was made by the authority of the Holy Spirit and inspired men (Acts 15:28). (4) The decision did not come by a vote of uninspired men. There was unity expressed. The Holy Spirit and inspired men provided the statement. The record does not speak of the matter being decided by a majority vote. In fact, it does not speak of a vote.
Why did God instruct Paul to attend this meeting? I believe that the meeting provided the opportunity for a show of unity. Consider: (1) Those who taught that the gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses were claiming to be in agreement with (and authority from?) James and the apostles (Acts 15:23-24 cf. Galatians 2:11-12). Their claim was that Paul was the one teaching false doctrine. (2) The meeting demonstrated and declared that Paul was one with James and the apostles. James, Cephas, and John gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:9-10 cf. Acts 15:22-29).
What about today? There may be times when it is beneficial to meet with others and discuss doctrine. However, here are some things that should be understood: (1) Right and wrong is not determined by a vote (e.g., Exodus 23:2). (2) One local church has no authority over another local church (Acts 14:23 cf. 1 Peter 5:1-4). There is no direct statement, account of action, or implication which teaches otherwise.