By Charles H. Welch
If this were a ‘doctrinal’ and not a ‘dispensational’ analysis we should have to give serious attention to the Calvinistic doctrine of ‘The decrees’ which find a place in the Westminster Confession thus:
We must take cognizance of the great and glorious fact of Divine purpose, but this will be considered under the
headings ELECTION, ELECTION 6 , & PREDESTINATION . The matter before us is simpler and deals with
decrees published by the early Church and which has a bearing upon the constitution of the one Body of Ephesians.
The Greek word translated ‘decree’ is dogma, with which we can couple the verb dogmatizomai. There are six
occurrences in all, which we will set out before going further.
Before we can hope to deal with these passages with any clearness it will be necessary to rid our minds of the secondary and more modern meaning that is associated in common speech with the words ‘dogma’ and ‘dogmatic’. Such expressions as ‘a tenet or doctrine sometimes held deprecatingly, an arrogant declaration of opinion’, ‘He wrote against dogmas with a spirit perfectly dogmatic’ (Dr. Israeli). ‘A way of thinking built upon principles, which have not been tested by reflection’. ‘Where there is most doubt, there is often most dogmatism’ (Prescott). The growth of this popular meaning is a sad reflection upon human nature. Whenever we become convinced of the truth or importance of any subject we are prone to become ‘dogmatic’, i.e. to assert with self-opinionated zeal and authority that which after all may rest upon the slender basis of a private opinion.
This, however, is not the meaning of dogma and dogmatizo as employed in the New Testament. The ‘decree’ of Caesar that commanded all the world to enrol for taxation was a dogma, but not in the modern secondary sense. The ‘decrees of Caesar’ cited by the Jews as a pretext for the punishment of the believers in Thessalonica were known as the Julian Laws, and by them ‘whoever violated the majesty of the State was declared a traitor’, and these ‘decrees’ are called dogmas also. The remaining occurrences refer to the decrees issued by the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and to certain ‘ordinances’ which contained an element of ‘enmity’ and which were dissolved at the change of dispensation when ‘the both’ were created ‘one new man’. On three occasions when the apostle spoke of ‘opened doors’ for service, we discover that enemies of the truth were close at hand (1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3).
At the close of Acts 14 and as a result of his first missionary journey, the Church at Antioch learned with some
measure of surprise, that God had ‘opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles’ (Acts 14:27). This is immediately
followed by the controversy of Acts 15, which issued in those temporary placating measures called ‘the decrees’ in
Acts 16:4. Acts 15:1-35 is a complete section. Its place in the structure of the Acts as a whole can be seen in The
Berean Expositor, Vol. 27, page 149, where it is in correspondence with Paul’s first missionary journey. The
following extract will be sufficient for our present purpose.
Acts 13:4 to 15:35
A 13:4 to 14:28.
Acts 15 falls into two main sections.
Peter’s argument was unanswerable. The law as a means of salvation was obsolete. The Jews themselves, who had the law by nature, were saved by grace, through faith. The emphasis on there being ‘no difference’ - the central feature of the structure - must have rejoiced the heart of the apostle of the Gentiles (see Rom. 3:22; 10:12).
This noble testimony to salvation by grace coming from the leading apostle of the Circumcision, silenced the disputants and prepared an audience for Barnabas and Paul. It should be noticed that the order in naming these apostles changes in the narrative. While they are at Antioch it is ‘Paul and Barnabas’, but when they arrive at Jerusalem, the order is reversed. This reversed order is maintained in the actual letter drafted by the council, but it should be noted that where Luke is recording the facts himself, he reverts to the old order (Acts 15:22). It seems clear that Barnabas spoke first:
The obvious parallel between the miracles and experiences of Peter and of Paul would not fail to make an
impression. For example:
To the Jew, confirmation by miracle would be a stronger argument than almost anything else, and it would seem, judging from the interval of silence that followed ‘after they had held their peace’ (Acts 15:13), that the multitude as a whole were convinced.
From Galatians 2 we gather that the apostle, knowing only too well how easily a multitude can be swayed, and knowing that there were false brethren secretly at work, communicated the gospel which he preached among the Gentiles privately to them that were of reputation. Peter, James and John, therefore, were convinced that Paul’s apostleship and gospel were of the Lord, and took their stand for the truth at the public gathering.
We must now pass on to the testimony of James, and before examining his words in detail, we give the structure
of the passage.
C 15:13-21. Men and Brethren. f James ... me.
James takes up the claim made by Peter - calling him by his Hebrew name Simeon - and, directing his argument to those who revered the Old Testament writings, draws attention to a passage from one of the prophets:
It should be noted that James does not say: ‘This fulfils what is written by the prophet’, he simply says: ‘To this agree the words of the prophets’. The word translated ‘agree’ is sumphoneo, which gives us the word ‘symphony’ and as a noun is translated ‘music’ in Luke 15:25.
We could therefore interpret James’ meaning as follows:
The fact that James could give such hearty support to the position taken by Paul and subsequently by Peter, was a shattering blow to the Judaizing party in the Jerusalem Church. A little man might have been content with this victory and have ignored the susceptibilities of the Jewish believers. Not so, however, the apostle James. He realizes the feelings of shock and abhorrence which would almost inevitably result from the Jewish Christian coming into contact with the revolting customs of the Gentiles, and he therefore gives a double sentence:
In the body of the letter sent to the Gentiles it is categorically stated that such teaching was a ‘subverting of souls’ and that no such commandment had been given by the leaders at Jerusalem (Acts 15:24).
Three of these items we can readily understand as being offensive to a Jewish believer, though inoffensive to a Gentile. One, however, is a grossly immoral act and cannot be classed as in the same category. The reason for its inclusion here is not that James meant for a moment to suggest that sexual immorality was a matter of indifference, but rather that, knowing how the Gentile throughout his unregenerate days looked upon this sin as of no consequence, James realized that he was likely, even after conversion, to offend by taking too lenient a view. This is brought out most vividly in 1 Corinthians, an epistle that deals with the application of the decrees sent from Jerusalem, and which we must examine before this study is complete.
James follows his counsel of abstinence by a reference to Moses:
His meaning appears to be that there was no need to fear that, by reducing the appeal to only four points, the scruples of the more rigid Jewish believer would be invaded. Moses was preached every Sabbath day in the synagogue, and the synagogue was the nursery of the Church. If we will but put ourselves in the position of the early Church we shall see the wisdom of this decision. The coming into the synagogue of men whose practices filled the body of the people with horror, would be a serious hindrance to the advance of the gospel. It might even mean the destroying, for the sake of ‘meat’, of one for whom Christ died. We shall see presently that Paul’s spiritual application of the decrees of Jerusalem went much further than James’ four items. He would not eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that would cause his brother to stumble.
Such, then, was the two-fold decision of the Church at Jerusalem, a decision which, taking the state of the affairs at that time into account, must commend itself to all who have any sympathy with the teaching of the apostle Paul. Such a state of affairs was not ideal, and could not last. It was, as the decrees put it, a question of imposing ‘no greater burden than these necessary things’ - much in the same way as the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 enjoined abstinence ‘because of the present distress’ (1 Cor. 7:26).
The assembled Church, together with the apostles and elders, agree with one accord to the appeals of Peter and James, and their decision is recorded in a letter sent by the hands of Barnabas, Paul, Silas and Judas. This letter is of intense interest, not only on account of its teaching, but also because it is the earliest Church letter in existence. Let us take it out of its setting for the moment and look at it as a letter, complete in itself.
Such is the letter itself. Its inter-relation with the context is best seen by expanding the structure of this section as
B 15:22-29. Antioch, Syria n IT SEEMED GOOD.
Three times ‘it seemed good’ occurs. First, ‘it seemed good to the apostles and elders, and the whole church’. Secondly, ‘it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord’. And thirdly, ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us’. To break this threefold cord, the whole Church, with the apostles and elders, together with Barnabas and Paul, and Silas and Judas, as well as the Holy Spirit Himself, would have to be regarded as in the wrong. Any system of interpretation necessitating such an assumption is self-condemned.
We must now return for a moment to the word dogma. This word is derived from the Greek dokeo ‘to think’, but which does not refer to that process of reflection and ratiocination which is the characteristic of reasoning, thinking, perception and analysis, for dokeo originally means ‘to seem’, and so can indicate an opinion ‘which may be right’ (John 5:39; Acts 15:28; 1 Cor. 4:9; 7:40), but which may be wrong (Matt. 6:7; Mark 6:49; John 16:2). It will be seen that the structure throws into prominence the words IT SEEMED GOOD, and the third couples together ‘The Holy Ghost and us’.
We now turn to Paul’s application of these decrees, as we find it in his first epistle to the Corinthians. In chapters 5 to 7 the apostle reproves the Church with regard to fornication, while in chapters 8 and 10 he deals with the question of meats offered to idols. It will obviously be profitable to consider the apostle’s own interpretation of the Jerusalem ordinances as revealed in these chapters.
It appears that the Corinthian conception of morality allowed a man to ‘have his father’s wife’, and not only so, but the offence was made a matter of boasting. The apostle had already written to this Church, commanding them not to company with men guilty of such offences, but they had misunderstood him. He takes the opportunity now of correcting the misunderstanding by saying in effect:
He clinches his exhortation by showing that the sin of immorality is a sin against a man’s own body, and that body, if redeemed, should be regarded as a temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 6:13-20).
In 1 Corinthians 7 the apostle deals with the question of marriage, and explains that ‘for the present necessity’ it would be as well for all to remain unmarried. But these statements were not to be taken as commandments for all time, nor even for all believers at that time. It was a counsel of abstinence, because the Lord’s coming and the dreadful prelude of the Day of the Lord were still before the Church. With the passing of Israel a change came, and the apostle later encouraged marriage, as we find in his Prison Epistles. The fact that Ephesians 5 sets aside 1 Corinthians 7 does not make 1 Corinthians 7 untrue for the time in which it was written - any more than the setting aside of the decrees of Acts 15 makes Acts 15 a compromise or a mistake. Each must be judged according to the dispensation that obtained at the time. The dispensation of the Mystery had not yet dawned either in Acts 15 or 1 Corinthians 7.
With regard to the pollution of meat offered to idols, the apostle agrees that, strictly speaking, ‘an idol is nothing in the world’ (1 Cor. 8:4) - and therefore one might say: Why should I refuse good food, simply because someone who is ignorant and superstitious thinks that its having been offered to a block of wood or stone has polluted it? This is true, rejoins the apostle in effect, but ‘take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours becomes a stumbling-block to them that are weak’. The thing that must be uppermost in the mind, is not the safeguarding of our own so-called liberties, but the safeguarding of the weaker brother for whom Christ died. To achieve this, the apostle is willing to go much further than ‘the four necessary things’ of the Jerusalem decrees. In 1 Corinthians 8:13 he writes:
A further interpretation of the spirit of the decrees is found in Chapter 10:
If we can but keep in mind those words, ‘not thine own’, we shall have no difficulty in understanding the principles involved in the decrees of Acts 15. Those who condemn Acts 15, should, if consistent, more strongly condemn the apostle Paul.
If man has failed under the law of Sinai, it is not surprising to find that he fails many times under grace. The moderate request that the Gentiles should abstain from the ‘four necessary things’, while the Jewish believers had ‘Moses preached in the synagogue every Sabbath day’ would lead, in time, wherever the flesh became prominent, to a line of demarcation between the Churches of Jud -a and those of the Gentiles. This gradually grew to become ‘a middle wall of partition’, a division that could not be permitted in the Church of the one Body. The one Body was not, however, in view in Acts 15. Only those things known of the Lord ‘since the age’, only those things that harmonized with the Old Testament prophecies were in operation in Acts 15, and nowhere throughout the Acts is there a hint that a Jew ceased from being a Jew when he became a Christian. On the contrary, he became the better Jew, for he was believing the testimony of the law and the prophets. Even justification by faith, as preached by Paul, was to be found in the law and the prophets and was, therefore, not part of a mystery or secret purpose.
We have, therefore, in Acts 15 two vastly different themes. One is eternally true, and independent of dispensational changes. The other is relatively true, but to be set aside when that which is perfect has come. The former is doctrinal truth, the latter the practical manifestation of graciousness and love.
Returning to Acts 15 we come to the conclusion of the matter.
A 5:30-35. ANTIOCH. a Apoluo. Dismissed.
It was inevitable, human nature being what it is, that two systems of Christian practice, involving questions of sanctification, clean and unclean observances, compelling often Jewish believers to sit at separate tables from Gentile believers, should erect a ‘middle wall’ between them, and create an ‘enmity’ which could not be allowed, when the dispensation of the Mystery, the creation of ‘the both’ into one new man was ushered in with Paul’s prison ministry. It is to this ‘decree’ of Acts 15, that Paul refers in Ephesians 2:15, under the figure of the middle wall of partition, and it is to this decree to which he refers in the parallel epistle to the Colossians:
The greater must include the lesser. If the believer be dead to the rudiments of the world, he must also be dead to any fleshly distinction, however much it may have been right to ‘lay upon’ the Gentile believer ‘no greater burden than these necessary things’. For the meaning of ‘the middle wall of partition’, see the article entitled MIDDLE WALL for the bearing both of the middle wall and of the decrees of Acts 15 on the subsequent teaching of the Mystery, see also, articles entitled BOTH, RECONCILIATION, ACCESS, ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, BAPTISM, and LORD’S SUPPER.