One of the most amazing stories in the New Testament is the report of the so-called "Jerusalem Council" in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts, The early church leaders gathered to "conference together" (our modern United Methodist term) to discern God's will for a very perplexing issue. The Gospel had begun to spread beyond its Jewish roots to Gentiles, and in the first century world of Judaism that posed an incredibly difficult situation. So the early church leaders gathered in Jerusalem to listen to the reports from Paul and others about their Gentile missions, and then to come up with a plan to move forward.
Acts 15 provides for contemporary Christian leaders a wonderful model as we consider difficult issues - certainly a process for local congregations to use as they make major decisions (like preparing a vision statement, or deciding about building relocations or additions, or starting a new ministry to reach new people). Perhaps Acts 15 is even a way to deal with an issue like our United Methodist stance on sexuality and especially homosexuality. Here are some obvious principles reported from that Jerusalem Council (although it must be admitted that we do not have "minutes" from that meeting and we don't know with certainly how many hours or perhaps days it lasted):
- They focused upon reports of God's actions through the Holy Spirit. Their process seemed to revolve around a attempt to discern where God's Spirit was moving and working to change lives. Such a focus is a far cry from some contemporary efforts to focus upon people's "rights" or people's preconceptions about the "rights" of others. An Acts 15 process could even move us beyond our usual pattern of voting for our preferences, to move toward deciding based upon God's purposes.
- They looked for options to include persons (even Gentiles) without imposing the full weight of the Mosaic law upon them, apparently because the Jewish Christians had discovered the freedom of God's grace in the Gospel which overcame their own failures to obey perfectly the laws of Moses. Again, this Acts 15 model could be a corrective to the current pattern in which many Christians try to impose upon others the very rules and laws that they have failed to obey.
- They did impose certain levels of morality upon the new Gentile converts, so their decision to be "inclusive" was not any kind of blank check for every kind of behavior.
- They apparently left the Jerusalem Council in one accord. That is an important phrase in the New Testament. Being "of one accord" does not imply unanimity of opinion; it does indicate a willingness to agree to the decision made, and to move forward together to the mission of the Gospel.
Could Acts 15 happen again? Could our Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church call together a gathering, or perhaps many gatherings around the world, to seek God's guidance on the various difficult issues facing our United Methodist Church? It certainly seems that the General Conference is not a body which can become a Jerusalem Council, because operating in a legislative process has different purposes and processes. But could other places in the church became a modern-day experience of Acts 15? Certainly many local congregations could become places of such intense discernment. Perhaps some Annual Conferences could become a pilot project to attempt at Acts 15 model of conferencing together.
Could Acts 15 happen again? It is worth praying and considering the possibility. It would require a great deal of humility whereby each participant would come with an attitude of "I could be wrong" and "I am willing to hear what God is doing" and "I am earnestly seeking God's guidance." Could Acts 15 happen again? I hope so, because we need it.