As the early Jewish Church began to reach non-Jewish people and they all took on the title, “Christians,” the Jewish Church had a big question to ask: “What of the 600+ Jewish laws did the non-Jewish Christians need to follow?” Such rules had long been identifying markers of the people of God, so it was the natural assumption of many that these non-Jewish Christians would have to follow them too.
But as the apostles watched the Holy Spirit save the non-Jewish people just as they were, they felt that making them follow Jewish laws wasn’t the point. Sure, these new Christians needed to carry moral markers that identified them as the people of God, but the point wasn’t for them to become culturally Jewish. God came to save all the nations in their diversity, not to make all the nations homogenous.
So the Church held a council meeting to decide what to about this predicament. What Jewish rules were essential for the non-Jewish Christians to follow and which ones weren’t? Would they chisel it down from 600 to 500? Could they possibly knock it down to 50% and just pass along 300?
They actually brought it down to a bare minimum. The church chose to go with a whopping 4 guidelines: (1) Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols; (2) Abstain from blood; (3) Abstain from what has been strangled; (4) Abstain from sexual immorality.
Scholars often debate as to why they chose these four rules. Some say that these were necessary for the Jewish Christians to feel like like they weren’t violating their own rules when meeting with non-Jewish Christians. Others say that these were always the rules expected of the non-Jews that lived among the Jews in Old Testament times. Still others say that the Jews believed that these were the rules placed upon all humanity during the time of Noah, so they were universal. The list of proposals goes on.
When we evangelize the nations, we need to understand that we are walking into places where the culture is not our own. Evangelism isn’t about forcing people into our culture (something white evangelism is notorious for doing), it’s about inviting the nations to make Jesus king of their culture. When this happens, some pieces of their culture will continue and some pieces will fall away and it will often take time for them to figure that out. For example, there’s a story of some missionaries that reached a tribe that had a long-held ritual where the body was mutilated. The missionaries wanted it to stop, but they knew if they burst that bubble right after evangelizing them, the tribe wouldn’t listen. So they instead helped them do their ritual more safely and humanely until one day the tribe was convicted that their ritual didn’t match Jesus, and they stopped.
There are surely more rules than four to follow if we want to be good Christians, and some of those rules are just obvious. Indeed, Paul was once very upset with a man for committing a sin that even pagans wouldn’t commit. But when it comes to culture, we must allow the Spirit to lead us to graciously understand how the Church is to shine in all her diversity.
*This devotional was created out of the themes of Acts 15:22-35 found in today’s reading at CommonPrayer.net.