Studying the Bible, Making a Tremendous Discovery. Acts 15:1-19. The Jerusalem Council.

In this passage two missionary problems assert themselves. First, Christians from the home church (in Jerusalem) hear worrisome news about the missionaries (in Antioch):

“We came to make our grievance known; the Antioch church is a ‘Torah-free zone.’

We regret the need to interfere, but truth must be restored! For this we have come here.”

Read Acts 15:1-19 here. It begins like this: “Then certain people came from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas sharply disputed with them. It was decided that Paul and Barnabas and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.”

Two problems that will be addressed and resolved in the Jerusalem Council:

  1. Missionaries (and mission agencies) must submit to regulation established by the larger church.
  2. The larger church, after establishing regulations, must concede to the missionaries their right to self-governance and self-management.

The Acts 15 narrative. Jewish believers came from Jerusalem to Antioch to confront a problem of no small urgency. (How far is Antioch from Jerusalem? Answer: 335 miles, a two-week journey on foot). What did they want to happen? The missionaries in Antioch—Paul and Barnabas—should instruct the Gentile believers to “start doing this” and “stop doing that.” It is still with us today. The home church wants to make sure that the first believers, especially from a Muslim background, are really Christians. The way to make sure, from their point of view, is to “require this and forbid that.” Fortunately, both sides agreed to take the matter to the church leaders in Jerusalem. After all points of view were considered, James will made a determination in favor of the missionaries.

Paul has already submitted to the leaders of Jerusalem and they have already examined him. Read that meeting in Galatians 2, here. (It is not clear whether the Galatians 2 meeting and the Acts 15 meeting are two meetings or different accounts of the same meeting. It does not matter for our purpose here. The outcome is the same in both accounts:

  1. Missionaries (and mission agencies) must submit to regulations established by the larger church.
  2. The larger church, after establishing regulations, must concede to the missionaries their right to self-governance.

In Galatians 2 Paul recounts how he went to Jerusalem and explained to the church leaders “the gospel that I preach to the Gentiles.” Paul submitted to their examination “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” Paul’s presentation a complete success; we know this because “Titus, who was with me (with Paul), was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.” Paul is a man under authority. Peter, James and John “recognized the grace that had been given to me, that I (Paul) had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter [had been entrusted] with the gospel for the circumcised.” Paul writes, “They gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” A good ending (read it here) and a precedent for the Jerusalem Council that is about to convene and settle the matter once for all.

The Jerusalem Council. “The apostles and the elders met together to consider the matter.” Apostles. They are not members of a local church; they establish churches. Apostles are not elders. Elders oversee congregations. Elders are not apostles. There are two structures of God’s redemptive mission, first the apostles and the apostolic bands of missionaries. God has given missionaries a special grace to establish churches among unreached peoples. Paul wrote, “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles” (Romans 1:5). Overseers in the church have another grace, the grace to shepherd the flock. So there are two dispensations, or allocations, of grace. First, the grace to go. This is the missionary grace. Second, the grace to shepherd the flock. The Holy Spirit gives missionaries the grace to go. Missionaries are not better than others, but they have special grace. Paul talked like that: “Though I am the least of all the saints, this grace has been given to me to bring to the Gentiles the fathomless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). Unfortunately, Christian seminary curriculum is completely devoted to the care of the church where the church already exists. Seminary prepares its graduates to shepherd the flock. God sends missionaries to unreached peoples. We need at least one course of study preparing missionaries to sell their possessions and go where God will show them, among unreached peoples, where the church will soon exist. This is why an extraordinary mission class such as “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” is needed.[1]

The heated discussion that started in Antioch now moves to Jerusalem. Mark Dever writes that New Testament churches “sent missionaries.” [2] Dever refers the reader to Acts 15:3. Here is the text:

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. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the gentiles and brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters. 

I leave it to the reader to decide whether sending missionaries to a conference in Jerusalem is the same as sending them to establish churches among unreached peoples. I have written twice to Mark Dever, asking for his help in this matter. I met him twice at conferences; we shook hands, but he said he has been too busy to talk. I understand. I hope that someone will ask him whether a church sending missionaries to a conference is the same as sending them to establish churches among unreached peoples. In my opinion the number of references in Acts which indicate that churches send missionaries to establish churches among unreached peoples is (Let me see: one, two three, four, five, six . . .) zero.

Application today. Paul and Barnabas have submitted their mission doctrines and practices to review by church leaders in Jerusalem. As in Galatians 2:1-10, so it was repeated in Acts 15: The examination results in Paul “passing the exam.” There is a precedent for us today: At the Jerusalem Council Church leaders regulated Paul, that is, they considered the charges made against Paul, dismissed the charges, and instructed him to continue to govern himself. The church gave Paul his own authority to carry on this mission work and make his own decisions “closest to the action.” Church leaders did not fully understand why Paul is allowing the Gentiles to live in a Torah-free zone. It is always like that: Church leaders do not fully understand the missionary way. Still, an agreement must be reached in this way:

  1. Missionaries should submit to examination by the church; if missionaries “pass the exam,” they depart to carry out the strange work of establishing churches among unreached peoples.
  2. It is strange work as viewed by the Christians in the home church, because missionaries are not requiring newly forming churches to conform the traditions and customs prized by the home church.
  3. The leaders of the church make a determination: “Let’s not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to faith.”

These three regulatory aspects occur twice in the New Testament: Paul and Barnabas submitted to Peter, James and John (Galatians 2) and to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem Acts 15).

Ralph D. Winter favored regulation of mission agencies by the organized church, because the organized church represents a far greater number of Christians. John Pellowe’s dissertation on the relationship between churches and mission agencies is helpful here.[3] Pellowe writes that Ralph Winter favored regulation of mission agencies by the organized church.[4] Winter believed self-governing mission agencies need to come under the regulation of an ecclesial body.[5] John Pellowe correctly understands that, for Ralph Winter, “Neither structure is more central than the other, although the church structure regulates the specialized structure, on the principle that the specialized reports to the more general.”[6]

Conclusion. Mission agencies have established two regulatory bodies, Missio Nexus and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountablity. Church leaders, it is important that your partnering mission submit to the oversight of these two regulating bodies.


[2] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, 9marks (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012). 8

[3] John Pellowe, “A Theological Understanding of the Place of Independent, Organized Ministry in Relation to the Institutional Church,” (Canadian Councl of Christian Charities, 2007).

[4] Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.”

[5] “The New Missions and the Mission of the Church.” 98-100

[6] John Pellowe, “A Practical Theology for Relations between Churches and Self-Governing Agencies,” (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2007). 80-81