Acts 15, which presents the proceedings of what has become known as the Council of Jerusalem, that apostolic gathering which became the paradigm for future church councils, is considered to be the central passage in the New Testament to an understanding of how the apostles viewed the continued relevance, or irrelevance, of the Law to the life of the church. A group of pharisees who had become embraced Jesus as the Messiah were putting forth the argument that the Gentiles who were by that time entering into the nascent Christian church should be subject to not just the Old Testament Law, but to their pharisaic interpretation thereof. The gathered apostles, prominently Ss. Paul, Peter, and James, found against this party, and issued a letter in which only four broad commandments were to be applied to the new Gentile believers. This event, and the passage which described it, has become a rhetorical tool for arguments of all kind that wish to marginalize Old Testament texts of all kinds, in particular, in recent times, regarding human sexuality. We are told that the Council of Jerusalem decided that ‘the Law doesn’t apply any more’ for Christians.
First of all, context is necessary. The apostles were in agreement that Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel was the result of an act of God in the Holy Spirit, they affirm as much in their statements in this chapter, and that that act was prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures. St. James quotes here from Amos, but the inclusion of the Gentiles is prophesied throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, beginning with the prophecy regarding Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth in Genesis. It is, for example, a major theme in Isaiah, as in 56:3-7, 58:6-12, 60:1-3, and 66:18-23. In addition to all that they had already seen fulfilled in Christ, the apostles were now seeing these prophecies fulfilled in their time as well. So the question facing the apostles, given that these events were described in scripture, was to determine how scripture had characterized these events. Specifically, did the Gentiles coming to worship Israel’s God mean that all of these people would become Israelites. That idea is not without precedent in the Old Testament scriptures, as prominent figures like Caleb, Rahab, and Ruth all came from outside the people of Israel but ended their lives as Israelites.
In order to understand the apostles understanding of the Law in this case, it is perhaps best to begin with the four commandments issued by this council as applying to the entire Christian community, whether Jew or Gentile. Often when Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem are referenced rhetorically, these commandments are ignored, considered quaint, or otherwise not seriously considered. After all, it is said, two of them, concerning blood and meat with blood in it, are ignored by contemporary Christians, and they argue that St. Paul waffled on food offered to idols (he didn’t, but that is a topic for another time). This leaves for them only the fourth of the commands, sexual immorality, which they then see as suitably vague and malleable. These four commandments, however, are not arbitrary, cultural, or selected without particular reason.
Leviticus 17-26 is often referred to as the “Holiness Code”. It represents a series of commandments, directed to the forming nation of Israel, that if kept will allow the people of Israel to continue to dwell in their new land rather than being vomited out of it like the Canaanites before them. These sections of commandments are, for the most part, prefaced with the Lord telling Moses to ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying…’ These are commandments for the people of Israel, the keeping of which will separate and distinguish them from every other nation on earth. The Israelites are never commanded to enforce these commandments on the other nations of the world. Rather, by keeping them, they are to serve as a light to the other nations, which will draw them to also worship Israel’s God. And so, the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 are never applied to those who are not Israelites, nor the laws concerning childbirth in Leviticus 12.
There are, however, a few passages within the Holiness Code which reflect something different. The eating of blood is discussed within the context of sacrificial regulations, and therefore within a context of pagan worship in Leviticus 17. When the eating of blood, or meat with blood in it, is discussed in verses 10-14, the commandment is given to the house of Israel, and to the foreigners who dwell among them. Anyone from either group who violates the commandment will be cut off. There is no prohibition in Leviticus 11 of foreigners eating unclean animals, but there is here a strict command against those foreigners eating blood. Likewise, Leviticus 18 gives a variety of commandments regarding human sexuality. At its culmination, these commandments are again applied to everyone of the Israelite nation, and to foreigners who dwell among them. Further, the reason for this extension of the commandment is given that sexual immorality defiles the land itself, and therefore the land will vomit them out if this sin is tolerated within it (v. 26-28). Again in chapter 20, regarding idolatry in general and Molech in particular, the commandment is given to the sons of Israel, and the foreigners who dwell with them (v.2-5). Within Leviticus, these four commandments are singled out as applying not only to Israelites, but also to anyone who is going to dwell among them.
After reading Leviticus closely, we can see that the apostles were doing the exact opposite of saying that the Law doesn’t apply to Christians. Rather, they were proclaiming that a very close reading of the Law will be the basis for the formation of the church community just as it was the basis for the formation of the nation of Israel. The Gentiles who come to worship Christ do not become a part of the Jewish nation. They remain Greeks or Romans or Egyptians or Syrians. But in order to dwell with God’s people and not draw the wrath of God down upon the community, they must refrain from all idolatry and sexual immorality. Further, the close reading here means that what is meant by sexual immorality in this apostolic proclamation is not vague or subject to interpretation, but is laid out in some detail in the book of Leviticus. St. James does not feel the need to elaborate further because, as he says after listing these commands, the Law has been proclaimed in every city of the world, and so the Gentiles who receive his letter will know and understand what this entails (Acts 15:21).
The core of this understanding, that idolatry and sexual immorality in particular cannot be tolerated within the Christian community, can be seen in the practice of the Christian communities throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. It lies behind the emphasis on virginity and the withdrawal from pagan public life in the early persecuted church. It lies behind St. Constantine’s dismantling of the public sacrificial system as one of his first acts after his conversion. It lies behind the de-paganization of the empire begun under Theodosius. It lies behind the prohibitions of sexual immorality in St. Justinian’s Nomocanon, which explicitly uses the language of the land vomiting out the people if it is defiled by these sins.
Far from proclaiming that the Law no longer applies to Christians, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 directly, strictly, and literally applies the Law to the life of the Christian church. The Law is not here rejected, but here established. The dispute which was here ended was not between a pro-Law and an anti-Law party, but a dispute over how the Law should be rightly interpreted, understood, and applied in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.