The number one controversy in the early church was not women in leadership or spiritual gifts. The BIG ISSUE which threatened to tear the infant church apart in the first century was the place of the Gentiles in the new Christian community.
The Council in Jerusalem, recorded by Luke right in the middle of his account of the early church, was key to addressing this issue. Although the theological principles clarified in the Council were vital and the practical strategies articulated for implementing them are of interest, the Council of Jerusalem is also instructive as a case study in decision-making in the emerging church.
Space permits only the briefest summary of the way this meeting illustrates some of the principles for decision-making adopted by the early believers. The full account is in Acts 15:1-21.
1. The Council arose from a controversy in Antioch between Paul and Barnabas on the one hand and some unnamed men on the other, the latter group teaching that Gentile converts needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.
2. A decision was taken in response to this controversy to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders in that church. These two were accompanied by "some other believers" from Antioch.
3. The group that met to discuss the issue was a large one. Although Luke records explicitly that it was "the apostles and elders" who met to consider the Gentile question, this was apparently not a small gathering. The fact that "the whole assembly...listened to Barnabas and Saul" strongly suggests a large group.
4. The decision took time to be reached. This is implied by the phrase "much discussion" in verse 7. This is an important point, especially in the Western context where church culture often values quick decision making.
5. A consensus appears to emerge, facilitated in no short measure by James' ability to draw together the different threads of the debate and highlight the key theological principles.
6. The decision reached is embraced by "the whole church" in Jerusalem (v. 22) and it is this wider assembly of believers who are active in selecting the men (Judas and Silas) who would accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to communicate the outcome of the Council.
When the oppressive Taleban government of Afghanistan was removed by NATO forces in 2001, the world's media looked on with bemusement at what happened next. Instead of an election, the world was introduced to a new term - a loya jirga. The transition to a new elected government was preceeded by a lengthy gathering of Afghan tribal heads. This loya jirga is a traditional way of resolving major issues in this decentralised, tribal society. Western observers, used to the faster pace and smaller numbers involved in leadership decsions in industrialized countries, were struggling for a way of understanding and explaining this slower mechanism.
It seems from the book of Acts, however, that the apostles and elders would not have had a problem with this approach to such a fundamental decision. Perhaps we can go so far as to say that they would have been surprised by our agenda-driven leadership meetings where small numbers make large decisions in limited amounts of time.