Jesus set up the first missionary efforts during his mortal ministry, but I find the precedents he set rather indeterminate on how the apostles should have handled the problems that accompanied expanding growth. Jesus confined his mission only to the Jews (Matt. 15) or the lost sheep of the House of Israel (John 10). It wasn’t until later that the apostles received their great commission (Matt 28:19) to take Christ’s gospel to all the world and began to have success with converting Gentiles (in Acts). Luke made the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20, Acts 21:25), issued by James, the brother of Jesus, a focal point. I wish to explore some of the lessons we might learn from early Christianity’s rocky start.
Jesus’ statements show that he came not to destroy the Law of Moses but to fulfill it. I believe that his advent meant that some aspects (especially the use of sacrifices as a sign of his coming) of the Law could be done away with. Jesus wished his followers would continue to follow many aspects of the Law of Moses as interpreted through his teachings. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount he exacted more rigorous standards and even demanded perfection. He also took aim at some of the traditions that had been built up as a hedge around letter of the Law, but violated the spirit of the Law. See for example Jonathan Draper “Torah and Troublesome Apostles in the Didache Community” Jesus also initiated new practices (like the Lord’s Supper) and restored older things missing from the Judaism of his time.
The Twelve were initially headquartered in Jerusalem and faced difficult problems of growth. After the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), enthusiastic pilgrims carried the good news back to their home in the diaspora and ahead of organized efforts. Indeed, one of the problems encountered by missionaries was to reign in zealous enthusiasts who were lacking in sound knowledge (Acts 19:1-6, Acts 18:26). A rift arose in Jerusalem between Hellenist Jewish converts who didn’t put as much stock in Jewish traditions and converts with an orthodox background. Though the apostles relieved some of that strain by appointing seven Hellenist leaders (Acts 6:5), the feud between non-Christian orthodox Jews and Hellenist Christians escalated into the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) and Hellenists fleeing Jerusalem for safety.
This scattering opened up further missionary opportunities abroad and apostles were sent out to organize these new outposts. We read of Peter and John (Acts 8:14) following up Philip’s (one of the Seven) work and Barnabas (Acts 11:22) being sent out and subsequently connecting up with Paul. The success among the Gentiles led the early Christians to contemplate questions not really addressed during Christ’s ministry. Hence we have the Lord revealing his will through revelation (especially to Peter) and through the early Church councils. I do not find that Christ gave a definitive teaching regarding circumcision of converts in his mortal advent. We can not possibly know his will on the matter outside of subsequent revelation. Being circumcised committed a person to living the whole Law of Moses. Yet Peter felt inspired to baptize Cornelius without the latter from committing to observe dietary laws (and by implication a lot of traditional Jewish practices). Paul later brilliantly argued that circumcision was not a mandatory requirement to accepting a life of discipleship to Christ and that the Law of Moses was but a school master pointing the more excellent way of Christ (Gal. 3:24-25).
While Peter invoked his earlier revelation as grounds for not making circumcision mandatory for Gentile converts, James sought different grounds. He referenced Amos 9:9-11, while envisioning a restoration of Israel’s glory under David with some degree of sharing with Gentiles. The opinion of James, as a pillar of the early church, was very weighty in those days. He has been seen as the bishop of Jerusalem, the Presiding Bishop, Davidic heir, an apostle, ideological leader of Jewish Christians who retained an almost Pharisaic zeal for keeping the Law of Moses, temple High Priest, and original receiver of the gnossis (endowment). James’ authoritative scripture interpretation culminated in what has been called the Apostolic Decree, which proclaimed 4 standards that converts were expected to acknowledge.
There are signs in the New Testament of the difficulties in interpreting the Apostolic Decree. For example, I believe that events described in Gal. 2 occurred after the Jerusalem conference. That would mean that Peter, men from James, and Paul all had different opinions on the implications of the decree had on table fellowship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. One could add numerous examples of differing visions of how much of the Jewish identity should be retained as missionary efforts expanded in the New Testament. Raymond Brown in Antioch and Rome and John Painter in Just James have created a categories of different factions regarding missionary policies. Raymond Brown goes as far as attributing the death of Peter and Paul in Rome under Nero as a conspiracy by envious Christians who disagreed with their policies.
While there may be some connection between the Apostolic Decree and the Noachides (7 laws that God gave to Noah and perhaps Adam that were presumably binding on all their descendants and not just Israel), there is the problem that only 4 out of the 7 Noachides are mentioned. What prohibitions the 7 actually entailed was debated for quite some time by the rabbis up through the 3rd century, so it is difficult to believe James expected lay converts to fill in the blanks. Their purpose was also debated. Were they minimalist requirements for Gentiles to be saved in the afterlife? Were the laws less about morality and more about purity and being set apart from other idolaters? Were the laws rules for the types of Gentiles the Jews could associate with? For some answers Tim Hegg, “Do the Seven, Go to Heaven?”
Rather than seeing the 4 proscriptions as an incomplete reference to the Noachides or by convoluted reasoning, the Ten Commandments, I think they are better viewed as the tenants that Gentiles were expected to observe when they lived (as resident aliens) in lands that were ideally Israel’s (as given in Lev 17-18). Ideal Israel could be seen as the maximum extent of Israel’s empire in its glory days, which James appears to invoke by his reference to the restoration of the hut of David in Acts 15 (which is an allusion to Amos 9). See: Patrick Hartin “James of Jerusalem” (p. 67-76), Scot McKnight “Jesus and James on Israel and Purity” (esp p. 102-111), Bruce Chilton “James in Relation to Peter, Paul, and the Remembrance of Jesus.”
I think some early Christians would had have been divided on minimalist and maximalist interpretations of the Apostolic Decree. The minimalists viewed the Decree as setting forth minimal requirements for baptism, but that Gentile converts should be encouraged to come into full conformity to the Torah) or maximalist interpretations (the Gentile Christians should not be encouraged to observe additional requirements (dead works) and Jewish Christians should be encouraged to give up non-mandatory elements of the Law of Moses so as not to create a double standard or two classes of Christians. I would put James in the minimalist camp and Paul in the maximalist camp.
So what are some modern lessons we can learn? I have identified a few.
1. James’ role in the ealy church is an enigma and a challenge to some LDS conventions. If Nibley is correct, his functionality is most like a stationary bishop and less like a traveling, missionary-oriented apostle. However, Joseph Smith often served as a stationary, local leader, and oversaw economic aspects of the Church and envisioned succession by his brothers and sons (while delegating missionary functions to the Twelve). Martyrdom, the fall of church headquarters, and competing factions in both eras seem to have thrown a wrench in succession plans.
2. The NT describes a constant process of evaluating past teachings and traditions to determine whether they should be kept and demanded of groups that don’t necessarily share the same traditions. I think the modern Church has to continue to jettison inherited Protestant and America-centric cultural baggage that may be a stumbling block for some potential converts while conserving what is good and uplifting.
3. I think we potentially recreate some of the same tensions between minimalists and maximalists. For a stereotypical example, missionaries who work hard to get investigators to meet minimal requirements for baptism versus bishops who are primarily concerned about retention and eventual temple worthiness. A second example, might be when some Mormons take pride in their compliance (or non compliance) of some standard.