A document entitled, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” issued by the General Conference Secretariat, asserts that the Jerusalem Council’s decision:
“was to affirm diversity in key religious practices: Jewish Christians would continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law, whereas converted Gentiles were excepted from most of its provisions, except that they were encouraged to “remember the poor” and instructed to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Gal 2:10, and Acts 15:29 NKJV). To many Jewish believers, the twin-track approach would have seemed like apostasy . . .” “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” p. 14
This has become a talking point for the pro-female ordination faction, because it supports their view that there should be diversity of practice on ordaining women, with some regions ordaining women and some not, depending upon local culture.
But is it true that the Jerusalem Council ruled that “Jewish Christians would continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law”?
The New Testament Teaching on the Ceremonial Law
The ceremonial law pointed to Christ (Heb. 10). When Christ died on the cross, the ceremonial law came to end, as symbolized by the supernatural tearing, from top to bottom, of the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place (Mat. 27:50-51; Luke 23:44-46; Mark 15:37-38). The lambs that symbolized Christ no longer needed to be sacrificed, because Christ Himself had been sacrificed for our sins (Isa. 53:7; Jer. 11:19; John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-21; Rev. 5:12).
After the death of Christ, the full panoply of ceremonial laws was obsolete; type had met anti-type, the symbols had met the symbolized One. The entire Jewish economy of ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness, types and symbols, dos and don’ts, was swept away. “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” Col. 2:16-17 (NKJV).
Circumcision was part of the “the handwriting that was against us” that Christ “nailed to the cross.” Its symbolic role is replaced by baptism:
“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Col. 2:11-15 (NKJV)
Consequently, circumcision has no salvific or religious value to the Christian believer:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed, I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” Gal. 5:1-6. (NKJV)
“As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. Gal. 6:12-15 (NKJV)
“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation [circumcision]! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” Philippians 3:2-3 (NKJV)
The teaching could not possibly be any clearer. Not only are Christians not required to be circumcised, they are forbidden to be circumcised for religious reasons, that is, they are forbidden to be circumcised in an attempt to keep the Mosaic law: “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” Gal. 5:2 (NIV)
(I hasten to add that God is never arbitrary or unreasonable in His requirements, and there are many health benefits to circumcision. Dr. Iskander has shown that circumcision is especially beneficial under conditions in which frequent bathing or showering is not possible, and recent studies have shown that circumcision helps combat the spread of AIDS. So this article is not intended to discourage circumcision as a routine health practice. But Christians are not to try to keep the ritual law of Moses.)
Is There a Different Rule for Jews?
Is there a rule that gentile Christians need not be circumcised, but Jewish Christians must be? Scripture says no:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal. 3:26-29 (NKJV)
Both Jew and gentile alike inherit eternal life through Christ Jesus, not through the works of the ritual law.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul points out that it is not circumcision that makes one a Jew, but respect for the moral law (Rom. 2:17-29). The advantage to being a Jew is that it was to the Jews that the word of God was entrusted (Rom. 3:1-2). But all have sinned, both Jew and gentile (Rom. 3:9-20), therefore the righteousness of Christ makes atonement for all our sins (Rom. 3:21-26). Both Abraham and David were justified by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:1-8), and Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12).
In Romans 7, Paul speaks directly to his fellow Jews, making it clear that his extended discussion of faith and works applies to the Jews:
“Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives?” (Rom. 7:1) “Therefore, my brethren [again, speaking to the Jews], you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. . . . But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” (Rom. 7:4-6, emphasis added)
Clearly, Jews are just as “dead to the law” as gentiles, and serve “in newness of the spirit and not in the oldness of the law.”
The same lesson taught in Romans is also taught in Hebrews, a letter written primarily for the benefit of Jews. Hebrews describes the sanctuary service and makes clear that this system pointed forward to Christ (Heb. 7-10) Like Romans, Hebrews argues that the patriarchs were justified by faith (Heb. 11). The final chapter of Hebrews details the moral duties of those Jews who wish to live by faith in Jesus Christ; nowhere among those duties is any mention of circumcision or any other ceremonial or ritual requirement (Heb. 13).
There simply is no basis for the contention that Jewish Christians are still under the ceremonial law.
Did the Jerusalem Council Go Only Halfway to Freedom?
Few would dispute that the ultimate or final teaching of the New Testament is that neither Jewish Christians nor gentile Christians are required to keep the ceremonial law. That teaching is much too clear to be contradicted in good faith.
But maybe the Jerusalem Council did not yet understand that the ceremonial law pointed to Christ, and hence was abolished for Jew and Greek alike when Christ died. Perhaps, at that very early point in the development of the Christian movement, the Council believed that only the gentiles were free from the ceremonial law, but ethnic Jews still had to obey it. To answer this, we will look to the record of the Jerusalem Council and to events that transpired after it.
a. At the Jerusalem Council
What was the issue at the Jerusalem Council? “Some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5) Their belief was that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) The issue was whether circumcision necessary for salvation.
Let us read carefully what Peter said about the issue:
“Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:7-11 NKJV)
First, did Peter say that gentiles have a hard time with the Mosaic law, but Jews are just fine with it? No. Peter called the ceremonial law “a yoke on the neck . . . which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” The Jews—not the gentiles but the Jews--were never able to correctly keep and observe all of the ceremonial law. Peter is making a case that it should be abolished for everyone, not just for gentiles.
Second, did Peter say that there is one way for Jews to be saved, and a different way for gentiles? Quite the contrary. Peter said “we believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we [the Jews] shall be saved in the same manner as they [the gentiles].” Jews and Christians are saved in the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, it is true that the actual ruling of the Jerusalem Council mentioned only gentiles, specifically “the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia.” But since no part of the ruling was directed at Jewish Christians, there obviously was no directive that they should “continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law.” To the contrary, we are left with Peter’s un-rebutted statement that Jews and gentiles are saved in the same manner, the implication of which is that neither are required to circumcise or keep the ritual law.
And Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, tells us that Peter began to “live in the manner of the gentiles, not as the Jews.” (Gal. 2:14) If the Jerusalem Council had ruled, even tacitly or by implication, that Jewish Christians would continue to keep the ceremonial law, then Peter would not have begun to “live in the manner of the gentiles,” as we are told he did.
b. After the Jerusalem Council—The Circumcision of Timothy
In the very next chapter, we read that Paul met a young disciple named Timothy, whose father was Greek, but whose mother was a Jew who had accepted the message of Christ. Everyone spoke highly of Timothy, and Paul wanted to take him on a missionary journey. “And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.” (Acts 16:3) (Jews reckon that Jewishness descends through the mother, so the Jews would have considered Timothy to be a Jew, but might, because of his Greek father, have suspected him of being Hellenized and impious; circumcision would help allay those suspicions.)
Doesn’t the fact that Paul had Timothy circumcised prove that Paul understood the Jerusalem Council to have ruled that the ceremonial law was still binding on Jews who had accepted Christ? Isn’t this the smoking gun?
No. The Bible says that Paul did this “because of the Jews,” not because he believed it was required. By having Timothy circumcised, Paul was balancing the law of liberty with the law of love, just as he later articulated in his epistles. “Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block for those who are weak.” (1 Cor. 8:9) Paul’s philosophy was: we know we have liberty in Christ, but we should not let our liberty become a stumbling block to the weaker brother who still believes himself bound by certain ritual practices.
Paul was a master of the Mosaic law (Phil. 3:4-6) and understood the symbolism and meaning of the ceremonial law, and hence knew that it no longer applied to him or to Timothy. But Paul would “be all things to all people so that I might by all means save some.” Being all things to all people specifically included acting as if he were “under the law,” in order to win those who believed themselves to still be under the ritual law:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law . . . that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Paul was the leader in pushing the early church to see that the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, but he was also the leader in urging that this issue not become a hindrance and a cause of division and strife among brethren.
It was this principle of letting nothing hinder the gospel that Paul was putting into practice when he recommended to Timothy that he be circumcised:
As a precautionary measure, Paul wisely advised Timothy to be circumcised--not that God required it, but in order to remove from the minds of the Jews that which might be an objection to Timothy's ministration. In his work Paul was to journey from city to city, in many lands, and often he would have opportunity to preach Christ in Jewish synagogues, as well as in other places of assembly. If it should be known that one of his companions in labor was uncircumcised, his work might be greatly hindered by the prejudice and bigotry of the Jews. Everywhere the apostle met determined opposition and severe persecution. He desired to bring to his Jewish brethren, as well as to the Gentiles, a knowledge of the gospel, and therefore he sought, so far as was consistent with the faith, to remove every pretext for opposition. Yet while he conceded this much to Jewish prejudice, he believed and taught circumcision or uncircumcision to be nothing and the gospel of Christ everything. AA, p. 204 (emphasis added).
c. The Nazirite Temple Ritual of Acts 21
Attempting to be “all things to all people,” including “those who are under law,” can be taken too far. We now turn to an incident in which Paul took it too far. When Paul returned to Jerusalem from a missionary trip to Greece and Asia Minor, a group of Jewish Christians approached him and asked him to take to the temple four men who were under a Nazirite vow (Num. 6). “Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.” (Acts 21:24)
These Jewish believers acknowledged that, under the ruling of the Jerusalem Council, gentiles were free of most of the requirements of the ceremonial law (Acts 21:25). But they seemed to believe the Council had ruled that they, Paul, and other Jewish believers in Christ were still under the ritual law. That is, they seemed to believe that “Jewish Christians would continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law.” If that had been true, then they were right in what they were urging Paul to do, and Paul would have been right to do it for the reason they gave: in order to demonstrate that he still kept the ritual law.
But we know that he was not right. Ellen White tells that Paul “was not authorized of God to concede as much they asked.” (AA 405) In fact, Ellen White specifically says that what they were asking conflicted with the ruling of the Jerusalem Council:
"The brethren hoped that Paul, by following the course suggested, might give a decisive contradiction to the false reports concerning him. They assured him that the decision of the former council concerning the Gentile converts and the ceremonial law, still held good. But the advice now given was not consistent with that decision. The Spirit of God did not prompt this instruction; it was the fruit of cowardice. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem knew that by non-conformity to the ceremonial law, Christians would bring upon themselves the hatred of the Jews and expose themselves to persecution." (AA 405, emphasis added)
So, according to the pen of inspiration, Paul’s participation in a Nazirite ritual was “not consistent with the ruling of the Jerusalem Counsel.” Why not? Paul was a Jewish Christian, not a gentile. And it seems clear from the context that the four men were also Jewish Christians, not gentiles. So if “Jewish Christians would continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law,” why shouldn’t Paul participate in the temple ritual, and sponsor those four other Jewish Christians in their ritual observance? How was this inconsistent with the Jerusalem Council’s ruling?
The only logical conclusion is that the Jerusalem Council had not ruled that Jewish Christians were still under the Mosaic law. The Jerusalem Council created no “twin-track approach.” The ceremonial was abolished for all; Jews and gentiles were alike freed from the ritual law.
Paul’s misguided attempt at appeasement led directly to his arrest, a long imprisonment in Caesarea, a perilous voyage to Rome, and a two-year house arrest there:
“Many of the Jews who had accepted the gospel still cherished a regard for the ceremonial law and were only too willing to make unwise concessions, hoping thus to gain the confidence of their countrymen, to remove their prejudice, and to win them to faith in Christ as the world's Redeemer. Paul realized that so long as many of the leading members of the church at Jerusalem should continue to cherish prejudice against him, they would work constantly to counteract his influence. He felt that if by any reasonable concession he could win them to the truth he would remove a great obstacle to the success of the gospel in other places. But he was not authorized of God to concede as much as they asked. . . . instead of accomplishing the desired object, his efforts for conciliation only precipitated the crisis, hastened his predicted sufferings, and resulted in separating him from his brethren, depriving the church of one of its strongest pillars, and bringing sorrow to Christian hearts in every land.” AA, pp. 405-6 (emphasis added).
The Nazirite vow these men were undertaking ended with an expensive, multi-animal sacrifice, in which an ewe, a male lamb, and a ram—all without blemish (and hence all symbolizing Christ)—were slain, the ewe as a sin offering, the lamb as a burnt offering, and the ram as a fellowship offering (Num. 6:13-15). Although Paul did not intend to deny Christ, by participating in such sacrifices, Paul was symbolically denying that Jesus was the Christ who had fulfilled, and thereby obviated, the system of sacrifices. The temple sacrifices were but a shadow, the reality is found in Christ. Col. 2:17
Paul’s sin was comparable to Moses’ sin in striking the rock instead of speaking to it, in that it ruined God’s chosen symbolism. In Moses’ case, speaking to the rock, after previously having struck it, would illustrate that Christ need die only once, and future generations may claim his death by faith. (PP 411, 418) God wanted Paul to live according to the truth that Christ’s sacrifice had put an end to the entire Jewish ceremonial economy, as Paul himself had so forcefully written: “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them,” certainly not after “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb. 10:8-10, emphasis added)
Whence Comes the False “Twin Track Approach” Talking Point?
Clearly, the Jerusalem Council did not adopt a “twin track approach” on circumcision or the ceremonial law. That notion comports neither with Scripture nor with the inspired writing of Ellen White.
So where did it come from? I first saw it in the infamous “third way” paper submitted to the June, 2014, meeting of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, entitled, “Seeking a Biblical and Workable Solution to the Women in Ministry Dilemma.” It was put forward as a talking point to justify a practice that Scripture plainly prohibits: the ordination of female elders.
It is still remarkable that this specious talking point in favor of female ordination found its way into a paper that—although bearing the unmistakable signs of compromise and committee-drafting—was written to lay a foundation for the discipline of the unions who refuse to abide by the San Antonio vote!
This fiasco illustrates how Elder Wilson is surrounded by many, at the highest level of church government, who support female ordination and would not see discipline imposed on those practicing it in defiance church law. One of the myriad, subtle ways these people sabotage Elder Wilson’s attempts to restore order and discipline is to insert unbiblical ideas into official General Conference papers.