KnoWhy #680 | April 18, 2024

Why Was the Jerusalem Council Important?

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Scripture Central

“But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” Acts 15:5-6

The Know

When Jesus commissioned His Apostles to spread the gospel after His Resurrection, He told them that “ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As Luke describes the growth of the Church, the Apostles and missionaries of the Church would ultimately fulfill that very blessing. They would preach first in Jerusalem and Judaea (see Acts 1–7), then in Samaria (see Acts 8). Finally, in a dramatic vision manifested to Peter, the Lord made it known that the gospel was now to go to the Gentiles (see Acts 10–11). That raised the need for the leadership of the Church to hold a formal council meeting in order to reach a unanimous decision on what should be required of a Gentile who joined the Church of Jesus Christ.

The conversion of Cornelius, a Roman military leader, broke new ground. Prior to Cornelius’s baptism at the hands of Peter, “all Christians were either Jews, who were already keeping the law of Moses, or ‘proselytes’—Gentiles who had previously converted to Judaism and were also keeping the law of Moses at the time they became Christians.”1 Cornelius, however, was not observing any of the provisions of the law of Moses but was simply “one that feared God … and prayed to God alway” (Acts 10:2). In the New Testament, the term God-fearer referred to Gentiles “who were sympathetic toward Judaism and worshipped Jehovah, but were not keeping the regulations of the law of Moses, especially that of circumcision.”2

Before the precedent set by Cornelius, it was probably understood that if a Gentile man wanted to join the Church, he first needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. While Jesus had come to fulfill that law, He also said that people should continue to keep even the least of the commandments (Matthew 5:19). So, how was this supposed to work? Life in Israel was deeply entrenched in tradition, which made it difficult for many of the early Christians to understand which Jewish practices carried over into Christian worship and observance and which did not. Indeed, as John W. Welch has observed, though many Christians “were conscious that Jesus had fulfilled the law, they did not see that as abolishing all its practices,” whereas others (including the Apostle Paul) “believed that many of the practical matters of the law of Moses were now fulfilled and should no longer be observed.”3

The conflict arising from these divergent worldviews led some early Christians to insist, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved,” and others reasonably shared their concerns and felt obedience to the law of Moses was still needful” (Acts 15:1, 5).4 To officially address this concern, “the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter,” meeting as a body of the Twelve in an official meeting that would later be known as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6). The dissensions that had been raised over this point, as Robert J. Matthews observed, could “be settled officially only by the Twelve at Jerusalem.”5 This matter, after all, was “not simply a topic about tradition or custom but a fundamental doctrinal issue regarding the Atonement of Jesus Christ”—namely, how was each particular rule of the law of Moses affected by the fulfillment of Jesus’s mortal mission?6

As the Apostles offered their various opinions on this foundational question, Peter first reminded them of his vision and subsequent spiritual manifestation with Cornelius: “Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us” (Acts 15:7–8). Revelation, not logical reasoning, is to be our guide. Ultimately, Peter declared that salvation is not based on obedience to the law of Moses but is found only in Jesus Christ. Paul and Barnabas, who had recently returned from a mission, similarly testified to this point (see Acts 15:10–12).

Following the council, James the brother of Jesus and now one of the pillars of the Church (Galatians 2:9) announced the decision of the Apostles.7 Ultimately, the Church was instructed “that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God,” concerning circumcision (Acts 15:19). However, the Apostles made it clear “that those converts, like the Jews, must continue to obey the most ancient core of the laws pertaining to eating unclean meat and essential purity—namely, those laws stemming from the days of Noah that prohibited pollution by contact with idols, fornication, consumption of strangled meats, and impure contacts with blood (15:20, 29; compare Genesis 8:20–9:27).”8 Because these laws dated back to the time of Noah, they had universal applicability, whereas the law of Moses was issued only to the house of Israel.

One aspect of this Apostolic council’s decision that is often overlooked, however, is its limited scope. As Frank F. Judd Jr. has noted, “the council made no declaration concerning whether or not Jewish Christians needed to continue keeping the law of Moses.”9 Only Gentile converts were addressed in this decision. “In fact,” he continues, “there is evidence in the Book of Acts that Jewish Christians continued to keep aspects of the law of Moses well after the Jerusalem Council.”10

Given the importance of this issue and given Peter’s knowledge and statements that the law of Moses was not required for salvation, one might wonder why the Church leaders did not offer a stronger statement on the matter or address it to Jewish Christians as well. It is important to remember the young age of the Church and how tense this issue had become. By offering the decision in this manner, the leaders allowed those who felt it was needful to follow the law of Moses to continue to do so. Matthews likewise notes that “the Brethren probably avoided a schism in the Church and no doubt also the ire that would have come from the Jews had the decision been stronger. There must have been many who would have preferred a stronger declaration, but the Brethren acted in the wisdom requisite for their situation.”11

The Why

The Jerusalem Council served to establish several important Church policies and also to reinforce the doctrine of the Atonement and mission of Jesus Christ at a critical time. This council, it should be remembered, was directed by the Twelve Apostles and headed by Peter, the head of the Church. Only Peter and the Apostles had this authority. As Matthews has noted, “it is very significant that the Lord brought about this new procedure through Peter, who, as the senior Apostle of the Church, could exercise all the priesthood keys and held the proper office through which such direction from the Lord should come.”12 Ultimately, the decision was based on revelation from the Lord, and the scope of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 had not gone further than the issues of Gentile baptism and certain food laws.

This council was not, as later councils in the third century and beyond were, convened by political authorities or a wide array of bishops seeking authority and prominence.13 Rather, this was a council of Apostles, ordained to lead the Church through their priesthood authority. The decision of this council shows the importance of unanimity among the Apostles, thereby reflecting the will of the Lord.

The Lord has revealed that every decision of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member … must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:27). This instruction given through the Prophet Joseph Smith is reflected in the Jerusalem Council. All the Apostles present needed to come to a decision unanimously before they could submit that decision to the Church as the word and will of the Lord. That requirement is likewise followed today.14

Just like the ancient Apostles, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will occasionally have to deal with “a conflict between culture and doctrine.”15 The need for unanimity is especially important when such conflicts arise that in order to speak the mind and will of the Lord and not just follow their personal views or values, the Apostles defer to revelation. Likewise, all Church members, as “true disciples of Jesus Christ, must be willing and able to give up long-held traditions when they conflict with living the principles of the gospel.”16 When the Lord gave Peter the priesthood keys to preside over the Church, He made it clear that the kingdom of God must be built upon the rock of revelation (Matthew 16:18–19). Because of the Lord’s inspired guidance, we can rest assured that when the leaders of the Church unanimously offer a new instruction or proclamation declaring the doctrine of the Church, this is the word and will of the Lord for our lives. With this assurance, we can all faithfully align our will with the Lord’s and move forward along the covenant path.

Further Reading
  • 1. Frank F. Judd Jr., “The Jerusalem Conference: The First Council of the Christian Church,” Religious Educator 12, no. 1 (2011): 61; see Acts 10:47–48.
  • 2. Judd, “Jerusalem Conference,” 61.
  • 3. John W. Welch, “Acts 10–15,” in New Testament Minute: Acts (Springville, UT: Scripture Central, 2023), 10.
  • 4. The problem appeared to be twofold, as expressed by Welch, “Acts 10–15,” 9: “(a) how much of the law of Moses did they need to keep, or had all the practices of the law been fulfilled? and (b) were they required to be circumcised, following a commandment that went back beyond Moses to the time of Abraham?”
  • 5. Robert J. Matthews, “The Jerusalem Council,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The New Testament, ed. Frank F. Judd Jr. and Gaye Strathearn (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 261.
  • 6. Matthews, “Jerusalem Council,” 261.
  • 7. Judd, “Jerusalem Conference,” 64, notes: “Recall that Peter’s reputation had suffered because of his association with Cornelius and other Gentiles at Caesarea (see Acts 11:1–4). In addition, James was the leader of the Jerusalem branch, many of whom seem to have been in attendance (see Acts 15:4, 22). Therefore, James was the logical choice to deliver the decision of the council. It is likely that the Jewish Christians would be more willing to accept whatever verdict was given if it came from their own respected leader.”
  • 8. Welch, “Acts 10–15,” 10. Regarding the latter ruling about the consumption of meat, Paul would offer additional insights in 1 Corinthians 8 showing that although this ruling was practiced differently in various locations based on cultural needs, the need for ritual purity was still maintained throughout the Church, both anciently and in modern times.
  • 9. Judd, “Jerusalem Conference,” 65; emphasis added.
  • 10. Judd, “Jerusalem Conference,” 65. Welch, “Acts 10–15,” 10, similarly observes that circumcision was left “as a personal option but not a requirement.”
  • 11. Matthews, “Jerusalem Council,” 264.
  • 12. Matthews, “Jerusalem Council,” 258–259.
  • 13. For an excellent treatment of the role of councils in early Christianity as a replacement for apostolic authority, see Hugh Nibley, “Prophets and Creeds,” in The World and the Prophets (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 44–52.
  • 14. See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Must There Be Unity within the Presiding Quorums of the Church? (Doctrine and Covenants 107:27),” KnoWhy 617 (September 21, 2021).
  • 15. Matthews, “Jerusalem Council,” 265.
  • 16. Judd, “Jerusalem Conference,” 67.
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