Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved.” But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy . . . Peter stood up and said . . . “Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples’ necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are.” Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles . . . Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men from among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas . . . For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things.
Acts 15:1–2, 7, 9, 11–12, 22, 28, HCSB
Paul could have had “rock star status” by remaining in the church in Jerusalem after his conversion. But he chose to leave his comfort zone and go share Christ with the world. Back home in Jerusalem, trouble was brewing. There were those in the Jerusalem church who insisted that circumcision should be a requirement for acceptance of Christ. They would require this sign of faithfulness given to Abraham in ancient days not just for Jewish males but for all male converts of any ethnicity. Those who argued for circumcision were proponents of institutionalism, keepers of standards, who would force this external condition on those coming to Christ as Savior. Peter, James, and Simeon were leaders in the Jerusalem church. As original disciples of Jesus who had walked with him on earth, they knew the road to salvation could not be paved with institutional requirements. So their courageous response went against the grain of popular feeling in the church. Peter, James, and Simeon summoned Paul to Jerusalem, listened to the arguments from both sides, and ruled in favor of the unhindered circle of worship-discipleship-mission as the model for relationship with Christ.
A great setback to the spread of the gospel of Christ was averted that day. The mission of God to redeem the whole world, not just the Jewish people, continued to move forward. The three leaders of the church exercised their prophetic voice and re-commissioned Paul to go to the neighboring people groups as a worshiping disciple on mission. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem church was freed to do the same in their own community without the restriction of religious requirements. Things that once were helpful to the gospel can become a hindrance to the gospel when they become ours.
But God used the Jerusalem Council in another way, too, that day. Our all-knowing Father granted Paul and his partners on mission the rare opportunity to share their methodology with the home church. Paul was able to tell how God was using him as a tentmaker to infiltrate communities for Christ. No doubt, the stories Paul shared of his work as a missional artisan inspired and taught the Jerusalem church. The five-fingered-approach-to-handing-someone-the-gospel came alive in Paul’s testimony. In stories like Paul’s, we can catch a glimpse of all God is calling us to be as his missionary. In stories of missional obedience, we too hear the call, “Whom shall I send?” and can confidently respond, “Here am I, send me!”
The concept of culture as a God-given tool to connect people with him has not been taught well in our churches and Christian schools. There have even been times in the history of the Christian mission movement when missionaries themselves did not understand the concepts of cultural context and heart language. They tried to force their own culture on those to whom they were sent. Instead of adopting the native dress, language, diet, music, art, etc., they resolutely demanded that the native people accept western dress, the English language, American food, English hymns, and western architecture. Instead of being God incarnate to those they came to serve, they insisted that the native people incarnate the imported culture of the missionary. The obvious results of this kind of cultural snobbery are barriers to acceptance of Christ and failure to plant churches that are indigenous to native people. We must not force another culture to adopt our culture before they can accept Christ. Can you see how self-centered and egotistical this approach is? It is the height of idolizing my own culture to make my style and tastes a prerequisite for others to know and follow Christ.
But wait a minute. We do this all the time in our own churches. This cultural snobbery is a notorious characteristic of the institutional church. We see it in church-ianity where stylistic peripherals become significant priorities. We think that if new churches are started in our community they should certainly worship in the same style we do. It’s easy for us to idolize our favorite style and demonize others. When will we realize that culture is not a tool with which to beat others over the head until they accept my way of doing things? Culture is a God-given tool to meet people where they are and connect them to him. — Mark Powers