The Apostolic Decree and Missionary Work

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.

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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

10 thoughts on “The Apostolic Decree and Missionary Work

  1. The Early Church is certainly a fascinating subject. I appreciate your wealth of knowledge and that you are willing to share it with us. Quite often I see the personality types of Sadducces and especially Pharisees ( not necessarily in a way bad either) in our LDS church culture/community. The lessons learned taught and learned from the NT are a guide to us on what the Savior would have us do just as the BofM gives us another witness. Thank you for remnding us.

  2. >see the personality types of Sadducces and especially Pharisees

    Along those lines I also see some personalities gravitate towards a favorite apostle like the early Christians did. Seems like every ward (in Utah at least) has at least one person who has read McConkie’s entire corpus or who is enthusiastic about ET Benson’s politics. I think correlation shields the lay membership from polarizing in cases where the current apostles have differing opinions on how to tackle new challenges or doctrinal conundrums. That is what the bloggernacle is for 🙂

    The problem gets more serious when dead apostles are pitted against living ones as we have seen in modern history in regards to restoration’s major schisms. We shouldn’t let Rodney Stark have all the fun using Mormonism to understand tension and growth in early Christianity.

    I think you are right that the Pharisees were a mixed bag. It is interesting to look for the lingering influence of the Pharisees in early Christianity. Many of the converts from Jerusalem would have come from that background. Josephus’ estimate of 6000 Pharisees in the time of Herod likely only refers to the strictest class below. Unlike the elitist Sadducees, the Pharisees were a populist movement. James had success in bringing some of the poorer temple priests into Christianity. The epistle of James shows him to be a champion of the poor and down trodden, which makes sense in the context of a bishop being involved in coordinating welfare efforts for the poor.

    Pharisees liked to debate a lot so naturally the Gospels show them coming up short as a foil to Jesus’ teachings. But they could be surprisingly tolerant (though somewhat condescending) of other Jews that did not share their ideology or practices. They also supported varying degrees of dedication within their own movement. Howard Mantel in HTR 67 identifies three classes: Pharisee proper (“separated”), Ne’emanim (“trustworthy”), and Kenafayim (“wings”). So it makes me wonder if that background made it easier for some Jerusalem saints to accept (to a degree) differing standards for new converts, while having their own preferences.

  3. Wow, Keller, there is a lot of meat to chew on in this post. For now, I think I will address your 3rd point/lesson in the post.

    Just over a year ago, our ward had a convert baptism of a brother who was married to an inactive member. He fit your description of someone who met the minimal requirements for baptism, but still had issues that would require a lot of attention and work by the bishop and other ward leaders.

    Several weeks ago, and after a lot of careful spiritual cultivation and teaching, I stood in the circle as this good brother received the Melchizedek Priesthood and was ordained to the office of Elder. What a thrill it was for me to assist in this priesthood ordinance of someone who I now consider a good friend. I am also blessed to have him as my HT companion.

    I think the missionary coordination meetings help get the ward and the missionaries on the same page and assist in the transition from teaching, baptism, new member discussions and eventual temple attendance (and serve to balance the minimalists and maximalists in the church). As one who attends this meeting for the EQ presidency, I can attest to the importance of this meeting and its effectiveness. The members are more engaged in missionary work and in cultivating the new members in our ward.

  4. Keller, I think a key observation you make here is that the early Church changed to deal with evolving revelation and circumstances — and the same thing happens today with the Church. When I think of all of the people whose testimony is damaged because the Church has “changed” and therefore can’t be true, I am reminded through this post that this has always been the case. Can you imagine how much the Church “changed” during Adam’s long life?

  5. I have a post over at FAIR on LDS references on early church organization where a commenter, Thomas, voiced his objections to how a paper by C. Wilfred Griggs handles the Jerusalem Conference. Dr. Griggs relies heavily on Luke’s account which has a tendency to downplay disagreements between the leading brethren. As can be seen, my views in the OP are actually closer to Thomas than they are to Griggs, but there is still an important difference which I won’t address unless someone else notices it and is curious. Thomas wrote:

    Professor Griggs is a magnificent scholar, but I have a small bone to pick with his take on the Jerusalem Council. From his essay:

    “Returning from their missionary journey to Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to seek the advice of the apostles on this weighty controversy. The resulting council in Jerusalem (reported in Acts 15) demonstrates how thoroughly decision-making in the Church was grounded in revelation and order.

    One need only compare this council with the wrangling conventions of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. to appreciate how necessary inspiration and authority are to Christianity. In the Jerusalem Council, there was an answer. In the later councils there was only compromise. In the earlier council there was unity when a decision had been accepted, but in later councils only strife and division.”

    If you look only at the account of the Council in Acts 15, that’s what it looks like — a nice, collegial resolution. Paul’s own take on the affair, in Galatians 2, is a bit spicier. I can’t see any modern LDS apostle saying (in canonized scripture, no less!) that he “withstood [the Prophet] to the face, for he was to be blamed” or accusing him and other Brethren publicly of “dissimulation” and “walk[ing] not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel.”

  6. Geoff B,

    I hear you on the change issue affecting testimonies. One of my posts originated from helping a member not get shook up over an EV criticism that 12 year old deacons are inconsistent with married deacons depicted in a few Bible passages. So I showed that the office of a deacon has underwent a lot of change (adapting to cultural needs) during the time the NT was written and compiled and in our day as well. Of course, arguing that a change was inspired or not takes additional sophistication.

    Blair Hodges blogged about much the same issue (organizational change) from a different angle. If I understand the back story to his post, it is connected to discussing Floyd Weston’s 17 points (presented in the Paul Dunn style of story telling) with an EV critic. The 17 points can cause disillusionment when and if members come to see how problematic and superficial they are. One can also get unrealistic expectations from an overly simplistic reading of the 6th article of faith, something that both Hodges and Grant Underwood have addressed.

    So when I write about some of my new findings about early Christian priesthood I worry about disorienting fellow members, but I think the risk is worth it if helps us better (and more humbly) articulate our unique claims to the priesthood to those outside our faith.

    “Can you imagine how much the Church “changed” during Adam’s long life?”

    I think one has to have a rather abstract conceptualization of “church” (I like “community of like minded believers”) to work backwards to before the time of Christ and on back to Adam. For example, the Israelite conception of the bounds of the Kingdom of God flowed along national or ancestral boundaries with a limited degree of allowance for foreign proselytes to work their way in. The Book of Mormon is a nice study of how religious organization was sensitive to political factors. Dan Peterson has a good article on how the role of baptism took on new meaning when the Nephites started tolerating multiple religions under the same political regime. It is harder for me to keep up with all the Old World changes.

  7. Brian, Thanks for sharing that success story. As a missionary I observed mixed results with new converts, some of whom were well received by the local wards (but not always staying active despite attentive, loving efforts by local members) and some who weren’t (and were even more likely to go inactive soon after baptism). I experienced Bishops who were cynical about the potential of newly baptized members to stay active. Sometimes an individual from a part member family (with a history of inactivity) didn’t inspire much confidence. Or the Bishops might suspect an ulterior motive for joining the Church (like getting access to welfare). One baptismal candidate couple I interviewed were trying to improve their position in a child custody case (playing the I-have-cleaned-up-now, see-I-have-found-religion card) and almost immediately reverted back to WoW habits. Some investigators we had to beg and plead for them to come to Church to meet minimum church requirements and I think the Bishops could sense this attitude and wished Salt Lake/ Mission Headquarters would raise attendance standards.

    Even though I wrote the above paragraph as somewhat sympathetic to the Bishops’ perspective, as a missionary I was a passionate advocate of baptizing the struggling investigators. I am embarrassed with some of my behavior while reacting to Bishop’s attitudes and differing opinions on arranging baptisms.

    So I can imagine that these types of turf wars played out in early Christianity between stationary leaders and traveling missionaries. With that said, now-days if locals (in well organized areas of the Church) have a problem with a young missionary it is easy transfer in a new one. It would be much more consequential if conflict arose with a higher ranking traveling authority (GA).

  8. Keller, I think one of the purposes of the temple endowment ceremony is to help us conceptualize the fact that humans have been the same since Adam and have all faced the same challenges, ie, the concept of “two ways,” God’s way or Satan’s way. So it clearly must be true that Adam tried his best to stick to “God’s way.” We know he was given knowledge regarding a savior. So, describing his early strivings as part of the “Church,” meaning the one true Church of God is not that much of a stretch.

    My point is that he must have organized some kind of Church, especially if we think about what we know about Adam Ondi Ahman. This Church organization underwent thousands of changes over his lifetime but never became less true.

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