The Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15 is the second key leadership text for my work as Executive Conference Minister. This story highlights the activity of the leaders of the faith community discerning appropriate responses to the tension between “circumstances and conviction.” (1)
The circumstance in the text is the awareness that Gentiles are coming to Christ, assured of their salvation by the missionaries, and are baptized into a covenant relationship with God and the community of faith. The conviction at stake is that these new converts are not being circumcised in accordance with the Law of Moses, the Law of Moses is not being upheld, and therefore, they cannot be assured of their salvation. The Jerusalem Council was the event that included the assembled church, the apostles and elders to hear concern about the role of the Law of Moses for Gentile converts who are becoming part of God’s People.
The first leadership principle that I draw from the account of the Jerusalem Council is the realization that mission activity will challenge our assumptions about various beliefs and practices deeply held. The engagement of frontier evangelism, where the good news—Jesus Christ—confronts human experience, will lead to the rethinking of how to communicate this good news and the subsequent implications for practices in the faith community.
Duane Yoder highlighted his ministry to prisoners and the challenge he faced when he agreed to baptize three individuals that he was mentoring, but eleven persons showed up to be baptized on that day. He adapted his ministry to provide baptism to all those that presented themselves with a plan for discipleship training that would follow. His long-held practices of discipleship training prior to baptism became adapted to the circumstances that he encountered in ministry.
The second leadership principle drawn from the text is the necessity of discernment in key issues facing the church. In my ministry, I have lamented the broader church has not called for discernment on faith issues at our conference and denominational assemblies. It is my perspective, that much of our decision making at these gatherings is approval of minutes, receiving well-written reports, and gaining feedback. It is my hope to provide opportunity in Virginia Mennonite Conference to clarify our core beliefs in ways that can contribute to revitalization of our faith and life as followers of Jesus. In this way, we will be a living example of the early church experience.
Finally, in the teachings of Jesus, we learn that Jesus instructed his disciples to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18) on behalf of key relationships and the people of God. In our contemporary setting, scripture, the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective (1995), human experience, and reason are informing our faith and life in the world. However, when the information from these various fields of knowledge collides, it is the essential work of the Church to gather and engage in sharing knowledge and insight that can bring unity.
The outcome of the Jerusalem Council was indeed an attempt to bring unity in the midst of confusion. It remains my hope that Acts 15 is an active model of our life together in Virginia Mennonite Conference as a way for unity to emerge among us on the challenging issues of our day.
1 Duane Yoder, pastor of Lindale Mennonite Church, introduced this description in his meditation on Acts 15 at the Virginia Mennonite Conference Winter Delegate Assembly held at Lindale Mennonite Church on February 1, 2014.