The early church faced an interesting situation in Acts 15. Leadership was pressured to choose between structural unity and pragmatic diversity. Structural unity could easily have been achieved had the church remained a sect within Judaism. All Gentile converts would have had to become Jews in order to receive Jesus. The end result would have been a unified church that would have had little impact on the massive Gentile world.
There were many in the church who wanted to go in that direction. Representatives of that group went to Antioch and insisted that salvation was dependant on circumcision according to the laws of Moses (Acts 15:1-2). At the Jerusalem Conference, as recorded in Acts 15, Christian Pharisees insisted not only on circumcision but entire adherence to the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). In essence, Gentile Christians were to be treated the same as Jewish proselytes. Peter, Paul and Barnabas argued against this position on the grounds of God’s acceptance of Gentiles through the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8), the role of grace in salvation (Acts 15:11), and the abundant evidence that God was working miracles in response to the Gentile mission (Acts 15:12).
James, the half-brother of Jesus, added to these arguments the sense that the Gentile mission was a fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 15:13-18). He argued that Amos 9:11-12 predicted a time when a descendant of David would create circumstances in which large numbers of Gentiles would seek the Lord. If that prophecy was being fulfilled in the mission of Paul and Barnabas, then the church should put no unnecessary barriers in the way of Gentiles receiving Jesus: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). The strictures of Acts 15:20-21 were designed to make fellowship possible between Jewish and Gentile Christians. So unity in diversity was preserved.
In other words, the fundamental issue addressed at the council described in Acts 15 was less theological than a matter of community identity. Many feel this situation has a parallel in the outpouring of Muslim interest in Jesus today. They feel that the church of our day needs to make accommodations similar to those of Acts 15 in relation to this new work of God.
Perhaps we could apply the situation of Acts 15 to the current situation in the following way. The issue of Acts 15 was: Does a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian? The early church leaders answered, “No.” In a Seventh-day Adventist context the issue today could be expressed: Does a Muslim have to become a “Christian” in order to become a Seventh-day Adventist? When becoming a “Christian” in the Islamic world includes eating pork, drinking alcohol, dressing immodestly, and having a lax attitude toward obedience, what does becoming a “Christian” have to do with Adventist faith?
Obviously, the word “Christian” can mean different things to different people. To some the word “Christian” means “culturally Western” more than a spiritual concept. To Muslims the word has political connotations more than religious ones. A Christian is one who opposes Muslim faith with smart bombs, Playboy magazines, and economic sanctions. Ideally, the word “Christian” means one who is a genuine follower of Jesus, but how many of these do you know? Even the best of labels can be more confusing than helpful sometimes. An unpredictable God often turns our labels on their heads.