Acts 15 and 21: Compromise Divided the Jerusalem Church

An Exhaustive Examination of "Tithe," "Tithes" and "Tithing"

Should the Church Teach Tithing?

A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Section 16

Acts 15 and 21 are crucial documents relating to tithing because they described the struggle of the first church council to deal with how the Law should apply to Jews and Gentiles. The terrible compromise kept Jewish Christians under the full jurisdiction of the Law with its continued links to the Jerusalem Temple and, of course, tithing to the Temple (not to the church). HOWEVER, it released Gentile Christians from any jurisdiction of the Law whatsoever. Therefore, no part of the Law, including tithing, was ever placed on Gentile believers.

Paul was right! The Jerusalem church under James and Peter were wrong! The compromise James (and the church) declared caused a split in the early church which ultimately led to the death, although centuries later, of this particular legalistic Jewish-Christian church which soon rejected Paul and all of his writings.

Acts 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Unless you are circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.

After returning to Antioch in Syria from his first missionary journey, an unauthorized delegation of Christian Pharisees from the Jerusalem church went to Antioch to “supplement” the teachings of Paul and Barnabas. They insisted that Gentile believers must be circumcised according to the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. For them, to be circumcised meant to keep all of the Mosaic Law.

Acts 15:2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

After a heated discussion about the place of the Mosaic Law in Christian doctrine produced no satisfactory agreement, Paul and Barnabas were pressured to continue the discussion in the Jerusalem church.

Acts 15:5 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.

The Jewish-Pharisee-Christians within the Jerusalem church had maintained all of their ties to Judaism and the Temple. Evidently (from chapter 21) so did the rest of the church. They wanted the church to command all believers, both Jew and Gentile, to be fully under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law and fully obey its teachings. They were Jews first, Pharisees second, and Christians third.

Acts 15:6 And the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.

In approximately A.D. 52, twenty years after Calvary, this foundational church in Jerusalem had still not confronted the issue of the Law as it relates to Gentiles. These Jewish-Christians still felt comfortable in simply adding Christian teachings alongside all of their Jewish traditions. Most likely the Gentile Christians within its membership had been circumcised and the issue had not emerged. Now that Paul had returned with testimony of many hundreds of uncircumcised believing Gentiles, the issue came to a crisis—something must be decided.

Acts 15:7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, you 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.

Acts 15:8 And God, who knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us;

Acts 15:9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

Acts 15:10 Now therefore why do you tempt God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

Acts 15:11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

The Apostle Peter, second in leadership to James, reminded the church that he had personally witnessed the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit simply through faith and apart from keeping the Law. He concluded that, since both Jews and Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through faith, then the Law did not function as a method of salvation. Therefore, placing Gentile-Christians under the yoke of the Law would be equivalent to tempting God! Jews and Gentiles are saved through grace, and not through Law. I ask, is it not logical to say that attempting to place believers under the yoke of tithing is also tempting God?

Acts 15:12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had performed among the Gentiles by them.

Just in case anybody thought that God would not bless Gentiles who had not committed to keeping the Mosaic Law, Paul next told many great experiences of God’s blessings on uncircumcised Gentiles.

Acts 15:19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we do not trouble them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:

Acts 15:20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollution of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

After reminding the Jewish Christians that the Bible prophesied that Gentiles would become part of God’s people (vv. 13-18) James (the church leader) declared that the Jewish Christians should “not trouble” Gentile Christians by expecting them to obey the Mosaic Law. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! While these Jewish Christians did NOT understand that they also were no longer bound to observe the Law, they DID correctly conclude that the Gentile Christians were NOT bound to keep any of it! Friends, THIS INCLUDES TITHING! If these Jewish Christians were tithing at all (and I think that they were), they were tithing TO THE TEMPLE because they incorrectly considered themselves still bound to observe all of the Law.

This decision was a divisive and dangerous compromise. It kept Jewish Christians under the Law by mixing Law and grace, while it kept Gentile Christians outside of the Law with no mixture of Law and grace. When preachers declare with Paul in Romans 3:21 and 22 that the righteousness of God has been revealed through faith “apart from the Law” and then add back items of the Law (such as tithing), it is these preachers who become the divisive ones in the church!

The four prohibitions placed on Gentile Christians in verse 20 were not placed on them because of the Mosaic Law, but because they were particularly offensive to Jewish Christians. They relate more to pagan idol worship practices than to biblical prohibitions.

Acts 15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:

Either the vast majority of the church had voted and completely silenced the Jewish Pharisees who began the discussion, or the Jewish Pharisees temporarily walked out at this point. Also, notice that the church leaders did not make the decision apart from consultation and agreement with the church body.

Acts 15:23-29 And they wrote letters by them after this manner;

“The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, SUBVERTING YOUR SOULS, saying, You MUST be circumcised, and KEEP THE LAW: to whom we gave no such commandment. It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How plain can it be! The apostles, elders, and church body “gave no such commandment” that Gentiles Christians “must—keep the Law.” Expecting non-Jews to observe the Law was comparable to “subverting your souls.” They even put it in writing so that Paul could show it to the churches he visited. This was a 100% decision, “with one accord,” of all present at the first recorded church council! Yet 21st century churches have reversed this letter and are more and more commanding church members to “keep the Law” is, at least tithing!

Acts 15:27-29 “We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That you abstain from food offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if you keep yourselves, you shall do well. Farewell.”

Just in case the church in Antioch might think that Paul forged this letter, the church in Jerusalem sent two of its members to personally verify that the letter was authentic. A prophetic utterance inspired by the Holy Spirit may have added God’s blessings. For a second closing to the letter, “no greater burden” is repeated.” The Gentile Christian burden does NOT include Law observance! I wonder if the repeated emphasis is for our generation.

Acts 15:30-32 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch. And when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle. Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.

When the Gentile Christians heard that they were not expected to be burdened by observance of the Mosaic Law, they “rejoiced for the consolation” it brought. Yet today believers are not allowed to rejoice when they are told of the curse of the Law of Malachi 3:8-10. Finally, in their office of prophet, this truth of “no greater burden” was confirmed by God through Judas and Silas. What more plain teaching should we require from God’s Word!

Acts 21:17 And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.

The context is approximately A.D. 60, eight years after the church council of Acts 15 and at the conclusion of Paul’s third and final missionary journey. We know from Romans, Galatians, and Second Corinthians that the Jewish-Pharisee-Christians from the Jerusalem church who had initially caused trouble for Paul in Acts 15 had followed him from church to church throughout the years. They had charged Paul with failing to instruct Christians to observe the Mosaic Law.

Acts 21:18-19 The next day Paul went in with us unto James and all the elders were present. And when he had greeted them, he declared particularly what things God had done among the Gentiles by his ministry.

Paul reported the success of his missionary efforts to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Notice that James is still the head of the church.

Acts 21:20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:

THIS TEXT IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! It is apparent that the Jewish-Christian-Pharisees had eventually taken over the church in Jerusalem and had deceived James along with them. What a pity! Almost thirty years after Calvary the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were STILL totally committed to observing the Mosaic Law! Concerning tithing, there is absolutely no way to understand this statement without concluding that these Christians were still paying tithes TO THE TEMPLE. There is no legitimate way to even imply that they were zealously observing all of the Law—except tithing—or else paid tithes to the church leaders! Such is absurd! Thus, thirty years after Calvary, there was no such thing as a doctrine of tithing to support church leadership!

Acts 21:21 And they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.

Acts 21:22 What are we to do next? The assembly will certainly come together and they will hear that you have come back.

The church leaders were not concerned about what Paul had been telling Gentile Christians about the Law. They thought that he had deliberately told Jewish Christians that they also were no longer required to live in obedience to the Law. Paul could not bring himself to teach the divisive compromise reached in Acts 15. Since it is good enough for Gentiles to be freed from the Law through faith, then it should be good enough for Jews also. For Paul the spontaneous obedience of “the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ” “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” was more than sufficient for the new creation in Christ (Rom. 8:2; 5:5).

Acts 21:23-25 Therefore do this that we say to you: We have four men which have a vow on them. Take them, purify yourself with them [in the temple], and pay their [temple] expenses, that they may shave their heads, and all may know that those things, of which they were informed concerning you are nothing; but that you yourself also walk orderly, and keep the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, except only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.

Carefully read these verses again. Stop and think very seriously! Do not miss the full impact of these verses on tithing! A.D. 60—almost 30 years AFTER Calvary and the CHRISTIAN church leaders are commanding Paul to GO TO THE TEMPLE, PURIFY YOURSELF, OFFER SACRIFICES, AND CONVINCE THE REST OF THE CHURCH THAT HE IS FAITHFULLY OBSERVING THE MOSAIC LAW! I ask you very simply—do you HONESTLY believe that this church was teaching its members to pay TITHES TO THE CHURCH?

They were a compromising divisive legalistic church that only had the Gospel half-right. At least they understood that the Gentile Christians were never obligated to observe the Mosaic Law (including paying tithes). While this same church gave sacrificial freewill offerings fanatically in Acts 2:44-46, thirty (30) years later it is primarily giving to support the Jewish Temple system and could not possibly be teaching tithing to the church. Acts 2:44-46 is not an example of tithing because they still worshipped in the Temple. This would have not been allowed if they had stopped financially supporting the Temple. The were still Jews first at that time.

Acts 21:26-27 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, who teaches all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place, and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and has polluted this holy place. (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)

In First Corinthians 9:20 Paul had written, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law.” Unfortunately, when one attempts to “become all things to all people,” to others, at least, he might appear to be “nothing to nobody” by playing all sides of the issue. Paul had taught the truth and left it up to believing Jews to draw their own conclusions. Now his own lifestyle in such matters (at least to others) brought him back to making a sacrifice in the Temple in order to appease the divisive church leaders. (How else can we honestly explain verse 26?) When the (non-Christian) Jews recognized him, the accusations quickly mounted.

SUMMARY: The Apostle Paul was almost beaten to death outside of the Jerusalem Temple. He was arrested, sent to prison, and later to Rome—all because the mostly Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem had COMMANDED him to enter the Temple, offer sacrifices, and continue observing all of the Mosaic Law. Today, almost twenty centuries later, there are Christian churches and denominations who are again COMMANDING church members to observe that same Mosaic Law. Whether this takes the form of Sabbatarianism, unclean foods, commanded church festivals, or tithing—it is still wrong and divisive.