A Christianity that Changed the World

Added about 4 weeks ago by Michael Knowles

Icon of the Council of Jerusalem AD 49GUEST BLOG: Michael Knowles sets out the lessons he thinks the Catholic Church must take from the Council of Jerusalem of AD 49 in order to keep Christianity relevant and make today’s world a better place.

Picture credit: “Icon of the Council of Jerusalem” by Fr Andres Bergamini

This council was the most important meeting in the whole history of Christianity. Without it there wouldn’t be any Christianity at all; and the Jesus-of-Nazareth-movement would never have been anything more than a small Jewish sect which would have just withered away with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 and the dispersal of the Jewish people that followed. Without it there would have been no Christianity and the whole history of humankind would have been very different.

But that’s not all. The decisions the council took, what those decisions represented and demanded of the Christians, though it took place 2,000 years ago, are all immediately and urgently relevant for Christianity today, especially for the Catholic Church (which accounts for 53 per cent of all Christians).

All that is what I explore and describe in this book. I was a lecturer in sociology and the philosophy of religion and am a biblical theologian. I was secretary of the Hackney Trades Union Council in London in the 1970s, and Labour Party parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Congleton in Cheshire in the 1987 General Election.

The Jerusalem council was the meeting where Christianity recognised and established itself as a religion separate and distinct from any other, even from the Judaism from which it came. The meeting took place some 16 or 17 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was held by his first disciples, men and women, all of them Jewish and all brought up to believe fervently in the Jewish religion. That they were devout and dedicated Jews is of immense importance.

The decisions they made at this council took the form of a pronouncement contained in a very short letter, a mere 107 (Greek) words long, to be found in chapter 15 of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The letter was sent to three church communities in Syria and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Its declaration was that membership of the Christian Church was open to the people of all nations and cultures and was not restricted to Jews. It declared that any non-Jews who came to believe in Jesus were under no requirement to live in accordance with the practices of the Jewish religion. They could continue to live in their cultures and retain their national and cultural identities.

That decision will sound just obvious to us today, but it took long and fierce argument within the Jews who up to that moment made up the Christian Church alone. Primarily it was about the theology of God’s grace, a theology of salvation propounded by Peter and then taken up and developed by Paul in Galatians and Romans and gloriously expressed by the authors of the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians. All the Council participants had been brought up to believe that God restricted his love and concern just to their nation; that their nation, and it alone, had a covenant with him; that obedience to the regulations of their Judaism such as circumcision, and about food, festivals and social relationships such as marriage was the only way to God; and that salvation was dependent on living according to their Jewish way of life. That was what they had been brought up to believe. It was their identity; it was their very psyche; it was what they all were.

Luke narrates for us the amazing story of how, led by Peter, they came to understand that being a Christian required none of those things. The decision they took then made it possible for Christianity to integrate with all the other cultures of humanity, for the Christian good news about Jesus to be taken to all men and women in every nation and culture without them losing their identity in any way. That decision by the first Christians, all Jews, took outstanding insight and courage, confronted as they were by some of the very basics of the Jewish faith as taught to them and lived by them. This led to “fierce arguments” between them, as Luke describes, even to the extent that Paul, writing to the Christian community in Galatia in Asia Minor whose faith in Jesus had been attacked by the opponents to the council’s decision, wanted those opponents declared outcasts (anathema).

The Church is still the biggest non-political, non-governmental, voluntary organisation both in history and in today’s world. It has immense potential to do what Jesus is described by Peter as doing, namely “going about doing good”. Just to mention two things: it has always done an immense amount of good in the provision of health and in education, but the world today needs more than that. War, political strife and unrest, religious persecution, famine, climate change and the trafficking of women are all creating immense and widespread cruelty, suffering and deprivation. “Doing good” today, as Jesus did in his way in his time, is crying out for Christianity to speak and act with all the international power it can call upon. But for it to be able to do that it must be modern; it must not be attracted just to a past culture. It must be where people today are at; it must cease to alienate them. It must give full endorsement to the good things today’s world has achieved and strives for; it must make them part of itself; it must live them.

That was what the apostles and first Christians did. Luke in Acts provides the outline of their achievement. This book explores their achievement very carefully and develops the message it has for all Christians today. Despite their own past and their own culture, the apostles and first Christians presented to their world a Christianity that said “Yes” to the cultures around them, a Christianity that endorsed the good things to be found in every one of them. In that way they created a Christianity that changed the world.


In The Meeting that Changed the World, Biblical Theologian and Roman Catholic Michael Knowles discusses how the commitment to universalism made by the Council remains a challenge for the Church today and asks of it questions about its own life and practice which cannot be ignored if the Church wants to remain credible in its relationship with its own members, other faiths and the world. Get your copy today.


Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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