Maintaining unity in a culturally diverse church: table fellowship at Syrian Antioch, a case study

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Clement, Daniel Joseph
church; unity; fellowship; church history; culture conflict; Christianity and culture; Biblical Studies; Christian Denominations and Sects; Christianity; Ethics in Religion; History of Christianity; Missions and World Christianity; Practical Theology
thesis / dissertation description
In the OT, the terms “clean” and “unclean” refer literally only to one’s acceptability or unacceptability for cultic service. By the NT period, however, the application of ritual purity through the oral tradition had been broadened to related to issues of daily life. This broadening made for distinctions within Judaism based upon adherence to these traditions. The need to remain separate from Gentiles was even more acute since contact with them invariably made one unclean. Table fellowship in particular was extensively regulated.The church began within this sectarian context. Since koinonia is an essential element of church life (and includes table fellowship, Acts 2:42-47), these tensions were exacerbated when Christianity expanded beyond the homogeneity of converts won only from Judaism. Divine intervention was necessary to overcome Jewish Christian resistance to Gentile salvation (Acts 10, 11). The particular incident here studied involved an occurrence of Jewish Christian separatism in the context of table fellowship and the subsequent solution to these conflicts (Gal 2:11-14; Acts 15:1-29).Resolution of church divisions was critical since the commission of the church includes unity (John 17:19-23). The purity of the gospel was also at sake because God cleanses hearts by faith, regardless of one’s ethnicity (Acts 15:8-11; Gal 1:8). Cultural prerequisites to fellowship undercut justification by grace through faith (Gal 2:14-21).The bulk of this investigation is devoted to the cultural and biblical studies and is limited to appropriate passages from Acts and Galatians. Theological and ethical truths are extracted from both the incident of broken table fellowship and from its apostolic solution. Cultural diversity is the focus so that the truths which are gleaned may be applied to a variety of contemporary situations.It is concluded that the Jerusalem Decree (Acts 15:22-29) was designed by the leadership of the Jerusalem church to facilitate Jewish-Gentile fellowship and that it is applicable today in analogous situations. This historical event also serves as a paradigm for resolving various cultural conflicts within the church. Church leadership is authorized to decide policies aimed at facilitating fellowship. Believers are called upon to yield personal freedoms willingly as an act of love and for the sake of unity.