The story begins in Antioch of Syria, site of the first Gentile congregation. Established by unnamed Christians scattered from Jerusalem, Acts 11:19-21, it is often called the “cradle of Christianity,” apparently the first congregation open to Jews and Gentiles alike.
When the Jerusalem church heard of a thriving congregation there, they sent Barnabas as encouragement, (Acts 15:22), “and much people was added unto the Lord,” v. 24. He soon sent for Saul (Paul), recently returned to his home town of Tarsus, v. 25. The Antioch church was destined to become Paul’s “base of operations” for his three missionary journeys.
Sandwiched between Paul’s first and second journeys is the event in Acts 15 often called the “Jerusalem Conference”, occasioned by a doctrinal problem that needed resolution. Some Jewish Christians from Judea (the “sect of the Pharisees who believed,” (Acts 15:5) came to Antioch with the teaching that Christians must “be circumcised after the custom of Moses” or be lost, (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas stood strong against this heresy, but the controversy was such that the church there “appointed that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them (perhaps representatives of the opposition), should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Is this to be held as a precedent for “church conferences” at some central location to settle doctrinal disputes today? Not at all; simply consider the question “Why Jerusalem?” The very context answers it: Because “the apostles and elders” were there! The record of the scattering from Jerusalem because of persecution, Acts 8:1, notes Christians “were all scattered abroad…except the apostles,” who stayed in Jerusalem. The apostles, because of the gift of inspiration (Acts 2:4), amounted to the Word of God on two legs! So when the Antioch church appealed to Jerusalem for answers, they were going back to God’s Word as it miraculously resided in the apostles, who resided in Jerusalem. The equivalent today is to gather around the Bible to settle disputes of doctrine. So we go “back to the Bible” (the modern Restoration plea) in like manner as they went “back to Jerusalem.”
You can read “the rest of the story” of the conference and the outcome in the remainder of Acts 15—that isn’t our concern here. The lesson to be learned is this: Common sense decreed that they must go all the way back! It was a long and arduous journey of about 300 miles, a solid two weeks of travel. Acts 15:3 records their route through both Phoenicia and Samaria. It must have been tempting to road-weary travelers to stop along the way for rest and recreation. But they had a mission more important than their weariness, and pressed on, and came to Jerusalem, (v. 4). “Halfway to Jerusalem” would have accomplished exactly nothing.
Now: Keep that in mind concerning our modern parallel—is anything accomplished by going only “halfway back to the Bible”? We have the answer in the Reformation Movement of the 16th century, led by John Calvin and Martin Luther. They had doctrinal issues with the Roman Catholic Church, and proposed to go back to the Bible for their solutions—but they only went “halfway to Jerusalem”! They got off to a good start, but stopped too soon, simply forming more denominations “protesting” the Catholic excesses. This shortcoming was only finally resolved in the Restoration Movement of the 19th century, in which the Lord’s church was restored in all its glory—by going “all the way” back to the Bible.
Perhaps an even more immediate lesson would be our insuring, in any dispute, that we go ”all the way back” to God’s truth, rather than selectively viewing only those passages that may be misused to promote error. Jesus said “Thy Word is truth”, but Psalm 119:160 clarifies His meaning: “The sum of Thy Word is truth,” so translated in the ASV, NASV, RSV, ESV, ERV, ISV, Young’s Literal, and others. “The entirety of Thy Word is truth,” so rendered in the NKJV, Christian Standard, Berean Study Bible, etc. The old KJV simply says “Thy Word is true from the beginning”, but even then includes “every one of Thy righteous judgments” in context. The point: It takes all of the Bible—going all the way back to Jerusalem!—to insure we arrive at the truth. Until you have everything the Bible says on any subject, you can’t be certain your conclusions are right.
When Christians find themselves in a doctrinal disagreement, by all means they should sit down with the Bible between them to resolve the issue. Just be sure you don’t stop “halfway to Jerusalem” without considering every relevant passage, even (maybe especially) if it doesn’t seem to support your argument. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself; truth is always harmonious. If your stand is right, you have nothing to fear from a thorough examination of all the Bible has to say on the matter. Remember, “halfway to Jerusalem” accomplishes exactly nothing!