A few of the comments made in regard to the last post on Acts 15 bring up two good questions:
Was the *issue that caused* the council about orthodoxy or orthopraxy?
Was the *decision and decree* of the council about orthodoxy or orthopraxy?
First of all, the issue was not over whether to include the gentiles. That was already a forgone conclusion after all the things that God had done with Paul and Barnabas in the conversion of the gentiles. Implied in their statement, even the believing Pharisees admitted as much (v.5).
Rather, the *issue that caused* the council was whether the gentiles should be circumcised in order to be saved (vv. 1 and 5). This is clearly an issue of soteriology, and thus, a matter of doctrine (i.e. orthodoxy).
As the debate progressed (vv.6-12), Peter gives his testimony about God’s revelation to him concerning the unclean foods and Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:1-11:18), and Paul and Barnabas tell of how God used them to bring the Gentiles into the faith (Acts 11:25-30, 13:1-12, 44-52, etc.). Thus, it was made clear to everyone that the gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved since this was clearly evidenced by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit in them (Acts 10:47-48).
James then gets up and judges that they should write a letter stating that they should “not trouble…the gentiles” but that the gentiles should not participate in certain pagan idolatrous acts (vv.19-20).
The letter that was written (vv.23-29) makes two “decrees”:
a.) That the Pharisees were not, in fact, sent by the Jerusalem church and had no authority, but Paul and Barnabas were (vv.24-27). Thus, this decree was to affirm the ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority of both Paul and Barnabas.
b.) That the gentiles abstain from certain pagan idolatrous acts and other immoral practices (vv.28-29).
While the first decree affirmed Paul’s and Barnabas’ teaching authority, it did not specifically affirm their teaching. Though it was clear that everyone in the council approved of their teaching, this was not part of the decree. Instead, the council simply put it into the hands of the two apostles to teach by the Holy Spirit the doctrines of soteriology to the gentiles. Thus, both decrees were over orthopraxy, practice, not doctrine.
It is here that we turn to the debate over whether this council can be made an exact example for ecumenical councils. The letter containing the decree in this council is what is comparable to the canons of the ecumenical councils of later time. Since the decree in the letter did not touch on the issue of orthodoxy, but instead, on orthopraxy and handed the doctrinal part over to the two apostles, this council cannot be used as an exact example for the doctrinal authority of an ecumenical council.
I apologize for not being clear enough, and I will change my previous post and leave footnotes with the date of the change.