We have been investigating the Biblical record on the life and mission of Paul, the famous first century Apostle to the Gentile world. In this lesson, I want to talk about how something tough to deal with. The text of Acts now moves into the hard subject of fighting and interpersonal disagreements between believers – but the approach we are taking will not leave us cynical or angry. In fact, even dissension and division can become a positive stage from which we can learn critical lessons about our walk with God. To be fair, our subject was not CHOSEN by me, it is the subject recorded as the next major hurdle Paul had to pass over in becoming effective as a church planter. This was the situation: Acts 15 recorded the minutes of a tough meeting of the elders of the early church as they came together to settle a critical dispute in a divided room of the early church. This became one of the most important learning settings for Paul in his early missionary days. Why? Because handling conflict is a critical function of any good leader – and Paul was being shaped by God. The record of this shaping is found in the account of an argument by men of God who were struggling to discern God’s direction during the infancy of the church movement. Though I am certain there were many disagreements and disputes among followers of Jesus in that time, this one was preserved for our understanding because it was deemed by God to be critical to the growth of the church and its leaders.
Let’s face it, men have been fighting since Cain killed Abel, but it took many centuries for them to apply actual “rules” to physical conflict and call it a “sport”. What the Greeks first called “pygmachia” (now called “boxing”) can probably be traced back to the seventh century BCE (during the period of the divided kingdom in Israel and Judah) when the combat sport made its debut in the Olympic games. The idea was to place two people in a cordoned area and allow them to strike one another with blows using leather strapped fists (which were eventually replaced by gloves). As a “sport”, this prize fighting grew and became more organized over the centuries, but became largely popularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries first in Britain, then in the US. As its popularity increased, so did formalization of the rules around which a sanctioned fight took place. Today, the Olympian boxers learn a great number of rules that specify when and where a punch can be thrown. Even beyond physical fighting, the Greeks also left the west a legacy of a type of verbal sparring now referred to simply as “debate”. It also has come of age with many rules, though in its political and social media forms such rules are hard to discern. I mention these forms of “fighting” because they illustrate the idea of sparring with rules.
Here is the truth: Believers must come to recognize that not everyone who follows Jesus agrees with one another on a host of issues – so conflict isn’t unnatural. In fact, I believe the text will show that God uses even conflict between believers to sharpen each other in truth – though I readily admit the process is difficult, painful and often distracting to other ministry objectives. It is essential that we learn how to handle disagreement in a godly way, and for that God gave us the record of a model dispute. He intended us to know how to successfully navigate even intense disagreements between believers, including those on the most sensitive of issues. How can we pass through these disputes successfully? Is there a key? Yes…
Key Principle: The key to settling disputes is not the agreement to the debated issue, but agreement to the contract that both sides will follow the system set up for arbitration, and ultimately support the decision of the designated leadership.
That’s a lot of verbiage. The point is simple: in order for a dispute to be settled and peace restored to a divided situation, people have to agree on the METHOD of settling the dispute and the AUTHORITIES that should do so. If such an agreement is not made, the issue will leave the church fractured. Let’s look at the model, and see what God taught Paul (and will teach us) from the struggle:
Division on the field
The passage opened with a visit from some Jewish men of the Jerusalem area:
Acts 15:1 Some men came down from Judea and [began] teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, [the brethren] determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
First, note the issue was raised by Judean visitors (better explained in verse 5). They argued (paraphrasing): “To be saved, Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes – beginning with circumcision and moving into the instruction of the Torah” (15:1,5). They represented the accepted norm in Judaism, and there was little reason to believe that God had changed the situation based on what THEY knew of the issues. What they were saying had been said for centuries – and in the past it was both Biblically accurate and (of course) ethically sound.
Next, we should take note that even in the most critical areas of the faith, there was disagreement. In a tolerance laden culture we must remember that not everyone can be right, but disagreement doesn’t need to lead to destruction – there is a way to deal with differences. How do we bring a serious and divisive issue to agreement and peace? The model offers help:
We must recognize the division and define the issues. This is a critical beginning to the solution. We cannot solve an issue we cannot define. Look at the model…
Initially it caused two parties to develop, opening debate and confusing the core of the Gospel message (15:2): The issue was defined as whether salvation came to anyone simply by God’s grace through the respondent’s faith. Did the message of the Gospel mean an end to the need for atonement (replacing it with justification)? If that was true, than a man or woman’s participation in attaining cleansing was greatly curtailed. They didn’t need to raise a sacrificial animal, nor did they need to stand in the long lines for slaughter of that animal. They didn’t need to make the trip to Jerusalem at times of sacrifice. Any Jew would recognize the startling implications for the center of the faith’s observance! In this way, the fear of losing the center played into the theology of the people of Judea. Seeking the critical issues will force us to think clearly about our positions and their implications- but it will also help us define our fears.
If we follow their example, we should get the best minds available and most informed people to offer evidence. These weren’t just smart people in the room, but people who KNEW GOD and had a walk with God. Stop for a second and look at what the men did to gather information, because it is a critical part of the Acts record (cp. 15:2). I am going to camp here for a few minutes, because this part gets overlooked too often…
In the model, the church sent men to gain clarification with evidence of what was being presented. Paul and Barnabas could testify to the idea that God was at work among the Gentiles without their participation in the atonement system of Temple Judaism. As a result, the team was allowed to share their experiences from their travels and what God appeared to be doing from what they experienced (15:3-4). Yet, their experience NEEDED TO BE CHECKED AGAINST OTHER ISSUES.
Don’t skip this part! The “testimony gathering” stage was not inconsequential for Jerusalem’s council, nor was the hearing small to Paul and Barnabas. Leaders make decisions based on facts – not simply voiced fears. By getting first hand testimony, Jerusalem properly collected anecdotes that would help them make the right decision – but by seeking Jerusalem’s counsel on the experience, Paul and Barnabas showed respect for a proper decision making process for the churches.
Stop for a moment and see if you can recognize one of the great issues of our day at this point in our study. For many in the modern church, personal experience too often dictates the determination of truth. If you are younger than 30 years of age, there are two critical lies that have been subtly introduced into many serious discussions of moral behavior. They have often been introduced by educators and further reinforced by modern entertainers.
• First is the idea that moral premises can be decided on the basis of your personal feelings alone.
• Second is the notion that your life experience is the best guide for truth. True Christian thinking, i.e. Biblical thinking stands opposed to both ideas.
To the first, a Christian acknowledges that how I feel about things needs to be subjected to how GOD feels about them, and that is clear only when I understand what the Bible truly says about the issue at the center of my decision. I cannot be “taking up a cross daily and following Jesus” while openly opposing God’s right to set the standard of behavior for His Creation.
To the second, followers of Jesus must reckon that our grasp of experience is grossly limited because we only perceive PART of what is truly happening. We are passing through an experience that we will only truly understand much later.
Here is the key: Decisions about truth and reckoning of moral behavior are not reliably decided based on feeling and experience apart from the Biblical record. Such standards of behavior are not Christian, they are pagan, ungodly and strongly applauded by a fallen world. When the whole fallen world is for your “boldly tolerant” decision, you should not be impressed. Open your Bible, therein is the standard for the follower of Jesus.
The fact is that Bible believers, when living Biblically, confound the modern way of thinking because they can both love the person they see as living in an immoral way and yet reject their life behavior as wrong. I don’t hate people who oppose the Biblical view; I see them as victims of the Fall of man, held in the embrace of a fallen prince doomed to destruction. They aren’t the problem to be solved; they are the sinner to be loved. At the same time, I will not embrace their standard of behavior no matter how bigoted they evaluate my faith to be. Why? Because if there is a God (as the Bible purports) and if this IS His standard (in the Bible), how they feel about my evaluation of their life is not more compelling to me than what HE has said about their behavior. If I surrender that ground, I have surrendered the Bible to the modern sense of toleration, and I have no message for the sinner but this: “God loves you, but do what you want, or what seems good to you.” That isn’t Biblical at all, and it robs the church of a message that God will save you from your fallen state.
Increasingly, as the culture changes to make what the Bible defines as wrong into a “civil right”, we are forced to do this. Let me be clear: Our experiences with people must not determine our standard of behavior – that is offered by our Creator in His Word. That is one of the things that makes a Christian a follower of Christ. We do NOT simply follow some vaguely formed “love and tolerance” Jesus message – we read the whole of the book and seek to recognize the actual textual principles of it – which are considerably detailed in the 1189 chapters of the Bible. Some in our society boil the message of Jesus into a tolerance that accepts all behaviors – but that doesn’t match the text at all.
For older believers who engage this lesson, you may not understand why I am slowing down to examine this part of the story…but this is critical to our young. I strongly believe we are living in a day of delusion -even within the community of the Christian faith. Many begin with the flawed foundational idea that God’s chief interest is their happiness (not holiness). Because of that, anything that would curtail their ability to express their inner desires and feelings could not be commanded by this “reshaped” god they now follow. If they feel they were “made with certain desires”, they cannot imagine a god that would tell them to deny their feelings – because their true god is their appetite. We live in a time where even believers have been subtly convinced that the center of the universe is how they feel, not Who they serve – and that separates the modern church from the message of its past.
The point is simple: How I feel about things needs to be subjected to how GOD feels about them:
• Do I feel sex outside of marriage is right or wrong? The Christian answer is “Who cares what you feel about that?” The believer may feel it is perfectly acceptable in their heart (“because I really love them”) – but the Bible makes it clear that it is NOT God’s standard. When weighing the deciding factor, Christian thinking dictates that God’s Word is the standard of both my faith and my behavior.
• Do I feel that because someone says: “I have always felt this way”, that acting on that feeling is ok with God? The Biblical answer is “Your feelings are from a fallen heart that will deceive you.” That is what the Bible teaches.
In the problem in Acts, anecdotal experience was presented, but it wasn’t the deciding factor. A thousand experiences from the testimony of the internet may be a tool for clarity, but only if we know how to filter properly the critical issues of the debate. Let me be pointed here:
A young woman I know well says she is a believer in Jesus. She decided to walk away from both her family and Biblical teaching given to her in her spiritual walk early in life. She wanted to be loved, and decided to sleep with a boyfriend outside of marriage and ended up living with him in a home with a whole group of others. She got pregnant – not once, but several times. The babies came one after another – but her boyfriend’s sense of responsibility didn’t keep a roof over her head, and her sexual escapades in those years didn’t protect her from HIV. Now she is sick and frustrated because she is unable to offer her children any of her buried Biblical ideals in that deconstructed and immoral environment. As she has grown sicker, she realizes that her feelings that she “loved him” were not enough to make life work. She recognizes her limited life experience didn’t anticipate the outcomes. Now she needs those who love her unconditionally– the family she walked away from – but the feelings that led her decisions did not take into account the rest of the people in her life who were passing through profound heartbreak because of each of her choices. They knew God’s Word, and they saw it all coming. Don’t be deceived – ungodly living leads to destroyed lives. With each of her ungodly, immoral and destructive decisions she sank deeper, but the modern world applauded, until the results came due. Her inexperience and her heart-led choices have created a mess for her child – but she couldn’t see that when she decided on her lifestyle. Now, it is very probable that the state will have more children to raise for parents that “followed their heart” instead of their Bible.
Go back to the Jerusalem Council. Look at the third way they worked to solve the issue. They defined the issue, they gathered the facts… what was next? Since they knew the problems could not be settled by people on the scene, they sought help. Third, they took the problem to those who are experts and authorities in the issue.
At Jerusalem, some Pharisees objected (15:5) so the council came to consider the issue (15:6). Nothing is served by shutting out one view before the hearing. They let those who objected speak, even if they are not in the majority.
Debate among the delegates
Listen for a moment to the debate in the room:
Acts 15:7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” 12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
First, people got the chance to speak from their experiences, their feelings and their best understandings. No one knows everything, so the debate probably changed some positions in the room. This wasn’t the modern form of yelling and sarcasm that debate has become – this was scholarly determination, with pliable and teachable hearts of men who respected one another and cared deeply for one another. When people don’t care about one another, the debate degrades quickly into a shouting match.
After some debate, Peter took the floor and began to share his experiences that seemed inexplicable apart from a “God at work” moment. He noted the time he stood before Cornelius and made clear he didn’t see God’s move coming. He made clear that God didn’t seem to distinguish between Jew and Gentile in the move of the Spirit’s gifts. He also made clear that he didn’t want to press the Gentiles into the atonement system – because keeping one’s eternal state was a heavy business that often led to failure. After that testimony came the moment that probably swayed a number of hearts. Peter said: “Either we believe that justification apart from any human work is the Gospel, or we don’t.”
There is was: the clear choice was made plain. The Gospel would either be that Gentiles could become Jews (a message that had been around for centuries), or the Gospel was that justification (total repair of the formerly broken relationship with God) was available to anyone who would believe that Jesus paid it all for them. Paul and Barnabas sided with the latter notion, and gave testimony as to how that was clearly working in the Gentile world.
Determination of the council
It was time to decide. James (who headed the council) spoke to the issue:
Acts 15:13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’ 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO. 19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas– Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them…” The rest of the passage is about the letter repeating the words of James, and the men moving out with the letter that contained the words…
Obviously, the church needed clarity, and there was a system for caring for the problem. What was key in these verses is the line of reasoning used to solve the issue:
James cited the testimony of the trusted men about their experience (Acts 15:14) – but that was not the deciding factor. His decision, as our decision in any moral or doctrinal issue, was based on the how the idea or behavior fit the Scriptural frame already exposed by God in His Word.
James showed sensitivity to all sides of the debate, but he took a stand. In our modern culture of tolerance, that may sound JUDGY, but not everyone is right when two moral or behavioral codes run in opposite directions. James made clear the teaching in four statements:
• They must set aside life in the pagan temple – no small affair for an ingrained Roman citizen.
• They must not eat blood.
• They must not eat animals that have been killed by strangulation nor participate in the pagan services that do such things.
• They must forsake sexual sin and walk in purity (something associated with pagan ritual as well as standard Roman practice).
James recognized the differences that God maintained – not everyone was going to be doing the same thing to be in obedience to God’s call for them. Many Christians lose track of the issues in this passage. James was NOT telling Jews not to circumcise nor keep Sabbath – that wasn’t his point. He made the decision “Concerning Gentiles” not changing anything for the Jewish people at that point. Much later in Acts 21:20, it will become clear that Jews keeping the Law was not in view in the decision making process at all.
It is NOT Biblical to think that any distinction in the functions of people fundamentally demeans people. The Bible made clear that men and women were given differing roles by God – but both are equally valued by God. Jews and Gentiles were given differing standards of food and drink, dress and celebration by God – but that doesn’t mean that one was viewed as superior to the other. Modern thinking has assaulted this value system, claiming that anything that distinguished one person from another demeans people.
Telling women they are not to Pastor a church is not the same thing as making an African-American sit in the back of a bus. One was the action of people who made another subservient to them out of a misguided and evil sense of superiority; the other is a statement based on overwhelming evidence from the Bible itself. Believers can disagree on the meaning of those passages (though I believe they are quite clear), but we must recognize that adherence to that standard is not intended to be mean spirited.
It is always Biblically immoral to demean anyone’s value (since that value is tied up in their creation by a Majestic God), but it is NOT wrong to limit one’s desired behaviors based on what the Bible expressly teaches. That was part of the POINT of God’s reveal truth – to transform us and change our behaviors from their fallen desires.
The issue was solved, and the council sorted out the complex arguments and boiled down the action steps for the group, showing public agreement.
Delivery to the perplexed
The letter was carried, and the small house churches were completely informed on the issue and the decision.
Acts 15:30 So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter…”
Here is my question: “Why did this work?”
I believe the answer is this: “Some vital points of agreement were understood at the beginning. They LOVED one another, and respected men of God that showed His leading in their lives listened to one another carefully. Yet, there was something more: Both sides accepted the process and showed respect for their leaders, when those leaders lived and taught in a way that reflected God’s Word.
Our text dealt with three basic questions about disagreements in the body:
When was contention necessary? (15:1) It must come when the issue is essential to the core message of the group, there must be agreement (15:1). These were not contentions over style or preference – but essential truths that made fellowship impossible without agreement.
What was the process of dealing with serious disagreements? (15:2-5) In a “face to face” meeting, people presented their understandings to the other (15:2a), set aside their ego, and met with congeniality and care.
How did the council decide the truth concerning the opposing views? (15:6-35). First, they accepted evidence that God was at work. Though experiential, that evidence was one of the ways the church could see the hand of God in their lives. (15:7-12). Then they related any experiences to the filter of the Word of God (15:13-18). Finally, when the decision was made, they publicly supported it.
The key to settling disputes is not the agreement to the debated issue, but agreement to the contract that both sides will follow the system set up for arbitration, and ultimately support the decision of the designated leadership.
Paul, like all of the men in the room, walked away refreshed with God’s work through the whole room. He learned a pattern that would serve him well – because conflict would occur more than he could possibly know in the days ahead.