Acts 15: When you fight

Application

When I was in college, one of our professors told the story of a town in which there were two virtually identical churches less than a block apart. In fact, both structures had the same basic design. Both properties sported the same basic sign. And in fact, both congregations belonged to the same denomination, so they had the same basic beliefs. One morning, when a guest walked into one of these churches, he asked someone why there would be two congregations with so many similarities so close together. The parishioner he asked explained matter-of-factly that that church up the street was the bumblebee church. Puzzled, the guest pressed for an explanation and was told this story:

“One Sunday several years ago – before the days of air conditioning – the windows were open during the service when a large insect flew into the sanctuary and started buzzing around. Some of the people thought it was a bumblebee, and others thought it was a horsefly. But before they could catch it to check whether it was a bee or a fly, the bug disappeared out the windows again, never to be seen or heard from again. Well, they wouldn’t admit that it was a horsefly, and we knew it was.”

We’ve all seen it. Arguments break out in the church and elsewhere, and bad things happen. Friendships have been torn to pieces. Families have been broken. Churches have split apart. And sadly, if we can even remember the cause of the rift, it was something utterly ridiculous.

In Acts 15, we see two debates which could have easily transformed into arguments which would have been devastating consequences for the church. The first arose over whether or not Gentile believers needed to be circumcised to get to heaven, which actually spoke to a significant point of doctrine. And the second arose over whether or not John Mark would accompany Paul and Barnabas on their second missionary journey. Both were legitimate debates. In both cases, all the parties involved had valid points and real passion. And both very well could have split the church down the middle. But neither did. And in an era when churches split quite literally over whether it was a bumblebee or a horsefly which invaded the worship service last Sunday morning, families break over nebulous “irreconcilable differences,” and friendships dissolve just because, I think it’s important to recognize how that was possible.

The keys are found in how the debates were handled from beginning to end.

In vs 1-3, when some men arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem and began teaching that the Gentiles had to be circumcised, we’re told that the teachings “brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.” Considering that Paul and Barnabas had just returned at the end of chapter 14 from a missionary journey through undeniably Gentile regions, this was understandable. And to be perfectly frank, I suspect that Paul and Barnabas were thoroughly equipped to simply pronounce these men wrong. They could have easily won that argument. But instead, the church at Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, to go to Jerusalem and ask the apostles. Rather than declare, “Thus sayeth the Lord!” Paul and Barnabas exercised humility. When we enter into a debate, even when we know that we’re absolutely, unquestionably right, we must enter with humility. This means that we don’t denounce or disrespect the other guy. In fact, I think a solid argument can be made to say that the “other believers” mentioned in verse 2 was a respectful reference to these men who were teaching the wrong thing. It means that we respect the opposing argument. Notice how they didn’t mock the notion that Gentile believers should be circumcised. And it means that both sides must be committed to finding the truth. See how, rather than going back and forth, back and forth, they went to Jerusalem to inquire of the apostles who had spiritual authority. Paul, Barnabas, and these men weren’t interested in winning the argument; they wanted to be right, even if that meant that they had to first acknowledge being wrong. When we fight, we must be humble.

In verses 4-5, when Paul, Barnabas, and co. reached Jerusalem, both sides presented their points of view. Paul and Barnabas did so by relating the experiences of their first missionary journey. The opposition did so by pointing to the Mosaic law as a precedent. Both arguments had credibility, and in verse 6, we’re told that the apostles and elders acknowledged this simply by meeting to consider the question. When we enter into a debate, we must acknowledge the validity of the opposing viewpoint. More often than not, they have some compelling arguments. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t believe what they do. And the first, simplest, and best way to do this is by listening. No, this isn’t simply letting them talk. Frankly, I think that’s what a lot of us think we’re supposed to do. But rather, it’s actually listening to what they have to say and weighing their argument for what it is. Like the apostles and elders, we must be prepared to truly consider the question, and the only way we can do that is if we know what both sides of the issue are.

Third, I think it’s important to recognize the decisions that were made. In the circumcision debate, the apostles and elders concluded that the Gentiles would not have to be circumcised; Jew and Gentile alike were saved by grace alone. This was a significant doctrinal statement. To compromise on this point would have fundamentally altered the nature of the gospel message. And so the apostles and elders made sure to take steps to make their decision clear and definitive. By the time they sent Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas, as well as a pointed letter outlining the decision, there could be no question what the church believed and expected. This level of decisiveness was essential in this case because it dealt with a central tenet which had to be preserved. In the case of whether John Mark would accompany Paul and Barnabas or not, though, the decision was entirely different. In essence, Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree, and each went their own way. What was the difference? Well, I think it was simple. The eternal consequences of whether John Mark stayed or went were negligible. The point? When we enter into a debate, make sure to keep it in perspective. Don’t push matters which are really inconsequential. But conversely, don’t fail to push matters that are of real import. Learn to discern between the two. And resolve even now that, however passionate you are about an issue, you will act in a manner appropriate to the situation.

Finally, consider what happened immediately after the decisions were made. In the John Mark debate, we find that Paul and Barnabas resolved to go their separate ways. Barnabas and John went to Crete and, I suspect, on to Pergo, revisiting the first churches that the missionaries had planted previously. Paul, on the other hand, went via land to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, revisiting the latter churches. They split up, but they were still committed to the same objectives. This type of unity is even more pronounced – and critical – in the case of the circumcision debate. In vs 22, we’re told that “the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch” to deliver the decision. Notice that phrase, “with the whole church.” This is amazing because, in verse 2, we were told that at least a few people had been strongly in favor of requiring circumcision, and in verse 5, a whole party of like-minded believers stood up and declared in no uncertain terms that they were, too. And yet, once the decision was made, even though it was very much contrary to what these believers had believed, the whole church was behind the decision. This is the true nature of unity. It’s not that we are all exactly the same. That would be conformity. Rather, it’s that we entertain all sorts of different viewpoints, but at the end of the day, we are resolved to pursue one objective, together. When we enter into a debate, we must commit from the beginning to stick together and support whatever decision is made, even if we strongly disagree with it. If we’re truly committed to this, we will be constantly mindful to not burn our proverbial bridges as we argue. We won’t gloat if we win. And we won’t haul off and pout or leave if we lose.

Disagreements are going to happen. As long as we’re human, there will inevitably be differences of opinion, understanding, and more. The world in which we live and its master would like nothing more than for believers to fight in such a way that our churches, families, friendships, and more are shattered. But as believers, we must commit ourselves to debating in a godly manner, as the first-century church demonstrated so well here in Acts 15.

 

Notes

  • (1) In this case, it was circumcision, but it seems to me you can put any number of things in this slot. How many would say, “Unless you wear your hair a certain way…”; “Unless you attend a particular church…”; “Unless you have no body piercings, tattoos, or criminal record…”; “Unless you are married with 2.3 children and a dog…”?
  • (2) I should hope that I would always be prepared to confront such false requirements, as did Paul and Barnabas.
  • (4) It occurs to me that this was the first time that Paul and Barnabas reported back to the apostles in Jerusalem. They never worried about getting the blessing for their missions trip; they just reported on its results. What would the impact be if we started a truly grassroots missionary campaign (where missionary is read both foreign and domestic, local, regional, and national).
  • (5) Sadly, there will always be support for defining holiness by some arbitrary, artificial means. You must do x, y, and z – and not do a, b, and c – to be saved. When in reality, the true measure is no more and no less than the word of God.
  • (8-9) Peter cuts right to the heart of the matter, literally. He recognized that God was not nearly as interested in the physical as He was – and is – in the heart.
  • (11) This should not be understood to discount the importance of a changed life, but it is a clear statement that grace is far more important than single acts of “faithfulness.”
  • (20-21) The compromise struck here is interesting. The Gentiles are called to abstain from all the things which were related, directly or indirectly, to their former, pagan life. This is the true expectation of faith: that we abandon the things related to our old sinful ways.
  • (22) The key here is the phrase “with the whole church.” Even though some has stood up and argued for a different approach, once the decision was made, they were all in this together. How many churches need to hear this lesson! Once a decision is made, we must get over whatever differences we may have and work toward the same goal!
  • (22-23) I also think that it’s significant that the apostles didn’t just send Paul and Barnabas with the decision on their own. I suspect there would have been skepticism and even discord if they alone had brought the decision that went so dramatically in their favor. Yet with the inclusion of Judas and Silas, called here “two leaders among the brothers” and the letter, Paul and Barnabas were sent with an undeniable commission: the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. To claim otherwise was contrary to the church and to the gospel message. End of story.
  • (39-40) Here is a case where two faithful men agreed to disagree. Barnabas thought John Mark was prepared for a second chance, Paul did not think it wise. Apparently, Barnabas was ultimately proven correct; Mark went on to be highly esteemed by Paul and even write one of our four gospels. But for right now, the two were in disagreement.
  • (39-40) I think it interesting how this disagreement played out. Neither Paul nor Barnabas questioned the others’ faith. Neither Paul nor Barnabas resorted to calling each other names or resorting to power plays to gain the upper hand. Neither Paul nor Barnabas tried to recruit teams and so risk splitting the church. Instead, they resolved to go in separate directions. Barnabas presumably went by boat to the churches established on Cyprus and Perga, and Paul went by land to the churches in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch before continuing on up into Macedonia. Rather than tearing the church apart by their disagreement, Paul and Barnabas approach to this conflict resulted in an increased effectiveness. How we would do well to remember that when we argue!
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