JUL 21 2013 PM Working through Conflict
Last Sunday we found ourselves in the middle of the Great Jerusalem Council. We saw that part one of the meetings was Paul and Barnabas reporting all the good things God had done on the first mission trip. The second meeting involved trying to answer the question, “Does a person have to accept the whole law before he can be saved? V. 6 says the apostles and elders met to consider this question. We will be using Acts 15: 6-22 for our text tonight.
The Christian movement had been advancing rapidly up until this point, but then some Jewish believers came into the picture and told the new believers that they needed to follow the laws of Moses in order to be saved. While our first instinct would be to write these people off as troublemakers, I really have trouble believing that their intentions were all bad.
After all, as verse 1 tells us, their concern was that the new believers would be saved – doesn’t sound to me as though they were trying to make trouble for them. Also, verse 5 recognizes these people as “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” So they weren’t necessarily trying to destroy the new movement, but I believe that they were trying to make it work the only way they knew how – by following the laws of Moses. Still, this brought them into sharp dispute with Paul and Barnabas, and so a council was convened at Jerusalem to settle this matter. From this text, we get a few of ideas of what to do whenever disputes arise in the church.
The first thing we need to do is distinguish between what is and is not worth disputing over. READ (vv. 5-6). We see from these two verses that the apostles felt this statement was worth discussing. These converted Pharisees preferred a legalistic religion to one based on faith alone. Had they been allowed to continue teaching this without any discussion, the Gentiles would have been circumcised and essentially converted to Judaism. This would have confined Christianity to simply being another sect within Judaism. So, this was a very crucial discussion.
Too often in the church, we have ignored discussing crucial matters. Sometimes we prefer to avoid talking about our disagreements because it is easier than working through them. The problem with avoiding these areas of disagreement is that they don’t go away – they only fester and grow until it reaches a boiling point, and then our disagreements come out in an unhealthy way. So, we need to know when to talk about different issues we may have.
On the other hand, we also need to realize that some things simply are not worth fighting over. Chuck Swindoll, in his book The Grace Awakening, writes of a church that had a vibrant ministry and was having a powerful impact on their community. But then, a disagreement began to form. While it seemed small and insignificant at first, it grew and grew until the church was sharply divided. When it was apparent that this issue couldn’t be solved in a manner that would be suitable to everyone, half of the congregation left to form their own church. Today, while both churches still exist, neither has the outreach ministry that they did before.
Would you like to know what the disagreement was over? Well, it seems that the church, after their services, would have a time of fellowship with coffee and light refreshments. The disagreement was over whether the coffee should be served by the back door or in the fellowship hall. An issue that small and petty destroyed what had been a great ministry. This congregation simply didn’t understand that some things are not worth arguing over. I Tim. 1:3-5 tells us that the goal of God’s command is love, and this is the law by which we are to live.
The 2nd thing concerning disputes is that trouble needs to be handled by those who are spiritually mature. READ (vv. 7-12) One thing that is interesting to me as I read through the book of Acts is that you really see Peter come of age, so to speak. In the gospels, Peter is always the disciple who just doesn’t quite get it, no matter how many times Jesus explains things to him. But in the book of Acts, after Peter has received the Holy Spirit, he finally understands what it’s all about! He realizes that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit when they believed by faith, not because they had done any works of the law.
The presence of the Spirit in them was the clearest evidence that God had accepted them. Peter understood that to make following the law necessary for salvation would be putting God to the test, because it would be doubting His wisdom and plan and arrogantly pursuing a different course of action. The Peter that we read about in the gospels did not understand this, but now that he is more mature, he is able to make this kind of proclamation.
Verse 12 says that after Peter spoke; Paul and Barnabas gave their own experience of how God had worked among the Gentiles, which reinforced the fact that God had blessed the ministry to those who were not Jews. Again, God used the experience of two mature believers to help the early church through this conflict.
Likewise, God has given us people who are mature, that we should be listening to. Going back to the story of the church that split over the coffee issue, I’m sure there had to have been at least one or two voices of reason there that were trying to remind people of just how insignificant this was. We need to be able to look around and realize that there are spiritually mature people who can help us through times of conflict. Proverbs 13:10 says “Pride leads to conflict; those who take advice are wise.” By following the advice of those who are spiritually mature, we can avoid the pride that so often results in the kind of harmful conflict that causes division.
So how do we recognize who is spiritually mature? Is someone spiritually mature because they have been going to church all of their lives? No, not necessarily. The benchmarks of maturity are much deeper than that. Someone is mature if they have been walking with the Lord. Someone is mature if they are being led by the Holy Spirit, and they are mature if the fruit of the Spirit is evident in their lives. And in these next few verses, we will see one other sign of spiritual maturity:
We can know that a decision is coming from a spiritually mature person when those decisions are made based on God’s Word. READ (vv. 13-18) Peter, Paul, and Barnabas had just given testimony of what their experiences had been, but now James gets up and quotes this prophecy from the book of Amos. In doing so, James turned to God’s Word as the ultimate test of truth. This should be the way we evaluate events. We all have beliefs. We all have experiences. And the tendency is for us to want to measure others by our yardstick.
It’s common for believers to think that their experience and their convictions are true and should be the norm. Different ideas are thought to be inferior or invalid. Ultimately, however, what matters is what God’s Word says. The more we know God’s Word, the more we read it and study it and memorize it and meditate on it, the better we will be able to discern what is right and best in times of controversy or disagreement.
A circuit-riding preacher entered one church building with his young son, and dropped a coin into the offering box in the back. Not many came that Sunday, and those who did didn’t seem too excited about what was said. After the service, the preacher and son walked to the back, and he emptied the box. Out fell one coin. The young boy said, "Dad, if you’d have put more in, you’d have gotten more out!"
The same is true for us. If we will put great effort into our reading and studying of the Bible, then we will get more out of it. We must know Scripture, pray, seek His Spirit, and allow His Spirit to work in us – this will help us to work through disagreements in a constructive way.
But another concern when it comes to disputes is that we must be aware of the sensitivities of others. READ (vv. 19-21). James concludes his speech by talking about the need for the Gentile believers to refrain from things that may make the Jewish believers squeamish. He tells them to abstain from eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, from eating the blood of animals and from eating the meat of an animal that had been strangled. The Jews believed that one’s life was in its blood, and by strangling an animal, you were not allowing the blood to drain out and so its life was still present in the body.
None of these dietary regulations had anything at all to do with the new faith that the Gentiles were accepting, but rather they were given out of a sense of sensitivity to the Jewish believers. Even though the new believers were not under the law and were free to eat whatever they pleased, they were still asked to refrain from these things so as not to offend the consciences of the Jews.
This is another lesson we need to learn in dealing with our disagreements. So often we get focused on our own needs and desires that we are unable to see things from other people’s perspectives. This refusal to consider others often only causes our disagreements to escalate into an unhealthy conflict, because others sense that they are not cared about.
Our human tendency is to be self-centered, but we as believers have been called to be imitators of Christ. When we do so, we become tolerant, understanding, and accepting. However, such tolerance isn’t meant to include sinful lifestyles. James mentions these guidelines for the new believers to keep, with an understanding that basic morality and living for God would cover the rest. When believers are able to overlook their differences and come together in love and worship of the Savior, nothing gives greater glory to God or provides a more compelling witness.
In conclusion, I couldn’t help but think as I was studying this passage what this dispute would have looked like had it happened today. My guess is that once it was talked about, rather than patiently working through it as these early believers did, today we would have simply started new churches and new denominations, or left this church for another, so that we could go our separate ways and worship God as we saw fit. Problem is, that’s what the American church has been doing for centuries, and it hasn’t worked!
We have all these different churches and denominations, and for what? So that we could categorize ourselves? Yes, I realize that there are probably some cases where dividing was the right thing to do, but in most cases I would venture to say that these divisions have come about because the church has not followed the principles we see here in this passage:
• we have fought over things that don’t matter,
• we haven’t heeded wise counsel,
• we haven’t based our decisions on God’s Word, and
• we haven’t been sensitive to the needs of others.
At the root of these tendencies is the sin of pride and prejudice. The more we understand the gospel and embrace God’s version of the Body of Christ, however, the more we will begin to transcend our differences. We will be able to get along.
READ v. 22. The church council’s decision was agreement. The whole church agreed with what had been proclaimed, at least officially. Also, the church went beyond decision, reaching out to settle whatever disturbance and doubt existed. Ti reached out by sending two leading minister back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
They chose Judas (called Barsabas) and Silas. These two men would reinforce the message of the decision: salvation is by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and nothing else. They would also exhort new believers in the faith, and assure them that the message of the Judaizers was in error.
God hasn’t called us together as a body of believers so that we can simply get along. God has called us together so that we will be able to honestly and authentically say from our hearts that we love each other. When we are able to reach this place where we are authentic in our love for one another, then we will be able to impact our world in mighty ways for God’s Kingdom.