Summary: Looking at the Jerusalem Council, we see conceopts to help us work through conflict.
3 weeks ago, I spoke on the topic of conflict and how to prevent unnecessary disputes. I want to return to the topic of conflict today, but I’ll be taking a different approach this time. Whereas three weeks ago I talked about how to stop conflict before it starts, today I’ll be talking about how to deal with and work through conflict in a productive manner.
Our text for today comes from Acts 15, where we see the early believers having a big dispute over theological issues. 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.
I. We need to be able to distinguish between what is and is not worth disputing over
(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 could not be solved in a manner that would be suitable to every one, 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 did not 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.
II. Trouble needs to be handled by those who are spiritually mature (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.