In Acts 14, we saw the gospel spreading out from Jerusalem and Antioch. With that spread came division. Whole communities were divided over what to make of this story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This division brought severe consequences on the apostles.
In today’s passage – Acts 15 – we see division that sprang up within the church. Things didn’t come easy for the first-century church. There was division and opposition on the outside – from nonbelievers. And there was division and opposition on the inside – from those who had made a profession of faith.
Of course, this chapter has become a model for the church through the centuries for how to handle divisions within the church body. The words, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” have echoed through church history. This is how the church has solved its numerous debates about doctrine. And there have been lots of debates about doctrine through the years! These debates have been crucial in ensuring the church remained closely attached to the Word of God.
Two things happen when a church resolves to follow the lead of this first church council. First, the church listens intently for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It listens to God. Second, the church pays attention to its own collective sense of wisdom and knowledge. God works through humans to carry out his will.
And this process can take time. You’ll notice there was “much debate.” Disagreements aren’t solved on a whim. No one ought to jump up quickly and “call the question,” demanding an immediate yes-or-no vote. These things can take time.
The issue here was whether Gentile believers needed to observe the Jewish law. The decision from James and Peter and the rest of the council is one that seems heavy on compromise and concession. Gentile Christians did not have to follow full the Jewish law – not even close – but they were asked to adhere some of its provisions. You can sense perhaps not everyone would have come away happy from a decision like this.
But, again, God works through humans to carry out his will on earth. This was a monumental decision that paved the way for the church into the future. And the way in which the decision was handled also paved the way for the church into the future.
Of course, there was another disagreement within this chapter. The strife within the church wasn’t over.
Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement. Paul didn’t want to take John Mark along on the second missionary journey. Barnabas did. It seemed John Mark abandoned the pair during their first missionary journey.
This wasn’t a disagreement about church doctrine. This was a personal dispute among two believers. They had a “sharp disagreement,” and Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways.
Again, how does the church resolve disputes that arise within it? Paul and Barnabas could not agree. But there was no violence. No one swore off the other. Neither left the church in a huff. Rather, they went their separate ways and continued with their singular mission of spreading the gospel message.
We will see later in the New Testament some hints about how this dispute was resolved. But suffice it to say here that perhaps it is OK at times to agree to disagree. Sometimes we can remain a part of one another – a part of the church – even if we don’t fully see eye to eye on particular issues.
And we always ought to remember there is one pure mission we ought never abandon, no matter how much we might disagree about personal opinions and preferences – the sharing of the gospel message and the living out of the kingdom of God.
Of course, these few comments don’t exhaust what could be said about the topics raised in these chapters. But I think these chapters should be instructive to us as live out our lives in the church. Love one another. Feel free to disagree at times. Be patient in considering controversial topics in the church – be patient with one another. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Use wisdom and consensus-building among the people of the church. And recognize sometimes it’s OK to agree to disagree, so long as we don’t forget the mission of the church.
A New York Times columnist quit her job the other day and published her letter of resignation – addressed to the leadership at the newspaper. She said she felt badgered by her colleagues at the newspaper because her political views didn’t line up with the prevailing thinking at the newspaper. And she said the newspaper had abandoned its mission to invite “intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”
Churches are not newspapers. They are better! But we can watch how communities break up and become dysfunctional. And we can learn from them. We can see biblical truth in these things. Whenever a community becomes a place of backbiting and bullying and disrespect, it begins to fall apart. And whenever a community begins to depart from its stated mission, it begins to fall apart.
This can happen within churches as well – when we lose patience with one another and when we lose sight of our mission to share the gospel and make disciples of all nations.