Churches are often confronted with tough situations and agonizing decisions. Opinions and preferences clash. Feelings arise. Conflicts emerge, and we struggle to resolve them. We discuss, and sometimes we fight. Often, we leave the discussions frustrated and discouraged. Or we somehow decide something, but we’re not really convinced. So, afterward there is grumbling, or perhaps we go and do whatever we want anyway.
The early church faced similar challenges, and the book of Acts provides glimpses of how they dealt with the challenges—sometimes well, sometimes not so well.
When convictions collide
Right at the middle of the book of Acts we encounter the early church in crisis. In Antioch people are coming to faith and joining the church, but without adopting the convictions and behavioral standards that have always been expected of true believers. In Jerusalem leaders are ringing alarm bells. Yes, let’s win people for the Gospel, but they must hold right beliefs and meet appropriate ethical standards. The danger is very real that the church would split, primarily along ethnic lines.
It is a typical collision between defenders of tradition and defenders of innovation. The “conservative” side is convinced Gentiles can become Christians but only if they become Jews first and then live as Jews are expected
to live. On the other side, Paul and Barnabas defend the more “progressive” view. They are convinced the church must accept with open arms everyone God is bringing to faith. After all, Jesus welcomed even tax collectors and sinners.
Not so different from what we experience today, is it? Theological and ethical disputes have characterized the church throughout its history. The surface issues change, but the underlying issues are often very much the same. And that is why studying Acts 15, the early church’s special convention to deal with their crisis, can help us today as we aim to preserve church unity and pursue our mission together, even while not seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.
The question to be answered
The surface issue in Acts 15 is clear and simple: Do Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus need to be circumcised (v.1)? A simple question, requiring either a “yes” or “no” answer, right? Actually, things are not really that simple. Everyone knew that “circumcision” actually meant “full integration into Jewish faith.” And that meant keeping a lot of Mosaic laws – Sabbath laws, purity laws, kosher food laws, etc. (v.5). So really the question is: Do Gentiles have to become Jews to be Christians?
The answer to the question seems obvious to us, but it was not at all obvious at the time. The early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the apostles, has assumed for 20 years already that every Gentile coming to faith in Jesus first needs to join the Jewish faith through circumcision and then will need to commit to living according to the covenant God made with Israel. Now influential voices are saying, “Maybe God is leading us in a new direction.” Now that is a recipe for an explosive conversation!
Most of Acts 15 narrates the fascinating and inspiring story of the early church working carefully through all the issues involved, reaching a workable consensus and then concluding, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us!” (Actually, the chapter ends with a less inspiring story, as Paul and Barnabas cannot preserve their own unity and decide to go their separate ways. Oh well, I guess it is encouraging that even in the early church, things did not always work out perfectly.)
There isn’t room here to explore all the interpretive challenges in Acts 15, but let’s note some of the priorities and procedures the early church follows as they work through their conflict. Perhaps they can inform us as we also aim for healthy God-honoring ways of addressing the conflicts we experience.
They invest time and energy in the process. The process matters. In fact, when people don’t like conclusions reached, they usually criticize the process. The delegates from Antioch traveled three days to gather with those in Jerusalem. There space was created for everyone to contribute. And they listened! They listened until they were persuaded. That is what “the whole assembly became silent” (v. 12) really means.
They clarify the underlying issues. The first question concerns circumcision, but they discern that it has to do with deeper issues: What is the nature of the covenant, now that Jesus renews it? What is the basis of salvation? What are the ethical implications of all this? In our conflicts, let’s not stay stuck on surface questions. Let’s discern carefully what larger issues are at stake.
They are able to say a clear “yes” and “no” on some issues. No, the Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. Yes, salvation is by grace for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. There are issues on which no compromise is possible, where only a clear “yes” or “no” establishes a foundation on which we can build. Unity and diversity can co-exist healthily only if there is a strong set of core convictions and values that we can all affirm.
They distinguish between ethical issues and ethnic peculiarities. These are not the same thing! After settling the core theological issue, they make some basic decisions about what this means for ethical behavior. But then they also free up diverse ethnic groups to “be themselves.” In fact, they have to learn that some issues they previously thought were ethical matters were actually no more than ethnic differences.
They balance tradition and innovation. They recall what God has done in the past (v. 7) and then recount the new things God is now doing (v. 12). God has spoken in our past; God leads us in new directions. We must balance both convictions if we want to stay in step with God’s Spirit.
They examine the Scriptures. “This agrees with the words of the prophets,” notes James in verse 15. We can seriously misunderstand God’s activities in the past and present if we do not carefully examine the Scriptures. The Bible enters their discussion rather late in the process. For us it must come far earlier. The difference is that we already have the New Testament, whereas they rely heavily on the apostles who later wrote New Testament books.
They aim to make it easier and not harder for newcomers (vv. 19-20). This should be our priority as well. It is a sign of maturity when those who have been in the church for a long time are willing to smooth the path for newcomers and not expect them to make the major concessions.
They also aim to make sure it is not too hard for the others! This is the other side. The newcomers are also expected to make some concessions, to be willing to restrict their freedoms for the sake of those who have been in the church before they were.
They do not say, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” until they have reached consensus. Of course, we want to invite the Holy Spirit to be present in our conversations. But if each one seeks to draw the Spirit onto his or her side (“It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to me”), we are not following the example of the early church. In fact, I sometimes wonder how they knew that the decision they made corresponds to the leading of the Spirit.
I suspect they knew precisely because they have reached consensus about it. They have taken the appropriate steps in seeking God’s will. They have listened to each other; they have examined the Scriptures; they have recognized God at work; they have been willing to move courageously in new directions. They pave the way for others to come to faith and to join the fellowship. They agree together. What else could this mean but that the Holy Spirit has been at work all along, leading to the right decision?
When we allow the Spirit to lead like that, then we too can preserve unity and pursue the mission of the church.
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life.