January 24, 2010
We are continuing our sermon series from the book of Acts on “Living under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
In this series we are looking at what it means for the church today to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as we continue the ministry of Jesus in the world.
Now, one of the false assumptions that people sometimes have in the church is that “healthy churches” don’t have conflict. We assume that strong congregations are in constant harmony and agreement.
But that picture of the church is usually not true. Healthy churches have many conflicts too – the only difference is that they have learned how to engage those conflicts respectfully and to bring some resolution to them for the good of the whole church.
The church in Acts is certainly one that had conflicts.
- In Acts 1 the church had to deal with Judas committing suicide and then choosing a new apostle to fill his role.
- In Acts 6 they had organizational struggles so bad that the Greek widows were not getting their share of food. That disagreement led to a new church structure and a deeper involvement of Greek leaders.
- And now in Acts 15 the church has a major conflict over whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be Christian.
This morning, I want us to look at this conflict to see what we can learn from how they handled it.
There is a bumper sticker that I sometimes see that goes like this – “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
That is a nice slogan but as my grandmother used to say – “be careful because the devil can quote scriptures for his own purposes too.”
As Christians, we claim the bible as the foundation of our faith and practice. We want the bible to guide us and inform us about how to live, but that doesn’t seem to settle all the issues for us.
Jim Wallis and James Dobson read the same bible but they end up with some very different interpretations.
Mennonites and Methodists read the same bible – yet we end up with some different practices. For example, Mennonites practice believer’s baptism and Methodists practice infant baptism.
There are many times when I wish the bumper sticker – “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” was true, but it isn’t that easy.
Acts 15 is a story about those who believed the bumper sticker was true.
We saw a few weeks ago that Peter – in his vision of the sheet coming down from heaven with clean and unclean animals on it – learned that God shows no partiality. God accepts Gentiles as well as Jews into the family of God.
We also learned that the church in Antioch – an interracial church with many Gentile members – was the first place where followers of Jesus were called “Christians”.
But Peter’s vision and the experience of Gentiles in the church at Antioch – did not settle the issue of Gentile inclusion into the church.
In Acts 15:1 Luke tells us that a group of individuals came from the Jerusalem church up to Antioch teaching them that – “The bible says unless you circumcise the Gentiles according to the custom of Moses, they cannot be saved.”
So, the inclusion of Gentiles into the church became a very volatile issue because some Jewish believers thought that Gentile converts had to be circumcised in order to be saved.
Now today, we read this and think to ourselves – what was the big issue? Why squabble about circumcision? It seems like a no brainer to us.
But we have to remember that the early church only had the OT. The NT was not yet written.
And the OT taught that “NO Circumcision” meant –
- No covenant with God,
- And no Jewish nation.
So, you see how circumcision was central to Jewish identity! It was their identifying mark as God’s people. Many Jews had even died because of their determination to keep this covenant with God.
And furthermore, for these Jewish believers – Gentiles had to be circumcised because the bible said so. They were sure that if this one goes – the next thing they will be doing is keeping pigs and eating pork
Now, we need to be clear here that the issue is not about racial exclusion. The Jewish believers did not object to Gentiles coming into the church.
They just believed that Gentile believers in Jesus needed to be circumcised first and without it – they were not saved.
The thing I am most interested in today is – how did the early church handle this very important – yet divisive issue?
I want to suggest that Acts 15 provides us with a useful guide on how to handle tough issues in the church. It provides insights on how to “argue or fight fairly in the church.”
So I want to highlight several key understandings from this story that might help us in dealing with our conflicts.
- The first thing I notice here is that they faced the conflict head on.
The first step is to simply recognize that there is a problem!
When these “unauthorized” folks from Jerusalem start teaching in Antioch that Gentiles need to be circumcised – Paul and Barnabas realize they have a problem that needs to be dealt with back in Jerusalem.
They immediately go to the “source” of the problem and begin to deal with it.
Now, you might think this first step of “acknowledging that there is a problem” is easy to do, but it isn’t.
Too often, whether in our marriages, at work, or in the church – we let our “troubles or differences” brew way too long before we are willing to name them.
We try to stuff the issues in hopes that they will go away.
Our fear is that if we name the problem or disagreement between us it will cause division and be too painful for everyone. So we try to ignore or deny that we have a problem
The reality, though, is that when we stuff things or don’t acknowledge our differences or disagreements – eventually the relationship or issue explodes.
In Acts 15 they openly recognize the problem and begin a process of dealing with it in a healthy way.
Ron Kraybill, who used to work for Mennonite Conciliation Services writes, “If you want fewer divisive and church splitting conflicts, encourage more everyday disagreements in congregational life”.
Now, Kraybill is not saying we need to stir up more conflict in the church. He is simply saying that we must not let conflict go under ground.
When we learn to disagree in respectful ways with each other over everyday kinds of things – then we will be better prepared to handle more controversial things.
If we don’t learn to handle common everyday kinds of things we become too weak as a congregation to even have a good argument.
Also, when we don’t acknowledge our differences, we can easily begin to see a particular person or persons as the problem, rather than the issue at hand.
In this case it would have been easy to attack Paul and Barnabas as the problem because they were not teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised.
But because the disagreement over circumcision was named they could then deal with it together, rather than attacking each other.
Usually, when a conflict escalates – the first thing that happens is that certain people get labeled as the problem. We think that if we eliminate the problem person, we will eliminate the conflict.
These early church leaders, by openly acknowledging that there was a problem, took responsibility to solve it together. Instead of attacking each other, they attacked the identified problem.
So the first step in handling any conflict is to recognize that there is a problem and to face it head on – instead of letting it go underground or attacking each other.
- A second thing I notice here is that once they get to Jerusalem and begin dealing with the conflict – they seek out ‘diverse viewpoints’.
One of the most striking aspects of the Acts 15 Jerusalem Conference is the careful process they had to let all viewpoints be aired.
In verse 7 it says, “after there had been much debate”.
This was not a meeting of those who all agreed with each other.
In conflict, one of our most common tendencies is to find other people who agree with us.
Instead of talking directly with the people we disagree with or with whom we have a problem – we find our friends and we talk to them “about” the people we disagree with.
We move away from those we disagree with and we move towards those who agree with us.
In Acts 15 there is a conscious choice to bring together those who disagree. All of those affected by the decision had a place at the table.
There is much debate because each person had an opportunity to share how God was at work in them and their understanding of the situation.
So in dealing with conflict it is important to make a conscious decision to move toward the source of our anxiety and towards those we disagree with.
Instead of just talking with likeminded people we always need to seek out different viewpoints and surface all the issues before making any decisions as a congregation.
So the second thing is to “seek out diverse viewpoints.”
- A third thing I notice here in handling conflict constructively is that they “listened carefully to each other”.
In verse 12 it says, “the whole assembly kept silence and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles.”
One of the key elements in handling any conflict is “listening” in a way that really hears and understands the other person.
So often, we listen to others to discover their weakness or flaw in the argument, so that we can attack them when they are most vulnerable.
Instead of listening with an open mind to learn – we listen to confront and to tear apart their ideas.
To listen carefully does not mean we can’t disagree. But it does mean we are listening to understand and to discern what God might be saying through the other person.
In a sense, listening is a form of prayer. It is trying to discern what God might be saying through a brother or sister.
A major step in handling any conflict is making sure people are heard. When people feel heard and respected, even if they disagree with the decision, they often will continue to participate in the church.
- Another step in handling conflict is that they “used all the gifts in the church”.
What is interesting in Acts 15 is how God uses different gifts to bring clarity to the decision-making process.
- Some people speak of their personal experience. Paul and Barnabas shared how God was at work among the Gentiles. They shared personal stories of Gentiles coming to faith.
- Other people shared how God worked in the past. Stories from history and tradition were an important part of the discernment process.
- Other people asked – is this practice consistent with scripture? James shows how what Paul is reporting ties in with what God did in the past by quoting scriptures from Amos.
- They also didn’t try to solve this problem locally. They relied on the broader church. People from several churches were involved in the discernment process and the main leaders from Jerusalem were consulted and were part of the process.
- And then after the decision was made it says that several trustworthy leaders were chosen to carry the message to those not present.
So, what we see here is that it took many people and gifts to initiate, support, discern, and sustain the understandings they reached.
We also see from this story how personal experience, church tradition, biblical truth, and insights from the Holy Spirit were all used to make this decision.
They didn’t rely only on ‘personal experience’ or ‘church tradition’. They also listened to the Holy Spirit and they took Scripture very seriously in making this decision.
Appeals to tradition, scripture and experience will not settle all our differences, but they do determine our core boundaries for discussion.
So, I think Acts 15 gives us a good model of how experience, tradition, the scriptures, and the leading of the Holy Spirit have to work together in making a decision.
- And then another thing I notice here is that after much discussion and prayer they make a decision and act on it.
In verse 19 James brings a recommendation to the group that combines elements of both sides of the debate.
Gentiles would not have to be circumcised but they do have to follow certain Jewish ceremonial laws.
- They were asked to abstain from things polluted by idols.
- They agreed to avoid sexual immorality.
- And they agreed not to eat meat from animals that were strangled.
This last one was important because for Jewish people – “life” was in the blood and strangled animals did not have the blood drained from them.
Now, the interesting thing here is that the restrictions put on the Gentiles were not really new things.
In Leviticus 17-18 Gentile converts to Judaism had been required to observe these same practices.
The new understanding here is that Gentiles were no longer required to be circumcised.
So, in this decision, both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians had to adapt – this was a compromise.
Some important practices from the past are kept, but they also recognize the new things God is doing among the Gentiles.
Now, I also think it is important to notice that this decision was made through careful discernment.
Too often today people look at the church like a democracy. By democracy I mean – making a decision by seeking the will of the majority. Instead of listening to what the Holy Spirit says – we try to line up as many votes on our side so we can win the argument.
Spiritual discernment, on the other hand, doesn’t seek the will of the majority, but the “will of God or the mind of Christ.”
In discernment we listen to others, not to see if they are on our side, but because the Holy Spirit might speak through them for the whole group. The focus of discernment is on being open to the Holy Spirit and discovering God’s will for us as a body.
This means letting go of our own need to win, our need to be right, and our need to control the outcome.
Discernment meetings are always about our willingness to be changed by God and to have our lives transformed into the mind of Christ – so that the church becomes a living sign of God’s reign on earth.
When the Jerusalem Council made this decision it says in verse 28 – “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
This wasn’t just a majority vote here – it was discerning the movement of God in their midst and making a decision together about God’s mission in the world.
Now we don’t know if everyone agreed with the decision or if some left the church in disagreement. My guess is that not everyone agreed with the decision. We know that later on it comes up again.
Yet the church continued to move forward with the decision and they acted on what they had decided together.
I believe this morning that Acts 15 gives us a vision of how the church can handle conflict in constructive ways.
Acts 15 doesn’t just give us a process for dealing with conflict, but it calls for us to be led by the Holy Spirit and to seek reconciliation in our relationships.
Conflict is not to be seen as a disruption in our otherwise peaceful lives, but as an opportunity for us to learn something new about God, ourselves, and each other.
My prayer this morning is that we may have caught a greater picture of how God is forming us into a new community where the conflicts we face can be worked out in healthy and constructive ways.
I am well aware this morning that all of us are at different places in understanding conflict and in how we handle conflict in our personal lives and in the church.
Some of us have been deeply hurt by conflict in the past and that shapes how we respond to others when we disagree now.
My hope is that as we learn to practice some of these principles identified here in Acts 15 that we will become a more grace-filled community and that others will see the goodness of God’s mercy in our life together and will want to come and follow Jesus with us.
May God give us grace with each other and grace to grow in responding to the conflicts we experience.