I love a good church fight! Especially when it's in someone else's church. Churches often have their spats. We debate all kinds of things: property, parsonages, pastors, sexuality, euthanasia, church & state.
Church fights, however, are not always bad. It really depends on what you're fighting for. I remember in one particular church we got into it over pew cushions. We contracted to put new cushions in the sanctuary. One of our ladies became so irate over the color the committee picked that on the Sunday we consecrated the cushions she brought her lawn chair.
Sometimes a good dispute--properly addressed--can lead to new insight and understanding. It happens in marriage. Oh, I know we don't like to call it fighting. Call it a discussion. It sounds more Christian. But a disagreement, honestly processed, can lead to greater clarity, a stronger bond, and a more faithful witness.
I think it's a good thing occasionally when people can agree to disagree and still be friends. My best friend in the ministry is one with whom I disagree politically. We're opposites when it comes to politics. But we're very similar when it comes to faith.
John Wesley had a good rule of thumb. He said, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
The church fight that happened in Acts 15 was over something essential! It had to do with the nature of salvation. There was a certain group of individuals--I love the way Luke says that. He doesn't call them by name. He simply says a certain group. In other words, this group doesn't represent the whole. They're not really speaking for the church; they're speaking for themselves.
I think it's one of the worst forms of ecclesial abuse when a group of individual feigns to speak for the church.
This particular group was of the Pharisee party. They'd heard about the Gentiles in Antioch. Rumor had it they were being baptized and welcomed into the fellowship without circumcision. And speaking for the church, this group said: "You cannot be saved unless you are circumcised." You cannot be a Christian unless you first become a Jew. If you don't accept the law, Christ will not accept you! It's interesting; circumcision is referred to in verse 1 of our text as a custom, but in verse 5 it's referred to as a law.
Now there's a big difference between a law and a custom. A custom is a norm, a tradition, a practice that is helpful, meaningful, but not necessarily essential. But a law is a rule; it's an edict, a non-negotiable. Sometimes the church disagrees over what is custom and what is law.
If what this group is saying is true, then the grace of God in Christ is not enough for salvation. You have to add to it the Law of Moses. Peter, on the other hand, wisely frames the theology of the early church in verse 11. "We believe," says Peter, "that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." Period.
The Pharisee party believed in grace. They had accepted God's grace in Christ. But they were so bound to their own customs that they were confusing non-essentials with essentials. And they were making life more difficult not only for the Gentile Christians, but for the Holy Spirit!
So it's interesting what happens. I think it's a model of conflict resolution in the text. The Antioch church doesn't go rogue; they don't wash their hands of the Jerusalem church. They respect the apostolic community. They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.
So they don't say, "Forget Jerusalem, we'll do our own thing!" The Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem. They send key leaders, Paul and Barnabas, among others. And notice the response when they arrive. They are welcomed by the apostles and the elders. There's a mutual respect. The mother church doesn't say, "Oh brother! Here comes trouble!" They welcomed them, and they called the meeting to order.
Apparently, in this community everyone matters. Everyone has a voice. And the church takes time to listen. The Spirit, of course, turned the tide of the meeting when Simon Peter took the mike in verse 7: "Friends," he said, "you know that from early on God made it plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the message of the Gospel and embrace it--and not in any secondhand, roundabout way, but firsthand, straight from my mouth. And God, who cannot be fooled by pretense on our part, but always knows a person's thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he did to us. He treated the outsiders exactly as he treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working from that center outward, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed Him. 'So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don't we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation? What are we fussing about?'" (The Message)
It's a difficult thing, isn't it, to let God be God? It can be so hard to trust grace! I for one appreciate grace, but we need to put some parameters around it, some controls, some restrictions, and limits.
Paul and Barnabas got up and gave their witness too, about the signs and wonders that God was doing among the Gentiles. And then everyone got quiet. And God spoke in the silence.
After a moment James took the floor. This is not James the apostle, the brother of John. This is not James, son of Alphaeus, another of the original twelve, sometimes called James the Less or James the Just. No, this is James, the brother of Jesus. He wasn't even a believer until after the resurrection, according to I Corinthians 15:7.
But James is now head of the Church. And after listening, he speaks. He places all that they have heard in the context of Scripture. It is clear that the experience of the Gentiles is actually a fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. And then, notice they don't take a vote. Spiritual leadership doesn't decide God's will through opinion polls and secret ballots. Spiritual leadership discerns God's direction through Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, and then moves to consensus.
And so, after holy conferencing, James speaks for the church. "We will not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God," he says. For grace is enough! Later James will write up the decision in verse 28: "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden on you." Notice the order of priority. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. There was a high trust level in James. Tradition says that they had a nickname for him. They called him "Old Camel Knees." Apparently, his knees were so hard from constant intercession that they looked like those of a camel. I'll trust a leader like that.
Speaking for the church, James wrote to Antioch, saying, "God's Grace is enough!" With one caveat. Please abstain from eating meat offered to idols, unkosher food, and from fornication and immorality. In other words, please respect the scruples of our tradition. Don't abuse your freedom by intentionally offending others, lest you look more like a pagan than a disciple. And they sent the letter, with representatives from Jerusalem to encourage them. And there was unity and there was joy! In Antioch and in Jerusalem.
One last thing that's easy to miss in the text. In the very next chapter--chapter 16--as Paul and Silas continue their mission, they come over to Debre & Lystra, where there's a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish Christian. His Dad was a Greek, a non-believer. Timothy was gifted for ministry. Paul wanted to take him along. Chapter 16:3 says, "Paul took Timothy and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his Dad was a Greek."
Now I don't know about you, but that seems strange to me! It seems wholly inconsistent! I want to say to Paul, "Paul, we just fixed that. Why are you backing down now?" Paul fought against the group making circumcision a condition for salvation. But as a leader in the church, he was willing to do whatever was necessary for the mission, in order to reach his people. He willingly now takes the law on himself in order to bring others to Christ.
If I'm to be serious about my witness, it's no longer just about obligation, it's no longer just about what I have to do or what I don't have to do, but what am I willing to do. What am I willing to do in order to share the good news with others? It's not a matter of have to; it's a matter of want to. It's amazing what a willing witness will do for love's sake!
In I Corinthians 9:19, Paul says, "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jew I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel so that I might share in his blessings."
It is amazing what a willing witness will do for Christ's sake!
Would you join me in a word of prayer? O God, we thank you for what you were willing to do for us in order to demonstrate your grace in Jesus Christ. As a witness for you, may we be willing to share our lives in such a way that we become a connection to others, to draw others to your love and to your grace. In Jesus' name. Amen.