Conflict Resolution, First Century Style

A lot of people seem to think this whole Christianity thing means that once you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, everybody gets along with everybody else from there on in and life is nothing but happy thoughts and roses.


If you believe that, I’ll be selling donuts with rainbow sprinkles next to the unicorn kissing booth in the narthex next Sunday morning. 


The truth is, even after we are saved, we are still human beings subject to a wide variety of sin and error. 


Somehow, we still have to work out our differences and disagreements.


Thankfully, Christian love and brotherhood should allow us to work out problems among ourselves without resorting to name-calling, animosity, or violence. The lack of those two things in our discourse as a nation has brought us to a point in our national history which is dangerously similar to the tone that enveloped the country prior to the Civil War. 


(The Salem Advocate, a newspaper from Abraham Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, wrote of him in 1861, “His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.”)


Making matters even worse is the current pandemic, which has diminished meeting together and having the kind of conversations where we can come to understand each other and simply talk in Christian love and fellowship.


I think it’s safe to say there is no church or group of believers in the United States (and probably the vast majority of the world) which has not been affected by the pandemic in some way. 


So, how do we cope with this? 


Certainly, Kinship Christian Radio and all the other Christian radio stations all across the country, along with the online presence of churches and ministries all over the world continue to bring the Word of the Lord, music, praise, preaching, and the work of the Holy Spirit into people’s lives for guidance.


But is there a Biblical model for how we should deal with things when disagreements and arguments come up among us?


I think there is, and I think it is Acts 15:


While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15: 1&2 NLT)


So, rather than argue among themselves, the church at Antioch sent a delegation to Jerusalem –the head of the newly-forming church. They needed a resolution and they realized it needed to come from a meeting of the whole church.


“When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them. But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses. So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue.” (vss 4-6)


They had a clear objective to resolve this specific issue. There was one item on the agenda and one item only.


“At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus. Everyone listened quietly as Barnabas and Paul told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (vss 7-12)


Note that there was a long discussion. Everyone had their say. Peter rises and claims the Gentiles are receiving the very same Holy Spirit as the Apostles received at Pentecost. This is direct evidence that God is doing a work in them. Paul and Barnabas further verify this by telling of the miraculous signs and wonders God was doing through them among the Gentiles.


Now, looking back on this event with the hindsight of history, it’s easy to see that Paul and Barnabas and Peter were in the right, but keep in mind that both sides of the argument were legitimate points. God had clearly commanded in Genesis 17: 10-14 circumcision for all males born in Jewish households, including the servants, or they would be cut off from the covenant family. (The family of God.) God also made it clear that this was an everlasting covenant. 


Then James stands up. The brother of Jesus reminds the assembly of the prophecy that God would save Gentiles too. And then, he says,


“And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.” (vss 19-21)


In the end, the compelling arguments that lead to a decision were the direct evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work and the fulfillment of prophecy. It’s also important to note that James’ solution also includes a concession or a compromise (if you will) to those in the sect of the Pharisees that the Gentiles should obey some of the most important parts of the Law of Moses.


So, the Biblical model for resolving disputes within the church doesn’t mean we all simply agree with each other. There will be lengthy discussions which will indeed involve some passionate and even heated discourse. But in the end, the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s promises are there to show us and enable us to accept the decisions that we come to as a result of those discussions. 


As for whether you get the chocolate or the rainbow sprinkles on your unicorn donut, I would refer you to 1 Corinthians 10:31.


Today’s Praise

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”

The messengers went at once to Antioch, where they called a general meeting of the believers and delivered the letter. And there was great joy throughout the church that day as they read this encouraging message.” Acts 15: 28-31 NLT

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