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Controversy in the Church

Last Sunday Paul & Barnabas safely returned to Antioch after completing their first missionary journey together. And what a journey it had been! They had travelled over 1400 miles and preached the Gospel in dozens of towns and cities. They had done amazing miracles – such as healing a lame man who had the faith to be healed, as well as blinding the eyes of a sorcerer who had blatantly opposed the Word of God. They had also suffered persecution – they had been run out of town, plotted against, and Paul had even been stoned and left for dead!

But through it all, they faithfully preached the Word of God and completed the work that God had given them to do. And as they preached, crowds of people – including both Jews and Gentiles – came to hear their preaching and many became believers. These new believers formed brand new churches in many cities and so Paul & Barnabas appointed elders in each church to continue teaching and equipping those new believers – so that they might grow and mature in their walk with the Lord.

And so having done all that, they entrusting those new churches and new elders to the care of the Lord, and they returned to Antioch to report all these things to their home church – who had originally commissioned and sent them out.

And if this were the end of the book of Acts, we would probably conclude by saying “And they all lived happily ever after.” Acts chapter 14 kinda ends on that sort of note where the missionary journey was a great success and Paul & Barnabas settled down in Antioch for quite some time!

But that isn’t the end of the book of Acts, and as we get into chapter 15, we quickly see that they didn’t all live happily ever after. Before too long, the church became enveloped in great controversy!

And it wasn’t even the new baby churches that Paul & Barnabas had just planted who were embroiled in this controversy – it was their own home church of Antioch!

Now I know that we can hardly imagine having controversy within the church – especially coming out of these last few years of covid! We know nothing of that sort of thing, do we?

Of course we do! As long as there are people in the church, there are going to be controversies as well. That’s just the nature of different people with different perspectives all coming from different backgrounds and experiences – but all trying to work together to serve and honour God to the best of our abilities! With all those differences, there’s going to be some conflict! And that’s ok! The important part is how we deal with those differences. It’s how we work together though the conflict that really matters. 

And that’s where this next chapter in Acts can be very helpful for us! As we watch this church in Antioch work through some of their controversies, I think there are a lot of principles that we can take and apply to some of our own situations here in the 21st century! The specific issues are likely different, but the principles for working through those issues remain the same.

So let’s take a look!

Acts chapter 15, verse 1 begin like this:

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.” 2 Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently.

Acts 15:1-2a

So here’s the controversy. On one hand, we have some men from Judea teaching these Gentile believers that they must be circumcised in order to be saved. That is, they must become like a Jew and agree to follow all the laws of Moses. Of course, circumcision would be the first step in that, but all the other Jewish practices would also be part of the package. The idea here was that God has provided salvation for those who are Jewish – and if you are a Gentile, you must first become Jewish in order to be saved.

But as we see in verse 2, Paul & Barnabas vehemently disagreed! As we will see a little later on in the passage, they believed that God had provided salvation for both the Jews and the Gentiles alike – and that following the laws of Moses was not a requirement of salvation for anyone.

Now for us, as Gentile believers some 2000 years later, it’s pretty easy for us to side with Paul & Barnabas – but we have to remember what a huge shift in thinking this whole “salvation for the gentiles” thing was for the Jews back then.

I’ve mentioned before how ingrained it was in Jewish thinking that God hated the gentiles but loved the Jews. The Jews were His chosen people! And so to them it only made sense that God could accept a Gentile only if they first became like a Jew!

So for the early church, this was a huge controversial issue! Do the gentiles need to be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses to be saved? Or are Jew & Gentiles both saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone – apart from following all the Jewish laws?

Now if you know me very well at all, you know that I am a conflict avoider by nature! I am not one to wade in a debate and have a good argument with someone. That’s just not me!

And in some situations, that’s a good thing! But in other situations, it’s not. There is a time to promote peace and unity despite our differences – but there is also a time to draw a line in the sand and declare this is where I stand. The difficulty is in knowing whether the situation calls for peace and unity – or if it calls for the line in the sand.

And perhaps here is the first principle that we can glean from these verses. On issues related to the essentials of our faith – particularly our salvation, we must draw the line in the sand. The difference between true doctrine and false doctrine on the matter of salvation can be the difference between someone’s eternal life or eternal condemnation. So we have got to get this one right!

There are a lot of things that we argue about in church. The choice of paint color in the church nursery or what songs we sing in our worship service, or even what view we hold of mandatory vaccinations – but none of those things are going to impact people’s eternal destination! However, what we teach about how to be saved does! 

And so we must be willing to drawn a line in the sand and firmly state – this is where we stand on matters of salvation! This is what the Bible clearly teaches and we cannot accept any other teaching!

And so, for the church in Antioch, this was one of those lines in the sand moments. This was an issue worth arguing about. And not just arguing about – but settling the issue and coming to a decision that could be embraced by the whole church.

But how do you do that? How do you settle an issue like this with such strong voices on either side? Well, let’s take a look: Verse 2 continues:

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. 3 The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.

Acts 15:2b-3

Now before we go on, I just wanted to quickly point out the wisdom of church in Antioch! Instead of enduring endless debates between these two camps, they decided to take the question to a third party. And not just any third party, but to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem – the folks who had walked with Jesus Himself – the ones who had first experienced salvation and the filling of the Holy Spirit. This was a third party that was respected by everyone involved. If anyone had the wisdom and insight to settle this issue, it would be them!

And this is just good wisdom for us too. If we have some sort of conflict with one another that we can’t seem to resolve on our own, involve a third party – someone that is known to be wise and insightful – and respected by both parties – and ask them to help bring about a resolution.

Of course that takes a bit of humility – both to ask for help, and also to submit yourself to the guidance of the third party, but if you are willing to do that, then I think you’re probably well on your way to finding resolution. 

Continuing in verse 4…

4 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. 5 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.”

6 So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. Acts 15:4-6

Notice first of all, that both parties get a chance to state their case before the apostles and the elders. Paul and Barnabas reported on all that God had done through them – including the many gentiles that had come to faith and the churches that had started as a result of their preaching. They likely also mentioned what we read last week in Acts 13:52 that these new gentile believers….

52 And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:52

That last part about being filled with the Holy Spirit will be a key part of this discussion later.

But then, after Paul & Barnabas stated their case, the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees also made their case stating that…

5 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.” Acts 15:5

And the fact that these believers were once (or perhaps still were) Pharisees helps shed some light on why they were so insistent that the gentiles be circumcised and follow the law of Moses! For a Pharisee, strict obedience to the law of Moses was what it was all about! In their minds, that’s really all God was concerned about! Obedience to the law!

So you can begin to understand how difficult it was for them to accept that anyone can be saved simply by putting their faith in Jesus Christ! In their minds, there had to be more!

And I think sometimes many of us fall into that kind of thinking as well. I don’t know what it is – I guess it’s our pride – that says we somehow have to earn our way into God’s good graces. We have to obey more, or serve more, or suffer more – or something to somehow earn the right to be loved by God. But that’s just not the case. God already loves us more than we can even understand.  And He has already done everything – through his death and resurrection – to secure our adoption into His family. All that’s left for us to do is believe and accept it!

But I guess that’s getting ahead of our story. That part will come out a bit later – for now, we’re still back at verse 7, which reads like this:

7 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. 8 God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. 10 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? 11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 15:7-11

Peter’s take on this issue is not all that surprising. After all, he was one of the first ones to learn that salvation was not just for the Jews – but for the gentiles too! You’ll remember how God had shown him earlier in a very vivid way with Cornelius and the whole vision of the sheet full of unclean animals that God is the one who makes anyone clean. It’s not obedience to the Law that saves us – its our faith in the completed work of Jesus Christ.

To insist that the gentiles now follow the law – something that the Jews could never fully do anyway! – was pointless. In fact, Peter says it’s like challenging God! If God has confirmed that He has already accepted the gentles by giving them the Holy Spirit, who are we to insist that they must do more!?

And so he ends his argument with this tremendous statement – We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus. Ain’t that the truth! We are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus. Praise the Lord for that!

And then, as if to further prove Peter’s point, we read in verse 12…

12 Everyone listened quietly as Barnabas and Paul told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. Acts 15:12

Just like Christ had done miraculous signs and wonders among the Jews, so God had done (through Paul and Barnabas) miraculous signs and wonders among the Gentiles. God had shown no distinction between the two groups. All had received the undeserved grace of God.

It’s at this point in the meeting that James stands up to speak. Now to be clear, this is not the apostle James – the brother of John who was martyred by Herod, but this is James, the half brother of Jesus. The Gospels only briefly mention James – who throughout the Gospels was not a believer. After all, who would believe that their brother is the Son of God!

But after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his brother James, and James apparently becomes a believer and becomes a key leader in the church from that point on. In fact, judging by what we are about to read, it seems as if James is perhaps the primary leader in the church in Jerusalem and is acting as the chairman of this meeting.

But let’s take a look at what He says – verse 13.

13 When they had finished, James stood and said, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Peter has told you about the time God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for himself. 15 And this conversion of Gentiles is exactly what the prophets predicted. As it is written:

16 ‘Afterward I will return
and restore the fallen house of David.
I will rebuild its ruins
and restore it,

17 so that the rest of humanity might seek the Lord,
including the Gentiles—
all those I have called to be mine.
The Lord has spoken—

18     he who made these things known so long ago.’

19 “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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. 21 For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.”

Acts 15:13-21

Now this is interesting. James does one thing in his argument that we have not seen anyone else do. He cites the Scriptures! He shows from the Bible – quoting from Amos chapter 9 to be specific – that God has always intended to include the Gentiles in His family!

And I think that’s such a key principle in any controversy we face. What does the Bible say about this? We ought not base our decisions on opinions and experiences alone – but we take those things into account and compare them to what God has already said in His Word.

And of course, we have to be careful not to take the Scriptures out of context. It’s too easy to twist the Scriptures to make them say anything we want them to say. But rather, we need to look at the whole of Scripture. What are the underlying principles that we see throughout the Bible? If there is one verse that seems to fly in the face of the rest of what the Bible says, maybe we’re not understanding that one verse correctly? We have to look at the whole counsel of Scriptures.

And so in this case, these verses in Amos confirm what Peter and Paul and Barnabas have experienced – and they certainly line up with the underlying principle of God’s love for everyone and that God accepts everyone who earnestly seeks him – principles which are clearly seen through the Scriptures, and so James announces his verdict that they shouldn’t make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to Christ. They don’t need to follow all the laws of Moses, because God has accepted them on the basis of their faith in Jesus.

However, James does say that they should do the following four things: They are to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.

Now to us, these four things seem like a strange selection of commands for these Gentiles. Why these four things – and only these four things? Are these the only “rules” that they must follow as followers of Christ? Are these cultural sensitivities so as to not offend the Jews? Do these instructions apply to us today or are these specific for that church at that time and in that culture?

Well, there are two main trains of thought that I’ve come across in my reading. I’ll share those two thoughts with you and you can do with them as you will.

The first train of thought says that these activities – which might have been normal, accepted practices by many Gentiles – those activities would be offensive barriers to fellowship with the other believing Jews. We’ll see later in 1 Corinthians in particular, that eating food offered to idols becomes quite an issue for the church in Corinth. Some in the church thought nothing of it – while others considered it to be a sin – and so Paul tells them in 1 Corinthians 8 not to allow their freedom to cause another brother to stumble! And that could be the same point that James is making here. Don’t use your freedom from the Jewish law to cause your Jewish brothers to stumble!

And so that’s one way that we might understand why James suggests these particular instructions.

The second train of thought says that these four commands relate primarily to the old practices of idol worship for these Gentiles converts. All of these activities that James mentions would have been central to the rituals and ceremonies of their old way of life. And so it could be that James is saying that they don’t have to follow the law of Moses to be saved, but as followers of Christ, they do need to change the way they’ve been living. Their new life in Christ should be reflected by their new way of living.

The idea here is that they aren’t changing to be saved, but rather they are changing because they have been saved!

And that’s always a key point for us to remember too: We aren’t saved because of our obedience to God. But rather, we choose to be obedient to God because we have been saved! Obedience isn’t the cause of our salvation – it’s the result! It’s how we express our love for God and our trust in Him – because of what He has already done for us!

And so that’s the second way that we might understand these four particular instructions for the Gentiles.

But regardless of how we understand them now, it seems that everyone back then had a pretty clear understand of why James brings up these four things. Otherwise, he would have given more explanation. But obviously he didn’t have to. And so we read in verse 22:

22 Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision. The men chosen were two of the church leaders—Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas. 23 This is the letter they took with them:

“This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings!

24 “We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! 25 So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question.

28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: 29 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.”

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

32 Then Judas and Silas, both being prophets, spoke at length to the believers, encouraging and strengthening their faith. 33 They stayed for a while, and then the believers sent them back to the church in Jerusalem with a blessing of peace. 35 Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch. They and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord there.

Acts 15:22-35

Just a couple quick things to notice here and then we’ll wrap things up. Notice what it says in verse 24-25…

24 “We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! 25 So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul…” Acts 15:24-25

Isn’t that amazing! After working through such a contentious issue, with such strong and differing points of view, they had come to complete agreement! A unanimous decision! Everyone had arrived at the same conclusion! Apparently even those who had earlier been teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation!

That’s amazing! That certainly says something about the character of those believers who had Pharisaic roots! Even though there were certain they were right about requiring circumcision – they were humble enough to accept that maybe they weren’t right after all. They weren’t so stubborn as to reject all other opinions or beliefs – or more importantly – they didn’t reject the clear teaching of Scripture. But rather, they were humble enough to admit they could be wrong. They were willing to listen to the wisdom and instruction of others – and when the truth was made clear to them, they swallowed their pride and changed their way of thinking.

What a great example for all of us! What a tremendous illustration of the unity we can have as brothers and sisters in Christ! 

It’s like what the Apostle Paul would later write to the church in Philippi. Maybe he was even thinking of this incident when he wrote this:

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.

5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,

6 one God and Father of all,
who is over all, in all, and living through all.

Philippians 4:1-6

Boy, how many controversy and conflicts could be quickly resolved if we would just remember these few verses! It is so important for members of the Body of Christ to be united under our one Lord & Father!

Going into this week, I’m not sure what controversy’s or conflicts that you’re going to face – be it in the church, or in your home, or at your school, or in your work place. But there’s a good chance that somewhere along the way, you’re going to have the opportunity to practice what this verse just said. You’re going to have the opportunity to be humble and gentle. To make allowance for other faults. To make every possible effort to be united in the Spirit – united together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Certainly there are times when you might have to draw the line in the sand and stand up for what you know is true – but I would guess you’ll have even more opportunities (particularly when dealing with the family of God) to show humility and understanding – to strive for unity and peace.

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.

May our unity bring much joy and glory and honour to Him this week.

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