Published July 19, 2007
Acts 15:1-2, 4-5, 12-15a, 23-29
Related Sunday School Lesson, Bible Studies for Life, July 29
At the time of this writing, thousands of Southern Baptists are preparing to head to San Antonio, Texas for the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention. No other affords us such opportunity to experience the diversity of the people of God known as Southern Baptists.
The Church began in Acts 2 with the thousands baptized by Peter and the apostles. The Church then was Jewish. In fact, it could be argued that neither Peter nor the other apostles ever dreamed that the Church would be anything other than Jewish. God viewed it differently.
We especially discovered that God wanted Gentiles saved. In Samaria, Phillip preached Jesus and later was in the desert preaching to a black man (Acts 8.4, 26-39). Gentiles were believing and being saved! In addition, we learned God directly intervened to persuade Peter to accept Gentiles (Acts 10).
With the Church becoming increasingly multi-cultural, it was inevitable that conflict over customs would arise. Church unity was threatened.
How do we deal with conflict? Are there any principles we may glean from scripture to deal with conflict in the Church? Happily in Acts 15, we have three principles that will assist us.
Acknowledge the conflict - Acts 15:1-2, 4-5
The conflict is stated in Acts 15:1-2. Some Jewish believers contended that Jesus saves but circumcision according to the Law of Moses was required in order for the salvation to be complete. In other words, Gentiles may come to Christ but must come to Christ through the ritual of Old Testament circumcision.
Their insistence did not set well with either Paul or Barnabas. Immediately, both of them went on the defensive: “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (v.2). Afterward, when they saw their reasoning had fallen on deaf ears, they along with “some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem … about this question.”
Upon arriving at Jerusalem, the Church welcomed them with open arms. But when Paul and Barnabas “declared all that God had done with them” (v.4), some of the Pharisees stood up and opposed them, insisting that everyone who is to be saved must be circumcised according to the Mosaic Law (v.5). Consequently, we’re told that the apostles and elders gathered together to consider the matter before them (v.6).
Acknowledging a conflict sounds elementary but know it remains notoriously difficult to do. So many times we sit silently by without bothering to actually state the conflict or attempt to properly channel it through godly measures to solve it before it causes immense damage to not only personal relationships but corporate relationships in the Church. Paul and Barnabas made their appeal to those who could assist. Do we?
Evaluate in light of scripture - Acts 15:12-15a
Much debate took place concerning this issue (v.6). Peter was the first apostle to address the entire assembly (v.7), followed by a reiteration of God’s gracious works in saving the Gentiles by Paul and Barnabas (v.12). James then appealed to biblical revelation to affirm their position (v.15-17).
What is conspicuously absent in the apostolic process of dealing with conflict is a sense of “shared feelings.” It is not that feelings were not involved. I am quite sure that, given the provocative subject it was with which they dealt, feeling could not be avoided. Yet, as we hear Luke describe the counsel, we hear only that they considered the evidences, both factual and scriptural, with the scriptural being the final word, given through James, on the matter at hand.
No matter the conflict with which we must deal today, if there is not an intentional, persistent use of biblical authority, no real solution can be obtained.
We study God’s word to know it and apply it. We memorize it in order to use it. We glean its principles to evaluate any conflict in light of its final say in our faith and our practice. Life in the church and life outside the church remains healthy only in relation to our connection with the word of God.
Identify the non-negotiable truths - Acts 15:23-29
Perhaps the most difficult area of all sometimes is to carefully distinguish between those truths we hold as non-negotiable and those customs we hold as negotiable. There is no place which trips us up more than here – confusing negotiables with non-negotiables.
For example, as Baptists, we insist that baptism is exclusively by immersion only. That is, immersion stands as a non-negotiable. Some Christians insist that since they were baptized when they were a baby, there is no reason to baptize them again.
Baptists agree that once a person is scripturally baptized, there is no biblical injunction to rebaptize anyone. But Baptists do not believe that sprinkling constitutes baptism because sprinkling is not immersion, not to mention sprinkling a baby could not qualify as believer’s baptism, another non-negotiable.
However, Baptists do not insist immersion must be in a baptistery or even in a church facility for that matter. Wherever there is enough water to immerse, proper Baptism may be performed – whether a swimming pool, a lake, a creek, a river, even a spa is perfectly acceptable.
The church at Jerusalem sent a letter spelling out those things negotiable and non-negotiable (v.23-29). Clarity made for good relations and lessened conflict. Indeed, if we will be as clear as was the Church in Jerusalem when we face conflict, God’s Kingdom work would suffer less obstacles. It also depends on whether or not we acknowledge our conflict and make our stand on the word of God seeking His answers in all.
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