Acts 15:1-21 When Sharp Disputes Arise!
There will always be things that happen in the life of a community of people that will result in people disagreeing with one another; its inevitable because most often, its preferences, not principles that have been sidelined or contravened, or simply not appreciated. Sharp disputes however do arise from time to time over ‘principles’ and these need to be worked through, understood and ultimately a judgement call made or else permanent relational harm can result. One such ‘dispute’ is described in our reading today from Acts 15. The account given us in this reading identifies the response of different people to certain ‘practices’ being observed in Antioch, as Paul and Barnabas share the gospel of Jesus with ‘non-Jews’. These ‘non-Jews’ had responded to the gospel, the Holy Spirit was evident in their lives and the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. This ‘practice’ was at odds with traditional Jewish Christians who believed that only those circumcised could be saved. A group of such Jewish Christians had arrived in Antioch and were demanding that the new believers be circumcised. “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (vs 2). It is clear that their initial discussions resulted in debate and continued dispute; they were unable to settle the matter so a delegation were sent by the Antioch church, to meet with the officially recognised elders of the wider church in Jerusalem. In response to some ‘practices’ being questioned in the church, what principles of dispute resolution are seen in this passage? First, the offending practices are identified and the underlying issues are isolated – in this case it was contended that salvation required certain traditional customs be adhered to. Second, locally they tried to settle the dispute, so they debated the pros and cons of the necessity of the customs (vs 1-2) Third, the local church appealed to a higher authority which was recognised by both parties as being authorised to listen and judge – the local church sent them to see the Apostles and the elders of the global church so that they could arbitrate on the matter. (vs 2) Fourth, interested parties had their say (vs 4-5). Fifth, the Apostles and elders considered the question (vs 6). As part of their deliberation, the Apostles considered both the scriptures and the experience recounted to them and the deciding factor is demonstrated clearly “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written..” (vs 15). Scripture is to be the final arbiter in matters under dispute, however serious deliberation must be given to ensure that personal or cultural preferences alone are not being used to interpret scripture. Sixth, a judgement is made that is seen to be in keeping with both the experience of the Holy Spirit at work, clearly in opposition to some practices, yet in keeping with scriptural principles. As you reflect on this experience in the life of the early church, what is God challenging you about? What practices are ‘pushing buttons’ in your life or what activity on the part of others in the church is distressing you or causing anxiety? Are Biblical principles being contravened or is it more about your personal response to cultural practices and personal customs? Ultimately, its important to be able to determine if the words of Scripture are in agreement with the experience or not.