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Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 1)

August 13, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 15:1–12

Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 1) – Acts 15:1–12


The missionary success among the Gentiles leads to dispute within the Christian community because there are some Jewish believers who want to bring these Gentile converts to Christ under the Mosaic law. Disagreement from within threatens the Christian community. How should the church at Antioch, and various other local churches, be responding to this controversy? They will seek the collective wisdom and authority of the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and when a consensus is reached, they will disseminate the decision in a letter to the churches. As always, we, the 21st-century readers of the NT should be asking ourselves, what should we learn and implement from this model in Luke’s theological history of the first-century church? 

Paul and Barnabas find themselves right in the middle of this disagreement because they are the tip of the spear in spreading to the gospel to Gentile regions.

Acts 15:1–6 ESV

1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

Why is the disagreement consequential enough to defend urgently and to seek extra help? (15:1-6)

  1. The gospel is at stake. - It is no small matter to have clarity in answer to this question: What must someone do to be saved? - When you become a member, this is the first and primary question our elders are asking you even when they ask you to share your testimony of faith: what must someone do to be saved?
  2. The problem is systemic. - This discussion isn’t limited to Syrian Antioch. The teachers causing the issue had come “down” from Jerusalem. During this season and on this same issue, [map] Paul writes a letter to the churches in in Galatia that justification is by faith alone and not by keeping the law. And when they go up to Jerusalem here, they find similar voices saying the same thing.
  3. Christian unity is threatened. - Unity depends on more than agreement over central truth, but not less. It is true that our attitudes and actions must follow in the spirit and steps of Christ’s own humble sacrifice, but it is faith in Christ that makes us one. (Php 2:5-11)

And where Christian unity is threatened, Christ’s mission is threatened (tying back into the first thing.) The goal is gospel advance to new people and gospel advance in the hearts of those people (maturity). That can’t happen if we get central truth wrong and can’t agree on it.

How do we see these dynamics playing out in Acts 15:1-6?

We find Paul & Barnabas are back in Antioch after their first missionary journey, resting and replenishing even as they are undoubtedly coming alongside to assist in ministry in the sending church. But, during this season, there are certain men who come down from Judea and cause no little disruption for the church by teaching that the Gentiles must convert to Jewish custom and law in order to be saved.

What sounds odd in verse 1 is more clear in v. 5. What these teachers apparently mean is the combination of circumcision (the sign of the Abrahamic covenant) and keeping the law of Moses (undoubtedly meaning not only the decalogue, the 10 commandments, but also all other associated commands and customs). We beneficiaries of faith in Christ and students of the NT have come to know this type of influence and posture by terms like legalism, Pharisaism (or being pharisaical), and calling such people Judaizers.

It’s also not surprising that those with a Pharisaical background rose quickly to teaching influence in the church, because they were those who studied the law very carefully and followed it stringently. This foundational knowledge of the OT, and apparent sincere desire to obey God, could prove quite helpful in understanding the continuity between the previous covenants and the new covenant in Christ, as it did for Saul/Paul. But it could also prove quite detrimental, if it amounted to legalism, not emphasizing also the discontinuity between the New Covenant and the former covenants.

For example: Is anyone saved by the law? No. (No one could keep it perfectly but Jesus. Only he fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law.) Is anyone saved by simply being Jewish? No. Even the Jews knew that they had to be in right relationship to God. (Again, only God the Son, Jesus Christ, could be the requisite Jewish Messiah and necessary Mediator for mankind.)

Are there advantages to being Jewish and having the law? Well, yeah, the unique covenant blessings of God and relationship to him (as a people group) throughout the ages, not to mention therefore proximity to God’s plan and promises. But, do the Gentiles have to become Jewish to now be grafted into God’s people through his saving purposes? No—by grace through faith in Christ alone. In verse 11 we’ll hear Peter say that this is true for Gentile and Jew alike in the New Covenant.

Is growing up in a Christian family and in Christian community (the church) a good thing? Yes. But your faith isn’t in that; it’s in Christ. Is increased education and knowledge a good thing? Yes, but be sure your faith isn’t in trusting yourself but in trusting Christ. (Prov 3:5-7)

So, nothing less than the gospel is at stake, how people are rescued and restored to God. That’s why this turns out to be “no small conflict,” and why P&B feel it is necessary to debate (dispute with them over this controversy). 

Since this is not an inconsequential disagreement, and could have consequences and ripple effects for Christ’s church everywhere they’ve seen conversions, the Antioch church sends P&B and others up to Jerusalem to seek the clarity and authority of the Apostles and elders there. What a wise decision this turns out to be create consensus for more than just their immediate context.

Perhaps you, like me, can think of a time that you did not seek further outside counsel and can learn from that experience as well as this example. We might have had an easier time reaching consensus, done a better job of keeping personal issues in check, even prevented some heartache and struggle and conflict, if we had found a way to seek further outside counsel. - This is not an argument for a Pope; rather, it is an argument for getting further wise counsel when we don’t seem to be making headway in the conversation as it presently stands. Even if we’ve made this mistake because we didn’t think of doing so, perhaps the next time we’ll seek outside counsel to help reach consensus.

The journey to Jerusalem reinforces both enthusiasm for God’s saving work among the Gentiles as well as the pervasiveness of this dispute, which had already been percolating for some time. - (v. 3) P&B keep telling of the conversion of the Gentiles everywhere they pass along the way, and it brings great joy to the brothers and sisters who hear it. So too they tell the Jerusalem church (v. 4) about all that God had been doing, on their missionary journey and in Antioch, no doubt. This too would reinforce the salvation of Gentiles. - But the conflict is reinforced too (v. 5), because here is undoubtedly the epicenter and source of this Pharisaical movement to enforce Judaism on the Gentiles as a part of their means of salvation (along with faith in Christ).

So the stage is set for needing a council of the Apostles and elders to consider this matter, v. 6 (in which they include Barnabas and Paul, v. 12). 


What are the conclusive arguments in the debate/discussion? (vv. 7-21)

I say it this way because the text says that after there had been much debate, then Peter speaks, then P&B, and then James. Luke puts the emphasis not on the back and forth disagreement, but on the summarizing statements that serve as the conclusive arguments, especially those made by Peter and James. [We have time today to emphasize Peter’s discourse; and we’ll consider James’s more fully in two weeks.]

Acts 15:7–12 ESV

7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

The first of these conclusive arguments comes from Peter. Peter’s experience of close ministry with Jesus and authority as the leader of his chosen Apostles commands the respect and attention of the whole group when he stands to speak.

This is how I would summarize the argument Peter makes:

Peter: God has already spoken on this issue, saving Gentiles who believe the gospel and giving them the Spirit. We dare not claim that we know better than God and try to force them to bear the law. God is saving Gentile and Jew alike only by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter begins (vv. 7-9): I have firsthand experience and you have firsthand knowledge that “God made a choice” that I should speak the gospel to the Gentiles. And God proved the validity of their salvation through faith in Jesus by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. God is the one who made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. (In other words, do Gentiles need to be “clean” by circumcision? Clearly God has now made that a non-issue for being united with all who have faith in Christ. Good lesson for the Jew here: Neither circumcision nor keeping the law will make you clean, either, but only faith in Christ Jesus to make you right with God.)

Peter continues (v. 10): “Now, therefore...” Why would we consider ourselves to know better than God and try to place a yolk on them “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”  The yolk was a common metaphor in Judaism for the law. - [An excellent comment in the ESV study Bible explains this well.] “By speaking of the law as an unbearable yoke, Peter was not denying that the law was God’s gift to Israel. Rather, he was arguing that Israel was unable to fulfill it perfectly and that salvation could not be obtained through the law.” (Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2115.) … Not to mention how much more extreme that burden had become under Pharisaical tradition and legalism.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul would also speak of requiring Christians to keep the OT law this way: Gal 5:1

Galatians 5:1 ESV

1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This is not a freedom of license (do whatever you want), but a freedom to life with God in Christ and to live for God in Christ. The law was good for Israel as a way to live in fellowship with him, but it was never meant to be the ultimate means of salvation. To the contrary: Gal 3:23-26

Galatians 3:23–26 ESV

23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Maybe in this broader context we understand better Christ’s own reference to a yolk in Matt 11:28-29.

Matthew 11:28–29 ESV

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

The law isn’t bad (can’t be bad bc it’s from God!). The law is good, but it is insufficient. Only faith in Christ can save. And if faith in Christ sets us free from the requirement of the law, then why burden yourself with trying to keep it? On the other hand, there is a perspective of the law that causes us to reflect on God’s moral character and God’s purposes that we do well to not ignore, but to admire, to emulate, to walk in by faith—the law of Christ.

Back to the point Peter is making in this council meeting: Don’t try to add the OT law as a requirement for Gentiles to be saved, to be right with God, because God is plainly not requiring it. In fact, to burden people with any means of salvation other than faith in Christ is putting God to the test. If you think about how Israel had previously “tested” God, we are likely to consider how they complained or disobeyed him due to a lack of trusting God. So they are testing God’s goodness and patience by not trusting that the way he has revealed is best.

  1. 11 is fantastic. Peter makes a statement that summarizes a clear doctrine about saving faith. “But we believe” (isn’t this how we even word the beginning of some of our doctrinal statements) “that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are.” Again, Peter says this in a way that it is what his Jewish brethren need to hear: Make sure you understand that we are saved in the same way they are—not by works of the law, but by grace through faith in Jesus (Gal 2:16).

To do our due diligence with the text of God’s word, we must bring the the principle from the 1st century to bear on our 21st-century lives.

1. For us: Right theology, right doctrine, always matters.

- It informs everything.


But right theology only matters as much as you trust and obey the God of that right doctrine.

Right theology is like becoming a surgeon who has the proper education and training, the right diagnosis, and even the right tools. But none of that matters unless he actually performs surgeries. That’s where the rubber meets the road—applying God’s truth to our hearts.

2. For us: As always, the heart is the heart of the matter.

Your speech and your behavior flow from your heart—what you think and how you feel and how you live your life.

The Jews, Peter says, were testing God because they weren’t trusting that his way was best. - Do you often reflect on the fact that your disobedience, or your complaining, and so on, is due to a lack of trusting that God knows best and that being right with him is what is absolutely best for us? We can obey God on his terms because we trust him. Nothing can replace knowing God, trusting God, and skillfully applying that to our lives. (That’s how we define wisdom. What folly to know what God is saying but not to trust and obey him.)

P&B: More evidence of God’s saving work among the Gentiles and of his clear blessing in this ministry

Again, the evidence speaks for itself. There’s no question that this is from God and not from us. There can be no question that God is saving Gentiles without them becoming Jewish and observing the law.


In two weeks we’ll look at the other conclusive argument, which comes next from the elder James, whom we believe to be the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church. From James and the letter sent out by the group, we’ll note the reinforcement of an uncompromising clarity on the gospel but also behavioral compromise for the sake of fellowship.

How does the decision and dissemination work to bring both uncompromising clarity on the gospel but also behavioral compromise for the sake of fellowship? (vv. 19-29)


What are we seeing so far about handling conflict in the Christian community?

A couple of concluding thoughts: 

Some disagreements matter a great deal more than others.

Minimalists and maximalists.

Before Marriage

Continue to seek consensus according to God’s word.

Again, marriage as an example.

Because God has designed for Christians to live in community (a plurality of Christ’s people who make up his Bride), what we believe, and our attitudes and actions, always impact the community. What we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do, are building up and unifying the body, or they are sowing discord and destruction.

So we must continue to seek consensus according to God’s word, especially as it pertains to central tenets of the Christian faith.

More in Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

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Christ’s Continued Work & Presence in His People

March 31, 2024

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