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Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 3)

September 17, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 15:22–35

Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 3) – Acts 15:22–35

PRAY & INTRO: This gathering in Jerusalem and decision in Acts 15 isn’t precisely like the future ecumenical councils that would help clarify and defend foundational Biblical doctrines (down through the centuries of the church), but it is no doubt a prototype of sorts for those councils.

This first foundational defense is over how Gentiles are included in God’s people, and the conclusion is made clear that it is not by circumcision or any other works of the law, but by grace through faith in Jesus (as it is for both Jew and Gentile). So as we put ourselves back into this particular time and situation, it’s difficult to overstate just how consequential this resolution was for the early church and future generations of Christians.

Here’s an overview of where we have been in this discussion leading up to today:

Urgent Defense of the Gospel: Paul & Barnabas go to Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-6)

(against works-based salvation; anything other than by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone)

Conclusive Arguments in the Discussion: Peter & James (Acts 15:7-21)

Peter’s conclusive argument mostly corresponds to the first emphasis: an urgent defense of the gospel by faith and not by works of the law. James’ conclusive argument reinforces this same thing by proving that it was foretold in Scripture, while also recommending they tell Gentile believers to abstain from certain behaviors, some which relate to holiness and others that could help facilitate regular fellowship with Jewish believers. The conclusion they reach, evidenced by their letter, lines up consistently with this wise thinking from James.

The Decision Disseminated: No compromise on the gospel, but be holy and considerate (Acts 15:22-33)

(In a letter) We must not compromise the gospel (no greater burden: Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith). But there is a wise command for holiness and wise compromise in behavior recommended for the sake of Christian fellowship (living in harmony with Jews in your same cities).

Let’s read about the how the message is communicated and sent out and how it is received.

Acts 15:22–35 ESV

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

The way Christian leaders handle themselves and situations matter as much as the decision they make. We can learn not only from the conclusion they come to (which was largely our emphasis last week), but we should also learn from the wise and clear manner in which these leaders handle the situation. Imagine if they had been callous or careless in their response to the Pharisaic Christians? Imagine if they were cavalier or uncaring in their communication with the Gentile believers? They would have done a great disservice to the truth that people needed to hear.

Once they reach consensus, these leaders need to be unified and clear. The leading of the Apostles and Elders is confirmed by the whole church in Jerusalem (v. 22); they’re unified. And to be clear, they send out a letter spelling out their decision, and they do so along with two trusted witnesses (messengers, envoys) to convey and reinforce the content of the letter.

One Letter: Its Purpose & Message (vv. 22-29)

They send this letter out knowing their decision is to be disseminated beyond the Antioch church that brought the matter to their attention. (Specifically, other churches planted in the Roman district of Syria and Cilicia, which may well have been established by Paul in the intermittent years from his conversion [and escape from Damascus and Jerusalem] to the more recent ministry in Antioch and out from there in missionary endeavors.) What’s more, the letter’s influence is likely to extend even more widely than the single Roman district of Syria and Cilicia.

There’s been a serious disagreement with potentially disastrous and divisive consequences. The leaders have reached a conclusion; they must be clear. This should settle the matter, but how they go about it is also important. To carefully observe their approach to this, let’s consider the purpose and message of the letter.

Purpose: Project Unity and Provide Clarity

the church: “the apostles and elders, together with the whole church” (v. 22)…

the letter: “the brothers, both the apostles and the elders” (v. 23)… “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord” (v. 25)…

the Spirit-led agreement: “for it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (v. 28)

It definitely projects unity. Does it provide clarity?

They aim to be clear about whom this is meant to encourage and instruct: “to the brothers (and sisters) who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings” (v. 23) …

They aim to be clear that the previous harassment did not come at their bidding: “although we gave them no instructions” (v. 24)…

They aim to be clear that Barnabas and Paul were right: (vv. 25-26) …

And they aim to be clear by reinforcing the letter by word of mouth from two trusted witnesses: (v. 27)

App: Christian leaders (in our homes especially, and in our workplaces and in our ministries), this is helpful wisdom to be unified and then to project that unity and to communicate with careful and caring clarity.

In the case of this important letter, let’s be reminded that they were demonstrating unity and clarity in communicating an important message.

Message: You do not have to become Jewish proselytes, but you must be holy (set apart to God) and considerate of others.

(vv. 28-29) First, they are convinced of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation of the guidance they are giving to the Gentile believers… which is…

To lay on you no greater burden - Must have our heads in the context to be clear on the meaning of this: They were being told by others that unless they are circumcised they cannot be saved (15:1), that they must do that and “keep the law of Moses” (15:5). But the discussion confirmed that the Gentiles were being saved by faith in Christ only, and thereby receiving the Holy Spirit. The same was true for the Jews, “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11), not by works of the law (see Gal. 2:16).

But despite these Gentiles being free from the civil and ceremonial law of the Jews, they must be holy and must be considerate of their Jewish brothers and sisters. So the leaders instruct them to abstain from four things.

The first deals with idolatry. Anything we place above a supreme worship of God (and love for him) is idolatry, but in this context we’re talking about actual idols: images of supposed gods of man’s own making. The point here though is to avoid eating any meat that they know has been associated with pagan idolatry. Not only would this be greatly offensive to Jews, but it’s flirting with the line of being associated in some way with such idolatry, and they must flee from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14). All of 1 Cor 10 is basically about this topic. Paul says that yes, food is just food, and idols are just objects, but behind worship of such objects is something demonic, and we should not knowingly associate with it. Situations may differ, Paul says, but in any case we need to be careful to be holy and to protect the consciences of others.

Another way to prefer the sensibilities of Jews above their own dietary freedoms is for Gentiles to avoid eating or drinking blood and to avoid eating meat with the blood still in it (which it would have if it were killed by strangulation). These were commands from God’s law that Jews followed stringently to not be made ritually unclean. In this way, then, Gentiles could be considerate and share fellowship meals without causing offense and unnecessarily disrupting the unity of local believers.

Paul also is not against compromising on potential freedoms for the sake of the conscience of others in the Christian community (see Acts 16:3). He does not want to discourage and distract from being helpful with what counts most—foundational truth.

If we are unwilling to submit to the culture of a local church, it could actually be a roadblock to gospel witness and growth. Now again, you can’t compromise in a way that makes excuse for you or others to sin, but Paul teaches (which is also evidenced by the decision here) that where Christian conscience is the primary issue, you ought to be willing to compromise for the sake of others. In other words, we willingly limit our freedoms for the sake of others.

Finally, they were to pursue holiness by abstaining from all sexual immorality (Col 3:5). The Gentile culture of the time was promiscuous and licentious—pretty much the mentality that everything goes in sexual expression and behavior. We can relate to this because our modern western culture is much the same. The instruction here is that they must be set apart to God and separate from these immoral practices by living consistently within the bounds God has prescribed for sexual purity. Like idolatry, this is not a situational issue only, but is according to God’s moral law for all Christians of all cultures and all eras.

One application for us is the necessity for purity and holiness. You cannot be holy before God in the first place without the grace of Christ to cleanse you of your sin and place you in the family of God. After that, though, you aim to live consistently as a beloved child of God.

Let’s just say that my maturity in Christ and usefulness in ministry is a liquid—how is that relationship to God and impact for his kingdom altered by the impurities of idolatry and sexual immorality. - What do you need to confess to God and take more seriously as sin that breaks your fellowship with God and hurts how well you reflect him as his child?

And then a second application is being considerate of others, willingly foregoing our “rights” and freedoms and preferences. Honestly, most conflict, even among believers, boils down to these things rather than foundational matters upon which we cannot compromise. Let’s follow the humble and selfless example of Jesus and prefer one another above ourselves, looking to the interests of others before our own. (Php 2:3-4)

So this letter sent out demonstrates unity and clarity about the message, and it needs to be persuasive. They needed to make sure it hits its mark. Therefore, with this letter they send along two trustworthy witnesses to confirm and clarify their written statement. (by clarify I mean to explain a little more and to answer questions that might arise)

Two Envoys: Their Confirmation & Reception (vv. 30-35)

Other than here, we know nothing else of Judas called Barsabbas—a leading man among the brothers (v. 22) and a NT prophet (v. 32). Silas, on the other hand, would soon become Paul’s companion on his next missionary journey (v. 40), and is mentioned in some NT epistles by his longer Greek name, Silvanus. He even served as Peter’s scribe for his first letter (1 Pet 5:12).

You can imagine, that for a task like this, these are trustworthy men. Men of trusted character. Men who are proven and consistent. Men who will be honest but prudent (not saying more than they ought to say). This is an important task.

One quick application: Pursue faithfulness over importance or influence. Who you are before God takes precedence over what particular thing you are doing. In fact, it should be character first that then gives guidance to how God might be pleased to use us. Remember first to belong to God and live for him, and then let him direct how he will use you. - So sure these leaders would likely have considered if these guys were a good fit for this task and whether they would make a good team to complement one another etc., but first they had to be faithful men. Let’s focus our first energy on character before God and faithfulness in the little things.

The purpose of these two envoys is to confirm by their spoken testimony what is written in the letter, and then no doubt to bring back news of how the message is received.

They not only deliver the letter, reading it to the whole congregation (v. 30), but then “with many words” they make it their aim to encourage and strengthen the brothers (v. 32). How they excel at this task they were designated for! To encourage the brothers and sisters would give them inner comfort and reassurance and confidence, and to strengthen them would be to give them further determination and resolve for continuation and perseverance.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were known for this type of ministry amongst ourselves and in reaching out to others: to be not only those willing to confront and challenge when appropriate, but to be to excel at encouraging and strengthening one another and fellow believers. Offering on the spot to pray with someone. And bringing the truth of the Bible into the conversation, with specific texts as much as possible. After all, with what we believe about the power and effectiveness of God’s word, what could encourage or strengthen us more than the very promises and counsel of God himself.

Now, notice too that the message they deliver is received with rejoicing… bc of its encouragement/comfort/consolation (v. 31). That means it is met with great relief, in spite of the recommendations to be considerate of the Jews’ dietary restrictions. What a small concession to make compared to confirmation that they are in Christ without any further works of there own! And what a minor accommodation to be sensitive to the Jews is compared to the value of unity in fellowship.) So now Silas and Barsabbas can go back with word of how the letter blessed the brothers and sisters in Antioch.

The whole scene ends with a note of joy and peace, as well as ministry continuing on as it had before, only now with even greater confirmation and solidarity with Christ’s church.

Overarching Implications for Our Application

Defending Christian, Biblical truth is necessary.

Truth matters. And the most important truth in all the world is the existence, character, and will of God. Everything else finds its place in relationship to God and his activity. This is therefore especially true for understanding our own human existence and right relationship to God.

While we are right to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, we must not view the Spirit and the Scripture as having competing voices. - The Apostles and elders know it is essential to demonstrate that the spiritual activity taking place (Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus) is consistent with what God had foretold in the Scriptures. - There are in fact competing spirits in this world, and there is an enemy who deliberately gets close to the truth but twists it. We therefore need the true Spirit to guide us in our understanding of Scripture, to guard us from falsehoods that will run afoul of this same Scripture.

In this situation, what is described as the Holy Spirit’s leading is the unified confirmation of Spirit-filled men concluding what is consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus. (so to us would be the old and new testament Scriptures)

In defending truth, it matters a great deal how we posture ourselves and treat others.

The main reason for this is that God knows our hearts and tests our hearts, and we should well be concerned with whether or not we are living like Jesus and becoming more like him.

We should notice that these leaders listened well and gave people a fair hearing. They didn’t put others down in their responses (didn’t attack the people, but the issue). And they made careful efforts to be clear in their answer. (they were honest without being mean-spirited, they were clear without rehashing every detail in the debate)

Notice how the people listened to and respected the voices of those among them who had a proven record of character and consistency in their close walk with Jesus. Notice how they submitted to the decision.

Not all theological (or methodological) differences are of equal weight.

While the concept is rather straightforward (and perhaps even obvious?), it’s less simple as we put into practice how we interact over our differences (in terms of how we fellowship and cooperate together in ministry).

I’ll suggest the following as a potentially helpful way to think about these things. (This is far from unique to me.)

[image with four concentric circles]

  1. Foundational Truth - The gospel, the Triune Godhead, the Holy Scriptures

In the early centuries that followed, there would be various crucial councils that gathered to guard against false teaching. The full deity of Jesus, the true humanity of Jesus. The personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. The Tri-unity of God. They would work hard to carefully articulate any area of doctrine (sound teaching) that is consistent with God’s word and guarded against errant teaching. 

  1. Truths urgent for our situation and practice
  2. Aspects of doctrine that are still important but more peripheral and less clear
  3. Christian conscience and conviction

(What tends to make this so tricky for us is that some of us are maximalists—every conviction is dogma, while others of us are minimalists—very little is dogma. We need a balance so that we are clear where Scripture is clear (to be fair, that is on a lot of things) and we are nuanced and selfless where there is reasonable room for disagreement—whether that be conviction of conscience or differing interpretations on difficult and disputed portions of Scripture.)



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