Acts 15:36 to 16:5
Rev. Erik Veerman
Love and Disagreement in Christ
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
That quote has made a recent resurgence. It’s now one of the more common social media memes. While it most often is targeted at political battles, it’s also a question for the church.
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
Different studies have found that disagreement between Christians is common. One recent survey of 14,000 churches found this: 75% of congregations have experienced significant conflict. 60% of churches have had conflict in the past 5 years. Other research has found similar statistics.
In the 15 years I spent in technology consulting, the disputes I saw in the workplace were not nearly as deep as the conflict I saw or heard about in the church. That’s been a difficult lesson to learn.
Why is that?
Well, one reason is the subject matter or issues over which we disagree. The things involving the church are the things we’re most passionate about. Yes, the root cause is sin… but it’s intensified by core matters of what we believe and our resources, time, and energy. This is why the New Testament spends plenty of time addressing discord. The book of 1 Corinthians, for example, is written to a church experiencing division. Furthermore, many other passages address how to be united, to seek peace, to love, and care for one another.
To be sure, there are critical matters. Issues of faith that we need to stand firm on. We saw that last week. Remember. Some men had come to the church in Syria and Galatia – saying that in order to be saved, circumcision was necessary. Well, that caused some intense debate. The matter risked splitting the early church. So the apostles and many elders met in Jerusalem. They considered the matter, heard testimonies about God’s work and His Spirit, sought the Old Testament Scriptures on the matter. And God brought unity – circumcision was not necessary – it was adding works to God’s free grace. That equation is not the Gospel equation. When it comes to being saved, faith plus anything equals nothing… faith plus nothing equals everything. We come to God with our sin, seeking his forgiveness. His grace alone covers it all.
So when it comes to central doctrines of the faith… matters of Scripture and the Gospel. We should stand for truth. And that may involve conflict. Of course, we come to the table with humility… seeking God’s truth.
However, there are many disagreements in the church that are not central matters of faith. Rather, they involve matters of conscience, or preference. These issues may arise from differences in our experiences, or our upbring, or personality, or things that may matter to us, but not to someone else, and vice versa.
When it comes to these types of issues… matters of our conscience or preferences or feelings… we’re called to proactively pursue peace.
Proactively Pursue Peace
That’s the first emphasis of this text I want to highlight. An exhortation and example of proactively pursuing peace. Two points this morning – that’s our first.
And let’s begin by going back to the Jerusalem council. Remember, the clear answer to the circumcision question was “no.” It’s not necessary. It only added a yoke – an unnecessary burden that no one could bear. No, rather, we are saved by grace – verse 11 of chapter 15. Grace in Christ alone.
And I think we’re all good with that. We talk about the Gospel of Jesus every week – that we’re saved by faith.
But wait! Stop the press! Something’s not right! Look at verse 19. James made a determination summarizing the council. The Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. But then, in the same breath, the same sentence, he adds these almost strange additions. Look at verse 20. James added… “but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Is James contradicting himself? Really, is the council contradicting itself? It sure sounds like it. Faith plus these 4 things equals salvation. Well, that doesn’t make sense. And I agree, it’s a little confusing. The biggest hurdle for us today is not knowing all the dynamics of what was going on. We know the basics… the main question. We have the book of Galatians which gives us a little more insight. But we don’t know the details of the Gentile cultures, what they struggled with, and other points of tension between the Jews and Gentiles. That makes verses 20 and 29 more difficult to navigate.
I want to make this case: These stipulations teach that we should proactively pursue peace in the church. Said in another way, these additions overall are not about our justification. Rather, they are about our sanctification. To use mathematical terms, they are not part of the factors that go into the equation, rather, they are part of the product of the equation. The answer.
Let’s walk through these one by one – and I think you will agree.
First, a call to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.” That’s specifically speaking of meat. The pagan religions also sacrificed animals – and the question was this: Is it ok to eat that meat? Earlier in the service we heard the answer. 1 Corinthians 8. The idols are not real. The sacrifices are just empty ceremonies, therefore, eating the meat is not a problem. However (and this is a big “however”), if it is a stumbling block to a brother or sister in Christ, then abstain. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 and the apostle Peter here in Acts 15 were encouraging them to think about the conscience of other believers.
Look at verse 21. It confirms this. “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” In other words, “Gentile believers, for the sake of your Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, abstain from this. You are correct that it’s not a problem to eat the meat, but it’s best that you abstain. You should proactively pursue peace.” Maybe there was also a component of not supporting idolatry or being a witness to the idolators. But I believe the biggest reason was to love their brothers and sisters in Christ.
The second stipulation: “abstain… from sexual immorality.” In this instance, I would put this in a different category. Yes, it is a matter of sanctification. But sexual immorality is not a matter of conscience. No, rather, it’s part of God’s moral law. If you look at the repeated list, verse 29, you’ll see that the council’s letter puts this one last. Possibly because it does fall in a different category. The council was calling the Gentile believers to purity. This is likely also related to idol worship. Pagan idol worship back then involved prostitution. Abstain from these thing. Seek God’s forgiveness and pursue purity.
The last 2 stipulations seem to go together -“abstain… from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Commentators are unsure whether this was a reference to Leviticus 17 – the command not to consume blood; Or a reference to the way pagan sacrifices happened – involving strangling and blood. In either case it involved show deference to your brothers and sisters in Christ. One commentator summarizes it well: “The abstinence here recommended must be understood… not as essential Christian duty, but as a concession to the conscience of others, i.e. of the Jewish converts, who still regarded such food as unlawful and abominable in the sight of God”
For the sake of unity and peace, abstain from these things. Even though some of them are not necessary, it’s better to follow these guidelines than to let disunity arise. This is the proactive part! We’re not called to wait until there’s hurt and misunderstanding, and then deal with the aftermath. No, loving each other is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s considering their background and their burdens.
I’m going to give you an example in a minute to think about. In the meantime, jump ahead to chapter 16.
Ok, Paul has travelled back to Derbe and Lystra. There he meets Timothy. It’s possible, even, that Timothy came to faith on one of Paul’s earlier visits. Timothy was “well spoken of,” it says, by the believers there. He was growing spiritually, displaying a depth of faith. And Paul wanted Timothy to accompany them.
Look at verse 3. Paul had Timothy circumcised. What?! I mean, the council just decided that circumcision was not necessary! So then, why? First of all – the question that all the guys have. How is anyone going to know whether Timothy is circumcised or not? “Hey, before you enter the synagogue, can I check your Jewish credentials?” No. that’s not likely it. The men shared public bath houses – so it would have been known.
On a serious note, why was Timothy circumcised? Verse 3. “because of the Jews in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek.” This wasn’t necessary. No, Paul was proactively pursuing peace. He didn’t want it to be a stumbling block. He cared for and loved both his fellow Jewish believers in Christ AND the Jews that were not Christians. Paul wanted to remove any obstacle that would prevent them from hearing the Gospel – in the case of the unbelieving Jews. And anything that would cause discord between brothers and sisters in Christ -in the case of the believing Jews. Paul and Timothy were examples for them of being sensitive, and caring and loving.
AS part of their journey, verse 4, they shared the decisions by the council. The Jerusalem council hadn’t been streamed on Twitch or YouTube. There wasn’t a podcast summary. Nope, Paul and Silas with him hand delivered the letter and testified to what happened. As a result of their proactive pursuit of peace, the churches were strengthened. Verse 5.
Ok, I want to try to make this a little more concrete to us today. Last week, I mentioned that our annual denominational assembly is coming up later next month. Hypothetically, let’s say the COVID numbers began to rise again. And, hypothetically, what if the assembly came out with a statement that says this: “with our desire to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to remove any stumbling block for people who don’t know Christ, we ask all churches to require masks.”
What would we do? The rebel inside of me would be like “no way, we just, after all, went masks optional.” That would just be me reacting from my flesh. Rather, regardless of how I may or may not have voted, we would ask every person to wear masks, again. For 2 reasons. First, God has ordained the authority in his church. To be sure, this hypothetical request would not be a core matter of faith. No, we should “major on the majors, minor on the minors.” We would follow through humbly and graciously in submission. Second, we would do it for the purpose in which it was presented. It would be a matter of conscience for some – those who believe masks are necessary. And we would follow through, to love our brothers and sisters in Christ… and to not put a stumbling block for unbelievers.
Part of loving one another is being sensitive, is listening well, is considering others more important than ourselves. Proactively pursue peace.
Recognize the Reality of Rifts
Ok, this brings us to point number 2. Which is… Recognize the reality of rifts. A rift is a disagreement, a quarrel. Recognize the reality of rifts.
The end of chapter 15 is a hard reality. It’s felt like we’ve journeyed with Paul and Barnabas over the last couple of month. We were with them on Easter in Pisidia, when Paul proclaimed the resurrection. Travelled with them to Iconium and then Lystra. We were by Paul’s side with Barnabas when he was stoned. Celebrated with them in their sending church, Antioch. Travelled to Jerusalem and sat with them in the council, listening to them retell of God’s work.
They’ve been through hard times, and joyful times, and seen God’s amazing work. 2-3 years side by side.
And we get here. And I want to shout: “Why can’t you all just get along?”
Because as they prepare to head back out… there’s a rift. A disagreement. A sharp one, no less.
John Mark had joined them for the first part of their last trip. But he left. We don’t know why. There’s been dozen of theories from health issues, to family burdens, to questioning his faith. We also know that Mark is Barnabas’ cousin. They’re family.
And so when Barnabas suggests that Mark join them, and Paul rejects the idea, it’s personal. These are obviously two godly leaders in the early church… two apostles. And they’ve come to the point where they can’t work something out and so they separate. They each go their own way.
Back in college, I volunteered in the youth ministry of my church. And one summer, helped lead a group of kids on a mission’s trip. For the first time, I experienced conflict in the church. My expectations were high. We had an exciting ministry goal. The teenagers were ready and had servant hearts. The couple that was co-leading the trip had a very different vision and agenda. We didn’t get along. It seemed like they disagreed with everything I said and did. Looking back, my jokes were misplaced. In my naiveite, I reacted poorly to their disagreement. That only made things worse.
We were at a camp in Europe… ministering to kids who had cancer. These children had all grown up near the Chernobyl nuclear melt-down site. Some of them were not expected to live much longer. Our time was spent having fun with them, sharing the Gospel, and trying to be an encouragement.
In the midst of it all, I was distracted. The conflict was a shock – and I didn’t have, at the time, the right expectations or Christian maturity to handle it well. To this day, it’s overshadowed my memories of that trip.
For the younger generations here, many of you know the difficulties of conflict. But I suspect that disagreements in the church may take you off guard. It’s important to realize the reality of conflict in the church. Now. And to mentally and spiritually prepare for them.
The apostle Paul was a spiritually deep man of God. The Lord used him mightily. But he was still a sinner. He’s pretty clear about that in Romans 7.
And Barnabas, the same. The Lord used him mightily. Remember, his nick name was “son of encouragement.” Yet in this difficult personal disagreement, he and Paul didn’t see things the same. He was also still a sinner.
We don’t know how their conflict went down… how deep it was. But make no mistake, it was painful. They each likely carried that burden with them.
What we do not sense is that Paul and Barnabas were in any way slandering or spreading rumors. Now, we’re not told that, but we do know that they had gone through a lot. They had mutual respect for each other.
Recognize the reality of rifts - Disagreements in the church will happen. I think you know this, but here at Tucker Pres, we’re still in the honeymoon phase of our new church. And as much as I’d love to think that we’ll always be unified, I know that conflict and disagreement will come. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for unity and peace. Rather I’m saying that God has given us each different passions and personalities, and backgrounds. We also each have different sin patterns. So the question is not if disagreements will happen. Rather, it’s how we respond to disagreements, because we’re called to pursue peace.
Hope in Christ
Now, if I’m you, right now, I’d be thinking, “you know what, I’m not hopeful. I’ve been through Church conflict, and its hard and painful, and I don’t know if I can go through it again.” I don’t want to either. The burden is heavy. We each know our own propensity for sin. We’ve each experienced conflict to one extent or another… But there is hope. And the question is, where do we find it?
The reality is, peace, unity, agreement… it’s elusive. You know that. And you know the reason why. James says (the same James from the council), “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Beloved, our sin gets in the way every time. It’s sin that got in the way between Paul and Barnabas.Who’s fault was it? Both of them to one extent or another, we don’t know.
There’s only one source of strength. One place to draw from over and over. One hope through which we can strive for peace with one another. And that is Christ. Otherwise, we’ll be either be just peace fakers or peace breakers, as one author put it.
In our relationships with one another, we need to be looking to Christ, so that we may love each other as Christ loved us. How do we do that? Before the Lord’s Supper this morning, we’ll be affirming our hope in Christ from the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It says, “Since we have been raised with Christ... we are to put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
We look to Christ on the cross when we disagree. By realizing the depth of his sacrifice for us, his forgiveness for us, and his righteousness for us, we can pursue peace and unity. One of the themes that we’ve seen in Acts over and over is the Holy Spirit’s work. And what is that work? It’s the ongoing work of Christ. God’s Spirit is working in us. That means, in Jesus’ holiness, we can be holy. In his compassion, we can have compassionate hearts. In his kindness, and humility, and meekness, we can be kind, and humble, and meek. And most importantly, we can forgive one another, because Jesus forgave us.
The only way at Tucker Pres that we’re going to be able to work through and love each other when disagreement comes is seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Drawing from the grace that we’ve received in Christ, and through that… being gracious to one another.
Years later in the apostle Paul’s life, he would arrive in Rome… in chains - a prisoner on trial. And he would write to Timothy. And Paul asked Timothy to come to him and to bring someone very helpful with him – Mark. The same Mark who Paul didn’t want to bring with him here in Acts 16. The Lord had been working in Paul’s life, and Marks, life, and Barnabas’ life over time. And despite this sharp disagreement, they were still brothers in Christ.
May we proactively pursue peace… sensitively listening to and loving each other especially when disagreements come… because as Christ loved us.