2017-2-12 How To Handle Controversy

ACTS 15:1-35                                                                                      FEBRUARY 12, 2017


I find it tragic to watch the bitter disagreements and turmoil among our political leadership in Washington. I sometimes think that I am watching a group of petulant, self absorbed children. I also think that pride and the desire to win at all costs is leading the country down a path of destruction. And when trouble does come they will waste time pointing the finger at the other parties blaming them for all of the problems.

How should we in the church handle disagreements and controversies? This passage in Acts 15 provides a model in how to address issues when they threaten to divide a church. It is wise to look at the different viewpoints that led to the controversy. Acts 15:1 (NIV) 1 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Judaism allowed for Gentiles to join the covenant people of Israel as long as the converts followed the law. Genesis 17:14 (NIV) 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Circumcision came to be one of the defining marks of a faithful Jew. This group upset the new Gentile believers as they taught that to be a Christian, one must be circumcised. This was contrary to what they had been taught. This group was comprised of former Pharisees. Acts 15:5 (NIV) 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

Acts 15:2 (NIV) 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”  What is important to note is that the leadership in Jerusalem did not ignore the controversy hoping that it would go away. Acts 15:6 (NIV) 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.”

Luke records that after much discussion Peter got up to speak. It is believed that it was ten years earlier when Cornelius, the Roman centurion, had a vision and sent for Peter. When Peter came and preached the gospel the group who heard him believed and the Spirit came upon them. This incident began the outreach to the Gentiles. Acts 15:7-11 (NIV) 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?(No one, except Jesus ever kept the Law without failing to break the Law.) 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Our first scripture reading from Galatians 3 which Paul had written reveals that Peter and Paul are in full agreement.

After this message from Peter, then Paul and Barnabas tell their story about their work among the Gentiles. Acts 15:12 (NIV) 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”  God often showed his approval in Acts by “miraculous signs and wonders”. No one interrupted them while they spoke. All of those present treated each other with respect.

Peter accused the former Pharisees of casting a burden upon the Gentile Christians that even the Jews could not keep. This accusation is backed up by the teaching of Jesus. Luke 11:46 (NIV) 46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”

After Paul and Barnabas spoke about their work then James got up to speak. It is clear through the New Testament letters that James, the brother of Jesus, had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James agreed with Peter and Paul and Barnabas. James appealed to scripture to back up his argument, as did Peter and Paul.  Whenever there are disagreements our discussions should always focus on scripture. Scripture is always our final authority. The reason we left the PCUSA was over the authority of scripture and is why we joined the EPC. There will always be minor disagreements on non-essential items. However, most Christians can agree on the Essentials of the Faith.

James realized that the council had come to a consensus. Acts 15:19 (NIV) 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” The leadership of the church came out opposed to the teaching of the former Pharisees. This decision by the Jerusalem council marks the distinction that separates Christianity from Judaism. Judaism continues to this day to follow the Law of Moses as the route to salvation and salvation is obtained by the individual’s effort. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes we are saved by faith, which is the gift of God by his grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV) 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”

James understood that the Gentile believers would have a difficult time in breaking away from the pagan practices that they had been involved in before coming to faith in Christ. James noted the practices that they should avoid. Acts 15:20-21 (NIV) 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”  Both Jews and Christians understood that when worshiping other gods that these practices involved demonic worship.

Paul spoke of this in his letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 10:20 (NIV) 20 The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.” James was concerned that the Gentile believers needed to make a break from their old non-Christian practices. Galatians 5:16-18 (NIV) 16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” The Law remains a guide to how to please God, but it is no longer the way to salvation.

I also like the way that the council contacted the church members who were upset by this teaching that was declared false. Acts 15:24-29 (NIV) 24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul– 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” The peace and unity of the church is of vital importance and the leadership of the church wanted them to know that their concerns had not been overlooked and action had been taken.

Some principles in how to handle disputes are to listen to one another with respect. We are to use scripture to back up our position. We are to make distinctions in what is essential and non-essential. Christendom is divided over eschatology, the study the end times and how to understand the book of Revelation. By much prayer and discussion we decide how the Spirit wants us to proceed.

May the Lord guide us in this life until the day he calls us home, or returns.

Let us pray.