June 16, 2024. Sermon Title: Conflict and Resolution

First Mennonite Church

June 16, 2024

Conflict and Resolution

Text: Acts 15:1-31

In chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas came back and reported to the church in Antioch, the church that sent them on their missionary journey to the Gentiles, “how God has opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). While many rejoiced at this good news, not everyone received it well. While Paul and Barnabas were in the mission field, some believers came from Jerusalem to Antioch with a new teaching. They were telling the Gentile believers that they must comply with some Jewish religious practices “to be saved.” For these individuals who demanded the Gentile believers to be circumcised to be saved, no one could identify as God’s people without the covenant marker in the flesh of male believers.

In Genesis 17, God established his covenant with Abraham and his generations to come with the requirement that every male “must undergo circumcision” as a maker of the covenant. Therefore, the perspective of those who brought this added part to the gospel to the Gentile believers, saw it unfathomable for anyone to identify with God’s people and not comply with the physical sign of the covenant. Even those converted to Judaism were required to be circumcised. To not comply with this sign was synonymous with apostasy, punishable with exclusion from the community of the covenant.

As Luke reports in chapter 15, verse two, this new imposition leads to a serious dispute between its proponents and Paul and Barnabas. The engagement between the two parties in the debate was vigorous and intense, yet despite this, they could not come to a resolution. The church, therefore, commissioned Paul, Barnabas, and some other local believers, to go to consult with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue.

When Paul and Barnabas reported to the elders and apostles in Jerusalem what God had done with them among the Gentiles, the issue of the relationship between Christians of Jewish background and that of Gentiles was brought up. The believers who in the past had been Pharisees declared their position on the issue: “It is necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised and ordered to keep the laws of Moses,” they said.  This proposal from the believers of the Pharisee group triggered a consultation/conference to discuss the issue. The apostles and elders came together and discussed it at length. There was much discussion, we are told. It is amazing to see that the proposal was not dismissed, but seriously considered. When Peters spoke, he did not respond to the issue directly but presented his testimony of what God had done through him among the Gentiles. Obviously, he was referring to his visit with Cornelius and his relatives. There, before Cornelius was even baptized, God gave him and all of those present at his house, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the same way God had given it to the disciples in Jerusalem. God’s giving of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his relatives and friends was testimony that God had received them to himself, through Christ. He received without having been circumcised or abided by the Law of Moses. Peter’s testimony of God’s work at Cornelius’ house was similar to what Paul and Barnabas were sharing about their ministry. Having said that, Peter then asked the question: “Why do you try to test God by putting on the neck of the Gentiles a yoke that we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”

After Paul and Barnabas shared about the work of God among the Gentiles, James spoke. He reminded those present that what they all were witnessing or hearing about what God was doing among the Gentiles was part of what the prophets had spoken long ago.

He then suggested what instructions should be given to the Gentile believers as part of the social practices of their new faith: that they abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and blood. By abstaining from these practices, which were widespread in their pagan world, they would not only abide by Christ’s teachings but also be able to have fellowship with their fellow Christian brothers and sisters of Jewish background.

Luke reports that a letter conveying this message was drafted and sent in person to the believers in Antioch.  

There are a few points I would like for us to consider.

  1. At this point in the history of the Christian movement, the church’s origin and initial development were directly connected to the city of Jerusalem and Judaism. That is, the movement had its origin in the Jewish Messiah, and the apostle interpreted his life in light of the Jewish Bible. Also, the initial place of gathering and apostolic activity was the temple in Jerusalem. It seems there was a seamless interaction between Jesus’ followers with the regular practitioners of Judaism in the temple. But then, Paul and Barnabas reported that “God has opened the door of the faith to the Gentiles.” That meant that what was practically an entirely Jewish Messianic movement, suddenly began to include Gentiles as well. It is no wonder why some with more consciousness about the background of the Jesus movement would not want to accept the inclusion of the Gentiles without more requirements other than faith in Jesus. They certainly felt compelled to express their reservation of giving a wide-open-door welcome to the Gentiles as Paul was giving them.

The reservations expressed by those believers of Pharisaic background of wanting to impose rules and traditional practices on the newcomers is a natural human feeling. This happens in churches too. Oftentimes, that feeling of reservation comes mostly from those who have been members and supporters of the church for a long time towards those who are new. The “old-timers” can fall into the temptation of seeing themselves as custodian of the church culture, the unwritten rules that newcomers have no clue of. These unwritten rules can be regarding where one should sit in the church pews, who and when one can speak, how to dress, and other practices during fellowship time or the worship service. As we can see, these are obviously matters that have nothing to do with the faith and relationship with God. Therefore, for us who have been Christians for a long time, let us be welcoming to others and lead them with grace and patience as they seek to grow in the Lord.

  • Conflicts in the church are natural. Every conflict, either interpersonal or within the church has a prehistory, that is, there was something that gave rise to it which was not identified at the time or addressed immediately. The conflict in Acts 15, between those who wanted to impose Jewish religious practices upon the Gentile Christians, arose in chapter 10. When those with stricter practices of Judaism saw that Peter welcomed Cornelius and his relatives as equals into the Jesus movement, they wanted to correct the problem of easy inclusion of the Gentiles before any more joined the movement. So they went to Antioch, without the proper portfolio and authorization and began to require circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses from the Gentile believers.

Therefore, this story might disappoint anyone seeking a church without conflicts. Conflicts are bound to appear wherever people work, live, and even worshipping together. But as we see here, the apostle and elders did not avoid but addressed the conflict. They did not arbitrarily impose a solution but brought out the evidence upon which a compromise could be reached.

One last note:

  • The issue of “great discussion and fierce debate” was that Gentiles were being accepted as equals into the church, which at first was entirely of Jewish background. The requirement of circumcision was a practical matter, unlike confessing faith in Jesus. But more importantly, it was the central symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham and for all his descendants. Those who were requiring it had all the scriptural basis for their demand. Those who were requesting it were scholars of the Jewish Bible—before their coming to faith, they were Pharisees. And there were the apostle—humble “ordinary and uneducated men,” (4:13) as they were called, having to deal with the situation. Let us remember that the New Testament did not exist yet, they were living the events that will become the New Testament. Thus, any and every appeal to Scripture would confirm that those making the demand of circumcision were on the right. The issue of Gentiles being accepted into the covenant of God people through faith in Jesus Christ was something entirely new and the Jewish Bible had no answer for it. On the other hand, the apostles could not deny that what was happening was God’s working, confirming it by his giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles.

This passage illustrates for us the process of spiritual discernment. There are issues for which we cannot find direct answers in the Bible, yet are relevant at a personal and or church level. For instance, the Bible has no specific instructions about which careers young Christians should pursue, or to whom particularly they should marry. We do not find clear guidance about the issue of earth care or environmental stewardship, or whom to vote for, or how to take care of physical lives, etc. Yet, each of these issues are relevant at one time or another.

But as we saw here, the discernment process requires openness and honesty among those who are discerning. It requires knowledge as to how and where God is working to draw wisdom from and guidance for moving forward. It might require compromise or move us to embrace something completely different from anything we have ever done, yet fully knowing that there is where God is leading us. As we saw, James’ proposal was a compromise solution, which took into consideration the testimony of the apostles on the reality of God’s work among the Gentiles but also included elements of the Jewish heritage, the other party was demanding. That proposal was a constructive solution that enabled the church to move forward. Amen.

Pastor Romero