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The Right Way to Handle Church Conflict

The church can disagree in a way that does not threaten its unity and integrity.


I am by nature an idealist. I start almost everything in life by thinking about the best-case scenario. As a young man, I had a best-case scenario for my marriage. As a father, I had the best-case scenario for raising our children. Being a pastor, I always think about the best possibilities before anything else.

But when you're a person who is an idealist in most senses, you discover you have to live with disappointment, because nothing ever quite reaches the height of the ideal you create in your mind. Those of you who are like me can understand exactly what I'm saying. Those of you who are not like me think this is dumb. But disappointment can be a way of life for a lot of us.

A lot of us have an idealistic view of the church. We look at the New Testament, in particular to the Book of Acts, and we see a church that shook its world. We think: It would be wonderful to be part of that congregation. Everything just seems to have gone so right. Don't believe it. The New Testament church had some tough moments. And it's impressive that the Holy Spirit, inspiring the New Testament writers, didn't spare us from the grimy details. Sometimes the Holy Spirit shows us people at their worst.

One of my idealistic tendencies is to think the best about all possible communities. Over the years, I've had to learn that when you enter a marriage, you marry a sinner. And you shouldn't be surprised if you yourself, as a sinner, show a little sin on occasion as well.

It's the same thing for church. When you're part of a church, there are times when you're going to see sin, when people are going to disappoint you. I've had to come to the realization that whenever two or more people get together and form a community, it will always be rather messy. When people get together, sooner or later the idealism will be blasted with a dose of reality. We struggle to communicate and understand. Because we are often innately selfish, messiness will often dictate the state of affairs.

Acts 15 depicts the messiness of the early church community.

We see this vividly in Acts 15. To my thinking, this chapter contains one of the most important stories in all of the New Testament. This is an important story because it could have been the terminal point of the early church. All that wonderful stuff in the first 14 chapters of Acts could have flown apart and been destroyed if the people of the Lord had not handled this moment correctly under the power of the Spirit.

Let me first offer a frame around the story, a backdrop. Acts 14:26 gives a summary about the ending of Paul and Barnabas' first missionary journey: "From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work that they had now completed." That's an easy sentence to skip over, but it's worth pondering. Paul and Barnabas started this journey in chapter 13 with the call of the Holy Spirit. They went through tremendous challenges. We know as we study all the text relating to this first missionary journey that Paul had been stoned, left for dead. He'd been deathly ill at one point. Paul and Barnabas had faced terrible slander, yet they had completed the trip. They had done the job completely; there were no loose ends, according to the call of the Spirit of God.

So in chapter 14, verse 27, we read that upon returning to Antioch, they went to their home church that had dispatched and commissioned them. How glad they must have been to get home to familiar territory, to familiar cultures and customs and friends they dearly loved. And the welcome mat was out. When they arrived home, Paul and Barnabas gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them—how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. That was unprecedented. Before this moment, the people at Antioch had known only a few Gentiles here and there who had been saved. But now the church was getting reports of avalanches of Gentiles coming to faith. A revival, an awakening, was going on.

Think about the excitement those people in Antioch were experiencing. Think about how thrilled that crowd must have been as they listened to story after story of what God was doing. Think about the enthusiasm that filled that church. If you've been a Christ-follower for long, you're familiar with moments such as this when you get into one of those places where the Spirit of God is at work and lives are being transformed—you just get caught up in it.

Unfortunately, starting in Acts 15:1, the mood switches. Some men came down from Judea, or Jerusalem, to Antioch, and they started to teach the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."

How often have you had the experience in which you're on a roll, something wonderful is happening, and into that moment comes somebody who throws a wet blanket on the whole thing? They look at what to you is obviously the blessing of the Lord, and they cut it in a different direction, and somehow dull the whole thing. That's what happened in Antioch. In the middle of all this enthusiasm and excitement, some people came down from Jerusalem and cut across the grain of their joy. These men said: Something's wrong here.

The something wrong was this: These men maintained a Judaistic, Pharisaical perspective on Christian faith, which says a person—particularly a Gentile—cannot be saved unless he is circumcised and upholds all of the Law of Moses.

In today's society, we're a bit delicate about discussing the word circumcision and its meaning. In those days, however, people used the word with regularity and no embarrassment. We all know that in the Jewish tradition, the centuries-old covenant between God and the Jewish community had been that, on the eighth day, the male child was to be circumcised. This physical symbol reminded the people of the bond they had as the people chosen of the Lord.

Conflict arises even among well-meaning people. We need to be fair to these men who went to Antioch. We need to cut them a bit of slack. They were believers, followers of the Lord. But they had inherited a millennia-long tradition. They were wired to believe a person could not be a child of God unless he would uphold the Law of Moses and unless he was circumcised. This was a no-brainer to these men: If the Gentiles were going to come into the church and be a part of the movement of the people of God—and that was a bothersome thought in itself—they would have to do it just as the Jewish men did it.

It's easy for me to look at this passage and think: You guys are off the wall. This is stupid. That's easy to think because I come from 20 centuries of New Testament Christian teaching in which circumcision is not a necessity for being a believer. While this may look dumb to me, it didn't look dumb to them.

That's an important learning experience for any of us who get into a situation in which people resist change. I have to remind myself that there are people who seriously believe what they advocate, and before I disrespect them or turn my back on them, I need to understand where they are coming from.

These men were coming from good intentions. Even so, they cast a wet blanket on the church's joy, and the church suddenly found itself in the beginnings of trouble. Acts 15:2 says, "This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them." This isn't kind language the writer uses. Don't launder those words and think this was just some quiet, polite conversation. These people were mad at each other. This church was suddenly in trouble. And its people could not handle this debate. It was getting out of control.

There are several examples of this kind of debating going on in the New Testament church. For example, at one point Paul wrote to the Philippians and said: Church, I beg you to take Euodia and Syntyche (two leading women), and bring them together so this debate won't get out of control.

Communities are messy. They look good on the surface, but they can have terrific struggles within. This church in Antioch looks good on the surface, but there was messiness arising. How would it be solved? You may think, Why should I bother with a story that's more than 1,900 years old? What does it have to teach me? I think you'll discover this church has a lot to teach us by how they resolved conflict.

Churches can work through conflict. The Antioch church said: Look, this is a bigger question than we can resolve. So in verse 3 we read that the church sent Paul and Barnabas and all these people back to Jerusalem, the mother church, to ask them: We have a question. Would the mother church please resolve it?

Acts 15:3 states: "As they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them." That relates back to Acts 13:2–3: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." The repetition of the theme shows the tremendous connection between God's Spirit and what the church was doing.

But when the reports were given, the dispute took on a new flame. Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees—Christian Pharisees—stood and reiterated the argument: "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses." In other words, if these folks from outside are going to come and be a part of our movement, they have to do it exactly as we did it.

I want to remind you one more time not to disrespect them. They were good people, and they were speaking out of a tradition that was hundreds and hundreds of years old. Thus, the church meeting began. If this meeting had not gone well, it probably would have divided and paralyzed or neutralized the movement of early Christ followers, and the church as we have known it through the centuries would never have happened.

I believe this is a more significant moment than even the Lutheran Reformation. This situation paints a picture of how Christians got crossways in the chute with each other, had a disagreement, and handled it well. We've seen other situations through Church history in which Christians mishandled their disagreements, and generations following paid a terrible price.

The apostles and elders act to solve the dispute.

But look at how this story unfolds in verse 6: "The apostles and elders met to consider this question." What happened in this meeting, as Luke records, were many speeches, and the meeting probably went over several days. We have no way of knowing the length of the meeting. We only know a few compressed excerpts from at least three speeches.

The first speech came from the apostle Simon Peter. He said: "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. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us." Peter was alluding, of course, to the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10.

And Peter at that point learned and accepted what every Jewish Christian was struggling to get used to: that a Gentile could be saved and filled with the Spirit. They thought in those days only Jews could be. This seems ridiculous to modern Christians, yet this was deadly serious to first-century Jews.

So Peter continued with his speech. The basic point he was trying to make was this: Look, I saw with my own eyes. The Spirit of the Lord was at work, and the power of God fell upon this Gentile family. We need to understand that God is doing a great work, that he accepts the Gentiles just as he accepts us. Look at what was going on out through southern Turkey and Syria where Paul and Barnabas had been doing their missionary work.

By the way, if you go to Galatians chapter 2, you'll discover this speech was not easy for Peter to say. He'd been up in Antioch, and Paul writes about the moment when Peter was waffling on this same issue. Peter didn't change easily. Paul says in Galatians 2:11 that he had to rebuke Peter in front of the entire church. We wouldn't do that today, but Paul did. Right in front of everybody, Paul said: Peter, you're wrong. You're waffling on this issue.

Peter had been eating with Gentiles for a while until some of his Jewish friends came, then he restricted himself only to Jews. So Paul said: Peter, you're a hypocrite to the core. But Peter finally had the humility to say: Paul, you're right.

So now Peter got up in front of the Jerusalem council, here in this Acts 15 passage, and he said: I have seen what God is doing in the lives of Gentiles. Don't hang on their necks the things we have tried to free ourselves from through Christ.

When Peter finished, we're told in verse 12, the whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul. The people became silent. They listened.

Let me make a general comment that has massive exceptions to it. One of the problems I see in the modern generation, of which I am a part, is we don't do a good job of listening to each other. We have our positions hard and fast, whether it's in economics or politics or theology or a hundred other topics. We go into many discussions thinking, I know what's right, and it doesn't make any difference what you think. We're becoming brittle and rigid, which is infiltrating our modern society, both in the church and beyond the church, wherever you look. I realize, sometimes I have to be silent, just as the congregation in this passage was. I have to listen and try to perceive where the voice of God is speaking in the midst of all this.

The leaders sat silently, listening to Barnabas and Paul talk about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them to the Gentiles. When Paul and Barnabas finished, James spoke up. James was the brother of the Lord Jesus. Somehow without any explanation, James had risen to the surface to be the leader, the spokesperson of the church. James said, beginning in verse 13: "Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself."

That's a tremendous phrase: "a people for himself." For a Jew to say that about the Gentiles is amazing, because that phrase was strictly reserved for Jews alone, and James applied it to the Gentiles. James recognized that God was calling Gentiles to be a people for himself.

You might be thinking, what could I conceivably get from that? You can get racial implications, cultural implications, gender implications, age implications. You can realize that God is no respecter of persons. He can pick any person or any group to be part of a people for himself. That's what James saw clearly.

He continued: "The words of the prophets are in agreement with this." Then he quoted the prophet Amos, who predicted centuries before that Gentiles would become part of the people of God.

Verse 19 may bother some of us: "It is my judgment, therefore … " You know what James did not say? He did not say, "Let's vote on it." He did not follow the polity, the politics, the way that a lot of modern churches do their work. In fact, I can't document this, but I'd be willing to wager if he'd taken a vote, he'd have lost. I think there would have been a significant percentage of people in that Jerusalem church who would have voted the other way. Yet God used a leader. James said, "It's my judgment," and he pronounced one of the most serious theological conclusions the church has ever known in its 2,000 years of history. This is heavy, heavy going.

"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." James was saying: We've got a whole world out there to win, and we've got to do our best to make sure that people outside the pale of the cross, who are different than we are, are made to feel as welcomed as possible. While we're going to adhere to the key convictions of what the gospel is, we are not going to add one scintilla more to the gospel than is necessary, so people will feel welcome whether they are Jews or Gentiles.

As we move into the 21st century, we have to memorize verse 19. In too many places today, the church is making it harder and harder for people outside the faith to come in and hear the gospel. We don't mean to do it, but we make it difficult for the young to make commitments. We make it difficult for the person who has a postmodern mind to hear the gospel. We don't hear ourselves, but all too often we violate James' proposal, and we inadvertently make it difficult for people to hear the gospel.

So what does James propose? Let's write a letter. The letter begins in verse 24: "We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends, Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"—notice the connection between the church and the hand of God—"not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements."

In other words, the letter says: Here are two or three things we would appreciate you Gentiles considering. Circumcision is not necessary. But we wish you would normally abstain from doing some things that are terribly offensive to our Jewish brothers.

The law of love was in motion here. They were making a compromise. While they weren't asking the Gentile men to be circumcised, they were asking them, out of respect for their Jewish spiritual forefathers, to refrain from doing some things the Jews have known over the centuries to be important. In other words, don't needlessly offend the Jews, but find your freedom in Christ and go on as Paul and Barnabas have instructed you.

Notice, by the way, when the letter was written, it was sent off with some people. It wasn't a letter from the e-mail culture. Don't just write a letter, put something in words, and then ship it off. Sometimes the words need a face. The Jerusalem church sent the letter with some godly men so the congregations out there would hear the gentleness, firmness, conviction, and holiness behind how this decision was made.

Two key lessons arise from how the church handled the conflict.

What can we learn from this story? First, the church in Jerusalem made sure the essence, the core conviction of the gospel, was never compromised. Throughout this debate, the cross of Christ, the blood of the Lord shed for our sins, the call to repentance, was never compromised. The church understood what people—Jew or Gentile—have to do to be powerfully saved.

This could have been a moment when the gospel of salvation could have been terribly confused, and the church could have divided over doctrinal misunderstandings and cleavages. But the church preserved what Paul would say to the Corinthians in chapter 1, when he said: If anyone pulls the cross out of the gospel in any way, shape, or form, they're wrong.

So the gospel of salvation was preserved in this great debate.

Second, they preserved the unity of the body of Christ. No one walked. We don't hear ourselves well in today's society. We are being so acculturated with a customized society in which every person wants everything his or her way. Whether we're talking about business and the stores we go to, or the clothing we buy, or the job we do, everybody demands that you do it his or her way. If not, they walk. You see that in the church today: Do it my way, or I walk.

The beauty of this passage is that people disagreed with each other sharply, but they preserved the integrity and the unity of the body. And don't think everybody went away from that meeting happy. Some people must have been profoundly disturbed, but they hung in there. And the church and its power and its mission went forward because the Spirit of God spoke. That's a powerful story.

Finally, in verse 30 we read that they went to Antioch: "where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers." That's the way church is to be done.

So we close the book on one of the greatest stories of the church. We can be proud to be part of this wonderful tradition, for this is how people act when communities are messy. When good people see things in different ways, the gospel is integral and the unity is preserved.

Gordon MacDonald is a writer, speaker, and the pastor emeritus of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. He is coauthor with his wife, Gail, of A Heart for the Master (Vine, 2001).

© Gordon MacDonald
A Resource of Christianity Today International

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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Sermon Outline:


The church, like any other community, will be messy.

I. Acts 15 depicts the messiness of the early church community.

II. The apostles and elders act to solve the dispute.

III. Two key lessons arise from how the church handled the conflict.