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Home arrow Griffin's History arrow Lessons From Acts 15 (A Pattern for Resolving Interchurch Conflict)
Lessons From Acts 15 (A Pattern for Resolving Interchurch Conflict) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Ivey   

 Perhaps nowhere else in scripture is there a clearer example of the method and spirit by which brethren are instructed to address controversial matters between sister churches than is presented in the account of how Jerusalem and Antioch Churches resolved an apparently serious interchurch dispute over the fundamental doctrine of regeneration. There are several lessons to be gleaned from the account for those who wish to follow the "old paths" of faith in God and scriptural authority as the only rule of faith and practice.

Lesson 1:  Before formally bringing the controversy to the attention of Jerusalem Church the membership of Antioch Church sought a clear understanding of the basis and specific facts of the disagreement.

Acts 15:1-2 "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question."

The disagreement of Antioch Church with the pronouncements of the Judaean brethren who insisted upon Gentile circumcision was profound. It went to the very heart of the doctrine of regeneration; and as the text indicates was contrary to what Paul and Barnabas, who were themselves members of Antioch Church (see Acts 13:2), were teaching.

The disputed matter was thoroughly heard and discussed at Antioch before the members determined to send Paul, Barnabas and others to address it with Jerusalem Church. No doubt they listened carefully to the explanations of those who said circumcision was necessary. They likely asked questions and offered opinion thereby thoroughly acquainting themselves with the arguments of those insisting that the Gentiles be circumcised. After a thorough hearing and when they were reasonably certain they did not misunderstand Antioch determined to seek formal clarification of the position of Jerusalem church. They appointed brethren to go to their sister church for further investigation.

Lesson 2:  Discussion of the interchurch conflict was limited to the disputing churches. The controversy was not discussed with "third party" sister churches who were not directly involved nor otherwise generally published for discussion by brethren who were not members of either of the disputing churches.

Verse 3. "And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren."

Paul and Barnabas visited other churches during their journey to Jerusalem. However, it is apparent from reactions to their visitation that they did not discuss the dispute between Antioch and Jerusalem churches. The text indicates that they "caused great joy unto all the brethren." Interchurch conflict produces joy only with the devil and his messengers. Brethren who love the Lord and seek only his will do not rejoice at the news that sister churches are in disagreement. Had Paul and Barnabas been discussing the controversy the churches they visited would not have been rejoicing. They would have been sorrowing.

Lesson 3:  The details and resolution of the disputation was heard and addressed by those churches alone who were involved in the matter with the Holy Ghost as sole mediator.

Verses 4-6. "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter."

The record indicates that everyone present when Paul and Barnabas met with Jerusalem Church were members of one of the two churches involved in the disagreement. (All of the Apostles except Paul were members of Jerusalem Church.) No one else was called upon to hear the matter. The scope of the hearing and resolution of the dispute was limited to the membership of Jerusalem Church and the representatives of Antioch despite the fact that other churches had a similar problem with Jerusalem Church.

No council was called. Outside elders were not invited to participate. In fact, nowhere in scripture is authority given for a group of elders to function as a policy setting or enforcing body over churches. The practice of councils of elders establishing and seeking to enforce policies relating to church doctrine or lines of fellowship is nowhere mentioned nor authorized in the New Testament. It challenges Christ's authority as the head of the Church and denies the power of the gospel as the proper means of instruction and correction. It is an affront to the scriptural pattern of local church authority. It also violates the structure and function of church government by denying the principle of local church autonomy. Councils are parachurch organizations. They are not a church and function outside the authority of any single church despite the fact that scripture plainly teaches that the local church with Christ as her head is the sole authority of church government. Councils are an unscriptural form of de facto church government because they exercise both legislative and executive powers when they establish policy and seek to impose it among churches.

Lesson 4: The authority of the elders and Apostles who were members of the disputing churches did not replace or in anyway supersede the authority of the two churches to resolve the controversy.

Verse 6. "And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter."

The Apostles and elders came together to consider (eido; Gr.), meaning to understand the dispute and discuss its resolution. Several were heard, including Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James. None of those heard imposed a solution upon the disputing parties. They did cite spiritual experiences as validated by scriptural interpretation as precedent for understanding a proper course of action. Peter and Paul noted the presence of the Holy Spirit as evidence of Gentile salvation without circumcision (verses 7-12). James cited scriptural authority (verses 13-19) which authenticated the experiences of which Peter and Paul spoke.

This is the pattern for understanding God's will. His will is always expressed both empirically as spiritual experience and rationally as scriptural validation. It was not God's will that Gentiles be circumcised to be saved. This was expressed spiritually in the fact that they demonstrated evidence of salvation without having been circumcised. However, false spirits can imitate God and fool people into believing that God is in some matter when in fact he is not. When God is in a matter the authority of scripture always validates, thereby giving evidence of authenticity to spiritual experience. This was the case with the Gentiles' salvation without the necessity of circumcision. Peter and Paul were witnesses as to the empirical logic of spiritual experience and James was a witness to the rational logic of scriptural validation. Together, their pronouncements "by the mouth of two or three witnesses," expressed God's will in "spirit and truth."

Neither the narrative of Acts 15 nor even the statements of the Apostles can be correctly interpreted to indicate that a judgment was forced upon the disputing churches. The tone of their language indicates the Apostles spoke persuasively, which suggests neither mandate nor demand. They were persuading as to their positions, not imposing their positions upon the churches. Even James, who seems to speak with the most authority, did not impose a resolution upon the churches. When he spoke of his "sentence" (krino Gr.) undoubtedly James meant his opinion. (Strong's definition of Krino allows this interpretation.) Overall context supports the idea of presenting not a judicial opinion, but rather a mental opinion, or sentence to his listeners. James did not impose judgment, rather he determined his own opinion and offered it to others.

The normal leadership role of elders is apparently represented in context by the Apostles. Under the circumstance it seems reasonable that elders would defer to Apostles. The fact that Barnabas spoke indicates that preachers do have a voice in matters of interchurch conflict. However, it is clear that no one present, neither elders nor Apostles, forced their opinion upon the two churches. Neither is there any evidence to suggest that any form of retaliation was threatened to persuade the churches to follow the Apostles' advice. They advised and then allowed the churches to follow the leadership of the Holy Ghost. If the Apostles did not take the liberty to impose and enforce policy upon the disputing churches it seems reasonable to conclude that in this day councils of elders certainly have no such authority.

 Lesson 5:  The course of action taken by the two churches to resolve the conflict was consensus among church members as directed by the Holy Ghost and revealed by democratic process.

Verses 22-23. "Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:"

All the membership of Jerusalem Church including the Apostles who, escept for Paul, were all members of Jerusalem Church, and her elders agreed together with Paul, Barnabas and others from Antioch as to the proper method for ending the conflict between the two churches. Undoubtedly, consensus was determined by democratic process. This must be the case. How else could they know they were in one accord, as stated: "It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord....." (verse 25)?

Consensus among all present indicates the working of the Lord in the matter. Bear in mind that some of those who now agreed that Gentiles did not require circumcision were the same ones who had previously promoted the idea. Also, verse 28 indicates that the Lord directed their minds to the correct decision. "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden.........."

Disputing churches which rely upon the word of God as their only rule of faith and practice while following the leadership of the Holy Ghost compose a scriptural and thereby sufficient council, having every necessary ability to resolve all manner of interchurch conflicts. While the context of Matthew 18:15-20 applies to matters of personal dispute the general principle of God blessing the efforts of those who meet together in his name to resolve conflict also applies to interchurch conflict. The power of God to work with sister churches to resolve interchurch conflict eliminates the necessity of unscriptural parachurch councils that seek to establish and impose rules for fellowship between churches.

 Lesson 6:  Antioch Church did not join together in a show of unity or resolve with other similarly offended sister churches against Jerusalem.

Verse 23. "And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:"

Evidently, members from Jerusalem Church had promoted the same error to Syria and Cilicia Churches. This must be so because Jerusalem Church sent similar letters to each of these churches. All three letters contained the same statement concerning brethren having gone out from Jerusalem Church who "troubled you with words...." (verse 24). However, when Antioch Church determined to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem they did not call upon similarly offended churches to join them in a show of force or resolve. As far as Antioch was concerned it was a matter between she and Jerusalem Church. Obviously, Antioch did not believe that her authority extended to policing the activities of Jerusalem with their sister churches. There is no scriptural evidence to suggest that it is proper for churches to join together to build a case or present a show of force against a sister church who is in error. A local church, with the authority of Christ as her head and the Holy Ghost as her chief mediator is sufficiently equipped to address every potential of interchurch conflict. This fact eliminates every reason Antioch Church may have considered to call for a general council of elders from every church who had a similar problem with Jerusalem Church.

Antioch's isolated action also indicates that it is inappropriate for an association of churches to participate as a body to resolve controversy between sister churches. Associations have no scriptural authority to even address matters of disagreement between sister churches because they exist solely by the principle of Christian liberty and not by scriptural example nor directive. If their existence is nowhere mentioned nor specifically authorized in scripture, how then can Associations exercise any authority relative to church government? Most Associational constitutions state that they have no such authority. Yet historically, Association have frequently violated both scripture and their own rules by establishing themselves as a de facto government over member churches in matters of internal local church conflict, conflict between churches, and conflict with other Associations.

This phenomenon is truly amazing since it is common knowledge that Associations are a latter day development. Historians note the earliest reference to an Association is the Abrigaviny in Wales which was constituted in 1651 A.D.! Therefore questions must be asked: If Associationalism is a proper method for maintaining order among churches what did brethren rely on before 1651; and, why is it necessary in this day to rely upon Associations to maintain order if earlier brethren did not? What has changed and what did Associational discipline replace? I suspect in some instances it replaced scripture as the only rule of faith and practice and faith in God's ability to govern his church.

Lesson 7:  Once the controversy was resolved the matter was closed and was not discussed with uninvolved parties.

Verse 33. "And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles."

After delivering the letter of resolution and tarrying for a time of fellowship Judas returned to Jerusalem Church. Silas tarried a while longer. Aside from the historical account recorded in Acts 15 there is no other mention of this episode in the New Testament. In fact, there is no scriptural indication that any member of either of the disputing churches ever mentioned this conflict again. This is very significant because the issue of circumcising Gentiles came up frequently during Paul's ministry. Paul consistently employed the "spirit and truth" method of empirical spiritual experience confirmed by rational theological argument to oppose the practice. Nowhere in scripture is it found that he referred back to the action of the two churches as precedent which established a general policy and thus settled the matter for all the churches.

There are several probable reasons why Paul never cited the Antioch/Jerusalem dispute whenever the question of Gentile circumcision later arose. The most obvious is that the matter was concluded and its continued discussion could have caused renewed offense between the two churches. Also, Paul probably realized that the circumstance of the Antioch/Jerusalem dispute and resolution was in certain ways unique to the churches involved and therefore could not be generally applied as a guideline for later disputes within or else between other churches. However, it is most probable that Paul did not cite it because he did not see the resolution setting a general precedent that was binding on all the churches. Had he done so he would have been treating the Jerusalem/Antioch council as a centralized church government. Paul most likely believed that whenever a conflict arises it must be specifically addressed by those directly involved on the merits of its own unique circumstances and arguments; and, in so doing it will be resolved by the power of the Holy Ghost in bringing the disputing parties into faithful compliance with God's will. This position eliminates the need for policy setting councils. Whenever brethren faithfully seek to obey the Lord they will resolve their differences regardless of what has transpired in the past. Furthermore, if they seek and follow God's will there will be scriptural confirmation which compliments their decisions and actions.

Other lessons may be gleaned from Acts 15. They include issues relating to church identity, recognition, interchurch fellowship, etc. However, for the sake of brevity and expedience we have not discussed them.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 09 September 2006 )
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