Text: Acts 15:1-21
I kind of grew up on church fights. The fighting was not so much within our church, though we had our disagreements like most congregations. The conflict was mostly between churches. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in southern Indiana. Looking back, we were a typical, conservative but not overly rigid congregation, a generally warm-hearted church, but in the culture of Southern Baptists in that area, we were considered freakishly liberal.
I have shared the story before of how our church was booted out of our local association. We were dismissed for two official reasons and at least one unofficial reason. Officially, we were voted out for not conforming with the official doctrine of the association. First, we were practicing open communion. We welcomed any Christian to share in the Lord’s Supper, while the official party line was extremely restrictive. And then we were condemned for accepting what was called “alien immersion.” That is one of the craziest expressions I have come across in church life – it sounds like we were baptizing extraterrestrials. What it meant was that we accepted the baptism by immersion of churches whose beliefs were not completely 100% like ours. It doesn’t sound that radical, does it? American Baptists were suspect but considered marginally OK, but Disicples of Christ or Church of Christ people definitely needed to be rebaptized. We were way too lax on this sort of thing.
Those were the official reasons. Among the unofficial reasons was the fact that our pastor appeared on a 5 minute devotion on TV sponsored by the local Council of Churches and we were much too friendly with the Presbyterians down the road. Looking back it seems ridiculous, but we were just too cosmopolitan and too integrated into the community for some of the other pastors’ tastes. And it probably didn’t help that our relatively small church had won the Baptist Association softball league that year.
Over the years, I have seen serious church fighting – again, more often between churches, but within churches as well, which is especially painful. So I come to our scripture today with this history, with this background, and maybe some of you have had similar journeys.
What we read about today is the first big dispute in the early church. Paul had been converted on the road to Damascus, and he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. In the ensuing chapters in Acts, we read about Barnabas taking on Paul as a kind of sponsor, and the two engage in a missionary journey, traveling to the island of Cypress and then through parts of what is now Turkey, winding up at Antioch in Syria. It is quite an adventure. There is success, both in leading Jews to become followers of Jesus and in leading Gentiles to Christ. There is also opposition; at one point, Paul is stoned and left for dead, but he gets up and moves on to preach in another city the next day. Paul and Baranabas return to Antioch and they give a report on how God is working, especially among the Gentiles.
Not everybody is happy about this. There are those who have come to Antioch from Judea who believed that yes, the gospel was for everyone, but following Jewish law and especially circumcision, which was a sign of the covenant with God, was a part of that. It was a requirement in order to be saved.
It is very interesting what happens. The Antioch church doesn’t go rogue. They could have said, “Forget those people in Jerusalem,” but they don’t. They respect the apostolic community. They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.
So the Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem. And notice what happens when they arrive. They are warmly welcomed by the apostles and the elders. There’s a mutual respect. The mother church doesn’t say, “Here come those renegades. Here come those radicals.” They are embraced as brothers and sisters.
This meeting is known as the Jerusalem Council. And it is a wonderful model for working through differences. Everyone has a voice, and the church takes time to listen. The Spirit, of course, turned the tide of the meeting when Simon Peter spoke and said, “We believe we will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Finally James spoke. This was James the brother of Jesus, who had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church is nearly all Jewish in background and is the old-school center of the Jesus movement.
James puts what is happening in context, saying that the prophets spoke of Gentiles coming to God, and it was now happening. They don’t actually take a vote, but there is a consensus, and James speaks as the Spirit has led the community. He said that the church should not impose further burden on Gentiles who were coming to God.
The decision was no needless rules. No stiff requirements on that which is not essential. But then he goes on to say, let’s simply tell them, don’t behave immorally and don’t eat food that is going to especially offend Jewish brothers and sisters. It sounds like a bone thrown out to those on the other side of the issue, and it almost sounds a little bit patronizing, like Gentiles are really into fornicating and they need to keep that in check if they are going to be in the church.
But I think what he is saying is, we have freedom, and we live in grace, but we need to think about the way our freedom affects others. We need to use our freedom in a way that builds others up and be sensitive to other believers.
I know that God was in this decision, because in most every Jerusalem Council–like moment I have been a part of, there is no agreement in the end and the sides often go their separate ways. Churches split, denominations split, people get mad and leave. Here, they continue and they move forward.
There are two things worth thinking about: the process and the outcome. I like that everyone seems to have their say. Those who felt like Gentiles should follow the Law had their say. Peter spoke, Paul spoke, Barnabas spoke, James spoke. Everyone listened to each other, which we don’t always see in our discussions and debates. It was a thoughtful and respectful process. This kind of listening and deliberation and prayer and waiting for the Spirit to lead is extremely difficult, even when you are being intentional about it.
Several years ago, there was a great deal of conflict in our denomination over acceptance of LGBTQ persons. This was and is true within churches to some extent, but the conflict was especially in associations and regions and at the national level. It’s not like we are all in agreement now, but there isn’t the same level of conflict. Our more decentralized structure has a lot to do with that, especially when compared to the Methodists, who are about to split over the issue.
Back when this was coming to a head among American Baptists, our Ministers Council, the professional organization for ABC clergy, decided that instead of being reactive about it or avoiding the issue, instead of sniping and fighting, that we would have a respectful conversation and listen for God’s Spirit to speak. We called these gatherings, one held in each region, Jerusalem Councils, based on this story. We were not trying to solve the issue for the whole denomination; we were going to talk about how our organization would approach it,
Some were immediately upset that we were even going to try to have a conversation. Our national director took a lot of flak. Dealing with differences in a straightforward way was very threatening, but we did it.
In our region, we had a very good turnout of clergy at Grand View University. They had a nice meeting room and it was a neutral site. There were some heartfelt stories shared. I remember one person in particular saying that he wasn’t sure where he stood on this, exactly, and his background was more conservative, but that he had himself been a victim of discrimination and he could empathize with those who felt marginalized. He said that he could not be judgmental toward those who were serving in good faith. I appreciated those honest comments.
I would like to say that it all went well, but the fact was it did not go well at all. A lot of folks had no intention of listening to others. And I heard stories from other regions where it went far worse than it did for us.
That was 15 years ago, and the notion of people who significantly disagree getting together to have a respectful conversation seems more difficult now than it did then. We are used to listening to people who believe just like we do. We are not accustomed, and we are mostly not willing to sit down and have conversations with people with whom we may strongly disagree.
Beyond the process of respectful listening, it would be hard to overstate how crucial this decision was. To be honest, the side that carried the argument should not have won. Tradition and power, not to mention inertia, were on the side of those who wanted conformity to the Law. But in reality, what happened was simply an extension of the narrative we have been following in the book of Acts.
There was concern that Greek widows were not being cared for appropriately, so deacons are appointed and the church expands. The church was for those from a Greek culture as well as a Hebrew culture. There was Philip, sent to explain the scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch. Barriers are broken and the gospel is taken to Ethiopia.
There is Ananias, sent by God to Damascus to meet Saul of Tarsus and help him regain his sight, Saul, better known as Paul, is joined by Barnabas and they take the gospel to new places. And now the doors of the church are flung wide open as Gentiles are fully welcomed into the church.
The process is to listen, to share, to be open, to allow everyone to be heard, and to listen for God’s Spirit. The decision is: we are all saved by God’s grace, every one of us. So let grace abound.
There is an old saying: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity. May it be so. Amen.