We often read through the Book of Acts at such a rapid pace we don't realize some of the ground-breaking events that are taking place there. In Acts 15 there are two important pieces that are easy to miss in this day and age. The first is the shift in leadership. While the apostles are still the predominant authority due to the fact that they had been "trained" by Jesus Himself, Paul and his fellow missionaries begin to emerge as leaders in the church too. The second shift is that Jerusalem as a base for this new movement is expanding (so to speak) its territory. Antioch is emerging as another hub in the wheel of faith but unlike Jerusalem, the predominant make-up of this city is Gentile and not Jewish, raising a very important issue in the minds of the early believers. The question at hand is, "Do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians?" To the 21st century believer this is hardly a second thought but for those in the 1st century it was epic. It is not surprising then that this issue is going to be a struggle for some and disagreements are going to spring up because of it. While we may not struggle with this question today, there are principles we can learn from those early Christians that will help us through some of the 21st century disagreements that might arise in our church today- especially between individuals.
For the most part the relationship between Jew and Gentile in the Antioch church had been harmonious. But the "traditionalists", a. k. a. the Judiaizers, felt that faith was based on a covenant relationship with God and the primary covenant that was in effect was the Mosaic Covenant. This argument has been made between God and the Jews (Israel). Circumcision was the "sign" of that covenant. It was an outward symbol of an inward bond. All Jews (if they were males) were circumcised on the 8th day after their birth. But Gentiles believers were not circumcised. Their faith was expressed in a complete change of lifestyle, often at a great loss of income and cultural connection. The Judiaizers wanted the Gentiles to take on the outward symbol and "become Jews" in order to be part of the church which they recognized as a continuation of God's dealings with the people of Israel. The Gentiles did not see that as necessary. A rift of doubt threatened to tear the congregation in Antioch apart. But before the disagreement could escalate, calmer heads prevailed and a decision was made.
There were 5 phases in seeking an answer to this debate and the decision that settled it. First, the believers looked to their "local" leaders for guidance but when there was no resolution there, they went further and asked the apostles in Jerusalem for their guidance as well (Acts 15:1-6). Secondly, they looked at how God had worked in the past through the promises He had made and applied their findings to the current situation (vv. 7-12). Thirdly, they went to God's Word (vv. 13-19) to find principles that would apply to everyone involved (vv. 20-21). Fourth, they agreed upon a course of action and then followed through by doing it (vv. 22-30). Once an agreement was reached by studying God's Word, they sent a letter to the churches which recorded the agreement and attributed the agreeable outcome to the Holy Spirit (v. 28). Lastly, the outcome of this decision is recorded in vv. 31-34. The believers rejoiced, continued to learn from Paul and Barnabas, and as a result the church grew.
The opening paragraph of this recitation may be fictional but I like to think that Barsabbas and Silas were both honored to be a part of the entourage that traveled to Jerusalem to hear the ruling from the apostles and pleased with the outcome when a general principle was found that everyone could live by. Disagreements are going to arise in our churches too. It's inevitable because no two humans are exactly alike. But if we keep Christ central to our decisions and truly look for answers in God's Word, we will always find a solution that is best for all parties concerned. It takes commitment and humility to do so (Phil. 2:1-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit dwelling in every believer, it can be done (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Tim. 1:13-14).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://lindedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre