In part one, Stir, Stew, Chill and Serve, I detailed how the Desmond Ford crises of the 1980s rocked and split my small SDA church.
This experience made me a champion for unity. I am more eager to search for ways to resolve dichotomies (law v grace) and bring opposing groups together.
Acts 15 has provided me insight for this process. It is Conflict Management 101 for Christians.
The early Christian church had many strong tensions to deal with.
By Acts 6, the early unity evident in Acts 2-4 was already waning as “the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1).
In addition to these cultural tensions, there were the tensions from “opposing religious” groups. Acts 14 records this tension: “but Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he got up.” Acts 14:19, 20.
That was a significant tension against the early Christian community.
In addition to cultural and religious tension, there was also tension from paganism in Greek and Roman culture. The Romans forced on others classism, abuses of power, and oppressive leadership, and the Greeks, brought subtle tensions of “sophistication” that worked against the churches understanding of knowledge and sexual morality.
New converts to Christianity brought these potential tensions with them into the new community of faith.
As Gentile and Jewish Christians came to worship together, each brought their own expectations of what should be valued in the Christian community. Jewish Christians had lingering expectations of what it meant to be holy to God. They had a well developed list of expectations. Circumcision was top on the list. Cutting the foreskin off was a long tradition for them. But to Gentiles it must have seemed barbaric.
That is the context of Acts 15.
The Gentiles were not unsympathetic to the need for a list of expectations. Jesus was, after all, a Jew—a Sabbath keeping, healthful living, ceremony focused Jew. They had decided to follow that Rabbi. They, with the Jewish Christians, had fallen in love with Jesus and wanted to follow this Jewish rabbi. But what were His expectations???
To work out these understandings of expectation, the engaged in three significant experiences of conflict resolution.
First, they came together. That seems simple enough, but it often takes strong initiative to overcome the natural desire to move away from those you disagree with.
Second, the Holy Spirit was already at work before they even came together. And many were responding to his call. That was evident in their willingness to come together. It was also evident in HOW he was bringing the leaders to see the need for this meeting. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the leaders life shows up in the “special tutoring” Peter and Paul received in Acts 9 and 10. Without Acts 9 and 10, there would have been no Acts 15. Both these leaders were introduced to their short-sightedness in a strong way, Paul in the road to Damascus and Peter in the vision of the unclean meat.
Third, they had a divine process. They followed the Jewish ritual of hearing stories: two or three witnesses. The Jewish leaders who killed Jesus had rejected this simple process. The early church would take over the sacred process God had ordained for resolving conflict.
Conflict CAN be hammered out. That is the message of Acts 15.
One more aspect of Acts 15 should be noted. It was a group decision.
While there were strong leaders and reformers sharing their view, neither Paul, Peter, nor James, made the decision. It was a group decision.
I believe this is crucial. NO ONE PERSON carries all the truth needed to resolve conflict.
Ellen White in Acts of the Apostles clarifies these tensions and methods of resolution:
“The Jews feared that if the restrictions and ceremonies of their law were not made obligatory upon the Gentiles as a condition of church fellowship, the national peculiarities of the Jews, which had hitherto kept them distinct from all other people, would finally disappear from among those who received the gospel message” (Acts of Apostles, p. 189).
They had a reason to fear. “Gentiles were extremely licentious” and “the Jewish Christians could not tolerate the immorality that was not even regarded as criminal by the heathen.” (192).
So fear of “immorality and excess” was forming a barrier.
Interestingly, both Peter and Paul had authority to speak to this issue. Each had let their Jewish rightness interfere with accepting the genuine Christ followers. They had been totally convinced of their “rightness” only to be confronted by God in their views. When you get things as wrong as both of them did and get retrained, it drills home a message. You need to listen to others. (see Allender, Leadership with a Limp, as he skillfully talks about successful leadership that remembers its weakness).
[pullquote_right] “Even the best of men, if left to themselves, will err in judgment.” Acts of the Apostles, 198. [/pullquote_right]
Acts 15 builds a new type of authority based not on an individual–reformer or leader–but on the group.
This dethroning of the individual as guide to God’s will is central in White’s analysis. “Peter saw the error into which he had fallen, and immediately set about repairing the evil that had been wrought, so far as was in his power. God, who knows the end from the beginning, permitted Peter to reveal this weakness of character in order that the tried apostle might see that there was nothing in himself whereof he might boast. Even the best of men, if left to themselves, will err in judgment. God also saw that in time to come some would be so deluded as to claim for Peter and his pretended successors the exalted prerogatives that belong to God alone. And this record of the apostle’s weakness was to remain as a proof of his fallibility and of the fact that he stood in no way above the level of the other apostles” (p. 198, 199).
The core solution to tension is working together with others. The fastest way to get to that place is to see that when left to ourselves we have made errors.
“Left to themselves” is the stuff of independent ministries or conferences that feel superior to other conferences, or leaders who think God is only with them. That is what works against the development of a shared solution.
NOBODY CAN BE FULLY TRUSTED TO HAVE ALL THE WISDOM IT TAKES TO UNDERSTAND GOD’S LEADING.
Not Me. Not an apostle. Not even Ellen White—NO ONE.
It takes a big bowl to cook truth. Your bowl is not big enough.
“Nothing in the life of Peter gives sanction to the claim that he was elevated above his brethren as the viceregent of the Most High. If those who are declared to be the successors of Peter had followed his example, they would always have been content to remain on an equality with their brethren” (p. 194, 195).
The same could be said of the reformer Paul: “Before his conversion Paul had regarded himself as blameless…but since his change of heart he had gained a clear conception of the mission of the Saviour as the Redeemer of the entire race” (p. 190).
Peter and Paul learned “Even the best of men, if left to themselves, will err in judgment.” Acts of the Apostle, p. 198.
We each run the risk of making a “deluded…claim….[of] exalted prerogatives” and those claims “belong to God alone. And this record of the apostle’s weakness was to remain as a proof of his fallibility and of the fact that he stood in no way above the level of the other apostles” (198, 199).
“May God give every man a realization of his helplessness, his inability to steer his own vessel straight and safe into the harbor” (p. 199).
Welcome to a new way of conflict resolution, where humbled individuals try to work together. It is Allender’s way of the limp.
As Randy Roberts put it well: “We do most of our sinning when we’re right!”
It would be much easier if we weren’t so right. There is nothing like a limp or a Damascus road experience or a vision from God to make us each want more.
Welcome to Acts 15. Enjoy the community.