Acts 15: Disagreements in the Church

Original Publication Date
July 1, 2020
Oct 25, 2022 4:13 PM
ActsChapter StudyPaulPeterLeadershipCommandmentsSalvationCircumcisionRepentance and Forgiveness
Bible References
Acts 15
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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on July 1, 2020 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.

Let's agree to disagree is easy when it comes to trivial matters, less easy when it comes to matter of the heart/morality, and even less easy when it comes to salvation. Today, there are over 30,000 Christian denominations,[4] mainly due to doctrinal disagreements. This issue existed all the way back to the very beginning of the Church. This chapter gives us two examples of disagreements within the church—one of which doesn't seem to get resolved.

Circumcision & the Law

After the church agreed to allow Gentile converts, they quickly ran into the problem of what was required to be a true convert. Descendants of Abraham were required to be circumcised. Israelites by birth were circumcised on the 8th day, but converts were circumcised at conversion. We see in Genesis 34 that this process in adult males rendered them incapacitated. Can you imagine hearing the gospel, believing it, and then someone telling you to be saved you have to get circumcised? The Pharisees—presumably those who had converted to Christianity—were suggesting exactly that. Many of the early Church leaders disagreed with this stance, including Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James.[1]

Which posed a theological question: are you still saved if you don't circumcise yourself?

To resolve the matter, the leaders met to form a consensus. Peter argues that when God gave the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, He purified their hearts through faith. Peter also asserts that the Pharisees are asking the Gentiles to do something they couldn't even do (keep the law of Moses). After Peter's argument, Paul and Barnabas support his points by revealing the miracles God has worked for the Gentiles, proving His presence is there without circumcision. James concludes the discussion by outlining 4 things they should require from the new converts: abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat from strangled animals, and blood.

So the Law is Gone?

There are two (and a half) interpretations of the council's decision. Some believe that this completely abolishes the laws of the Old Testament, leaving only the four requirements outlined by the council. More commonly, people divide the laws of Moses[2] and claim only a subsection of the laws were abolished. The remaining state that this isn't about abolishing laws but emphasizing what was important for salvation, particularly to the Gentiles.

It's one of the more confusing matters. Remember scripture has to work in harmony, and it needs context, so let’s work through some of that. After this council, when Paul writes to the Church in Corinth,[3] he says this:

9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God

Paul's statement lists traits that we are not to revel in. We'll save the specifics of the verse for when we talk about Corinthians but the basic concept is that these traits are seen as unrighteous. Many of them fit within the four things spoken against by the council, but some of them (thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, etc.) do not. Theft and coveting are covered by the 10 Commandments, for those who argue the 10 Commandments was not part of the Law of Moses but is the Law of God. However, guidelines about drunkenness and extortion are given in other parts of the law, parts that can't be distinguished from the Law of Moses.

In Acts 15:21, we can find clarity. James argues that each of the cities has someone who preaches the law of Moses (re: they have access to that information). There was a stark difference between the Gentile converts and the Jewish converts: one was converting religions and learning a new deity, while the other was simply relearning how to interpret old scriptures. The Jews who joined the Church were already well versed in the law and circumcised, there wasn't much that needed to change as they assimilated into the body. Gentiles, however, still needed to learn the laws. Those who were pro-circumcision, didn't want to include the Gentiles in the synagogue or the church without them being both circumcised and fully aware of the law. The opposing side proved that circumcision wasn't necessary as God was already showing His Spirit to the uncircumcised Gentiles. Learning the law is something the Holy Spirit could handle once they surrendered their life to God. When the Holy Spirit filled them, they could go listen to the law read in their respective city and gain that knowledge. However, it was not necessary for them to keep that law in order for the Holy Spirit to enter their life, this is why we see Peter and Paul arguing that the Gentiles have felt the Spirit even though they are uncircumcised.

The Importance of these 4 Things

The Law of Moses references the entire Torah (Genesis - Deuteronomy), so out of all those laws, why did they settle on these four? These four laws focus on what this particular group would have been struggling with. The ways of Roman/Greek pagan deities were in direct contrast to the God's way. Abstaining from these behaviors took the Gentiles out of their pagan lifestyle (and comfort zone), opening the door for the new way of life. Pagan rituals included sacrifices, consuming blood, and ritual sex.[5]

By putting these behaviors behind them, they were also announcing their allegiance to God and welcoming Him as the authority in their life. Remember, the Jews already worshiped YHWH, they were just accepting Christ as the Messiah. In contrast, the Gentiles were learning and accepting a whole new lifestyle. They needed to cut the cords with their pagan gods to truly receive to the Holy Spirit.

Please note an important fact here. The Jews were used to salvation being dependent on an action on their part (circumcision, sacrifice, righteous behavior, etc.), but Christ gave us grace. In shutting down the idea that circumcision was necessary, the apostles killed the idea that you had to earn salvation. Salvation was given without any of this. However, the behavior of a saved person is should align with the Holy Spirit. It won't be perfect, but if the Holy Spirit is leading, things considered ungodly will automatically be lessened and eventually removed from your life. This means all the things God despises, eventually you should too, and He doesn't change.

Paul vs. Barnabas

When I think of disputes between individuals, I think of reconciliation, and when I think of reconciliation, I think of being on one accord. Many a Christian would have you to believe that "loving from a distance" is not Biblical, but when you look at Paul and Barnabas' disagreement at the end of Acts 15, you might not agree.

Paul and Barnabas agree that they should revisit the churches they have planted among the Gentiles (see Acts 13-14), and begin making plans to for their second journey. However, during this planning phase, they disagree about who should join them. Barnabas wants to bring John Mark, whom Paul considers a deserter. The disagreement between the two is so great that Paul and Barnabas split up. Barnabas takes John Mark and embarks on his on journey, while Paul travels with Silas.

There's a lot to pick apart here, from how they handle the disagreement to the implications of the disagreement.

Forgive and Forget?

When we talked about forgiveness at a Bible Study, we got hung up on the concept of forgive and forget. Forgiving is hard in itself, but we questioned whether we should truly forget some actions. For instance, you may forgive a pedophile but I don't think anyone would be comfortable with them leading the children's ministry. Similarly you may forgive a thief, but you probably wouldn't be so quick to nominate them for treasurer. We discussed these types of scenarios at length, trying to determine what truly constituted full forgiveness and what was the correct way to proceed—can a recovering thief never be the treasurer?

Paul seems to agree with us that there has to be some sort of process to get from point A to point B, because he is adamant that John Mark should not go with them. John Mark's crime appears to be abandoning them on a previous trip. No only does Paul not back down to suggest John Mark has changed, grew, or should otherwise be given a second chance, but the Church seems to support Paul's decision (Acts 15:40).

Agree to Disagree

Paul and Barnabas end their dispute by agreeing to disagree. Paul didn't cave to Barnabas' pressure and Barnabas didn't cave to Paul's. They both stood firm in what they believed in—a valuable lesson to those who've been made to feel that they have to cave in to keep the peace. What's really important about their decision to go separate ways is that it doesn't hurt their relationship. In 1 Corinthians 9:6, which takes place at a later time, Paul refers to Barnabas without malice. We also see in Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul seems to have reconciled with John Mark as well. These men did not let their pride or ego get in the way of furthering God's mission. In fact, the disagreement worked for the glory of God in that separately, they covered more territory!

References and Footnotes

  1. We actually see Paul get into the same disagreement with Peter in Galatians 2 (which assumably predates this council).
  2. Some people divide the Torah into the 10 Commandments (which they call the law of God) and everything else (which they call the law of Moses). Others divide it into ceremonial vs. moral laws—and even within that what is categorized as what can be different.
  3. There are plenty of references online that have dates for the when events happen in the Bible, but I recommend having a Chronological Bible in your library. The one I have not only orders the books of the Bible based on timeline, but it interleaves passages from different books according to the timeline. For example, the instead of giving you the gospels as separate books, you read the account of events from each author back to back. A word of caution, some dates are disputed so you should still research the information presented to you for yourself.
  4. "Denominations". Christianity Today; visited June 30, 2020
  5. Geoffrey Stone. "‘Sex and the Constitution’: The ancient Greeks". The Washington Post. March 21, 2017

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