Two disagreements within the church: one personal and one involving the whole body. How the Jerusalem Council handled these disputes sets a foundation for how we should handle conflict.
Conflict #1: Paul vs. Barnabas
Barnabas and Paul get into an argument about the company they keep. In determining who they should bring with them to minister to the churches they'd planted in Acts 13-14, Paul had serious doubts about Barnabas' choice. The issue was so important to the two that they chose to go separate ways! We're often told to mend things with our Christian brethren and the ideal outcome is reconciliation. When we say reconciliation, we thing that means that we agree and move forward in the same direction, but clearly does not. Both men were confident in their decision and neither was willing to compromise. Note that this doesn't mean they walked away from the disagreement hating each other! This is a prime example of agreeing to disagree. Remember, who each took with them on the journey was a spiritual matter—hence their refusal to back down—but it wasn't a salvation matter.
Do Paul and Barnabas remain friends?
After the pair disagree, what happened? The Bible isn't explicit on how they left each other, and we don't see them travel together afterward. This has lead some to believe that they were never reconciled. However, there is Biblical evidence that they were at least neutral toward each other afterward. For one, Paul affirms John Mark (the person they disputed) in his letters (Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11). Paul also speaks of Barnabas in 1 Corinthians 9:6, lumping them together among the apostles and without any negative commentary.
Conflict #2: How Are Gentiles Saved?
In chapter 15, the Church has to answer the question "what is required of a Gentile to be saved." Some said they had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, others disagreed. The apostles discussed the matter and determined that they would ask of 4 things for converts: abstain from meat offered to idols, abstain from things strangled, abstain from sexual immorality, and abstain from blood. There is still a lot of confusion about was is and isn't required of believers (please see my post on Acts 15 for more detail), but the important thing to remember is that the leaders were discussing what it meant to be considered saved.
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. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 CSB
To bring it in to a more modern context, think about participating in a Church ministry. The church I grew up in does not allow non-members to do certain things. As such, you must be a baptized member of the church (their definition of "saved") to be eligible to participate. The Jews considered Gentiles unclean, so they felt the Gentiles needed to "do" something to be worthy of their company. Later in the chapter James mentions that the law of Moses is taught in every city, but when you put things in context, you have to realize that "unclean people" could not go listen. Further, the act of being saved is the act in which we allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). It doesn't mean we won't struggle or commit sin after that point, but that we have surrendered to the Spirit, allowing God to determine what is right or wrong. The council's decision simply removed the temptation of false gods from the Gentile's equation because you cannot serve two masters. Once they were able to fully surrender to God, they could be receive the Word with "clean" ears, from there, the Holy Spirit would do the convicting.
In light of the disagreement, leaders of the Church gathered together to discuss a solution. The Church is supposed to be on one accord, and as such needed to talk out the issue and come to a consensus. In this council, each side presented their arguments and eventually a decision was made. This method of deciding doctrine was one of the few authentic practices kept by the Catholic Church. Throughout history, many church councils have been held, each shaping modern Christianity for better or worse—we will discuss this in greater detail in future episodes.