1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. [KJV: 34 Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still.] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Let me share with you some words from Will Willimon.
How many Christians have had their enthusiasm smothered by the bickering of the church?…These church meetings with people crowding the microphone, bickering over budgets, basing their vote on their personal prejudices rather than on the Word of God – how many Christians have had the fire of their initial enthusiasm extinguished by unpleasant church meetings? Why can we not all act like Christians and agree? Why does there have to be such contentiousness within the Body of Christ?
These are good questions, all! Why indeed? Unfortunately, the Church throughout the ages has experienced a great deal of contentious strife. This happens in our own day, but perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that it happened in the ancient Church as well.
We last saw that the early Church, when faced with a divisive and controversial issue, came together in the Spirit of God to make decisions. We considered at that time the content of the controversy. We saw that the critical question was this: was Jesus enough or should the Church proclaim that salvation came through Jesus and the keeping of the Law, particularly the mark of circumcision? Thankfully, the early Church proclaimed the sufficiency of Christ alone to save by grace alone all who would come to Him through faith, Jew and Gentile alike.
The content of the Jerusalem Council is most important, but the process of the Council is important as well. In other words, we should consider not only what they said but how they said it. When we do this we find that the Jerusalem Council stands as a model for how to disagree and yet maintain Christian character and witness. Willimon states that “the method of debate in 15:7-21 is a useful guide for how the church ought to argue.” Furthermore, in the Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership, J. Lyle Story wrote an article entitled, “The Jerusalem Council: A Pivotal and Instructive Paradigm,” in which he argued that “Luke uses Acts 15:1-16:5 not only to legitimize the Gentile mission, but in being one of a series of case studies that demonstrates a process of conflict–resolution–advance of the Christian message, it reveals how the Church can resolve its conflicts, which will lead to an advance in terms of internal strength and numerical growth.”
This is well said. The Jerusalem Council does “reveal how the Church can resolve its conflicts.” The method of the Jerusalem Council will will be our focus today.
I have decided to approach this by offering seven principles for Christian conflict resolution. They arise from the text itself and are demonstrated by the Church in Acts 15. They stand as markers for us today and should be embraced by the Church and by Christians today just as they were then.
1. Seek the wisdom and counsel of wise Christians outside of those immediately involved in the conflict. (v.2)
Let us first notice that when debate arose among two groups, they all agreed to seek the wisdom and counsel of wise Christians outside of those immediately involved in the conflict.
2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
Read that carefully. The conflicts began in the church at Antioch between Paul and Barnabas on the one side and those Jewish believers who were advocating the necessity of circumcision on the other. At this point, it is confined to the Antioch church. However, Luke tells us that “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem.” Who appointed them? The church at Antioch did. Why? Because they realized that this issue had implications that were much larger than their own congregation and they further realized that an issue this big really did need the insights and wisdom of the larger Church. So they sent those involved in the disagreement to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
I ask you: have you ever considered seeking the wisdom of a circle larger than your own? This principle of ever-widening circles of involvement is firmly rooted in scripture. For instance, we see this in Jesus’ instructions concerning church discipline in Matthew 18.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
While the situations are a bit different, the principle is clear in each: we often need the wider voice of the Church to resolve localized conflicts and we should seek this when significant conflicts arise. The believers at Antioch understood this. So should we.
I have heard of churches honoring this principle in creative ways. I have heard of a church in which two business men locked in a seemingly unresolvable conflict sought the assistance of the church. In this case, they asked for a larger group of Christian business people to convene, to hear their sides, and then to help them resolve the problem. They committed themselves to humbling themselves before other Christians who loved them and who sought to be impartial and objective and biblical in the matter.
Such could happen today if we determined to seek the church’s help. Consider the wisdom of seeking help when you conflict with another Christian in ways that seem unresolvable.
2. Do not go personal. Treat each other with dignity. (v.5,7,13,23)
We also see an air of dignity and mutual respect in the way that the participants of the Jerusalem Council addressed each other. Consider the terminology in the following verses.
5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.
23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.
“Believers.” “Brothers.” “Brothers.” “The brothers.”
What is significant is that these words are seemingly applied to the whole audience, which certainly included the brothers who were in error. And let us remember: one side in the debate was definitely in the wrong. These efforts at Christian conflict resolution did not include slathering a fake and vapid veneer of toothy but empty congeniality over very real issues that needed resolution. In the end, the brothers in error will be told in no uncertain terms that they are wrong. But there is the point: they were referred to as “brothers” and “believers.” Meaning, the brothers did not allow the discussion to go personal. Peter did not stand and say, “Hey, you vile, wicked, heretical heathens, pay attention!” James did not stand up and say, “For starters, you guys are idiots.” Insults like that are known as ad hominems, “to the person.” They did not throw ad hominems at those in the wrong. Rather, they respected their dignity as human beings and stuck to the issues at hand.
It is helpful to consider how ineffective and counterproductive personal insults are in reaching resolution. Nobody, locked in an intense debate, has ever said, “You know, I was convinced you were wrong until you questioned my sanity and my intelligence…then I knew that you were right.” Nobody has ever said, “I was about to walk away in disagreement until you insulted my mother…then I knew that I was in the wrong. Thank you!”
No! Insults degrade and tear down constructive dialogue. Insults and personal attacks move us further from resolution, not closer to it.
The early Church did not launch personal attacks against those in error. Rather, they treated all with dignity.
3. Look at the question from God’s perspective and not merely from your own. (v.7-9)
What is more, they sought God’s perspective on the matter and did not restrict themselves merely to their own viewpoints. This is evident in Peter’s words to the Council.
7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.
Do you see what Peter did? He essentially says, “Listen, let us consider how God views the matter. God saved them just like He saved us. God gave them the Holy Spirit just like He gave us the Holy Spirit. God accepted them just like He accepted us.”
Essentially what Peter is doing here is taking the conversation upstairs instead of downstairs. Taking the conversation downstairs means sinking further and further into the morass of our own agendas, our own assumptions, and our own desires to be right, to win. Taking the conversation upstairs means ascending into God’s will together: asking what the Lord would want in this situation, asking how He might work and guide us through these difficult issues.
G.R. Evans, in his wonderful biography of John Wyclif, quotes a 14th century Dominican Provincial who, when faced with a difficult question and decision, “asked to be excused from answering so hard a question and advised that when his order faced difficult business (ardua negotia), it was the custom of the friars to sing a hymn and invoke the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit might guide them to the truth.”
This is sage counsel. Seek the Lord’s perspective when you conflict.
4. Be orderly. (v.12)
And seek the Lord in an orderly manner.
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
“And all the assembly fell silent.” There was an orderliness about these proceedings. The brothers in error speak. Peter speaks. Paul and Barnabas speak. James speaks. In fact, the counsel appears to be more and more orderly as it progresses. This is a rarity in human conflict.
Our innate inclinations are to let our passions override our reason and to let conflicts grow in intensity and strife. It would perhaps be a good idea for all of us to remember that if, in a conflict, we find ourselves speaking (1) increasingly louder, (2) increasingly faster, and (3) with increasing emotion, we and all involved would be best served if we stopped speaking altogether and took a long walk to cool down. It is likely the case that nobody has ever regretted being quick to hear and slow to speak. There have been regrets uncountable around the opposite behaviors, however.
5. Let the scriptures speak over your opinions. (v.14-18)
Tellingly, James, in his concluding speech, appeals to the Bible.
14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
Whether we know it or not, there is a priority of sources to which we appeal in any disagreement. The default and preferred sources are our own opinions and ego. We do not have to be taught to appeal to our own ego and opinions. We are born knowing how to do this. That is, we tend to put our own feelings on any given matter in the driver’s seat when we disagree with others (and when we do not). But this does not necessarily have to be so. We could, for instance, allow the scriptures to speak. James does so here, and it is refreshing that he does.
It is astounding how many Christians will abandon the primacy of the Bible when they are caught in a disagreement with somebody. At times it appears that our commitment to the authority of the scriptures is largely theoretical. We do not mind letting the Bible have the final say on matters of doctrine. However, we grow more and more uncomfortable when it comes to the practical matters of living life and especially to issues of conflict resolution.
How many Christians, however, have taken to social media outlets like Facebook to (usually passively aggressively) voice their frustrations about another person instead of going to the person themselves and alone as the scriptures prescribe? How many Christians gossip about other believers with whom they differ, attacking them behind their backs, when the Bible allows no such thing? Why are we so quick to believe the Bible when it says, “For God so love the world…” but not when it tells us to go to those with whom we differ directly and alone and resolve the conflict?
Furthermore, when we are conflicting on controversial issues, are we content to allow the Bible to have its say? When you think of the great hot-topic issues today, do you search your own opinions of how you think God should view an issue as opposed to searching the scriptures to see how God does in fact view the issue? Who gets the last word? You or the God’s Word?
For James, the definitive issue in the Jerusalem Council was, “Thus saith the Lord.” So may it be with us as well!
6. Fight for unity. (v.22,23,25)
And these brothers fought hard to preserve and maintain the unity of the Church as well. Consider:
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.
25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul
The Church fought for unity both in its methodology and in how it explained its decisions to the churches. “It seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church…” “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord…”
They are fighting and striving for unity. They know what is at stake. They know that the world coming to know the gospel hinges at least to some extent on the survival and faithfulness and flourishing of God’s Church. They are saying to those Christians awaiting a verdict, “We are together! It is going to be ok. We have made a decision. We are unified. Here is the answer and now let us unite around the gospel.”
7. When in doubt, advance the resolution that will honor Christ, further the gospel, and strengthen the people of God. (v.31-32)
The fruit of the Council’s decision is most illuminating.
31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.
The Council’s decision opened the door to unity, to joy, to encouragement, and to the strengthening of the brothers. In short, it honored Christ, furthered the gospel, and strengthened the people of God.
G.R. Evans lists three criteria from the great 11th/12th century French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux which could be used in making any decision:
An exhortation of [John] Wyclif’s given at the inception of a Doctor sets out his personal idea of the academic calling. A scholar, especially a theologian, should be honest…When he speaks or writes he should ask himself the three questions listed by Bernard of Clairvaux: an liceat, an deceat, an expediat. Is it allowed? Is it appropriate? Is it profitable?
This is helpful: “Is it allowed? Is it appropriate? Is it profitable?” In the case of the Jerusalem Council they asked if their decision would ultimately profit the Church. Will we be stronger and more faithful and healthier and better as a result of making this decision? Will the Church be built up or destroyed? Will this bring us closer to Jesus or further from Him?
These are questions of fruit, but the fruit of any decision can help us determine the wisdom of the decision. If the fruit of a decision honors the Lord Jesus, advances the gospel, and unifies the Church, it is the right decision.
Brothers. Sisters. Hear me: we will conflict at times. It is inevitable. Be it two people in this congregation or two groups in this congregation. I thank God for the health of this church, but let us not be naïve: conflicts will come. When they do, what will we do? How will we act? Will we take the path of personal victory at all costs? Or will we honor the Lord Jesus and His bride and choose the path of biblical, God-honoring conflict resolution.
Much depends on which path we choose.
May we choose the path that most honors Christ.
 William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988), p.128.
 William H. Willimon, p.129.
 G.R. Evans, John Wyclif: Myth and Reality (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), p.144.
 G.R. Evans, p.68.