“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 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.” (Acts 15:6–7, ESV)
When I moved to Savannah there was a road with two churches. One was called “First Mount Pleasant Baptist Church” and the other was called “Second Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.” Both churches were on the same side of the road and right next to each other. They had virtually the exact same footprint and architecture. I imagine that at some point the people in the first church had a disagreement over something and a faction stormed out and started the second church. It is a sad reality that often people within churches enter into heated disputes and cannot resolve them.
In my days, I have witnessed some church meetings that were anything but civilized. Tempers flared over decisions, friendships were severed, and division ensued. This should never happen in the body of Christ. Yes, there will be disagreements, but these should be resolved in a harmonious manner.
The early church also had disagreements. In this passage, we see one of the earliest disagreements that threatened the harmony of the church. It was a disagreement regarding how the law would interact with free grace. The leaders of the church gathered in what scholars call the “Jerusalem Council.” In this gathering, a group of church people resolved a serious issue with grace and established harmony. Here we see some principles for resolving issues in the church.
The first thing that we see is that spiritual leaders, Spirit filled men joined to discuss the issue. The Scripture states that the “apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider,” the issue.
Next, we see that there was “much debate.” The word, “debate,” zetesis, has the idea of a philosophical investigation, a debate or a dispute. Perhaps all of this was happening. The legalists were probably presenting their views in a forceful way and the leaders of the assembly gave ample time for “much debate.” In other words, they gave ample time for people to speak their peace and they listened.
Then, after “much debate,” Peter stood and spoke. He presented the facts regarding his experience in seeing the Gentiles come to faith. He explained that he witnessed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Gentiles who believed. Then he asked a question that revealed a theological truth of great importance. “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?” (v10) His point is clear, legalistic obedience to the law was impossible. Not even the Jews could keep it perfectly and thus salvation was by grace alone (v10). Next, Paul and Barnabas related their experiences in the Gentile regions.
Last, James spoke and quoted the Scriptures (Amos 9:11-12) to indicate that the prophets were in agreement. The Gentiles would enter the faith apart from circumcision. Then James concluded that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and that they should put no other restriction on them except that they “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (v19) To this the “apostles and elders,” were in agreement.
The big point here is that there was a serious issue. Passions of some were likely high. Yet, the issue was resolved peacefully by spiritual men, filled with the Spirit, who listened to all that was said, and then sought the truth of God in the Scriptures. There is no reason that churches cannot do the same today by following the same pattern. Spiritual leaders, filled with the Spirit, seeking God in His word should be able to resolve disagreements in the church with civility, bringing a proper resolution to the issues that arise.