The reader will note that we include
two passages in this lesson. Both of these passages have to do with the dispute
over whether or not the Gentiles must become Jews before becoming Christians.
Our purpose in putting these two together is to examine the way in which
disputes were handled in the early church, in particular those disputes when
Peter was involved. The narrative in the Scriptures is somewhat long, and I do
ask your indulgence therein.
Acts 11:1-18 NASB
Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the
Gentiles also had received the word of God. (2)
And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with
him, (3) saying, "You went to
uncircumcised men and ate with them." (4)
But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence,
saying, (5) "I was in the city of Joppa
praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great
sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, (6) and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was
observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and
the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. (7)
"I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' (8) "But I said, 'By no means, Lord, for
nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' (9)
"But a voice from heaven answered a second time, 'What God has cleansed,
no longer consider unholy.' (10) "This
happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. (11) "And behold, at that moment three men
appeared at the house in which we were staying,
having been sent to me from Caesarea. (12)
"The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren
also went with me and we entered the man's house. (13)
"And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house,
and saying, 'Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought
here; (14) and he will speak words to you by
which you will be saved, you and all your household.' (15)
"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. (16) "And I remembered the word of the Lord,
how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you
will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' (17)
"Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could stand in God's way?" (18)
When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well
then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life."
passages are separated by some period of time, probably at least a year.
Acts 15:5-20 NASB
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying,
"It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law
of Moses." (6) The apostles and the
elders came together to look into this matter. (7)
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them,
"Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you,
that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. (8) "And God, who knows the heart, testified to
them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; (9) and He made no distinction between us and them,
cleansing their hearts by faith. (10)
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of
the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (11) "But we believe that we are saved through
the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (12) All the people kept silent, and they were
listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God
had done through them among the Gentiles. (13)
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, "Brethren, listen
to me. (14) "Simeon has related how God
first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His
name. (15) "With this the words of the
Prophets agree, just as it is written, (16)
'AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID
WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, (17) SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD,
AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,' (18)
SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO. (19) "Therefore it is my judgment that we do
not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, (20) but that we write to them that they abstain
from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is
strangled and from blood.
The Character of Dispute
It is necessary for us to understand what it means to
dispute something in the church. In particular, we must distinguish dispute and
Dispute Is Optional
It is absolutely certain that disputes will arise in the
church. It is also certain that the reader usually has the option of whether or
not to join in the dispute. It does not appear so from this passage, but it
behooves us to know this so that we do not immediately leap into every possible
dispute. You may well ask, why shouldn't I get into any dispute which comes along?
One reason is that you may be disputing with the weaker brother.
If you will examine the Romans chapter 14 you will find clearly stated the
doctrine which teaches that we should not attack the weaker brother's faith
even though we are certain that he is wrong. Paul uses the example of a
Christian who thinks he can only eat vegetables; evidently he was familiar with
vegetarian Christians. Rather than try to enlighten this brother, we should in
fact encourage him to eat only vegetables so that his faith is not attacked.
You don't want to convince him to eat steak and at the same time destroy his
faith in Christ.
A second reason dispute is optional is simply this: "why not
rather be wronged?"
Paul specifically references the case where one Christian takes another one to
court — to the public disgrace of the church. Sometimes it is better for the
body as a whole that we simply ignore an offense rather than begin a dispute.
We are also commanded to "prefer one another in honor." If the dispute
potentially involves the question of which of the two of us is more important,
higher in rank, or (heaven forefend) more pious then we should not be disputing
it at all. The one who is the greatest of all is the servant of all.
Members of the Body
Americans in particular tend to view themselves as rugged
individualists. It's our default view of each other. The church, on the other
hand, is one body. This carries some implications for dispute as well:
First, we must ask ourselves whether or not this dispute is
something which belongs to our particular function in the body. You might see
this as being something which only the eldership of the church should discuss;
think how irritating it is to be an elder and have someone crash the meeting
when in fact it's not their function. It works the other way too; if the
discussion concerns how many diapers we need stocked in the nursery you should
be able to leave the elders out of it.
Next, are we picking up a dispute in the spirit which says that
we are caring for the body of Christ — or caring for ourselves? If the dispute
tends to tear the body apart that's a warning that this dispute may be best
A question which is always worthy of asking: are we speaking the
truth in love?
If you are not speaking the truth, but constructing a clever argument you
should not be disputing anything. If you cannot say it in love then consider
that you should not say it at all.
Distinct from Rebuke
This may seem to be a side point. We must distinguish
dispute from rebuke. Dispute concerns itself with things which are not certain.
A trivial example might be the color the wall should be painted. It requires a
decision; it requires a discussion to reach that decision; it requires the
right people have that discussion. But it's not sinful to paint it in the color
the other guy selected.
Rebuke has these distinguishing characteristics:
Rebuke involves sin. It is therefore something which is required,
for sin cannot be left alone.
If the process of Christian discipline continues far enough,
rebuke might need to be made publicly. Dispute is usually best kept within the
confines of the church.
Ultimately, rebuke can result in the excommunication of someone
from the church. This should be an exceedingly rare event, of course. Dispute,
properly handled, should never produce such a result.
Unfortunately it often occurs that at least one side of a
dispute thinks that it's rebuking the other. Hence the need for the distinction
Conduct in Discipline
Much of the instruction a father gives to his children
concerns the matter of right conduct. It's a question of how to behave. When
you tell a child to behave, that usually implies you have given him some
standard of behavior. In this section we will attempt to lay out a standard of
behavior which should be followed in conducting a dispute within the church.
Courtesy is the lubricant of debate. It is particularly
important for those who are in positions of authority to maintain courtesy at
all times. You will notice Peter's conduct here; at no time does it seem that
he is climbing up onto his position of great authority and laying down the law
to one and all. In fact, he is not appearing as an authority but rather as a
witness. He relates his experience and expects his audience to draw the proper
conclusions from it.
There is one great blessing in this type of behavior. Peter
has given his opponents an easy way out. He does not confront them with the
choice of accepting or rejecting his authority as an apostle (or heaven
forefend even as Pope); the focus is on what we should do, not on who Peter is.
The choice given is not to do it Peter's way or the highway, but to do it God's
way. There is a great deal of wisdom in this.
In any dispute you should always consider your words: do
they wound your brother? Often enough we get caught up in the emotion of an
argument, and you begin to feel that being right is more important than being
charitable. But our Lord's command is that we love one another. Indeed, he
tells us that this is the way the world will know we are his disciples. May I
suggest to you then that you conduct your disputes as if Jesus Christ were
bodily present and listening. He is most certainly listening — but sometimes we
like to forget that fact.
If you think this is not a practical point, remember this:
whatever you decide, that brother you are arguing with at the moment will be
needed to implement the decision. If he leaves the room fuming with anger it is
unlikely he will become a willing worker. A church united gets things done; a
church divided gets more disputes.
Dispute in Private
For some reason the Los Angeles Times considers the internal
affairs of any given church something to be exposed as newsworthy and often
enough corrected by an editorial article. From their lofty perch the Times
editorial board dispenses its vast wisdom to correct those poor Christians who
pay more attention to Jesus Christ than the Los Angeles Times. This is one very
good reason to conduct the disputes within the church in a private manner.
One particularly good reason for doing this is that people
are much more willing to give you the facts — Joe Friday's "just the
facts, ma'am" — if they know that what they say is not leaving the
boundary of the church. If your church has a habit of having its disputes made
public, people begin to think more about how this is going to look in the
papers than whether or not it is really the truth.
This also has the advantage that it tends to eliminate
grandstanding on the part of those involved. It's hard to play to the crowd
when there is no crowd.
Use Logic and Facts
I must admit that in our time restricting oneself to logic
and facts when disputing tends to get overwhelmed by those who appeal to cute
slogans, political correctness, emotional appetites and personal attacks. That
is, however, no reason for you to do things the wrong way. If you look at our
examples in the Scripture you will see some consistent methods:
Since this is a dispute in the church, things get tied back to
the Scripture. If you don't have a scriptural foundation for what you are
doing, then it had best be something which is relatively trivial (see
"color of paint" argument above.)
Facts are facts – even when they come from testimony. It's
important to know, however, whether your fact is that someone feels very
emotional about this issue, or that they have a point. One thing is always good
procedure: let all the facts come out. You just might need them.
Logic — try it, you'll like it. It worked in high school
geometry; it just might work for you. The study of the art of logic may save you
a great deal of trouble. It allows you to recognize poor logic when you hear it
as well is good logic.
That last item is particularly important if you are dealing
with the emerging church — postmodernism in the faith. These people play fast
and loose with the facts of reality; but they’re also well known for the misuse
and abuse of logic. A patient and careful exposition of truth and logic is a
tedious task, but sometimes it's the only way to get it right.
Objectives of Dispute
If you ask most people who engage in some sort of a dispute
or debate within the church just what their objective was, the normal answer
would be "victory." We like to win. And if victory is properly
understood, that is what we should obtain as a result.
Peace in the Body
If you do nothing else during a dispute in the church,
preserve the peace of the body. Minimize the anger that is felt; eliminate the
resentment that so often occurs when a decision has to be made. Deliberately
pursue the team spirit so necessary for an effective church. Remember that you
do not have to seek perfection in everything.
If you want a really good example of this, take a look at a
Little League baseball team. There are many ways to get the thing done, and
even the coaches will disagree as to what might be the next move to produce
victory. But all good coaches know that individual performance is enhanced by
being on the team with a sound team spirit. Sometimes even the star player has
to lay down a bunt for the team.
Lay the Lightest Burden
If you were to read on in the 15th chapter of Acts you would
see that the church sent a letter to the Gentile Christians which laid upon
them a very minimal burden. It often happens in church disputes that the people
making the decision are not the people who wind up implementing it. The
temptation exists, therefore, to lay a heavy burden on the others since you
yourself won't be lifting it. This is unwise, as it usually causes a great
resentment. Take care to see that you lay the lightest burden possible on those
who must either change or do the work. It's a case of the Golden Rule. If you
were on the other side you would want the least burden too.
My Way — His Way
Walk away from this lesson with one thing clearly in mind:
you are seeking Christ's way, not your own way. It is commendable if your way
is Christ's way. It often happens that this is not the case — not for you, nor
for anyone else. May I leave you with these three lessons:
Remember our imperfection. None of us is all-wise; none of us is
all-knowing, but all of us will be held responsible. Consider that you may be
Don't worry too much about getting exactly perfect answer. The
Holy Spirit still indwells the church, and He will not long allow the church to
remain in error.
In all things, in all ways, always remember: "Thy will be