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Life of Peter

Dispute

Acts 11:1-18; Acts 15:5-20

Lesson audio

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."

 

The two 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 Christian discipline.

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?"[1] 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."[2] 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.[3]

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 left unopened.

·         A question which is always worthy of asking: are we speaking the truth in love?[4] 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 is clear.

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.

Politeness

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.

Brotherly Love

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 wrong.

·         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 done."



[1] 1st Corinthians 6:1-7

[2] Romans 12:10

[3] Mark 9:33-35

[4] Ephesians 4:14-16

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