If you want to see a good fight, attend the town hall meeting when your congress person returns from Washington. Anger, loud shouting, a confusing mass of conflicting opinions—it’s the messiness of democracy in full display. But if you want to see a better fight, attend the annual business meeting in many churches. Political conflict these days is intense, but church conflict can burn hotter.
The first century church was not immune to conflict and the first major fight had all the ingredients of a serious church split—ethnic differences, tradition versus radical change, and an older, established, founding church versus its exploding, more inclusive, younger child.
As leaders from the Church of Antioch sat down with the apostles and elders of the Church of Jerusalem in a church-wide gathering, the meeting began with a lot of intense debate, but then the Apostle Peter stood up and pointed everyone to the clear actions of God in Cornelius’ home where the Holy Spirit poured forth on this Gentile household with no requirements of circumcision or obedience to the Laws of Moses. Paul and Barnabas followed with the same testimonies about the gracious work of among Gentiles on their first missionary journey. Then James, the respected first elder of the Jerusalem Church, stood and clinched the argument showing how the Jewish Scriptures themselves predicted that the Messiah would include the Gentiles without any strings attached. All that was left was to write an official letter to take back to Antioch:
“Then it was decided by the apostles and the elders, together with the entire church, to designate men from the Jerusalem Church and send them to Antioch together with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following handwritten letter:
‘The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, to the Gentile brothers:
Since we heard that some went out from us without authorization, stirring you
up by their words and unsettling your souls, we all agreed to select men to send
to you, along with our much loved Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked
their lives for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas
and Silas with them to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed
good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any more burden on you except the
following necessary things: abstain from eating what has been sacrificed to idols,
from blood, from animals that have been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If
you keep yourselves from these things, you do well. Farewell.’”
LORD, teach us when we gather in church meetings to listen to the apostolic and prophetic witness that we can read in the Scriptures. Help us to pay careful attention to testimony from leaders who are living their entire lives for the sake of Jesus’ Name. Help us to guard the absolute priority that the Jerusalem Church affirmed from the beginning--it’s all to the praise of the glory of your grace. Help us to listen to your voice in Scripture, look carefully at your actions, and guard the core fact that we are saved by grace alone through faith.
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