Read Acts 15.1-29
How do Christians deal with conflict? This is a difficult question, partly because we aren’t used to thinking faith and conflict together. We think of our faith in terms of peace and joy, of praise and gladness. When we begin to experience conflict, we assume that there must be a lack of faith on our part, or someone else’s.
People look to the church as a sanctuary from the conflict of the world, a safe place to feel loved and accepted by God and each other and when conflict erupts in the church, it is like a lightening bolt that comes from a clear blue sky. Yet, there is conflict in the church. There always has been and there always will be until God sees fit to in the end to bring us together in a lasting peace. For now, the question is not, how do we avoid or prevent conflict, but how do we as Christians deal with conflict.
The Book of Acts provides us with a record of how early Christians dealt with conflict. One of the big debates in the early Church was over what the requirements were to be a Christian. Many believed that since Jesus himself was a Jew and since his teaching upheld the traditions of his ancestors, that in order to follow him- to be a Christian- one must also become a Jew and adhere to Jewish custom.
Paul saw things differently. In his work with the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas witnessed how God was working miracles in the lives of people; bringing healing, changing lives, helping people turn their lives away from sin to God. These Gentiles were not Jews, were not even familiar with Jewish customs, and yet they were being filled with God’s Spirit and doing great things for the work of Christ’s church.
Paul believed you did not have to first become a Jew to be a Christian, but the God in Christ could convict people regardless of their background and lead them in faithfulness without their being circumcised. Paul argued that the Jewish standard of circumcision was an obstacle for Gentiles receiving God’s grace.
People within the church were offended by Paul’s openness and a group from the Jerusalem congregation went out into Gentile territory to try to convince the Gentiles to receive circumcision. Conflict erupted between this group and the group represented by Paul and Barnabas. Acts records how this conflict is dealt with and in this way provides a model for how we as Christians might deal with the conflicts we face. The final decision was that Gentiles need not be circumcised, but need to respect Jewish traditions. Basically, it was decided that Gentiles need not become Jews to be Christians, but must live as respectful foreigners in Jewish territory.
Even more important than the decision reached was the process used to reach the decision. There are many important elements of this process that can help us deal with conflict today. I want to focus on three. The Concerns, the Consultation, and the Consensus.
First, the concerns. Notice how the concerns from all parties are expressed and listened to in an effort to understand the nature of the conflict. The leaders don’t just take Paul and Barnabas word as gospel truth, but listen to those with a different perspective, persons of opposing viewpoints. There are always many concerns that surround any given conflict, and to approach one and not the others might widen the gap.
Secondly, the consultation. Not only did the affected persons consult with the leaders of the church, but the leaders themselves consulted Scripture. Throughout the process, but specifically after the concerns are voiced, the leadership seeks the counsel of Scripture. James quotes the prophets in Acts 15.13-18 and applies it to the situation faced. This is an essential part of dealing with any conflict — to seek the guidance of Scripture. James does not simply quote something from the Bible to prove his point, but seeks the counsel of Scripture that God’s guidance may be found.
Finally, consensus is reached. Once a solution is discovered, there is a temptation to act quickly, to get the conflict over sooner. The wisdom of the council gathered at Jerusalem that day knew enough to work first to arrive at consensus, to help everyone see the value in the decision before it was carried out. This could not have been done had not all the concerns been listened to and addressed, had not the Scriptures been consulted. Consensus is not arrived at quickly. We are only able to discover what we can agree on after we recognize our differences.
How do Christians deal with conflict? In Acts, the process involved hearing the concerns, consulting the Scriptures, and arriving at consensus. This process may seem tedious and burdensome. I’m sure there were those in the early Church who wanted quick results and were frustrated at the deliberate nature of the process. Why can’t we just act, just do something and let the chips fall where they may?
The reason why is that too often when we act quickly, we act alone. God is active in our conflicts and yet we may fail to recognize this when we seek easy solutions. Through prayer, both on our own and within the church, we can seek God’s guidance even for the most difficult conflicts. God is concerned and willing to work with us through our conflicts that we might move toward harmony in the church and in our world.