If you don’t like conflict, then please don’t read Acts 15! I’m only half joking but seriously, within the verses of this chapter we see two major conflicts. First we have conflict in Antioch between Paul and Barnabas and the church brothers from Jerusalem who came into town preaching the necessity of circumcision for the new Gentile believers. Second, in the later verses of Chapter 15, we see the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over Mark and whether he should be allowed to accompany them on their second missionary journey. There appears to be a lot of ‘in-fighting’ going on in the new church; don’t you think? Seems a far cry from what we read a couple of weeks ago in Acts 2 where the picture is one of great unity and agreement within ‘The Way’.
The reality is the Church then, as it is today, is filled with imperfect people each with their own baggage. We all seem to have suitcases full of things like our ‘hot buttons’, hurtful memories, strongholds and weaknesses. Although we are in the process of emptying our suitcases so we can replace the broken contents with the grace of God (sanctification) oftentimes our baggage collides with another’s and we have conflict. When pastoring in Florida, I assured our congregation if I had not yet offended someone, please just give me some time and I’ll get to them!
So with the understanding conflict is a reality in the church, we learn two great truths from this chapter as it relates to conflict within our Church.
Stand on Truth – Compromise When You Can
The first truth comes from the opening conflict. When you read the chapter you see Paul and Barnabas minding their own business, preaching the Gospel in Antioch. Then along come these Judean brothers who stir up problems when they insist all Gentile converts must be circumcised (ouch). Although Paul, Barnabas, and the Jerusalem brothers all were Believers, they were in great disagreement on this point. The church in Antioch meets together and agrees for Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem and address this heated issue with the church there to find resolution. (A valuable lesson in conflict resolution: Do not sweep things under the table). The subsequent account shows how Peter addressed the incorrect teaching based on the authority given him to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel and James used scripture to hammer home the truth of what Peter stated. No compromise on truth! Yet, James does something very interesting, he ‘throws a bone’ to those who had insisted on the circumcision of new converts. He composed a letter to the other churches where he stated they should abstain from three things. It almost seems laughable to even write these three things to the churches but you see, these comprised common ground, a small compromise everyone could agree on; one which did not conflict with truth. James kept unity through compromise when possible. We can use this same practice when we deal with conflicts in the church. We must ask ourselves what is the truth (no compromise here) and what may be less important (possible compromise here). Compromise isn’t always bad when it keeps unity and doesn’t water down truth.
Agree to Disagree – Cool Down – Seek Resolution and Reconciliation
The second conflict in Acts 15:36-41 relates to Paul and Barnabas’ disagreement over the young disciple named Mark. Paul based his hesitancy on a prior experience with Mark who had deserted them in Pamphylia during their first missionary journey; an unthinkable action according to Paul. Obviously, Barnabas disagreed and wanted to give Mark another chance. Apparently, they were both so adamant and unyielding in their stance; they decided to part ways. However, please don’t read this as a failure to resolve a disagreement. In fact, this resulting separation had some pretty amazing Kingdom results. Since they chose to separate, God used that decision to now release two powerful men of the faith to spread the Gospel in different places at the same time. They each discipled different men who would in turn, do great things for God and the spread of the Gospel. We also read Paul experienced a change of heart about young Mark when he writes in 2 Timothy 4:11 to send him Mark because “…he is useful to me for service.” It is also important to note neither Paul nor Barnabas allowed this conflict to seep into the church. Instead, they decided since they could not agree they should simply separate, but each continued to preach the Good News to those who needed it. Although they agreed to disagree at the time, Scripture seems to indicate there was a reconciliation between them (Colossians 4:10).
We are going to have disagreements in the church over things of secondary importance. We may even feel very passionate about some of our positions. Maybe you disagree with someone about how your House Church should operate, or how loud the volume of worship should be, or if Tyler’s jokes are truly more humorous than Neil’s jokes. Seriously, brethren, if you cannot come to a consensus agreement on the issue then maturely and gracefully agree to disagree in love and maybe even take a break to think things through. Humbly look at your position and weigh it against the importance of unity in the body of Christ. Then, I encourage you to please seek resolution and reconciliation and not to allow stubbornness or unforgiveness to win.
So to summarize, stand on the truth but compromise when we can. Secondly, use wisdom and maturity in conflict by agreeing to disagree, putting the conflict in perspective and humbly seeking resolution and reconciliation. These two principles from Acts 15 will help us move forward together, preserving the unity of the body. And after all, we are going to spend eternity with each other so we might just as well learn to get along now.