Controversy in the Church (Acts 15)

Controversy in the Church

Acts 15

How should we settle controversy? I googled it—1) you can arm wrestle, or 2) have a staring contest,  3) thumb war, or my favorite, 4) have a duel.  Each person stand back-to-back, step off ten paces, turn and . . . whoever is left standing. How should controversy be settled in the Church? Turn in your Bibles to Acts 15.

Acts 15 gives a premier example of controversy and principles for settling it. This next sentence is the main thrust of the sermon, so write it down and don’t miss it. Don’t allow a controversy to distort or distract from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

1.  THE DISPUTE  (verses 1 to 5)

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue …[when they got there] 5But 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’ “ (Acts 15:1,2 and 5).

The dispute is over circumcision–do we have these new Gentile converts be circumcised? The Pharisees say, “Yes!” Ouch! The apostles say, “No.” What’s the deal with the Jews and circumcision? God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1 to 3, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; 2and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; 3and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’ ”

God gives Abraham a sign of that covenant in Genesis 17:11, “ ‘And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.’ ” The thought process from the Jews is, if Gentiles have truly been included in God’s covenant by faith, shouldn’t they also apply the sign of the covenant, circumcision?

This leads to a big debate, a massive dispute. This is no small issue in the Church. Acts 15:2, “And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.” Why is this such a big deal?

Pharisees (like many other ethnicities) take great pride in their tradition. They love their traditions, their rules, their regulations, because they are what makes a Jew a Jew–and they’re proud of it. What they have forgotten is the heart of the Law–the heart of the Law is love for God and love for others. It’s more about God than it is about them. It’s more about others than it is about them.

The point of circumcision was to remember God’s covenant promises, to remember that other nations would be blessed through them. Isaiah 49:6, “[to be] made a light of the nations, so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Unfortunately, it became more important for Gentiles to know Jewish procedure than for the Gentiles to know God. For these Pharisees it was just as important for a Gentile to become a Jew than for these Gentiles to become Christians.

Christian, think about that non-saved friend or family member–is it more important that they turn away from their liberalism towards conservative logic, or turn away from their sin towards Jesus Christ the Savior. I’ve fallen into the same logic, thinking about politicians, athletes, actors, and thought—“Man, it would be great if they became Christians because . . .”

Paul and Barnabas see this as an attack on the Gospel. The purity of the Gospel is at stake–is it “faith plus Jewish rituals” that saves? Or is it “faith alone in Christ alone” that saves.” And of course this leads to a massive controversy in the Church. I’ve not heard of any recent disputes over circumcision–but I’ve heard disputes over social justice and social distancing. There is massive controversy in the Church right now over these issues.

It’s hard to believe men would say, “Unless you are circumcised, you can’t be saved.” But I’ve heard similar things of late like, “Unless you advocate for social justice, Black Lives Matter . . . you cannot be a true Christian.” It’s hard to believe men would say, “It is necessary to be circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses.“ But I’ve heard things like, “It is necessary to make them wear a mask and socially distance and direct them to observe all that the Governor orders.”

Listen, we can kindly debate these issues, show love and charity to others with differing viewpoints–but the moment we make it a salvation issue, we get into serious trouble. Be wary of the “faith plus anything” model for salvation. In this age, there will always be disputes and debates that rise up in the Church. We will always need godly leaders, like these in Acts 15, to stand up and make a hearty defense for the Gospel.

2.  THE DEFENSE  (verses 6 to 18)

The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them” (Acts 15:6 to 7). Before we get to Peter’s defense, I want to note a couple things. The visible transfer from apostles to elders–they make the decision together. The office of apostle was not designed to be around forever–it is a foundational office. “God’s household, 20having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:19 to 20).

The design was for each local church to be led by a plurality of elders.  “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2 to 3).

Qualified men, functioning in a plurality together, is God’s design for leadership in the Church–to make decisions and shepherd the church through controversy. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).

Application—by the way, why do we become more concerned about what other prominent Christian leaders say than our own elders who “watch over our souls”? These decisions are not always easy. This is a “sneak peek” into one of the greatest elder meetings of all time. There are strong men in this room–Peter (the rock upon which Christ built His church), Paul (the greatest evangelist/church-planter/Scripture-writer the world has ever seen), and then James (a leader amongst leaders, the elder of elders, brother of Jesus Christ).

Have you ever wondered how these kinds of decisions are made? Key words in the text here . . . “after much debate”. Pray for your elders–they bear heavy weights in leading and shepherding the body. Okay, what is the great defense on this issue? We see four men speak and give a defense. God told us and showed us the five solas in their defense–do you know them? They are Latin phrases that emerged during the Reformation…The Protestants (Luther, Calvin, and others) by these principles, separated themselves from the teachings of the Catholic Church at that time.

Five Solas

1)  Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)

2)  Sola Fide (“by faith alone”)

3)  Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”)

4)  Solus Christus (“in Christ alone”)

5)  Soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”)

First Peter says, God told us and showed us. God chose me to preach to the Gentiles–I did it and it worked. They believed and the Holy Spirit indwelt them (Acts 10). In verses 9 to 11 Peter makes these great statements, “And He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10Now 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? 11But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:9 to 11).

Faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone–Paul and Barnabas say, “Yep, God showed us too.” In verse 12, they “told them all the stories” of the first missionary journey, Cyprus up to Perga, Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—all Gentile cities. Finally, James steps up and does a quick fact check in the Scriptures–“Yep, God told us,” says Acts 15:14 to 15. “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15With this the words of the Prophets agree.” Scripture alone–to the Glory of God alone.

James quotes the prophet Amos from his book 9:11 to 12, “ ‘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, 17So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ 18says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago” (Acts 15:16 to 18).

This was part of God’s plan all along–not just the salvation of Israel, but a people for His name from every tribe, tongue and nation. “ ‘And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ ” (Genesis 12:3). These Jews misunderstood the ethnic scope of salvation. Divine judgment does not show partiality. “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one’ ” (Romans 3:9 to 10).

Bad news–whether you are black, white, Jewish, Italian, Filipino, Japanese . . . divine judgment does not show partiality. You are a sinner condemned to Hell as punishment. Good news–salvation does not show partiality either. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26 to 28). God’s gift of faith is not a respecter of persons–amen?! So what’s the final decision?

3.  THE DECISION  (verses 19 to 35)

James makes a judgment. “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19–20). Why? What an interesting list. These things are clumped together like this because they are characteristic of pagan worship.

These false religions that the Gentiles are coming out of are full of sexual indulgences, false worship, blood drinking and ceremonies. The apostles and the elders saw fit to remind them to abstain from the pagan worship prevalent in their society. They write up a letter, send a few more of the brethren (Judas and Silas)–and in the letter they write the same thing. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28 to 29).

The apostles and elders are basically saying the same thing as Christ said in Matthew 3:8, “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” When a person comes to saving faith, there is an actual turning from sin and pursuing of holiness–not an ethnic distinction, but an ethic distinction. Do not be so concerned about differences in color, culture, or cuisine. Be concerned about your pursuit of holiness and separation from worldly idolatry.

Philippians 2:15, “So that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” “Because it is written, ‘YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY’ ” (1 Peter 1:16). Christian, be sure that, by faith, you are living a life very distinct, even separate, from the godless philosophies, pleasures, and pursuits of the world.

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 17Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. 18And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:14 to 18).

Christian, is there an ethic distinction in your life? Do you talk different than your non-Christian co-workers? Is your marriage different than your non-Christian family members? Are your investments, spending habits, budget line items different than your neighbors? How about your music playlists, your Instagram popular pages, your Twitter feeds, and your Netflix/Hulu favorites–are they different/distinct from the world?

I want to camp for a minute on money. I believe America’s religion is comfort and security–these are the idols of the American dream. Financial stability, owning property, cash reserves, spending money, comfort—there is a very convicting application. If your neighbor were only given access to your budget (they could see all the line items and monthly spending amounts) would they notice a difference? Here’s the major distinction between a believer’s and a non-believer’s budget–the line item titled giving.

Christian, your aim is to be holy because your God and Savior is holy! How should the Church handle controversy? Look to your Holy Spirit-appointed leaders, the elders. Look to the Scriptures alone for a defense. Do not add or stray from the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Be sure to stay distinct/separate from earthly/worldly idolatry.

About Morgan Maitland

Morgan served from 2015-2020 as the high school pastor at Faith Bible Church. He is now the teaching pastor at Summit Bible Church in Fontana, CA.

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