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By Bill White

How did the early church handle disagreements?

For people of the book like us, that seems like a good question to ask. Find a framework to handle the tricky questions we face today around sexuality, politics, war, and immigration.

Acts 15 showcases a massive disagreement that arose because all the people in the early church were Jewish, and a bunch of non-Jews (especially people of European descent like me) wanted in on following Jesus. The nice church people weren’t having it, so those who wanted to open things up got mad and caused a ruckus. Thus, the first church council.

At this big powwow, they studied the bible for an answer and then gave a nice clear decision that resolved things. I mean, it was the Apostles after all, so bible study and binding decisions should be in their wheelhouse, right?

Nope. That’s not how they went about the decision at all.

If the Jerusalem Council had wanted to start with what the bible has to say about including non-Jewish people, there are a zillion places in the Old Testament that they could have referenced on the front end of their conversation (e.g., Genesis 17:1-14, Deuteronomy 9:3-5, Joshua 23:6-8 on the non-inclusion side and Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 67, Isaiah 66:19-23 on the pro-inclusion side). But that’s not what they did.

Instead, the assembly heard from those on the pro-inclusion side of the debate “who reported everything God had done through them” to connect non-Jewish people to God (Acts 15:4). Then, they invited up the key leader, Peter, to tell his story of seeing non-Jewish people connect to God through the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:6-11). In typical Peter fashion, he jumps in passionately, driving home his point that “God did not discriminate between us and them” (Acts 15:9). Then, just to make sure we don’t miss how this process worked, the council brought in the two ringleaders of the pro-inclusion party (Paul and Barnabas) to tell their stories “about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles [non-Jews]” (Acts 15:12).

So did you notice the process? It started with telling stories, then there was more telling of stories, and then they told more stories. Makes me wonder if, when discussing disagreements in the church, we should start with listening to people’s stories.

The point here is not that the pro-inclusion party won the day (in fact, they didn’t, at least not totally) or that inclusion-for-all is what we should do now. The point here is that their first priority was to listen to what God was up to. How much listening have you done of those who deeply disagree with you?

 

*This is an adaptation from a longer blog found HERE

Bill White

Bill White is the lead pastor of City Church Long Beach in Long Beach, California. He enjoys playing board games with his son and watching his daughter play soccer.

4 Comments

  • Therese says:

    you lost me at “people of the book: this is supposed to be about inclusion.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Look, I’m with you in heart and soul and mind, and I think your main point is absolutely right on, but I’m not sure that you can be certain that some textual stuff did not go on, despite it not being reported by St. Luke. But in my own case, it was stories that people told me that I had to believe, and those stories forced me to re-examine how I read the texts.

    • Mike Kugler says:

      I agree. We only have Luke’s account, some years after the events and suited to particular perspective. Sill, I think this story is critical to our faithfulness to the Good News and to our duty to care for one another. The Jewish followers of Jesus had an enormous hill to climb to take in gentiles. We have less of a sense of what gentiles had to overcome. But the Good News was so compelling, the Holy Spirit so wildly promiscuous in those He moved, that Jesus’ followers faced tremendous difficulties accommodating it to their religious and moral convictions. Thank you.

  • Marjorie says:

    Thank you for your timely essay. I am preparing to attend the RCA General Synod, where I will hear many stories, scriptures, and opinions on a variety of overtures.
    My dilemma is how do I prepare to vote on each issue? Reading your essay put me at ease because I will listen to the stories of what God has done in the lives of believers.
    I will put less emphasis on the opinions of those who fear what God may do in the future if we vote a certain way. Scripture sometimes has a variety of interpretations in the 21st century.
    God will do what God wants, even if we vote for or against it.

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