A man asked his doctor, “Can you do anything about my snoring?” The doctor said, “Why, is it disturbing your wife?” The man replied, “No, it’s disturbing the whole church.” The church is often disturbed from within, not by snoring, but by sin.
In the book of Acts Satan used many tools to destroy the people of God. He used poverty, but the church just gave more generously (Acts 2:44-45). He used persecution, but the church just spoke more boldly (Acts 4:31). He used hypocrisy, but the church just believed more genuinely (Acts 5:11).
One of the most powerful tools Satan used to topple the early church was division. If he can get God’s troops fighting among themselves they won’t be out saving the lost. They will bleed to death from civil war (Gal. 5:15).
The flag of the fledgling church was tattered by a conflict over race and nationality. The Jews could not understand how Gentiles were accepted by God without first becoming Jews. This racial divide underlies every church conflict in the book of Acts (Acts 6, 15, 21).
This sounds so modern, doesn’t it? The church today continues to struggle with the superficial differences of race and national origin.
Yet, the gospel offers a unique answer to this conflict. It provides a fresh awareness that by creation each person is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and is part of the same family (Acts 17:26). This unity is deepened by salvation where we experience equal fellowship in Christ regardless of our physical differences (Gal. 3:28). Jesus supersedes all our superficialities!
Nevertheless, conflicts do come. Even in the church. But, while the world resolves conflicts with lawsuits, guns and intimidation, God’s people manage conflict very differently. The gospel approach to conflict resolution is modeled in the book of Acts. When discord resounded in the local church, harmony was restored by three rarely used instruments of peace.
Healing Comes Through Serving (Acts 6:1-7)
Conflict first rattled the rafters of the church just when “the number of disciples was multiplying” (Acts 6:1). Few things spoil the spread of the gospel like bitterness between believers.
The bitterness arose out of the use of money. The church collected funds for needy Christians (Acts 4:32-37), but it was not distributed equally. Widows who spoke and lived as Greeks didn’t get their daily dinner like the widows who looked and talked like the local people. This unequal care created conflict, and the conflict was in intensified by “murmuring.” Sin thrives when people judge others by external appearance.
How will the church deal with the conflict? Will the strong bully the weak into submission? Will they settle it in court? Will they sever their fellowship? No! Amazingly, the answer to conflict is loving service. Seven men are chosen to energize the church to serve the needs of all. They simply traced the pattern Jesus laid before them, who resolved our conflict with God by serving our need (Phil. 2:1-8).
Unfortunately, conflict incites most of us to strike back or to pull away, which only makes conflict concrete. However, the gospel invites us to interact with our rivals in humble service.
This is especially true in the local church. We are the body of Christ, and each of us are essential members of it. So, “there should be no division in the body, but the members should have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). This equal compassion breaks the grip of conflict.
The next time you are in a conflict, instead of turning to anger or isolation, try serving the needs of the other person. If such grace doesn’t scare them to death, it just might extend a bridge for fellowship.
Listen to God’s Revelation (Acts 15:1-29)
Next a doctrinal question threatened to rupture the church. Some disciples from Jerusalem spread the lie that Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to be saved, but others strongly disagreed (Acts 15:1-2).
How do you resolve a conflict when there is a difference of belief? The early church listened to God’s revelation! Unity is then built on the eternal wisdom of God and not the shifting sand of human preference (Eph. 4:11-16). The early church did two things to understand God’s will.
First, they carefully looked at how God worked. Peter, Paul and Barnabas reported how they preached the gospel to the Gentiles, and they did not require them to be circumcised or keep the Law. God showed His approval by the miracles that accompanied their message (Acts 15:7-12). There is a reason why much of the Bible is written as narrative. Those examples reveal God’s will to us.
Secondly, they carefully read what God said. James quoted the prophet Amos about how God planned for the Gentiles to be saved. Yet, God didn’t make any rules about Gentiles being circumcised or keeping the Law. So, James said, “I judge that we should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Local churches often face doctrinal questions: “What should we believe? What work should we do? How should we worship?” Those questions often create controversy. God’s way of dealing with the conflict is to quiet our cravings and listen to God’s revelation.
Sacrifice Your Rights (Acts 21:17-26)
Once again, the church in Jerusalem sat on a powder keg of racial tension. The Jewish Christians heard a false rumor that Paul forbid Jews to circumcise their children or keep Jewish customs (Acts 21:21). They felt Paul was on a world-wide campaign to stomp out Jewish culture. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem Paul does two things to resolve this conflict.
First, he brings a financial gift from the Gentile churches to help poor Christians in Jerusalem. He hopes this act of service will create a common affection (Rom. 15:26-27).
Secondly, Paul was willing to give up his rights to hold on to his spiritual family. The elders in Jerusalem knew that racial pressures were about to explode, so they made Paul a proposal. Four Christian brothers previously made a vow to God, and the next day they would go to the Temple to complete their vow. The elders asked Paul to go with those men to the Temple, purify himself, and pay their expenses.1
This was a humbling and expensive request. They asked Paul to put himself in a dangerous situation, knowing the unbelieving Jews might use this as an opportunity to arrest Paul (which they do!) Why is Paul willing to risk so much? He seriously values unity!
Giving up our rights for the sake of unity is something Paul emphasized to church (1 Cor. 8-10; Rom. 14). As our world gets more culturally diverse we will need to ask ourselves more often, “What is Biblical? What is cultural?” “What is truth? What is tradition?” The answer to such questions will reveal if we truly value the oneness of believers more than our own preferences. Practically, we deepen the bonds of fellowship whenever we gladly give up the rights to our time, plans, money, and wants for the good of spiritual family.
The price for unity is high. Is it worth it? In the book of Acts “conflict resolution” resulted in a stronger church, the salvation of the lost, and an undying love between believers (see Acts 6:7; 15:31; 16:5). The gospel is the world’s best source for conflict resolution…try it.
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14)
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1 Some believe Paul should be condemned for his participation in the elder’s plan. They find it shameful, if not sinful, that Paul joined in Temple ritual. If Paul did participate in animal sacrifice for sin, it is hard to excuse his behavior (Heb. 10:3), even if a transitional period of Jewish ritual is legitimate. As James wrote, “Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving” (James 3:17). A thing must be right, to bring gospel peace; first lawful, before it is expedient.
Since Acts 21:24 mentions these vows involved the cutting of hair, many students go back to the Nazirite vows in Numbers 6 to fill in the details of Paul’s activities. The Nazirite vow involved animal sacrifices for sins (Num. 6:11, 12, 14, 16). However, did the rituals in the first century Temple maintain each element of the Nazirite vow? Did the four believers take a Nazirite vow, or one that shared similar aspects? The ambiguity in the narrative removes certainty.
However, a more accurate appraisal of Paul’s behavior comes from asking, “Why did Luke include this story?” The last eight chapters of Acts record the arrest, trials and imprisonment of Paul (a parallel to the gospel’s presentation of Jesus’ life). Just as in the gospel’s account of Jesus, Luke wants us to see that Paul’s arrest and incarceration is unjust! The Jews didn’t lock Paul away because he was a troublemaker bent on civil unrest. No! Paul was in the Temple, participating in Temple rites, making peace with Jewish believers, when he was seized by an unruly mob. Luke does not seem to condemn Paul for this action, but offers it as evidence of the unjust nature of his arrest.