The previous post in this series was on basic conflict resolution. This week continues with a case study from the New Testament church.
1. At times the New Testament church is held up as the ideal church, as if all we need to do is get back to the way things were at the very beginning. There is probably a sense in which the book of Acts does give us somewhat of an idealized picture of the earliest church. Although Acts does mention some of the conflicts of the earliest Christian community, we know more details from elsewhere, giving us a sense that at times matters were messier than we might think if we only had the book of Acts. Acts, after all, was written as a certain "apologetic" for the true nature of the "Way," and indeed it reveals that true nature.
There were thus different groups in the early church, not quite denominations, but with a similar flavor. There was the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem, with fairly "conservative" figures like James and Peter. There was also a "more conservative" group in the church that we might call Judaizers. They believed that Gentile converts to faith needed to go the whole way and become Jews. Paul was far more "liberal" than these groups, teaching that Gentiles did not need to keep the parts of the Jewish Law that distinguished Jew from Gentile. Finally, there was a group "more liberal" than Paul who felt free to eat at pagan temples and perhaps did not consider the sexual legislation of the Old Testament to still be in force.
2. These varying positions were conflicts waiting to happen. Paul certainly came into continual conflict with the Corinthian church over various matters. He tries to resolve the conflicts with varying degrees of firmness. He was usually quite confrontational when it came to sexual issues, such as when he commands the Corinthians to hand over to Satan a man who was sleeping with his step-mother.
He was more tactful when it came to the question of food offered to idols. He believes that the food itself is morally neutral, that the issue of morality relates to the conscience of the person eating. If you believe such food to be unclean, then it is unclean to you and you should not eat it. Do not ask where meat comes from. Eat it with thanksgiving. If it is going to cause someone else's faith problems, do not eat it for their sake. And do not go to a pagan temple because that is a bad witness and there are demons there.
However, this was not, as we will see, the position of the Jerusalem church, especially James, the Lord's brother. What we learn from Paul here is that some issues are non-negotiable, while others require us to navigate differing understandings within the church. We find common ground and then respectfully act in accordance with our consciences on matters of disagreement.
3. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul came into conflict with Judaizers who tried to get Gentiles to convert fully to Judaism. On his own turf, he was quite firmly against this group, because he saw them as undermining his churches. It is important to realize that the individuals in Galatia who were urging circumcision were Christians. It was not non-believing Jews that were the target of Paul's attack in his letter to the Galatians, but people who believed Jesus was the Messiah.
As Paul's mission got fully underway, he stood rather strongly against this potential influence on his churches. In Philippians 3:2, he calls these Christians "dogs" and the "mutilation" (katatome), mocking them for not truly being the "circumcision" (peritome). In Galatians, he warns that those who get circumcised will "fall from grace" (Gal. 5:4). Once again, we see that there are some non-negotiables for Paul. On other matters he urges a freedom of conscience.
He was apparently more tentative at the very beginning. After his first missionary journey, on which his ministry to non-Jews seems to have gained full steam, he consulted with the church leadership in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-5). With great cleverness, he took his uncircumcised co-worker Titus. This tactic made the issue real--are you going to tell this young man, this God-fearer, that God will condemn him on the Day of Judgment? Look at his faith!
Paul wins this battle. James and Peter agree that Titus does not have to become a Jew. They did not "force" him to get circumcised (Gal. 2:3). However, the wording suggests that James at least thought it would be ideal for him to convert fully. A win for Paul. His theology is allowed. Therefore, he can do his mission work accordingly.
This is a reminder that different pastors reach different audiences, often with slightly different teaching and approaches. Sometimes we do this under the same organizational umbrella. Sometimes we do so under differing denominations. But the gospel is often enriched by this diversity. As Paul says in Philippians 1:15-17, Christ is still being preached, and that is a good thing.
Acts 15 gives us a picture of this issue being officially settled. We know from Paul's letter that not everyone agreed. But the Jerusalem leadership--James and Peter especially--agreed that Gentiles did not have to become Jews to be part of the church. There was an official position, despite some continuing individual disagreement. The church could move forward.
4. But Paul and the Jerusalem leadership would part company soon enough. The blow up would take place at Antioch, one of the most exciting churches of the second decade of Christianity (40s). By the late 40s, there were numerous Gentile believers there. They were fellowshipping freely with the Jewish believers at Antioch. It is from this church that Paul and Barnabas launched the first missionary journey.
Jerusalem hears about this vibrant church, and Peter comes up to visit. At first, he fully participates in the Jew-Gentile fellowship of believers. But James is worried about a slippery slope. They had decided that Gentiles did not need to keep the Jewish Law to be saved, but he was concerned that Jews would now think that they also no longer needed to keep it.
He seemed particularly concerned about the purity laws. Was the food prepared correctly? Where did the meat come from?
5. So Peter stops eating with Gentile Christians, and the other Jews at Antioch are pressured to do so as well. Paul vehemently disagrees. We are all justified by faith, not by these sorts of "works of Law." He comes into direct conflict with the church leadership, and calls what Peter is doing hypocrisy (Gal. 2:14). The unity of the body of Christ trumps the purity laws.
Paul may or may not have handled this situation well. On the other hand, perhaps it was important for him to stand up for Gentile believers publicly. Sometimes public confrontation is necessary to defend others, to keep them from being discouraged or demoralized.
On the other hand, Barnabas took a more conciliatory tact. Although he may have agreed with Paul theologically, he did not agree with Paul procedurally. Perhaps he was thinking that they would get together and talk the issue through. They could come to some compromise or arrangement. They just needed to slow things down and work things out.
Paul was presumably long gone before that happened. The letter of Acts 15:23-29 may give us the compromise. As long as Gentiles will not prepare meat by strangling, as long as there will be no blood in the meat, as long as the meat has not been sacrificed at a temple to some god, as long as the Gentiles themselves are not sexually immoral, then Jewish and Gentile believer can eat together.
Paul only agreed on the matter of sexual immorality. On the other issues he has a "Don't ask" policy. Do not ask where the meat came from. Eat it with thanksgiving. He and Barnabas would part ways when it came time for a second missionary journey.
6. But the gospel would benefit greatly from this split! Paul and Barnabas agree to disagree and they part ways. As a result, Paul ends up in Greece, writing the first books of the New Testament. Barnabas has a much less significant ministry close to home. So we see that this conflict vastly expanded early Christianity. The heart of Paul's mission took place outside of what was then the mainstream.
It is important to recognize that Paul and the Jerusalem church probably did not come to agreement on these points. In some ways they agreed to disagree. Acts 21 pictures James still trying to reel Paul in on the matter of his own keeping of the Jewish Law. Paul probably did continue to keep the Jewish Law in general, except when he thought it hindered the mission.
But Paul did not win the argument at Antioch. When he won the argument, he told us (e.g., Gal. 2:9-10). He says nothing of the sort about the blow up between him and Peter (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul does the bulk of his ministry presumably without the full support of the church's leadership.
Next Week: Pastor as Leader 26: Navigating Disputable Issues
Leadership in General
- The Mission, Great and Small
- Identifying Mission
- Casting Vision
- Vision Statements
- Thinking Missionally
- Evaluating Strengths
- Identifying Core Values
- Setting Goals
- Leading Change
- Evaluating Progress/Resetting Goals
- Managing the Church
- Leadership in the Early Church
- Leadership Structures in Church History
- Church Position Descriptions
- Leading Healthy Teams
- Good Communication
- Hiring, Recruiting, and Firing