How do you handle disagreements? Are there issues important enough to God over which we should divide? Acts 15 records two matters that had to be addressed by the elders of the church (the apostles). We can learn a lot from their response to controversy, debate, and differences of opinion.
Most of this chapter is focused on a doctrinal issue. The early church was formed of Jewish believers, men and women who had been taught the Ten Commandments and had followed the strict dietary and lifestyle Law of Moses from childhood. To many of them, turning to Christ by faith alone was hard to accept. They continued to practice their Jewish faith alongside their belief in Jesus because it was simply who they were, even though they recognized that Christ alone had done away with their sin and made them acceptable to God.
Consider how they might have perceived the pagan, heathen, Gentiles who were joining their church gatherings. These people had no concept of the true God outside of Jesus. They had a history of immorality and idol worship, and perhaps there was some valid concern about pagan practices being brought into the church. Their answer was strict legalism. Some began to teach that anyone who came to faith must essentially also convert to Judaism and be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas faced this wrong doctrine with great dissension and debate until they finally decided to take the matter to the elders of the church in Jerusalem.
After much debate, Peter reminds all those present that the Jews themselves have struggled to keep the law. He goes back to the basic doctrine of salvation – we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are (Acts 15:11). James then does what we all should do in matters of doctrine. He refers them to the Word of God, quoting from an Old Testament passage in which God prophesied He would call the Gentile nations to seek His name. Based on scripture and the plain truth of the gospel, the elders come to a decision. They relieve the new believers of this mistaken idea they must be circumcised as Jews and instruct them to separate themselves from the ungodly and worldly practices that were part of their old lives (fornication/immorality and idolatry).
In the last few verses of Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas face another disagreement, only this time they are on opposite sides of an issue. As they plan their second missionary journey, Barnabas wants to again take John Mark (his relative), but Paul refuses, as the young man had abandoned them mid-journey on the previous trip. He felt strongly that John Mark wasn’t ready for the mission, so much so that he and Barnabas “agreed to disagree” and parted ways. We know from other scripture that Paul continued to invest in John Mark in other ways, so he did not cut off the relationship, but simply felt strongly this was a teaching moment that would bear fruit. In the end, God used their disagreement for good, as they headed off in two directions, two teams with the same mission of taking the gospel to the world.
Two types of disagreement. Doctrinal disagreements require us to stand firm on the gospel (essential issues of salvation) and use God’s Word as our authority and standard for all decisions. All believers can come to an agreement if all are willing to take God’s Word as the last word. On other issues that are less important, we can “agree to disagree” but still maintain our relationships in Christian love and brotherhood.
As Christ-followers, we are people of different opinions, experiences, backgrounds, and levels of spiritual maturity and understanding of God’s Word. Disagreements are inevitable. It would be a colorless and boring world if we all thought exactly the same. God created us with creative minds and passionate hearts.
We can, however, have unity with those who put their faith and trust in Jesus, by listening to the Holy Spirit when He corrects or commends our hearts, and by allowing God’s Word to be our final authority. And like Paul and Barnabas, on things that are simply matters of our opinion, we can agree to disagree and move forward as friends who still love one another. We may take a different route, but may all roads lead to our lives proclaiming the gospel so that a divisive and ungodly world will see the difference Jesus makes in us.