Have you noticed how polarizing conversations, especially political conversations, have become? When dealing with controversial issues and conflict, there seems to be an overwhelming tendency toward rhetoric over substantial debate and winning or making a personal statement over actually arriving at a meaningful solution. In our modern world of sound bites, reality TV and the cult of celebrity personality, it seems to me that the notion of trying to develop a consensus through mutual persuasion and careful compromise has become just a little too quaint for our legislatures, board rooms and perhaps even in our churches and families. Our Apostolic church leader examples in Acts 15 have a different way to teach us to get along and still accomplish real solutions for difficult conflicts.
In the last Why Can’t We All Just Get Along article, the focus was on Peter who was very careful to use his powerful influence to progress the debate rather than shut it down and force a solution. Peter waited until “there had been much debate” to stand and express his view knowing that his words carried extra weight. Peter was wise and he used his influence move the discussion forward, allowing Paul and Barnabas to present their experiences to the group as testimony to God’s working among the non-Jews they had met on their missionary journeys.
Next the spotlight shifted to James. The Apostle James was Jesus’ half-brother and although he was a skeptic during Jesus’ ministry, after the resurrection he became a passionate believer. James was also apparently the predominate leader in the Jerusalem church before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. James was especially focused on ministering to the Jewish Christian converts living in the Jerusalem congregations he helped pastor. I believe James wrote the New Testament letter of James which is an amazing collection of practical teachings on Christian living. James’ letter reflects a studious appreciation of both the principles behind the Old Law and the radical teachings of Jesus Christ. If you are paying attention, James will help you connect the dots from law-observing to faith-living as he teaches that living one is impossible without understanding the other. As James ministered to the Jewish church, it is apparent that he continued to observe the Old Law, likely out of cultural preference as well as the conviction that law-observing provided a solid foundation for faith-living.
Acts 15 does not contain a full transcript of the debate between the law-observing Christians in the group and those that agreed with Paul’s teaching of Christian liberty that frees a Christian from the legalism of mandatory law-observing. Perhaps Luke was operating with a “what happens in church council stays in church council” philosophy when he summarized the debate. There is a good lesson in Luke’s approach as well! However, even without a transcript, you can be certain that the debate was heated. The views were passionate on both sides and the stakes were high. If James was not careful and wise, the “solution” to the conflict would simply create an unjust burden for one group or the other and simply perpetuate the problem and extend the conflict for another generation.
Take a look at our Acts 15:13-21 passage to see this James’ wisdom in action.
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
James used the Old Testament as the center point of his solution since the opinion of the authority of the Old Law was at the center of the conflict. James reminded the group of the prophecies in the Old Testament that predicted Gentiles would eventually be included in the fellowship of authentic faith. In making this reference, James brought both sides of the debate to common ground using the source of the conflict to unite them. James was a very wise leader! From that common ground, James used his influential leadership to propose a solution that would have represented a gigantic personal compromise for almost everyone in the group. James proposed that a few of the dietary requirements of the Law should be observed universally in all the congregations (at least for a time of transition) and he called out one category of moral law for special emphasis.
By wiping out almost all of the 613 individual mandatory requirements of the Old Law (according to prevailing first century Jewish doctrine), James would have violated the comfort zone of almost every Jewish convert attending the council meeting that day. The notion of eating bacon for breakfast would have turned the stomach of a good Jew and most of these first century Palestinian Christians were good Jews. It is clear from many of Paul’s letters that not every Jewish convert embraced this idea and these radical Jewish instigators continue to create immense problems for Christian congregations in the first century. These “Judaizers” were also a considerable thorn in Paul’s side as he ministered to these new Gentile converts to Christianity.
Before we are tempted to think that only the Jewish converts were asked to compromise, think about the contribution the Gentiles were asked to make in this proposed dietary compromise. They would have had no problem whatsoever eating meat that had come from a strangled animal and thus contained trapped blood in the meat. They also would not have naturally understood the problem with eating food products made with blood. For Paul, agreeing to even these few requirements was a gigantic compromise. If you don’t believe it, check out Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8. Paul knew there was nothing inherently sinful about eating a certain kind of food. So how could Paul and James both agree to the compromise? How could a good Jewish Christian who would never touch a sausage patty and a passionate crusader for Christian liberty come together to support the proposed solution?
They came together because they both had the best interests of the entire church in mind rather than any one special interests. All the apostles gathered in the meeting had heard Jesus teach through his words and deeds that love always trumps law. When one was faced with an ethical dilemma over whether to do the “right thing” or the loving thing, Jesus taught them to choose the loving thing. Jesus said the two greatest commandments in the Law were to love God and love your fellow man. All the details of the Law are based on the overriding principle of love of God and man. Choosing legalism over love was not only a demonstration of messed up priorities, it was a sin. The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this truth. The Priest and the Levite may have both been technically justified in avoiding the half-dead body of the victim on the road. Although it seems that the Priest and the Levite wrote off the victim for completely dead, the Law did demand that religious leaders avoid the taint of death which would make them ceremonially unclean. However, Jesus said that love for the suffering victim should have trumped the technicalities of the Law. The Samaritan got it right by following the second greatest commandment rather than technical requirement number 375 (I looked it up).
The compromise that James proposed was the loving thing for both sides of the argument to do. Of all the dietary laws, the requirements about idol-tainted meat and avoiding blood would have been the most sensitive for a Jewish convert. It would have been very uncomfortable for a Jewish convert to eat a meal where idol-tainted meat or blood products were served. It would probably have practically prevented meal fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. Although avoiding meat that had come from the temples might have been a slight economic hardship for the non-Jewish Christian, that hardship pales in comparison to the hardship a Jewish Christian would have felt deep in the core of his or her soul by participating in a meal that was equivalent to idol worship for them or violating the high value every Jew placed on life-giving blood. Skipping these foods was a small deal for one side and a really big deal for the other side. Skipping those foods was the loving thing to do.
The other side of the compromise to set aside the 610 other individual mandates of the Law was also a big deal for the Jewish converts. While law-observing was a natural (although practically impossible) part of a Jew’s lifestyle and therefore didn’t feel like a burden for some of them, the complex requirements were an impossible burden for non-Jewish Christians. The loving thing to do was to free them officially from any expectation to follow the mandatory requirements of the Law. This compromise allowed these new Christians and ultimately all Christians to discover law-observing through faith-living rather than vainly trying to discover faith-living through law-observing.
The requirement to avoid sexual immorality was also the loving thing for James to officially list in his compromise. Jews grew up with a finely-tuned appreciation for sexual morality. James reminded the group that these truths were universally taught everywhere an Old Testament scroll was kept. The connection between sex and committed monogamous unconditional marital love is written in the pages of the Old Testament from Genesis through the Song of Solomon (read it) to Malachi. Jesus affirmed this principle multiple times in his teachings and therefore avoiding sexual immorality was an expectation for Christians too. Sexual purity is the loving thing to do in all circumstances! However, sexual purity was not encoded into the cultural DNA of the Greco-Roman Gentiles. They had been raised in a very different culture where sexual behavior was very different from God’s moral law. Sexual sin was the number one source of faith-living problems for Gentile Christians (some things haven’t changed much) and so James called this out for special emphasis. Emphasizing sexual purity was the loving thing to do for all the congregations then and now.
The results of this Spirit-filled church council meeting are recorded in verses 22-31.
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
James’ wise leadership enabled the church council to come together to support a consensus decision that was in the best interest of the entire church as they put special interests behind them. The lesson for all leaders, whether corporate, government, religious or family is to travel the hard road of speaking wisdom rather than the easy road of wielding power. James likely could have dictated a solution (at least in Jerusalem) using his influence, but instead he was patient and allowed the discourse to take place and the competing ideas to be fully presented. Only after both positions had been fully heard did he gather them to common ground to build a consensus decision based on careful loving compromise. A really good leader will model his or her approach after James and Peter and he or she will be loved, respected and effective within the organization and a good leadership example outside the organization.
In the nature of full disclosure, I must own up to not getting this right nearly as often as I would aspire to get it right. Pride and impatience tempt me to take the easy road too often. There are also situations where compromise isn’t possible. Sometimes the “wrong side” is really wrong and needs to be persuaded to yield their position in the true best interests of the organization. Sometimes, as with the case of Barnabas and Paul at the end of this very same chapter of wise compromise and consensus, people really can’t just get along! However, I think a consensus solution is possible much more frequently that I might allow through my sometimes impatient and prideful leadership. I think many other leaders fall into this same prideful impatient trap. I am working on this one and I recommend that all leaders dedicate themselves to continually working on this one.
I apologize for the extra-long final chapter to the Can’t We All Get Along series. I’ve struggled with this series for months as you can tell by the uncharacteristic infrequency of my posts. I think God wanted me to slow down and soak this one in personally at this particular point in my life. Finally, I felt it was time to wrap it up and get on with finding new Intersections. Thank you for participating in my spiritual and leadership journey over the past several months.
Next time I think I will spend some time on Love and Law in our everyday life. Coincidentally (not!) my personal studies have led me right to John chapter five at the Intersection of Love and Law. I can’t wait to see what God has in mind for me to learn next!
Until next time,
Meet me at the intersection!
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