Note: This is a devotional from our Pivotal series. For more, please go here.

Here is a true statement: I have learned more about handling disagreement in the church from Acts 15 than from any other chapter in the Bible. And a big reason for that is that I see trails of love interspersed with trails of tears as the narrative unfolds in this chapter.

Let’s be clear headed about this: no other issue could be potentially more disastrous to the fledgling early group of believers. They were arguing over the very heart of the Gospel–how does one get saved? By observing the Law or by grace through faith alone?

Let’s not have any illusions either: the two sides that emerged were allowed to defend their viewpoints vigorously. Acts 15:2 says that Paul and Barnabas entered into a “sharp dispute and debate with their opponents.” 15:7 also indicates that there was “much discussion.” This was intense and public, but it never managed to close the door for continued dialogue.

Even in the midst of intense conflict, the principals did not allow it to turn into a quarrel. And again I say: love was at the very foundation of the whole process and that’s how they were able to agree at the end without killing each other on the way to making peace.

Here are the signs of Christian love I see in the midst of this rather intense controversy:

1. In 15:4, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed with open arms by the church in Jerusalem.

2. The leaders of the early church never pulled rank. Even James, the brother of Jesus, who by now had emerged as the primus inter pares (“first among equals”) at the Jerusalem church, when he spoke, used words like, “It is my judgment,” not my “order” or “command.” (15:19)

3. Something very telling happened right around the middle of the chapter. In the midst of some heated debate, Paul and Barnabas rose to speak and the whole assembly fell into total silence (15:12). Wow. I can’t even begin to express how huge this was. Some of the people sitting there were the very same ones who were adamant about the fact that Paul and Barnabas were wrong and Gentiles had to comply with the Law of Moses, including circumcision. But when their theological nemeses rose, they fell into silence. So different from what happens today: so many people, when faced with ideas they dislike, instead of forcing themselves to sit quietly, do everything they can to silence their opponents. To subjugate yourself to silence when you are convinced you are right is a sign of Christian love. Practice it and you will win more hearts than if you keep shouting.

4. When a decision was reached, instead of just sending a letter, the church leaders, showing great sensitivity to the fragile state of the believers in Antioch, chose a delegation, an “embassy of peace,” so to speak, to deliver the message personally (15:22). The practice of choosing to talk to the person directly, instead of resorting to the impersonal verdict of word to paper (or scroll in this case), could save many a headache in the Church of Jesus Christ today. Remember, when Jesus taught us how to handle conflict when a brother or sisters sins against us, He didn’t say go on Facebook and post about it. He didn’t say talk to your best friend about it. He said, “go and tell him what he did in private.” (Matthew 18:15) I would venture to say this is the biggest sin that remains present in the lives of many church people today. It’s like a cancer that needs to be excised. Don’t let it happen to you.

5. After the “embassy of peace” spent some time in Antioch, they were sent back, “with the blessing of peace.” (15:33 NIV) The conflict was resolved because there were already people of peace in the church. People of peace did not emerge out of the conflict, they were already there, doing what people who are motivated by Christ’s love do–promoting peace, as long as it is within their power to do it (Romans 12:18). Are you a person of peace?

Questions to ponder:

1. What other lessons about handling disagreement in the church can you learn from this passage?

2. Do you know a “person of peace”? Can you list the traits that mark a “person of peace”?

3. What do you think would have happened if Gentiles were required to observe the Law of Moses in order to be saved?

4. What are some of the way that we create barriers for people to enter the Church of Jesus Christ?

Pastor Ivanildo Trindade
Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA