Church Fights

Acts 15

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
November 2013

Our topic for today is church fights.  We live in a day in which quarrels between people are quite common, even in church and even among Christians.  Someone has said that “there is no fight like a church fight”.

I have taught the Bible for many years in different settings (small group, Sunday school, men’s group).  What I have found is there are often two types of people in my Bible classes.  I have seen many people who genuinely want to learn and are hungry to know God’s Word.

I have also seen some people who just love to argue.  They would try to get into an argument over everything I said.  They would argue over major topics.  They argue about minor topics.  Some people just like to argue.

They like to hear the sound of their own voice.  Proverbs 20:3 says that “Every fool is QUICK to quarrel”.  Some people try to refute an idea before they really understand it.  Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer BEFORE LISTENING is folly and shame.”

James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”.  God designed us that way.  He gave us two ears and one mouth.  We reverse what James said.  Instead of being quick to listen and slow to speak, we are usually quick to speak and slow to listen.

Most of us are terrible listeners.  We are not good at listening (our spouse will tell us).  That was written by James, the Pastor of the Jerusalem Church.  We will read about him in Acts 15.

Acts 15 is a chapter all about arguments.  It deals with some heated arguments among Christians or professing Christians.  It is a chapter all about handling disputes.  Acts 15 contains two disputes.   There are not only two disputes in Acts 15, there are two different kinds of disputes in the chapter. One was doctrinal and one was personal.  One was resolved and the other was not.

Acts 15 begins with a doctrinal dispute and ends with a personal dispute. There is a blow out at the beginning of the chapter.  There was a big debate between Paul, Barnabas and the Judaizers.  There is another major argument at the end of the chapter between Paul and Barnabas.  Let’s look at the doctrinal dispute first.

The Doctrinal Dispute

Acts 15 gives us the first doctrinal controversy in the church.  It was an argument over theology.  This was not the first time in Acts that we have seen a church fight.  The first church argument took place in Acts 6.  Some members of the church complained that other members of the church were discriminated against.  In Acts 15 we see a different kind of argument.  That was an argument about race.  This was an argument about doctrine.

There have been many doctrinal controversies since Acts 15.  There have been doctrinal controversies about what the Bible teaches about the person of Christ and the nature of the trinity.  There have been disagreements on what the Bible teaches about future events (eschatology).

Some Christians are premillennial.  Some Christians are post millennial.  Some Christians are amillennial.  There have been disagreements about the Holy Spirit.  Christians throughout the ages have had very different views on the gifts and baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The first doctrinal debate in the early church was not over Calvinism or Arminianism.  It was not over the gifts of the Spirit or prophecy.  The first doctrinal dispute in the early church was on salvation.  What does a person have to do to be justified before a holy God?

How did this dispute start?  It started when outsiders came into the Church of Antioch and began saying some things that caused a lot of confusion.  What do we know about these people?

We know that they came a long way.  They came from Jerusalem.  These outsiders came three hundred miles to pick a fight.

We know that they were members of the Jerusalem Church.  They came from the Jerusalem Church but were not sent by the church (cf. 15:24).  They came on their own.

We know that they were former Pharisees.  When you think of Pharisees, you do not think of Christian.  They seem like two different categories but these were Pharisees who believed (15:5).  They were not necessarily saved.  Paul called some people “false brethren” (Galatians 2:4) but they at least made a profession of faith.

Remember Paul was a Pharisee before he came to Christ.  He was  “ circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5).  They were Pharisees who also accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

The Topic of Debate

What did these men teach?  What was so controversial about what they said?  Why did it almost cause a church split?  They taught that Gentiles had to “be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved” (15: 5).

The Church of Antioch was mostly a Gentile Church.  It was the first Gentile Church.  These Judaizers believed that Gentiles could be saved but if they wanted to be saved they had to do two things.  There were two planks in their doctrine.

One, if you want to be saved, you have to be circumcised.  They are saying that circumcision is essential not optional.  It is required.  Acts 15:1 says, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you CANNOT be saved.”

That was only a requirement for the men.  The women did not have to get circumcised.  Many African countries practice female circumcision called female genital mutilation (FGM) but in the Bible only the men were to be circumcised.  You have to convert to Judaism.

The Judaizers were teaching that in order to be saved, you have to be a full proselyte to Judaism.  Remember, many Gentiles were God fearers who did everything, except circumcision, and many of the God fearers became Christians.  Now they are told by the Judaizers that they have to get circumcised to get saved.

The Judaizers taught that if a Gentile wanted to be a Christian, he had to become a Jew first and get circumcised but that was only step one in their doctrine.  That was not enough to save them.

The second thing they had to do was to keep the Law.  The Law of Moses contains 613 commands.  The Judaizers said that those commands are not just for Jews.  They are for Gentiles as well and are required for salvation.

Luke says that when they came into the Church of Antioch and began teaching this, the people were confused and Paul and Barnabas began to argue with them.  Acts 15:2 says “This brought Paul and Barnabas into SHARP DISPUTE and debate with them”.  This led to a huge argument.  There are several things interesting about this argument.

Both sides were sincere.  They were absolutely convinced that they were right and the other was wrong.  Can you imagine the arrogance of getting into an argument with the Apostle Paul and insisting that you are right on a major doctrine of the faith?  That is what they did.

Both sides used the Bible.  The Judaizers used the Bible.  They said, “Unless you are circumcised, ACCORDING TO THE CUSTOM TAUGHT BY MOSES, you cannot be saved.” (15:2). They thought their position was biblical. They tried to go back to Moses.

 Modern Day Application

That is interesting piece of history but how does it apply today?  The topic of circumcision is not a burning issue in the church today.  Judaizers were not just a problem in the first century. It is not just an ancient error; it is a modern error as well.

It comes in many different forms. There are modern-day Judaizers who creep into churches and teach a false gospel.  What do modern-day Judaizers look like?

1. Modern-day Judaizers teach RITUAL SALVATION.

Some teach salvation by water baptism.  Baptism is not viewed as an evidence and sign of faith but as a completely separate condition of salvation that has magical powers to wash away sin.

2. Modern-day Judaizers teach WORKS SALVATION.

They teach that you have to keep the sacraments and do good works to be saved.  Justification is by works.  Roman Catholic still believes that today.  The Bible is very clear that salvation is by grace.  It is not by works.

There is nothing you can do to earn merit before God.  As Paul said in Galatians, if we could work our way to heaven, there would be no point in Jesus coming to die for our sins.  If we could save ourselves by our own good works, He would not have needed to come to save us.

The Solution

How was this problem solved?   Acts says that “Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question” (15:2).  That is interesting.

Why didn’t they just solve the problem themselves?  Why wasn’t the problem settled in Antioch?  Why did they have to go to Jerusalem to get the answer?  Why was the Church in Jerusalem involved in a problem at Antioch?

Some have used this as proof that local churches should not be autonomous.  If local churches are autonomous, then wouldn’t doctrinal questions be decided by that local assembly?  That is true.

On the other hand, these men came from the Church of Jerusalem.  It did make sense to go back to the Church of Jerusalem to clarify if that was really what that church taught or whether these men were misrepresenting the church.

This question had to be resolved by both churches to prevent two different gospels being preached, one in Jerusalem and a different on in Antioch.  Furthermore, if you had any doctrinal question and wanted some insight, who would you talk to?  The Apostles.  They went to the Church of Jerusalem and all of the apostles gave their feedback on that question (15:6-7).

Acts 15 gives us the first church council.  It is a turning point in the history of the church.  It is one of the most important church councils ever held.  The first church council was not the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

It was the Council of Jerusalem in 49 or 50 AD.  It was not just a church council, it was an apostolic council.  All of the apostles were involved.  Peter left Jerusalem after Herod tried to kill him but he came back to be a part of this meeting.

How did this meeting operate?  The apostles and elders discussed it for a long time.  Then Peter spoke.  He was followed by Paul and Barnabas speaking next.  James spoke last.  James was the leader of the Jerusalem church and he functioned as the president of the council.  What is interesting here is that

Surprising Facts about This Meeting 

1. This was not a congregational meeting.

They did not take a poll and ask everyone in the church what they thought about the issue.  All ideas are not equal.  Some ideas are stupid.  Some ideas are unbiblical.  The leaders of the church got together and talked about it.

2. James, not Peter, made the official ruling.

If Peter was the first Pope (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches), you expect him to give the ruling.  James seemed to have more authority than even Peter at this council.  He spoke last.  He made the ruling.

3. James did not function as a dictator.

James gave everyone a chance to speak.  All sides were heard.  All viewpoints were expressed.  He listed to everyone and made a ruling.  He did not give an arbitrary ruling.  James gave the ruling but his ruling summarized what Paul, Barnabas and Peter said.


What was the result of the church council?  James agreed with Paul and Barnabas.  The Judaizers who came from Jerusalem did not represent the church.  They spoke on their own.  Gentiles do not have to keep the law or be circumcised to be saved but James says that there are four things that Gentiles should do: to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood (15:20).

Three of the four prohibitions deal with food (eating blood, eating meat from strangled animals and eating food polluted by idols), while one prohibition deals with behavior (refraining from sexual immorality).

What is that all about?  Are we still under these rules today?   James is saying that Gentiles are not under the law but they should also try to not offend Jews in their city.  It has nothing to do with salvation.  It has to do with testimony and outreach (cf. 15:21).  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions because of Acts 15:20 but that passage has absolutely nothing to do with blood transfusions.

They didn’t even exist in the first century.  That is a recent medical procedure.  It is talking about eating blood.  One of the basic rules of biblical interpretation is to interpret the Bible in light of the intent of the author.

James was not telling believers to abstain from blood transfusions which didn’t even exist in his day.  Jews are not allowed to eat blood.  It is a prohibition that comes out of the Law of Moses (Leviticus 17:10-12).  What lessons can we learn from resolving doctrinal conflict in the church?

Lessons on Solving Disputes

1) Go directly to the source of the problem.

Paul and Barnabas spoke directly to the Judaizers.  When they claimed to represent the Church of Jerusalem, they went and spoke to the leaders of that church to see if that was correct.

2) Try to resolve it on your own.

That is what Paul and Barnabas did.  They spoke to the Judaizers.  They argued with them and got nowhere.  That is when they had to move to the next step.

3) When it is not resolved, consult the leaders of the church.

We do not have any apostles today but we do have godly leaders who know God’s Word and are spiritually mature.

The Personal Dispute

At the end of the chapter, we see another argument.  This one was between Paul and Barnabas.  It was not theological.   It was personal.  Paul and Barnabas got into a strong disagreement and no one would budge.  They had a quarrel.

You can almost hear them arguing back and forth.  As you hear the argument, you can decide whose side you would have been on.  Most people today side with Barnabas but Paul had some good points as well.  What did they argue about?

It began with Paul.  Paul said, “ (15:36). Paul suggests they go on a second missionary journey to visit the churches they already planted in the first missionary journey.  Barnabas said, “Great idea.  Let’s strengthen and encourage them”.  Barnabas loved to encourage people but then Barnabas said, “Let’s take my nephew John Mark with us again” (15:37).

Paul said, “Are you out of your mind?  John Mark got homesick and left us on the first missionary journey.  He went home to his mother.  He deserted us.  He let us down before and you want to bring again?  He is young.  He is only about twenty years old.  He is not reliable.  He is not dependable.

This missionary work is dangerous work.  He will just leave us again.  We should not take that chance again.  If we are going to take someone, there has to be someone better that we take with us.  John’s actions on the last trip show that he is not the right man for the job.”

There are verses that seem to support Paul.  Jesus said, “No man who puts his hand on the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom” (Luke 9:62).  Proverbs 25:19 says, “Like a broken tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble”.

Barnabas was more of an encourager.  He was more generous and forgiving.  Barnabas believed in grace.  He believed in giving people second chances.  He believed in showing compassion to people.  Barnabas believed in taking chances on people.  He took a chance on Paul right after he got saved and no one would trust him.  Barnabas probably said, “John left us and he had good reasons for doing so” or “John left us before but he will not do it again”.

Paul was more of a perfectionist.  Paul did not believe it was right to take a proven failure into a ministry situation.  Both Paul and Barnabas had some good points.  Paul’s point was valid.  On the other hand, John Mark should not be completely given up on.  There is hope for people who have once failed in ministry.  God can still use them in some capacity.  Mark ended up writing a book of Scripture.

Lessons on Disagreements

1) Disagreements are inevitable.

We do not always think alike.  Spouses do not always agree on things. You can find that out after being married for five minutes.  The most spiritual Christians do not always agree on things.  We do not always think alike.  Paul and Barnabas both thought it was a good idea to go on a second missionary journey but they could not agree on the details.  Now Paul and Barnabas were mature believers.

They were both filled with the Holy Spirit.  They were seasoned Christians.  They were missionaries.  They were not only missionaries, they were co-workers.  They worked together in ministry.  They must have grown much closer working together risking their lives on the first missionary journey.  They were also close friends but they could not agree on Mark. Disagreements are inevitable.

2) Disagreements are painful

Harsh words were said.  Tempers flared and feelings were hurt. They had a strong disagreement.  This disagreement was never resolved.  It led to a separation.  Their relationship was broken.  Paul went one way and Barnabas went the other.

In fact, we never see Barnabas again in the Book of Acts after this.  You can be friends and disagree with someone but you can’t always work together with someone you disagree with.  They never worked together again.  That must have been hard.

3) Disagreements can be beneficial

Are disagreements and splits between Christians a good thing?  Should we encourage more disagreement in our churches?  No but God can and sometimes does bring good out of our disagreements.

It was not good that they could not work out their disagreement but God brought good out of it.  There were two missionary teams, instead of one.  Paul took Silas and went to Syria and Cilicia, while Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus (15:39-41).

If two are better than one, two missionary teams are better than one missionary team.  They can cover more ground and reach more people.  It also gave Silas an opportunity to step up to the plate and be used by God.

Silas was one of the men from the Church of Jerusalem who went back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the ruling of the first church council to the Church of Antioch (15:22).  Luke tells us that he was a prophet (15:32).

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