Week of Feb. 9

Woodshed or Watershed?

Read: Leviticus 7-9; Acts 15

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1, ESV


Conflict may be for the good of the whole and bring glory to God. There! I have stated it. Acts 15 provides us with a critical watershed moment in a missional current that has been building for several chapters in Acts. Luke has a clear message that he wants to communicate, and he does not sweep the theological challenge beneath the carpet, so to speak. Let’s examine the point in the passage and learn how conflict handled well may strengthen the church and bring glory to God.

A Biblical Lens

Our context provides us with a treasure trove of insight into the message that Luke wanted to communicate to Theophilus and to the countless readers that would take up the text in the generations to follow. What is termed the “Gentile mission,” meaning Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, represents the flash point for controversy. Can Gentiles be saved without first become Jews? This question, or similar ones, has been asked in many different ways across the centuries.
Paul had not required the Gentile converts to be circumcised or to abide by Jewish law with regard to food regulations. In other words, Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians. Case closed? Hardly! Jewish Christians opposed him on Old Testament grounds and wanted all new believers to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians (15:1).

Let’s just say, politely, that Paul challenged these folks to a theological "throwdown." Cancel the after-church trip to Rosa’s Mexican food restaurant because we are going to be in this business meeting for a while! (I’m laughing). Seriously, the conflict concerned questions of faith in the Christian community (15:2, “dissension”; Greek, “stasis”). It was handled well because all were well-discipled in biblical theology (See 15:15-17; cf. For Your Journaling below). Happily, no one squelched the dissent or the Spirit!

This was no quid pro quo moral arrangement. You know, “We give you Gentile conversion, but you give us Jewish circumcision.” Thank goodness this was not the case because the theological squabbling enabled the church as a whole to recognize the plan and purposes of God in bringing the Gentiles to salvation (15:10-11). Besides, Jewish support within the nascent Church enabled the mandate of Christ to carry forward (15:22, 28, esp. 31 & 33, “in peace”).

A Moral Pathway

Too often we make church conflict something of a “woodshed” encounter. The euphemism I employed suggests that much disagreement in church is handled by taking an opponent out to the proverbial woodshed where he or she is “whipped” into a change of mind. Aside from the hard-right turn away from Matthew 5:5, such moral fisticuffs bruise the God-given dignity of the opponent. There is more to consider.

Glen Stassen (1936-2014), a Christian ethicist, saw the moral future as a young man. He had earned his undergraduate degree in nuclear physics, knew the destructive capabilities of nuclear weaponry, and had experienced the atomic annihilation that took place in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Stassen would later convene a group of 23 diverse scholars to embark upon a plan to bring about peacemaking practices regarding the nuclear arms build-up. His motivation? It was largely the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount! His theology about peace informed his Christian practice.

There were many challenges and more than a few disagreements among those thinkers who were comprised of just war and pacifist advocates, but the end result was a fresh approach termed “just peacemaking.” The world became safer as a result of their purpose to bring nuclear conflict to a halt through their own personal detente! (Matthew 5:9, 44-45, Peacemakers, God’s children, like their Heavenly Father, love not to make war.) Their peacemaking in conflict led to the further spread of God’s peace.

For Your Journaling

1. Call to mind some disagreement about the direction of your church that you have kept in your mind or with a brother or sister in Christ. Write down fresh insights that Acts 15 has given you into the larger will and purposes of God.

2. This next question may require quite some time to answer but take the time. Examine a recent event(s) at your church that caused you some inner upset. How would a deeper theological awareness at the time have enabled you to formulate a different response to the “inner conflict”? Perhaps the deeper things of God that were present in the situation never came to mind because you never knew that they existed. Hmm. This may lead you to pursue the following challenge.

3. For your consideration: Learners make good leaders. Examine your Christian “reading” program. Does it include church history, theology, Biblical studies, and even ethics? Here are two short, readable sources for you to consider. D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church. Click on this link to review three recent Confessions of Faith. They provide theological statements with Biblical support. We may not agree with everything written in these sources, but they will provide a good beginning.

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock