How do you behave when problems occur, especially with difficult people? Though the Acts of the Apostles wasn’t written to be a textbook on sociology or a self-help book on how to win friends and influence people, we can learn a lot by observing how the early church behaved. I, for one, am glad they weren’t perfect. Not only would that be intimidating, but being a woefully imperfect person, it would also be harder for me to learn from.
You’ll remember from the beginning of Acts 15 that the problem that arose, and one which arises all throughout the New Testament, is the problem of how to treat Gentile Christians. Should they be required to obey the entire Law? By this time, there was no question that Gentiles could be Christians: the question was the narrower one of what was to be their relationship to the Law.
In observing how the early church dealt with this difficult problem, brought to them by difficult people (the Judaizers), we see the godly principles of the Bible put to practical use.
First, I’d like to look at the attitudes and habits the early Christians employed in settling this dispute. Though love is not specifically mentioned by Luke, it’s the starting point for solving all of our human problems. Without love, problems are not only not solved – they are created. I see in the early church of Acts 15 if not love, directly, then humility, the willingness to submit oneself to others.
What started as “no small dissension and dispute” was brought before the council of Jerusalem, and this took humility on the part of all involved. The Judaizers, though undoubtedly they were wrong, allowed the problem to be brought before the elders and apostles of the church. In so doing, they were implicitly saying that they would humbly submit themselves to whatever the Church decided. Those in favor of greater freedom for the Gentiles likewise appealed to the larger church.
Here is a humility I find lacking in modern Christians. Here is an ecclesiology I can live with: a view of the Church as larger than myself or my own limited perspective. Do we listen to the Church today? Do we even know where to find it? Do we have a view of the Body of Christ as being something more real, more living, and more permanent than a church building or a random collection of Christians who gather together for an hour? Are we willing to submit to what the church teaches us, or is it every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost?
Along with this humility I find great wisdom. Whenever disputes arise, there are many ways to deal with them, and I believe that each of us needs to provision himself with as many tools as possible to deal with disputes. One of my favorites is one I employ with my wife, which is simply to let things go. 99% of what might become a point of contention never gets a chance to live and kill us because one or both of us will not fertilize or water it.
Part of wisdom is the love and humility to simply give up your claim, even if you know you’re right. What good is it if you win the battle in Lilliput and lose the war with your wife or someone you love?
Wisdom may choose instead to discuss the problem and find an answer that is suitable to all parties involved. That’s what I find at work in the Jerusalem Council. It would have been wrong to make the Gentiles keep the entire Law, which, as Peter rightly said, was a yoke neither they nor their fathers were able to bear. And yet if there were no concessions made to the Judaizers, then they may have been wronged or felt as if they were wronged. And so it appears as if the wise, Jacobean answer of having the Gentiles follow certain ceremonial aspects of the Law was a good way to keep peace and yet maintain truth.
Sometimes wisdom must ally itself with courage and fight for what’s right, even if peace is therefore disturbed. This was the case when Paul had to confront Peter, who had forgotten the grace of God to the Gentiles and had returned to shunning them. In this case, Paul had to correct Peter. In the current state of the church, some of you undoubtedly will have to say some true but difficult things. Negotiation, if it is negotiation with evil or blatant error, is not always desirable.
Finally, when I look at the means by which the early Church decided, I find a lot of the things I expected. I find appeals to the Word of God, I find prayer, and I find the seeking out of godly counsel. These are 3 essentials in any big decision we make and any attempt to solve the relationship problems and differences of opinion we have. Put another way: seek God and His will in talking to Him, in hearing His Word, as He speaks through His Church, and by honestly consulting with your own spirit.
Thankfully, most of the problems in my life are neither as serious or as world-shaking as the problem of Acts 15. No matter what the size of your relational problems today, recommit yourself to God’s ordained means of solving those problems.
Prayer: Lord, I pray for all those whom I have in any way grieved, vexed, oppressed, or scandalized, by word or deed, knowingly or unknowingly; that thou mayest equally forgive all our sins, and all our offences against each other.
Take away, O Lord, from our hearts all suspiciousness, indignation, anger, and contention, and whatever is calculated to wound charity, and to lessen brotherly love.
Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy on those who seek thy mercy; give grace to the needy; make us so to live, that we may be found worthy to enjoy the fruition of thy grace, and that we may attain to everlasting life. Amen. (Thomas a Kempis)
Point for Meditation:
What relationship problems are you presently experiencing? How have you been trying to solve them? What might you do to pursue a more wise and godly solution?
Resolution: I resolve to pursue God’s will in helping me solve one relationship problem today, taking at least one practical step as He instructs me.
© 2012 Fr. Charles Erlandson