Disagreements can be very difficult, but they can also clarify issues for us and even open new avenues of service. Acts 15 describes two significant disagreements within the early church—one involves a doctrinal issue and the other a ministry issue.
Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker were both powerfully used by the Lord in nineteenth-century England. They both pastored in the London area and enjoyed a friendship. Unfortunately, over time, disagreements over personal matters separated them. Spurgeon disagreed with Parker’s theatre attendance, and Parker disagreed with Spurgeon’s cigars. Spurgeon thought music should be sung without any musical instruments in the church, and Parker installed a new organ in his. Their disagreements ended up in London newspapers, which was unfortunate.
The truth is, even godly Christians do not always agree over personal matters. However, some disagreements are worth debating because they center around major issues.
As we sail into Acts chapter 15, we are going to encounter two disagreements. And these are not just about musical instruments in the sanctuary; these are significant matters that could very well destroy the early church.
The first disagreement involves a doctrinal matter. To set the stage here, Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch after their missionary journey and reported how God “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Frankly, Gentile believers are pouring into the New Testament church.
Many Jewish believers, however, consider these Gentile believers as no different from Gentile proselytes, or converts, to Judaism. Such Gentile followers of God were always required to submit to circumcision and the law of Moses.
So, Acts chapter 15 begins with some Jewish church leaders arriving at Antioch and teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (verse 1). There you have it—you cannot be saved unless you believe in Jesus as Messiah plus observe the Old Testament covenant sign of circumcision.
This is not a cultural issue; this is a core issue. It revolves around the most important question of the ages: What must I do to be saved? And to this day, religious systems want to add something to salvation by grace—good works, penance, baptism, church membership, and more.
Well, Paul and Barnabas know the doctrinal disaster that will occur if these teachers win the debate and the church is bound to Jewish ceremony. So, the debate is on, and it takes Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem church gives the floor to Paul and Barnabas, and they report on God’s work in the salvation of Gentiles apart from circumcision. Others present, from the party of the Pharisees, then step forward and voice their objection in verse 5: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Then the apostle Peter stands up and supports the perspective of Paul and Barnabas—that salvation is a gift, not a reward for keeping the law of Moses. Peter recounts his own recent experience in the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, back in chapter 10:
“God . . . bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9)
Peter argues that the law was an unbearable burden to the Jewish people themselves. Why, then, impose it on the Gentile believers? He wraps up his argument in verse 11, saying, “We believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will.” In other words, salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone!
Paul and Barnabas now chime in, “[relating] what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (verse 12).
You can sort of sense the momentum of this debate swinging toward the apostles. James, the half-brother of Jesus and now the pastor/teacher of the Jerusalem church, steps forward and agrees that God is taking from the Gentiles “a people for his name” (verse 14). He quotes Amos 9:11-12, which talks about Gentiles one day inheriting equal status with the Jewish people in the coming kingdom of Christ.
And with that, James delivers the final verdict in verse 19: “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” That is, “Let’s not put up ceremonial obstacles in the way of Gentiles who come to faith in Christ.”
Now wisely, to ease tension and avoid offense, the church decides to send a letter, urging the Gentile believers to abstain from certain activities that would be especially offensive to Jewish people. Abstaining from these things would not grant salvation but would produce goodwill between the Jewish and Gentile believers. James lists these activities in verse 20:
“Abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Much of the meat sold in the marketplace had been ritually offered to idols. To the Jews, eating this meat made someone a participant in idolatry. Likewise, eating raw meat that had not been drained of blood was offensive to the Jews. This, too, should be avoided.
Concerning sexual immorality, the Gentile believers are challenged to clean out their closets and purify their relationships and practice sexual abstinence until marriage.
This letter basically asks two questions of the new Gentile believers: What in your lifestyle might offend other believers, and what about your lifestyle might contradict the gospel message to unbelievers? Those are questions we need to answer as well.
Well, that was the first disagreement and decision here in Acts 15—and it was over a doctrinal matter. Now we come to the second disagreement, and it is over a ministry matter. It is not doctrinal, but it is divisive.
Paul and Barnabas are planning their second missionary trip. Barnabas wants to take along his cousin John Mark once again, but Paul disagrees. Mark had thrown in the towel and abandoned them on their first missionary journey. As far as Paul is concerned, he is unreliable and not worth the trouble. He should not be allowed to come along.
Barnabas wants to give Mark another chance. He is convinced Mark has repented and matured. Paul will not budge.
The result is an unfortunate division I’m sure made it into the newspapers around this area—it certainly became known within the church at large:
Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed . . . he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (verses 39-41)
Although I believe these men should have reached some sort of compromise, in the plan of God, this disagreement created two missionary teams instead of one. Their disagreement was not doctrinal; it was personal. Like Spurgeon and Parker, they simply saw things differently—frankly, they saw people differently. Paul was a black-and-white pioneer; Barnabas was a gracious bridge builder.
This will be the last time Barnabas is mentioned in the New Testament, but his refusal to give up on Mark will eventually pay off. Many years later, as the apostle Paul is writing his final letter to Timothy, he tells Timothy to go and get Mark and bring him to where Paul is under house arrest. Paul actually writes these words in 2 Timothy 4:11: “Mark . . . is very useful to me for ministry.”
Well, what do you know? Mark was worth a second chance after all. Paul knows, as he writes to Timothy, that the church has read the book of Acts and knows about his disagreement with Barnabas over Mark. Now, near the end of his life, Paul wants to set the record straight and tell the church at large that Mark is a faithful, valuable minister of the gospel after all.
Oh, and by the way, Mark is the man who will go on to write the Gospel of Mark, which has blessed the church to this very day.