The Acts 15 Model for Redeeming Church Conflict as a Model of Progressive Continuity Consistent with All of Scripture

Q. Why did you choose Acts 15 as the model for Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care?

A. Acts 15 records the first major conflict in a New Testament church and provides a fairly detailed account of how that conflict was responded to by church leaders. Further, we believe there is a continuity of progression in the Acts 15 account that reflects the revelation of Scriptures found at many other places in God’s Word. Here is a brief statement of that progressive continuity that provides a wise model (not formula!) for responding to and redeeming church conflict:

The Progressive Continuity of Acts 15: Moving from
Conflict to Conflict’s Redemption

Acts 15 begins with words of conflict: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  These words, spoken by men who believed in Jesus as the Christ and the long-promised Messiah of God, confronted Paul and Barnabas as they taught a contrary message in the church at Antioch. The Judaizers, Jewish believers confused about the gospel’s message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, were throwing the early church into confusion.  The gospel’s message and method was the good news of salvation through belief in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God who paid the penalty for the sins of mankind, period! No additions! No circumcision! Not observance of any tradition of Moses or otherwise! The Judaizers brought conflict to the church and Paul and Barnabas opposed them.

The conflicts at your church most probably have many similarities to the conflict recorded in Acts 15:

  • First, the conflict started among people of the faith in the church.  Church conflicts are rarely the product of an attack from the outside.  Certainly the church of Jesus Christ has many enemies, but those attacks, at least in the United States, are usually in the form of lawsuits challenging some constitutional aspect of the freedom of religion. Church conflicts are usually “family matters.”
  • Second, the conflict is over differences represented by separate groups. In Acts 15 the difference is over a matter of Christian doctrine: Is a person saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, or are there additional requirements? Paul and Barnabas taught that there were no additions. The positions are mutually exclusive. One is wrong. While your church’s present conflicts may not be over a matter of doctrine, most likely the dynamics of your conflicts represent (in a broad sense) a difference over a favored church tradition. It could be anything from a preferred worship style to a controversy over the pastor’s personality. It could reflect a favored preference or opinion or it could be sin-based reflecting hardness of heart contrary to the teaching and standards on the Holy Scriptures.
  • And, third, participants to the conflict are emotionally invested in the outcomes. Conflict is a fight for truth and that usually means one side must yield. Church conflicts are fueled by the belief that the opposing side must be defeated. Verse 2 of Acts 15 states that Paul and Barnabas were brought into “sharp dispute and debate” with the Judaizers. Elsewhere in Scriptures (Philippians 3:2-3) Paul calls the Judaizers “dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” This conflict is laden with emotion and characterized by men with strong views and strong personalities on both sides. Most likely, your church’s conflicts are similarly the source of fellow believers expressing emotion-driven positions.  Anger, harshness, sarcasm, bitterness, and like emotions usually accompany church conflict.  When people don’t get their way, when their desire or agenda is not accepted, conflict quickly escalates and now becomes a personal matter as much as it ever was a difference over some tradition, doctrine, practice, or even a personality.

With these elements of church conflict in place:  internal participants, a substantive difference, and emotionally invested responses — what must change in order to resolve conflict and redeem it for God’s glory? This is where the model of Acts 15 becomes most helpful and instructive as a guide leading to the restoration of church unity.

The first thing we see Paul and Barnabas doing in response to their church conflict is adopting a new Perspective that reflects a clear understanding of who they are and what it means to trust in God.  We see them rejoicing in what God is doing among the Gentiles as they respond to the gospel of freedom. Verses 3 and 4 don’t report Paul and Barnabas as being overwhelmed by the anxiety of conflict. No, rather we see them passing through the land joyfully telling how the Gentiles are being converted.  On arrival in Jerusalem they happily report all that God was doing through them. The words of verse 12 conclude their amazing report.  Paul and Barnabas didn’t succumb to conflict, they transformed and conquered it by possessing a perspective that then contributed to an environment that fostered Discernment, a search for the truth not based on any fear but entirely focused on God’s interests for his people and the revelation of his word.

In your church, in your life, conflicts will be redeemed and resolved when new Perspectives are embraced and an atmosphere for honest Discernment established. A new perspective materializes when two things happen: (1) individual people remember who they are in Christ (that is, that their primary identity is reflected in and through obedience to Christ and not reflected by the emotional demands of conflict), and (2) trust in God and his sovereign presence in every situation together become the primary personal motivation and unifying force leading everyone to ask: “How can we please and honor God in this situation?” An atmosphere for honest Discernment develops when people possessed by God’s eternal perspective openly (1) discuss the conflicts (see verse 7), and (2) search the Scriptures for the principles and rules that reflect God’s wisdom, truth, and agenda for his church (see verses 15-18).

Perspective and discernment alone, however, as important as they are, don’t usually lead a church out of conflict. As we see in Acts 15, Leadership surfaces as the critical next element of the model. Leaders must lead! Peter and James are the leaders who stand before the assembled council providing the leadership that galvanizes the whole group to Respond Biblically. Shepherd leaders responsive to the needs of God’s people and absolutely committed to the truth of God’s Word lead the church into biblical responses to conflict.    James demonstrates his understanding of the condition of the Gentiles by urging inclusion in the written instruction of several matters of synagogue life (abstaining from certain foods and sexual immorality) not as conditions or additions to the message of the gospel but as points of continuity so as to “not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (verse 19). Such leadership brings unity of message and method, both factors of a true biblical response.

The flow of our book is centered in the continuity of Perspective, Discernment, Leadership, and Biblical Response. These elements are not offered as a formula. Rather, they provide a framework around which a biblical paradigm for group conflict resolution can be built. The various chapters of our book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, appearing under each of the four main section headings contribute to both message and method for the redemption of church conflicts. We believe that every individual Christian through thoughtful preparation and subsequent action can greatly influence the course of group conflicts in their church. As such, we offer Redeeming Church Conflicts as both a guiding handbook for the church and a source of individual wisdom, inspiration, and hope for the lone church member looking for their call in the midst of church crisis.

Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care is presently available for pre-order from Amazon.com and will soon be released in both paperback and electronic editions on May 1, 2012.

-Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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