Bible study: Acts 15 – church politics

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s the big deal with circumcision?

Most of this chapter revolves around this theme. Some believers from Judea were insisting that Gentile believers first had to be circumcised, in accordance with the Law of Moses. This makes sense, to a certain extent, because the Jewish scriptures are still valid and important, and are still the Word of God. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, after all, so if God said it to the Israelites then surely it should still apply? This turned out to be quite a divisive issue, resulting in a hefty internal debate with the heaviweights of the Early Church.

I’m sure we’ve all come across church traditions than have lost their meaning over time. People sit in certain pews, and leave others empty. Notices are always given at a certain point in the service. Men take their hats off when then come into church, while the women always wear them. Okay, that last one is probably not the case in most churches these days, but you get the idea! There was probably good reason for them originally, but we’ve never got round to re-evaluating them. I think this is what was at the heart of these debates in Jerusalem.

Circumcision was originally an outward sign, something to physically mark the Jews out as being set apart for God. But with the New Covenant of grace, that sign wasn’t necessary any more. God had made it really clear that relationship with him wasn’t restricted to a certain group of people any more, it was open to everyone, which means a physical sign of inclusion wasn’t relevant any more. If anything, it flies in the face of an inclusive culture. I can understand why some people were trying to hang on to their old ways – we still do that today. The message here is that we shouldn’t let our traditions get in the way of what God is doing. Which makes me wonder what traditions I cling to that might be preventing the Gospel from going out as far as God wants it to…

Who decided to be lenient to the Gentiles – God or the Church?

From what we read in this chapter, the believers have a heavy debate, come to a conclusion, and then write a letter to the Gentiles saying “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. Wait, where was the Holy Spirit in all those discussions? There was no mention of prayer, or waiting on God’s guidance, or of the Holy Spirit speaking to them in prophetic words of wisdom. They just talked about it, and claimed it was God’s decision.

I get quite frustrated sometimes when we have church meetings that don’t actively acknowledge or seek God’s input. I know how easily I fall back on my own understanding and my own ideas, so making any sort of decision in the church (or outside of it) without actively listening for God’s direction makes me feel like a fraud. And yet the disciples did it. And others in the church today do it. And, if I’m honest, I do it a lot too.

I think the key here is that God leads us from the inside as much as from the outside. He doesn’t always speak audibly. He doesn’t make a song and dance about leading us in the right direction. Often it’s about quietly nudging us towards something. Many times I’ve looked back and realised that the decision I thought I had made was actually a crucial part of God’s plan, and therefore probably wasn’t solely my idea after all. Sometimes we need to recognise that God is behind our decisions too, and that perhaps we shouldn’t be taking all the credit.

To take an example, at work this week I was publicly recognised for my excellent work during a security incident on our web server. My boss also mentioned it in my End of Year Review meeting, about how clear-headed I was under pressure, how the action plan was carefully and wisely put in place, and how proficient I was in the execution. As lovely as that was to hear, I have to acknowledge that I couldn’t have done all that on my own. I may not have prayed about every line of code I was writing, I may not have sought guidance from the Scriptures on what server configuration was applicable, I may not have waited on the voice of the Holy Spirit to instruct me on how to update DNS records. But, as with the Apostles in this meeting in Jerusalem, God worked through me, quietly making sure everything happened in accordance with his perfect will. I’m a fantastic Web Developer, but ultimately it’s God who takes the glory for that.

Why did Paul and Barnabus part company?

This seems like an odd way to finish chapter 15. After all the internal discussions and politics, after all the talk about unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians, after being reminded (again) that it is the grace of Jesus that is most important, Paul and Barnabus part ways because of a disagreement over staffing. It’s a poignant reminder that even these pillars of the Early Church weren’t perfect.

We heard about John in Acts 13: “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem.” There’s no suggestion here of disagreement, or that he might have left under a dark cloud. It’s just a statement of fact – John returned to Jerusalem. It’s only here in chapter 15 that we find that perhaps the circumstances weren’t altogether straightforward. Paul considers that John had “deserted them in Pamphylia”, and seems to take it personally. So much so that he refuses to let John accompany him on their next journey. That seems a little extreme. What happened to grace? What happened to forgiveness? What happened to love?

It can be hard to go back on our decisions. It can be hard to admit we were wrong. And I guess this is especially so when you’re in a position of leadership, with people looking to you for direction; if you come across as indecisive it can negatively affect people’s trust in your leadership abilities. Imagine if UK Prime Minister Theresa May suddenly turned round and declared that actually Brexit was a bad idea, and that she wouldn’t be doing it any more – irrespective of whether the decision was right or wrong, we’d start questioning whether she knew how to lead at all. I wonder whether this kind of political struggle was happening with Paul and Barnabus; with hindsight, I’d almost certainly side with Barnabus and John, and maybe Paul would too, but “the disagreement became so sharp” that neither could afford to back down.

Humility is a hard lesson. I can’t honestly say I think Paul made the right decision here. And I can’t honestly say I’ve always made the right decisions either, though I might not admit to them all on my blog. Owning up to our faults can be embarrassing, and can cause people to distrust us or even hate us. But better that than live with guilt. Better that than failing to follow God’s path. Better that than letting disagreement drive friendships apart.

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