Conflict in the Church – Acts 15

Read the Passage: Acts 15

Conflict Described (15:1–5)

Paul’s first missionary journey, which is recorted in Acts 13–14, occurred in AD 46–48. From AD 50–52 Paul embarked upon a second missionary journey, which is recorded in Acts 16–18. In Acts 15 we find the account of the first church council (cf. Gal. 2:1–10), which convened in Jerusalem. This council met to resolve a controversy in the early church—that is, the question of the applicability of the Old Testament ceremonial law to New Testament believers. Acts 14:26–28 reports that Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church in Antioch. After some time, men from Judea came and began to teach that circumcision is required for salvation. These men, whom church historians have labeled “Judaizers” or “those who were of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:12), were Pharisees who apparently professed Christ (cf. Acts 15:5); yet, Paul tell us were actually “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4).

Paul and Barnabas opposed the teaching of the Judaizers, which resulted in the church sending a delegation to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders about the applicability of the ceremonial law. Acts 15:3–5 records the journey of Paul and Barnabas, which was roughly three hundred miles south, to Jerusalem. In this passage Luke writes that these delegates went through Phoenicia and Samaria, two Gentile areas, spreading the news of the gospel and of the Gentiles’ conversion. As a foreshadow of things to come, we are told that this “caused great joy to all the brethren” (Acts 15:3). When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the apostles. In Gal. 2:7–9 Paul described the reception they received in more detail, writing, “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel . . . they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me” (cf. Gal. 2:7–9).”

Conflict Debated (15:6–29)

While the apostles received Paul and Barnabas, the Judaizers’ teachings caused much debate. When the leaders of the Jerusalem church came together, three speeches were given: one by Peter (cf. Acts 15:7–11), one by Paul and Barnabas that was not recorded (cf. Acts 15:12), and one by James (cf. Acts 15:13–21). In Peter’s speech, he reminded the church of his own ministry to the Gentiles—namely the conversion of the Cornelius and his household as was recorded in Acts 10. Peter made three main points in his speech; first, the Gentiles were saved and given the Holy Spirit apart from the law; second, the Jews themselves were not able to keep the law in its entirety; and third, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Paul and Barnabas then gave their unrecorded speech telling of God’s miracles and wonders among the Gentiles (cf. Acts 15:12).

Acts 15:13–31 records James’ opinion regarding the conflict at hand. Note that James was Jesus’ brother and the leader of the church at Jerusalem. James’ speech has two main points: first, in quoting Amos 9:11–12, James shows that the salvation of the Gentiles has always been part of God’s plan; and second, James opines that only three aspects of the Old Testament Jewish ceremonial law should be observed by the Gentiles: (1) abstinence from things polluted by idols, (2) avoidance of sexual immorality, and (3) refraining from eating things strangled and from blood. The reason for keeping these laws, asserts James, was because “Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city” (Acts 15:21). In other words, the Gentiles were to keep these three important aspects of the law to avoid unnecessarily offending the law-keeping Jews among whom they dwelt.

Conflict Resolved (15:30–35)

After the church agreed with James’ ruling (cf. Acts 15:22), they decided to record it in a letter to be sent to the churches via the delegates from Antioch. The church appointed two additional men to deliver the message along with Paul and Barnabas. These men, Judas and Silas, were likely respected and well-known leaders within the church. While the text reports that Judas was a prophet (cf. Acts 15:32) and he was obviously a leader in the church, nothing else is known about him. Silas, however, would later become Paul’s traveling companion after Paul and Barnabas parted company. These four men, then, traveled to Antioch from which they spread news of the Jerusalem council’s ruling. While the issue of keeping the ceremonial law had threatened to fracture the early church, the Jerusalem Council’s unified ruling caused rejoicing and encouragement among the churches (cf. Acts 15:31).

Application Questions:

  1. What types of issues usually cause conflict in the church? How ought a church to handle conflict between its members?
  2. What parts of the Old Testament law are binding upon Christians? What was the purpose of circumcision under the Old Testament law (cf. Gen. 17:9–14)?
  3. How is the gospel the great equalizer all mankind (cf. Gal. 3:28)? Is there any topic over which you would be willing to cause dissension in the church?
  4. Have you ever been guilty of imposing cultural practices or traditions upon Christianity? Why were the Judaizers so focused upon the ceremonial law?
  5. Why did the Gentile churches rejoice and find encouragement in the message from the Jerusalem Council? Does doctrine divide or unify a church?