Clashes in the Book of Acts (Part 4)

As our series on the Jewish-Gentile conflict in Acts enters the new year, we are now ready to study the climax of the Jerusalem Council story. This summit meeting, happening around 50 AD, nicely illustrates how a positive outcome to a resolution process often stems from good process choices made by the main stakeholders. Before we revisit our main text in Acts 15, however, I want to describe the difference between…

Episodes and Epicenters

As John Paul Lederach explained in his Little Book of Conflict Transformation, episodes are the outward manifestations of deeper issues that build up over time. Epicenters are the ongoing patterns of relational interactions which define the core tensions between groups. We have already noted numerous episodes in the first half of Acts that revealed the dispute between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The Antioch episode brought the conflict to a critical point, and thus the Jerusalem Council was set up to deal with the epicenter, namely the ongoing clash over whether Gentile male Christians should be circumcised, and the deeper issue of Jewish identity. When epicenters are not addressed, there is always a risk for the conflict to surface again.

At the outset of the meeting we see the Jewish conservatives voicing their stance on the issue. Then, “after much discussion” (the Greek here can also mean ‘debate’), Peter narrated his evangelism experience with Cornelius and company, emphasizing God’s initiatives. Then Paul and Barnabas narrated their observations from their ministry to the Gentiles. Significantly, “the whole assembly became silent as they listened” (vs. 12). This phrase suggests to me that that the conservative party was softening in a process that was increasingly grounded in real-life stories. Stories are to be described, not debated. Again, in verse 13, there is a repeat of the Greek word for ‘silence’ (sigesai), revealing that new understanding was awakening. As the dross of positionalism burnt away, the gold of shared interests began to shine more brightly.

The climax of Luke’s narration involves James who may have served as the lead moderator. His part illustrates the way a facilitator can pull everything together. In this case, James summarizes what has been said, identifies the common interests, and shifts the process from the past to the future. After recapping what Peter and others had shared, James quotes a prophetic text from Amos that shows how the Gentiles are part of God’s salvation plan. In doing such, James validates the conservative need to honor past tradition and also validates the progressive need to honor the humane inclusion of outsiders. This double-honoring helps both sides to let go of oppositional sentiments and to move forward toward mutual solutions. Where there was once a wall there is now a bridge.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (vs. 19). Who can argue against that statement? James wisely re-framed things in a way that satisfied the bedrock interests of both sides. The council could now shift to the future, and thus James recommended a mid-zone compromise: Gentile Christians should not consume foods sacrificed to idols, meats and blood from strangled animals, and they should abstain from sexual immorality. By modern mediation standards, parties themselves generate and determine agreements, not the facilitator. But most ancient and tribal societies gave elders the authority to arbitrate wise solutions. In either case, however, there can be consensual outcomes. Consensuality is more important than how agreements are generated.

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

The final stage in the process reveals how everyone present had been included and empowered. Luke highlights how “The apostles and elders, with the whole church (in Jerusalem), decided to choose some of their own men” to deliver a letter with the terms of agreement. This is significant in two ways. First, the more that people in a conflict can be involved in decision-making, the more they will be invested in supporting new changes. This procedural choice is very effective in dispelling the older emotions of fear and mistrust. The letter itself (read verses 23-29) identifies how certain people had previously “troubled the minds” of others, and by naming this upfront, it served to de-legitimize the older divisive view and to ground out the lingering ‘electrical charge’ that previously kept the conflict ‘alive’.

Secondly, it was wise to send a balanced delegation to the outlying churches to represent (indeed, re-present for those who were not present) the new unity that was established in Jerusalem. The letter sent was one thing, but the senders were also a vital witness to the resolution. Along with Paul and Barnabas (the progressives) “we are sending Judas and Silas (respected conservatives from Jerusalem) to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.” This strategy effectively allowed people in wider circles to to not only hear of the resolution but to see it as well. Conflict resolution is all about re-establishing trust.

Luke provides a nice conclusion to the ‘Northern Tour’. We learn that the message was well received by the Christians in Antioch, and that the Jerusalem pair “were sent off with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.” There was no more loose negative electrical charge in the air. Like a sincere apology, the extension of relational peace is a manifestation of genuine inner peace.

Israelis and Palestinians meeting to discuss violence done to their own families.

This resolution process was decisive for future missionary endeavors. Paul and Barnabas were now freed up to direct their energies northward and westward to spread the gospel message with greater backing. But here, at the end of Acts 15, is a humbling reminder that even the best of leaders can face unexpected strife and conflict. Paul and Barnabas themselves clashed over the merits of taking Mark with them on their travels. “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” We have here, from Luke, a poignant reminder that human rubs are inevitable, but how we deal with them is a matter of human choice. In the larger context of the Jerusalem Council, we can be grateful for the bold choices people made to unify the early church over its most contentious issue.

Contacting Ted Lewis

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  1. I can’t think of a more relevant lesson for dealing with polarization than this example from Acts. As our country launches into a new year of political uncertainty, the dark cloud of polarized partisanship hangs over virtually every issue that needs resolution. The key points of how this reconciliation effort was handled in Acts gives a real model of the steps that need to start happening in our own country, as well as Mexico, Nigeria and so many others.

    Today, my Global Christian Movement class at Whitworth University is dealing with the history of church expansion in the first century. This blog will give us a perfect study point of events that began fueling the movement of Christianity out of its Jerusalem center to the “ends of the earth.”

  2. Amy Eichelberger says

    I think what you touch on in this post is especially applicable if you take it into a modern context. Should not we attempt to mirror the actions of those who came before us in the church and create spaces for conversation and kindness? We have such ripe opportunities to make a difference in a world so warped and broken. Thanks for your insight!

  3. Caitlin Thomas says

    Thank you for this insightful post! I really appreciate learning about how the early Christian church faced adversity as the Christian movement spread. It is encouraging and inspiring to see that resolutions can happen in light of social and religious changes as we can relate to in our country today. Conflict is very real to everyone and knowing how those before us have gone about it is useful to our present day world. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Camille Andre' says

    I found this article so interesting. The idea that Jews and Gentiles had to sort of coach themselves into understanding and relating to each other reminds me how even today we still struggle with cooperating with different nations. What a wonderful example they set for us.

  5. Mary Peterson says

    This was a very thoughtful and clear explanation on something that I really only have known minimally about. As many examples in the bible, this passage you are explaining can be timeless in it’s functionality. Thank you for giving me more to think about!

  6. Thanks, Whitworth U folk, for your affirming comments. The resolution of conflicts is never automatic. It requires some intentionality and often some formality. This means that courage, humility and wisdom really do count for something. Related to these virtues is the notion of “moral imagination.” People need to imagine new, future possibilities and then commit themselves to processes that can best lead to those outcomes. All the best with your studies! Ted

  7. Leanna Bramble says

    Thank you for such an insightful article that can be used as a great example for the Christian world today! I think it is really easy for us to read over passages like these and think that it is not relevant to us, yet what a challenge it actually should be to us to take this example and try to apply to the conflict that we have today. I think we definitely should see how while trying to make resolutions, they made sure to take into account both sides that were in disagreement. More often than not, I think Christians get portrayed as pushing their views onto other people. Such an important lesson of having an open mind and attitude towards others is something that I really think people can take away from this passage. Thank you for your insight, it was great to read this and ponder on how these things can apply to us!

  8. Hailey Kirsch says

    I found this article to be very informative as it gave a very nice background explanation to this passage of Acts. There were several points that I found interesting about this article, the main two being that these discussions often had moderators who helped the process along, and that the moderator helped the opposing parties to find common ground that they could come together on. But I think the most important aspect of this conflict resolution that should be considered today is the fact that they tried to focus their attention on the future. I think that conflicts often carry on for so long because people get stuck on the transgressions of the past, when the focus should be on how this conflict can affect the future. I think if we were more quick to realize how conflicts can impact our futures (for better or worse) we would be more willing to find a resolution to them in a peaceful and humble way.

  9. This last comment by Hailey highlights an interesting point about how moderators (and mediators) help processes to shift from a stuck past to a better future because they assist in the ‘grounding out’ of excess negative charge that was formerly built up. If you want to read more about this through the metaphor of electricity, check out Part 3 to the “Philemon and Forgiveness” post.

  10. Bobo Gomes Co says

    Dear Ted,
    Thank you so much for insight. Reading your articles has been refreshing and very inspiring. I wanted to share my personal experience in conflict. I am not sure it will be of any help to you but I wanted you to have an African perspective in conflict.

    Some of us were born in conflict, supposed to grow in conflict and eventually die in conflict. When I was born in 1968; Portuguese colonial Masters did not allow local African children to go on to High school after primary school. There must have been some unknown reasons to us for that according to colonial setting in all Portuguese Colonies. So I was registered with a new birthday date November 12, 1973; with a Portuguese surname (Gomes) because my local birth name was not good enough to be in the national registry, so my parents had to pick from either a Portuguese name or surname. The geopolitical colonial issues caused a local attitude of regret, anger, resentment, bitterness and rejection to the system forced to Africans.
    The cultural paradigms were set and Conflict theory began to have its roots on local people’s mind whether they were of different ethnic group or religious beliefs, rich or poor. I guess, it is natural attempt to understand conflict situations when things are seemingly different than what you know even among the minor ones.
    We all go through conflicts at point in our lives at home, church, office, and even in our culture and as a country. None is exempt of it; and it seems that it is something ingrained in men’s spirit and soul or we are born with it and cannot easily escape unless we make a conscious effort, it is critical that we accept that conflict is always more about us than it is about the other person.
    Would it be Godly? Is conflict an ally or an enemy? Is it a confirmation that what we are doing is not working?
    Years back our country went through a brutal civil war where many died. It started with the former president being in conflict with his chief of general staff about the selling of weapons to the rebels in neighboring Cassamance in Senegal. To cut a long story short, our members from a small church had to help with negotiations between the government and the rebels. The conflict grew from local to national and then to regional level. A team was put together to mediate the conflict which I was part of; though the youngest. There were some high level members of the team, like the then “speaker of the house, Civil Society President, Muslim Himam of the country, The Bishop of Catholic Church, Businessmen, civil society and few other dignitaries.
    The causes of conflicts where coming from all sectors within the country: First, there were some structural factors that had been built into the policies, therefore, became a fabric of society that created a pre-condition for violent conflict; then there were proximate causes that contributed to a climate conducive to violence and further escalation, which were symptomatic of a deeper problem we had in the country and still persist until today. The anticipation and single key acts triggered and set off an escalating conflict with proceeding negative political, economic and social events.
    Today, economic war and violent culture are helping to prolong the conflict further; structured in constant illegitimate governments, lack of political participation, lack of equal economic and social opportunities, inequitable access to few natural resources and very poor governance.
    These issues are fueling light weapons proliferation, drugs, uncontrolled security sector, human rights abuses, destabilizing role of political Diasporas and neighboring countries. The country is in the brink of outbreak/further escalation of conflict as we see signs of constant elections, arrest/assassination of key leaders or political figures, sudden collapse of local governments, constant change/removal from key government position, unresolved internal conflict between the government and state, possible coup, rapid change in unemployment for worse, increase price/scarcity of basic commodities and capital flight.
    The main contributors to all those factors are national government, security sector (military, police), local leaders and armed groups, private sector/business (local, national, trans-national), donor agencies and foreign embassies, multilateral organizations, regional organizations (African Union), religious or political networks (local, national global), independent mediators, civil society (local, national, international), peace groups, trade unions, political parties, neighboring states, traditional authorities, diaspora groups, refugees, all children, women and men living in our context in Guinea-Bissau.
    Their main interests are based on African traditional communal living, personal goals, and positions of interest, capacities, and relationships. Carried through political ideologies, religious values, need for properties/land, better economic resources, interest in political participation, constituencies, access to information, political ties that can or cannot be compromised depending on personal interest, and global networks.
    The type of conflict we are witnessing in Guinea-Bissau is what you would see in many African countries if not all. With an overt and declared enemy approach; using indirect tolls like covert, manipulation and triangulation. It is people, process and problems of everyday life that have allowed conflict and given it structure and dynamics.
    After years of service in my own country; I moved to Southern Africa, invited by an international Christian organization as the Southern, and Eastern Africa Director. At a point, I was in charge of half of Africa and my responsibility went as far as DRC. Having the opportunity and privilege to serve in a Christian organization was thrilling and I thought I was home and dry. The leadership goal was to set strategic goals for the region, effective implementation, evaluation and monitoring of what they call “national partners” which are countries in Africa where the organization has presence and influence. Spiritual, mental and social capacity building was part of the organization goal for the local (African) leaders.
    Soon we realized that after more than 50 years of the organization existence, Africans are still not considered ready to lead the way in terms of scientific and engineering part of its output. The North American content being used to reach out Africans, was not to be trusted/originated by Africans to fit their own culture for better understanding of African people even when Africans are equally or more specialized/educated than Westerners.
    The organization has the most unequal income distribution in the world. Unfortunately, it also has the most unequal wage distribution in all its regions. It appears that being part of the leadership, we were conforming to the status-quo, rather than setting a higher standard. Like many other western entities which have entered Africa for one reason or another, this organization is set up in such a way as to allow for its North American staff to benefit from comfortable living conditions, while most of the African staff who work with them are paid much lower and live in very poor conditions.

    The Situation we were dealing with was more of structural, mental, cultural and financial nature with an International setting and Africans were struggling with the reality of:

    Why is the care of a (North American) missionary and their family taken into higher regard than the care of the average salaried staff members (Africans) and their family? Why are North Americans called “missionaries” and Africans “local staff”, when they have Degrees and years of ministry experience?

    At that time, Africans were highly discouraged and as a result 3 national directors from our national partners offices (Malawi, Mozambique and Angola) resigned. The Children and Youth Ministry Director at Regional Office also resigned. Two lay leaders also resigned from their position.

    The vacuum in leadership was growing plus a sense of lack of direction and vision, let alone unity and love among staff members. When it comes to holding celebration and parties, there is a divisive spirit, lack of trust and a constant spirit of competition.

    Pride, gossip, slander and manipulation have played a big part in the organization culture, and became obvious obstacles hindering ministry growth.

    Aware of the situation, one of North American missionary wrote a letter with “peace making spirit” to the leadership of the organization, gently seeking answers to the same questions.

    The response he received was as follows:
    1. The organization cannot afford to pay salaried staff any more than it currently does.
    2. It would be difficult or impossible to attract and keep North American Missionaries for anything less than the current missionary pay rate.
    3. North American missionaries have greater financial needs than salaried staff, and they raise the money themselves so their salary is not a burden to the African Regional Office.
    Some of us (white and black) did not understand that English at all. We didn’t believe that these answers are adequate justification for the disparity that exists between the salaries of the organization in African team members. A North American missionary household income can be 4 times bigger than an average salaried staff member’s household income. Simply put, some team members are living in relative abundance, while others are in difficult need.

    We decided to do something but it felt like “Teaching the Elephant to Dance” which was almost impossible from the start; first we believed we understood the structural causes, process and the people involved and had the chance to discuss with a number of people directly or indirectly impacted by the conflict and would like to offer some peaceful suggestions to address the situation in a godly manner.
    We thought with the information we had right there, we could approach the situation in a proper manner which involved greatly a gentle persuasion for the organization to revise the models used in paying team members and policies change.

    We open up with some co-workers and explain to them that we were seeking to understand the organization ministry policy, fairness and equality without any bitterness so that none would attempt a revolution. We realized that we were not the only ones having uncomfortable feelings toward how members of the organization are cared for. All those who were in distress or in agony with their position in the organization, financial situation or discontented or confused somehow should meet and check our expectations, perspective on conflict and intercultural dynamic.

    After meetings on our first stage of negotiations, we believed the management of the organization, globally and regionally should urgently consider what can be done on their part to bring about fairness and equality in member care. Beyond what some members themselves initiated in terms of looking after each other, the management of the organization has a responsibility to ensure that all members are cared for fairly. Though the management of the organization cannot control the hearts of its staff, it does have the ability to demonstrate care and promote equality through policies of equal consideration given to the financial compensation of all members.

    Gandhi’s principals of high moral and ethical values and great compassion started to emerge within some of us because others could not take it and ultimately left the organization. We decided not to accept the “status quo” but also need to reach for higher goals. Take a Win-Win approach and increasingly articulate strategy of non-cooperation with unfair and oppressive policies. “If you speak you’re fired”.
    The stand was firm and assertive and we had to lower ourselves to adopt:

    • A Biblical approach to the situation as Christian Missionary organization.
    • Strive to change the Status quo that says that “this organization cannot afford to pay salaries staff. Find the solution for local staff as missionaries also, to raise their own support. There is no reason why the same organization can’t also find a way to increase salaried staff living conditions.
    • Line up Biblical Care to encourage the organization to adopt a more people-centered approach to budgeting, in which ensuring comfortable standards of living for all staff would be given a high priority.
    • Second, Africans should be allowed to cooperate with the leadership to enhance fundraising opportunity within Africa as the ministry has always used fund-raising as a key to making things happen.
    • As Christians, we believe that God’s resources are unlimited for his kingdom. He himself “funds” the things which are close to his heart. The organization would be opening the door to God’s blessing by hard work, like the missionary Paul did, in providing for the necessities of all team members. Paul said, “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”(Acts 20:34-35).
    • Meeting leaders, we propose a positive understanding that there is no need to be ashamed in seeking for donations and resources to be able to pay people adequate salaries. Missionaries know this well! And the organization can work harder to find not only its projects, but the salaries of those who serve.

    We live in a world of constant conflicts and having been myself in various situations of conflicts, I would say today that I am convinced that Christians must act according to their conscience, what they believe about how the poor and the weak should be treated. I take this position not only from the two examples from my experience but also from the life of Jesus and what He says in Matthew 5:1-10.

    Dr. Thomas Wisely said in one of his article to Conflict Management & Resolution “Jesus enjoins his disciples to be those who make peace in the world”. It’s interesting to note in this respect that peace-making follows a progression of attitudes that began with that of being poor in spirit (spiritual bankruptcy), then mourning that sense of moral and spiritual poverty, out of which attitude emerges meekness, followed by hungering and thirsting for righteousness (right doing/living), which in turn moves one toward being merciful in the world (mercy), which people enjoy transparent relationships with God and with man (pure in heart). It is these people then who are the candidates to becoming peacemakers in the world. Make no mistake however. Peacemakers are seldom appreciated or honoured for their efforts. They are the ones who instead become martyrs for the cause (persecuted). I bring one final observation from the text of Matthew’s Gospel. Joachim Jeremias observed that these verses are organized into two corresponding halves. The first four Beatitudes are “I” oriented. This means that they have to do with the development of the inner person, the inner character of the believer (poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hunger & thirst). The second half is “other” oriented. This means that the second group of four describes the role of the believer in the world. This means further that this other orientation of character development and spiritual hunger is for the purpose of being peacemakers in a troubled world.
    It was God who authored human diversity. This fact calls all of us to deal with cultural diversity, see it as he sees it, as good and honor, it as the handiwork of the wise and sovereign Creator. Most of us do not welcome diversity into our lives. It forces us to change, disrupts our cosy patterns, and engages us in a world where our deficiencies are exposed. Yet for all the less than appealing features of cultural and ethnic variety, important insights about God and his world go undiscovered if we avoid creative engagement with human diversity. After completing the creation, God looked around, saw a vast array of diversity in all he had created and declared it “very good” (Gen.1:31). Diversity is rooted in the creative activity of God”.
    Biblical Perspective to the Conflict – Conflict is human and the devil uses it to accomplish his purpose of stealing, killing and destroying. We would certainly embrace the golden role “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Never seek revenge and hold grudges but forgive others and ask for forgiveness. As professor Lewis Smedes mentioned in his book. He says forgiveness is “God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply, in spite of their best intentions.” Jesus said: “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

    To truly follow Biblical Perspective on conflict, we need to forgive and encourage others to forgive. After going through all the accusations and disciplinary hearing, some of us understood clearly that there is need to forgive because it is the will of God if we profess to be followers of Jesus. Understanding God’s forgiveness should make us more willing to forgive, Gen. 50:15-21. Forgiveness goes beyond ideological mindset, or any cultural beliefs; it does not observe social hierarchy, if a man is rich or poor; both need it Exod. 30:11-16. It brings freedom and dignity to those that genuinely give it willingly Lev. 26:13, and it is clearly a sign or demonstration of Strength not weakness, 1 Kings 1:50-53.

    John 17 contains our Lord’s prayer for those who were his disciples and those who would become his disciples. “Holy father, protect them by the power of your name”. (v11) What kind of protection is Jesus requesting for the disciples? Is it physical protection because they will face persecution and martyrdom? Verse 11: “ so that they may be one as we are one”. Jesus prayed for their unity to be protected. That they may be one as we are one”. It is a unity that reflects the Godhead and Jesus new unity will a continuous struggle for his followers.

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