Clashes in the Book of Acts (Part 5)

This final entry in our series on social clashes in Acts comes at a time when American politics is full of clash-drama. In the case of Trump and the mainstream media, for example, we can observe Trump’s explicit promotion of a clash as a way to garner more power through a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy. Peter and Paul, on the other hand, were not seeking power over others. Their choices for bold ministry simply led them into predictable episodes of clashing with other groups that felt threatened.

Before we study Paul’s ministry in the remainder of the book of Acts (with the Jerusalem Council at the midpoint), I want to recall the three clash categories of Acts: Jews reacting to Christians, Gentiles reacting to Christians, and Jewish Christians reacting to Gentile Christians. The first four parts of this series concentrated on the third area which provided rich insights for resolving group-to-group conflicts with respect and civility.

The reaction of the Jewish Sanhedrin to the Jerusalem church in Acts 4 and 5 nicely illustrates how some conflicts can escalate over time. First, the leaders were “greatly disturbed” (4:2) and this led them to make “threats” (4:21). As things get hotter, the religious elite were “filled with jealousy,” climaxing in a show of “furious” (5:33) emotions and death threats. John’s Gospel reveals a similar escalation of tensions as Jesus moves in an out of Jerusalem. When conflicts escalate, something has to eventually give, whether it be for good or bad.

Luke significantly highlights Gamaliel’s role to diffuse these escalated emotions. As a man “honored by all the people” (5:34), he does several wise things to prevent a negative outcome. First, he has the apostles removed from the room for “a little while.” Mediators will note this as a caucus, often used when an impasse thwarts a resolution process. Second, he grounds out the electrical charge of the current situation by using historical examples that no longer carry any charge. This reduces the irrational fears that can often undermine common sense. Gamaliel is the classic facilitator who transcends the Fight-or-Flight syndrome, serving as a non-anxious presence as well as a voice of reason.

Finally, Gamaliel demonstrates another mediator skill. He reframes the conflict in terms of a core value that speaks deeply to his audience: social movements are either from God or of human origin. “Who knows, maybe this one is from God.” This new framing calls into question the emotive ‘we-them’ perspective, and even turns the tables unexpectedly: “you may find yourself fighting against God” (5:39). Fortunately, “his speech persuaded (the Sanhedrin)” and the apostles got off with a conventional flogging. This episode is far from being a sidebar text. Had the apostles been killed, one wonders if the early church would have had any missional growth from that point on.

Let’s shift now to the clashes resulting from Paul’s preaching. Luke provides a lot of narrative detail around these episodes. For example, Jews who instigated riots and “uproars” against Paul might be noted as the same Jews who followed Paul to the next town and incited crowds into further ‘clash-dramas’ (14:19; 17:13). Dozens of these clashes in Acts could be unpacked, including several from Greco-Roman instigators (16:19f; 19:23f). What I want to focus on, though, is the way Luke portrays Paul and his partners as not fighting back. They consistently relied on civil dialogue to defend themselves or to work their way out of tense situations.


In the same way the Gospels culminate with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the Passion Narrative, the book of Acts also culminates with Paul’s journey to Jerusalem and the resulting passion story. Like Jesus, Paul was prepared to clash with the religious powers of his day, not to overpower them but to expose them for what they were. When others dissuaded him to go, he said, “I am ready not only to be bound, but to die” (21:13). His focus was on being a faithful witness, not on changing society. Again we see the strength of a Third Way approach to social conflict: neither Fight nor Flight, but a civil, non-anxious presence that still engages issues.

Paul spends two years in Ceasarea.

This isn’t the time to re-narrate Paul’s Passion. If you have never read Acts 21 to 28 in one sitting, I strongly recommend it. This stretch would make a great movie, complete with a conspiracy of 40 Jewish assassins who vowed not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Like Jesus, Paul enters the temple (with Gentile believers) and causes a stir. One after another, as on Good Friday, Paul testifies before five courts which respectively included every major political leader of the land. These trial-texts hold the same drama of Martin Luther defending himself in the presence of councils and dignitaries, and then being whisked away into hiding. In Paul’s case, his “appeal to Caesar” allowed him to be taken to Rome, which extended his passion narrative with two interludes of ‘prison-based ministry’.

What can we learn from Paul? Again, we return to Paul’s imitation of Jesus. Yes, he defends himself verbally (much more than Jesus ever did), but he maintains a yielding posture. Yes, he wants to speak any chance he can get (see 21:39), but he never tries to leverage things to his advantage. His message is always about winning others over rather than winning over others. Paul had a message of unity, not division.

Like Jesus, Paul’s very personhood became a threat to the dominant social orders of his day, both Jewish and Roman. His repeated testimonies consistently led to the conclusion that he had done nothing to deserve death or punishment. But in the eyes of many Jews, he was the problem far more than his ideas. Whenever people are deemed to be the problem more than the issues themselves, solutions boil down to one option: get rid of the person. But when both sides can agree that problems are rooted in clashing interests or clashing ideas, they then stand a chance to work together to work toward solutions both sides can live with.

Meanwhile, when clashes lead to ‘get-rid-of-them’ outcomes, God is still resourceful to fulfill divine purposes. Resurrection, after all, follows death. Throughout Acts we can see this pattern play out. We read narrative echoes of God’s transformative power to use every clash, no matter what the outcome, as a way to further the communal and missional growth of the church. There is always a response option that can transcend Fight or Flight. In this way, all Christians can be emboldened on their own roads to Jerusalem.

“I strive always to keep my conscience clear.”

Ultimately, it is the way in which we respond to conflict makes all the difference in the world. Before Felix, Paul said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (24:16). Specifically, I do not use tactics of ‘divide-and-conquer’. I do not “stir up crowds” (24:12). But I am “a follower of the Way” (24:14). Why is it that the early church was called “The Way”? Perhaps part of it stems from how Christians understood Jesus as more than a pathway to God, but also a picture of divine integrity between means and ends. Clashes are inevitable, but in response to them, if you want to receive respect, you have to give respect. If you want a harvest of peace, you have to sow in peace. In what way do you respond to conflicts about social differences?


Contacting Ted Lewis

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