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15. Sorting out tradition

Acts 15vs1-35. Church Growing Pains.

Every human being likes the comfort of tradition. There can be great blessing in good tradition, but bad tradition can stifle God's work. It is quite probable that the opposition to the church that came from the Jews, the incitement and the stirring up to persecution, Acts 13vs50, the poisoning of minds, Acts 14vs2, the stoning of the gospel preachers, Acts 14vs19, was all easier to deal with than the opposition that came from Christian believers of a Jewish background within the church's own ranks, Acts 15vs1, 5.

It is often hard to know the truth. When a major war, like the gulf war, is reported on television there are always exaggerations, omissions and one-sided reports and so the average viewer has to read between the lines to guess at the truth. Thirty times in Matthew's gospel Jesus Christ said: "I tell you the truth", for example Matthew 5vs18, 18vs3, 26vs34. In John 14vs6 He claimed to be the truth. He promised in John 16vs13 that the Holy Spirit would lead Christian disciples into all truth. It is quite reasonable to assume therefore, that there must be error. Trinity House only put lighthouses around the coasts of Great Britain where there are hazardous rocks and currents. The truthful positioning of the light is only necessary where there is the danger of damage or destruction on rocks. Our constant prayer should be with the Psalmist, "Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour", Psalm 25vs5.

Truth and tradition are sometimes very difficult to sort out from each other, especially when we have held on to a tradition for almost an entire lifetime. Often practical traditions do not contain errors, but because they become outmoded in a constantly changing world, those traditions can become barriers to the truth being grasped. Trying to alter the starting time or the format of a church worship service would be a case in point. But these things are not as serious as beliefs that become accepted truths over many years, such as "the Bible prohibits a Christian from drinking alcohol".

I got myself into a hot debate which lasted a few days with a church in the Red Sea's Port Sudan. A questioner from the floor asked "What does the Bible mean when it says 'Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses", 1 Timothy 5vs23. My reply was that it meant precisely what it said. Over a lovely breakfast of breads, curried meats, eggs and fruit the next morning I was told that the younger people would take my remark as freedom to go and get drunk on the many home-brews available in the camps of displaced people. I was shocked and so I asked why. I was told that the traditional teaching of the church was that a Christian could not drink alcohol and that the wine mentioned here in 1 Timothy would be non alcoholic. Every Scripture the dear brothers turned up for me to back up their church tradition spoke against drunkenness. I agreed wholeheartedly that drunkenness was wrong, see 1 Corinthians 6vs10. But I could not agree that the Bible teaches Christians to totally abstain from alcohol. A tradition had been pressed into a position of truth, and when challenged from the Bible by other thinking Christians, the basis for it being accepted as truth was found to be faulty. I was very quick to point out that there were very good reasons to teach that it would be wrong for a Christian to drink alcohol in Port Sudan. Firstly, it was not allowed by the law of the country and so Romans 13vs1, 2 would apply. "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God."

Secondly, concern for other believers would mean very seriously considering what kind of example was being set, 1 Corinthians 8vs9. "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." (Verse 13 in the same chapter shows where a man with spiritual priorities would come down in his practice). These are good biblical reasons for total abstinence. But to say that the Bible teaches it is wrong to drink a glass of wine with a meal, or to partake of alcohol at all, is going beyond that truth into error. When challenged by a questioning

younger generation the tradition would be exposed and the credibility of the church severely damaged. We must defend the truth and in doing so be ready to expose all our traditions, old and new to that Bible truth.

In Acts 15 an ongoing wrangle between tradition and truth came to a head in Antioch. It had been like a volcano, lying dormant with fairly regular eruptions ever since Jesus Christ fulfilled all the Jewish laws as the Lamb of God suffering for sinful mankind.

Intense racial and religious problems were two items that persistently threatened to wreck the early Christian church. There were tensions between "Grecian Jews" and "the Aramaic-speaking community" over "the daily distribution of food", Acts 6vs1. The Samaritans were reached with the Gospel, 8vs5; the Ethiopians were reached with the Gospel, 8vs27. The Jews opposed Paul's preaching in their synagogues that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God", 9vs20, 22. The Grecian Jews plotted to kill Paul, 9vs29. When Roman centurion Cornelius believed the Gospel through Peter's preaching we read: "The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles", 10vs45. Peter was sharply criticised for going and enjoying hospitality with uncircumcised men. (Non-Jewish believers), 11vs2. Jews, Greeks, Samaritans and Africans at least had responded to the Gospel. Their political, religious and social backgrounds were very different, and kept them apart from each other, but Jesus Christ, His risen life, His forgiveness of their sins, brought them altogether. Keeping that unity in the church was not easy - it never is. There were some good points. The Greek Christians in Antioch gave generously to help bring relief among the Judean Christians in a severe famine, 11vs28, 29. But there were also some bad points. In Pisidian Antioch, "the Jews ... were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying", 13vs45. "They incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region", 13vs50. At Iconium "the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers." "The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles", 14vs2, 4. At Lystra these same people caused riots that ended with Paul stoned and left for dead, 14vs19.

Now, some of this opposition came from outside the church, from non-Christian people. But some of it came from inside the church, from Christian brothers and sisters. Everything does not always go well between believers. You will not be a part of any Christian church for very long before you come across differences between people - debates over practices - discussions about principles. Do not let it be a stumbling block to you. It is for some, but it need not be.

The Christian church lives in unity but not in uniformity.

(a) Unity means that a group of people come together to form one unit, a local church. It means there is harmonious co-operation with an agreement of aims and interests. In the New Testament the Greek word UNITY appears twice in Ephesians 4, and nowhere else. (NIV has Colossians 3vs14 perfect, Romans 15vs5-6 likemindedness). Ephesians 4vs3 says "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." 4vs13 says that God has given different people different roles in the church to build up the body of Christ "until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God."

Unity is something the church has through the Holy Spirit and must seek to maintain. Unity is maintained by a deeper collective knowledge of Jesus Christ.

(b) Uniformity means the state of being exactly alike, unvarying. If we were all uniform we would be similar in every way, like baked bean tins coming off a production line! Many Christians mistakenly seek UNIFORMITY thinking they are seeking UNITY. The Ephesian Christians were told that there would be differences put in the church by God himself. "Some apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers", Ephesians 4vs11. Yet all would work together in unity.

Take a rugby team for example. In rugby you have 15 players, basically divided into two groups, forwards and backs. The forwards have to be in the scrummages, the mauls, the rucks and the line outs, but the backs must not be involved there. Their role is to line up behind the focus of play and be ready to pass and run the ball as deeply as possible into the opponents' half. The aim of backs and forwards is the same - to score points and win the match. Their roles are different. They have unity, and even a team colour uniform, but not uniformity. Even within the two groups there are other differences. In the forwards the hooker must be small and nimble, to heel the ball back. The props need to be big and beefy to push the opposition back. The wing forwards must be only half in the scrummage and be ready to break away to tackle opponents or to pierce their defence. Unity, but not uniformity.

Now, in Acts 15 we have the rumblings of division in the new testament church and we can learn a great deal from the chapter on this subject of God's way to deal with conflict.

1. Earnest dispute. "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved'. This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them."

The key issue here was this, "Do you have to be circumcised to be saved?" Paul preached, Acts 13vs38 "Through Jesus the forgiveness of sins." Peter preached, Acts 10vs43 "All the prophets testify about (Jesus) that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Philip proclaimed Jesus Christ, 8vs5. But these men from Judea, who were believers (because they willingly submitted the matter to the apostles in Jerusalem for counsel) added a rider to the Christian gospel. In addition to repentance towards sin and faith in God through Jesus Christ, these men said "Unless you are circumcised, according to (Jewish Law), you cannot be saved," 15vs1. 'If a man is circumcised he will earn favour with God', they said. They were following God as best they could and this was their deduction from their understanding of Scripture and experience of life.

Paul and Barnabas had a "sharp dispute and debate with them", vs2 "No small dissension and disputation" (Authorised Version). They had a stand up argument. They reasoned together, both parties totally convinced they were right and therefore the others were wrong. It was a public division too, because false teaching had gone on in public to begin with.

When disputes come ... firstly recognise that God is omniscient and no-one else is, and secondly, remember that Jesus Christ is the truth, but that neither you, nor I, nor the greatest preacher, teacher, author, who ever lived will ever have a full understanding of God's truth expressed in Jesus.

In Jude 3 we are told to "contend for the faith ... entrusted to the saints." It means we are to take an active part in pursuing and protecting the true Christian gospel. The words speak of an intense, agonising, struggle or contest.

Because we are sincere we will believe in what we stand up for. Because we are sinners we may be wrong in what we understand. There will always be earnest dispute in the Christian church. But there is a right way to handle it.

2. Evident discussion. The dispute was not going to be allowed to fester and bring rancour between members of the body of Christ. It was going to be fully brought out, revealed and - maintaining the unity of the body of Christ (though not the uniformity) - it would be dealt with.

To begin with they looked for the counsel of godly men, vs2. "Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question." The apostles and elders were experienced Christians, filled with God's Holy Spirit, men who had worked with God over many months or years and evidenced God's mind and will.

Next they listened to the conflicting beliefs, vs5. "Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.'" They argued that circumcision was essential for salvation. True Jewish believers still maintained that an element of religion was earning God's favour by keeping the law.

In vs6-11 Peter speaks about how God showed his acceptance of the Gentiles by pouring out his Holy Spirit upon them, and says, vs9 "God purified their hearts by faith." True religion for the Christian consists of casting oneself upon the grace of God.

Then Paul and Barnabas began "telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them," 15vs12. The emphasis, as in vs4, was upon what God had done through them.

The discussion included all the people directly involved - the Jewish converts, Paul and Barnabas, Peter (who had witnessed to Cornelius). Do you see the wisdom in doing this? Jerusalem was regarded as the source of authority. Many of the apostles and the most experienced Christians were there. The Judean Jews may not accept Paul's authority, but they would recognise those in Jerusalem. The odds were on a victory for the Jewish believers. But God spoke out through James!

If you are on God's side never be afraid of putting your case before men even overwhelmingly opposed to you. The troublemakers were there. Those who held the truth were there. Those who gave testimony were there.

We deal with conflicts by earnest dispute and evident discussion with all relevant parties.

3. Effective direction. Peter warned about the danger of putting burdens on new Christians, vs10. "Why do you test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?" The "yoke" was the emblem of slavery! Don't enslave Christians in legal lists of do's and don'ts!!

James urges, vs19, "It is my judgement that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." Do not block their way forward. The world will make it difficult enough without any help from the church!

As brothers, vs23, "the apostles and elders" were brave in conclusion. They did not duck the issue. They distanced themselves from the troublemakers ("troubling your minds" vs24 is a word used of marauding robbers who steal anything). They

(i) concur, this is what we believe;

(ii) communicate, this is what you wanted to know;

(iii) confirm by personal visits and a letter, and

(iv) their council of reference was the "whole church", vs22, 30.

Nothing was secret. Nothing was sly. It was a sensitive issue spiritually dealt with.

Verse 28, 29 contain no references to any circumcision, or any other ritual, as being necessary for salvation i.e. for becoming Christians. But they do say that all Christians will be careful what they do! To eat strangled meat blood might stumble a Jew - so don't do it. And all forms of sexual immorality (even in the name of religion) are bad, so keep clear.

Paul was later to write of becoming all things to all men to win some of them over. He wrote of the stronger Christians not putting barriers in front of the weak. And here we see the embryo of all that. Let's not add lists of do's and don'ts to Christian living. Let a man love God honestly and openly, and then do what his God tells him to do.

What was the result of all this.? Verse 31, 32 "The people read (the letter) and were glad for its encouraging message". "Judas and Silas, the prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers."

This Council did so well to effectively communicate their decisions personally (by sending some men), verbally (to confirm by mouth), in writing (the letter), collectively (with the whole church) and encouragingly. They gave it time too, vs33 "After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them."

How easy it is to destroy and how hard it is to build. To encourage means "urge onwards, to give confidence to, to support." The Holy Spirit is given for our encouragement and one who encourages another works with God. The apostles enforce their order with the positive commendation of those that would comply with it, rather than with a negative condemnation of those that would ignore it. "You will do well to avoid these things."

May God help all of us to handle conflicts in a way that honours Him, His word and all of His people. May we never replace any traditions with other traditions thinking that they are truth. And may we never quench the life of the truth, 2 Corinthians 3vs6. "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant - not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Discussion questions

  • Share some of the "usually do" ways in your fellowship.

  • Do other fellowships do things differently?

  • Why are those things done that way?

  • Is there good reason to change? Why?

  • What Christian principles need to be in evidence in "earnest dispute" and "evident discussion"?


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