Resolving Theological Conflict

Acts 15

Topic: Conflict Resolution

The evangelism of the early church outpaced her theology and a conflict erupted. The first church council was aimed at settling the theological differences that arose over the conversion of Gentiles. Would the church adopt an Old Testament proselyte model in their handling of Gentile Christian converts? Were the Gentiles somehow second-class citizens in the church?
The church at Antioch was flourishing at a time when the church at Jerusalem was not. Perhaps the some of the Jerusalem Christians felt as though the church was moving in a dangerous and unmanageable direction. What would happen if the Gentiles outnumbered the Jews? How could former-pagans who know little of Moses’ writing ever be trusted to lead the church of Christ? The conflict of Acts fifteen is a classic power struggle. The church had two options: they could follow their emotions and regulate the Gentiles into obscurity, or they could follow their faith and allow God to build His Church in the manner in which He so chose.

I. The Issue – 1-4

Dr. Luke gets right to the heart of the matter in verse one of chapter fifteen. He seems so incensed by these Jewish interlopers that he does not even acknowledge they are from Jerusalem, only mentioning they are from “Judea.” For they came not to bring admonition or encouragement: they came to impose their legalistic will. They were angry at the Antioch Church for allowing Gentile Christians to remain uncircumcised, in violation of the Old Testament Mosaic Law.
Why did they come at this time? “The Gentile mission in Antioch had been proceeding for some years before visitors from Judea tried to insist on the circumcision of the converts.”[1]
Paul took the same ardent opposition to these men that he had previously taken with Peter. Paul “could not allow the truth of the gospel to be compromised by an infusion of legalism.”[2]
This was no small issue. These legalists were trying to erect a wall that Christ had torn down with His cross. “We fully realize the true meaning of Christianity only when all middle walls of partition are broken down.”[3]
Therefore Paul faced an unavoidable fight. He could not placate or compromise with the movement – he would have to destroy it.  After the opening volleys were exchanged in Antioch, they decided that the matter must be taken to a higher court. Both sides would meet again in Jerusalem.

II.The Debate – vs. 5-21

Like any modern courtroom drama, the prosecution first made their case. Luke does not give many details but we can only imagine that the legalists were just as impassioned in their argument as Paul and company were in their own. This became a heated debate.
First, let us hear from the prosecution.
A. The Doctrine of Legalism – (v.1), v.5
After hearing the glowing report of the salvation of many Gentiles, the cold-hearted legalists shouted, “Circumcise them!” It had not been too long since another group of cold-hearted legalists, in that same city, shouted “Crucify Him!” It seems like love and compassion were never the hallmarks of Jerusalemites! They seemed more interested in outward appearances than inward conditions. Like the religious Jews that had put Jesus on the cross, these legalists were willing to crucify anything threatening them in order to maintain control over their religious system. Like the Gospel, itself; the Gentile converts were expendable pawns in their battle.
“For these over-scrupulous Christians in Jerusalem, the outreach to Gentiles was to come from within their [Jewish] group and to follow the proselyte model, not to come from outside their group [i.e. Antioch] and be apart from the law.”[4]
Were these the same Judaizers of Galatians chapter two? While F.F. Bruce said that it “possibly could be” the same incident, John Stott is convinced “that … the situation Luke describes at the beginning of Acts 15 is the same as that to which Paul refers in Gal. 2:11-16.”[5]
11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
Even though Peter and Barnabas saw the error of their ways and pulled away from the legalists, it is easy to see that the legalistic Judaizers still carried a lot of influence. They led people to believe that the austere James was sponsoring their cause. These men did not believe that Jesus could save a man without the help of Moses. “In other words, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.”[6]
They weren’t saying that a Gentile had to be circumcised in order to be a good-Christian. They were saying that he could not be a Christian at all unless he was circumcised (v.1b).
It is easy to see that the legalists from Jerusalem feared the change that Paul’s simple gospel message brought. What is not so easy to see is that we are often guilty of the same thing. Sometimes Christians are guilty of preserving our own traditions because we, too, fear change. God is not against change. In fact, a simple-gospel will result in a changing church. But a rule-laden, legalistic gospel (which is no gospel at all) will keep the church rigid and guarantee its irrelevance in a generation or two.
Legalists were offended by hymn-singing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, it was not until 1820 that the Church of England even approved the singing of hymns. Up until that time they only sanctioned the singing of metric Psalms.  Hymn-singers were therefore seen as part of the opposition party called Dissenters. “John Dryden describes the Dissenters as ‘rabble-rousing demagogues, determined to destroy the monarchy.’ Thus, when the Dissenters sang hymns, those hymns were associated with Christian extremism and even revolution.”[7]
Fear of Mob: hymn singers were seen as a “vast mass of unwashed, uneducated common people.” These people were feared because they were thought to be “prone to riot.”
Fear of “Enthusiasm: Anglicans feared the heart-felt religion of the ‘revived’ communities. The hymns were seen as the very source of their irrational enthusiasm in worship.”[8]
Legalists will say that theirs is the only acceptable form of music and will always resist the move away from the traditional to the more contemporary.
In Acts 15 they were fighting over circumcision, today we are again fighting over music. They resolved their conflict – let’s hope we can do the same.
B. The Doctrine of Grace –
Now that the legalists have had their say, the defense takes over with no less enthusiasm. Before they finish, the church will have heard from some of Christendom’s brightest lights. The first witness to take the stand is:
1. Peter – vs.7-11
It is interesting that Peter would be the first up. Peter: the same man that had once sided with the Judaizers. Even if he did not fully buy into their theology, during his backslide, he did placate them for a period. Having seen the error of his way, this same apostle passionately argues that circumcision was not necessary for the salvation of the Gentiles. Peter enters several items into evidence in making his case.
Exhibit 1, Cornelius:
“It was more than ten years ago since the gentile Cornelius and his house had been brought into the church by faith in the gospel alone. God did that. The work of Paul and Barnabas was not an innovation and did not present a new question.”[9]
Exhibit 2, The Holy Spirit:
Peter now argues that these Gentiles were filled and endued with the same Holy Spirit as Jews. This very fact guaranteed God’s approval on Antioch’s Gentile outreach. “This proves Peter’s earlier statement that ‘God . . . accepts men from every nation who fear him. . . ‘ (10:35) meant that there is no racial barrier to conversion; but God ‘accepted them’ in the sense of welcoming them into his family … when he gave them his Spirit.”[10]
Exhibit 3, Yoke of the Law:
Peter appealed to their more practical side when he spoke about the weight of the Mosaic Law. Peter reminded the Judaizers that they, themselves, were not able to keep the law. Why would they want to impose the same burden upon the Gentiles? Judaizers and Gentiles alike were law-breakers. Therefore, Peter affirmed that the Law was not meant to be a means of imparting salvation. He summed up his argument by exclaiming, “We believe we are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, in the same way they are” (v.11b).
The next witnesses to take the stand are:
Paul and Barnabas – v.12
After Peter made his point, a holy hush fell across the room. Perhaps the legalists sensed that the people were being swayed by the weight of Peter’s argument. Now, they would hear again from Barnabas and Paul about God’s work in their midst. Not much is recounted about their speeches as they had already earlier proclaimed a similar testimony. Dr. Luke does highlight the “signs and wonders” from God which affirmed God’s approval on Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to the Gentiles. God would not have thus blessed the Gentiles if He had not accepted them as full-fledged Christians.
 The final witness for the defense is:
James – vs. 13-21
The knock out blow came from James the Just, the brother of Jesus. Though austere and thoroughly Jewish, the Judaizers found no sympathy in James. Since he was in a leadership role in the Jerusalem Church, he became the moderator of the council. After all the speeches were made, James proffered his resolution of the matter.   It would be the death knell of the controversy.

III.The Consensus – 22-29

In any conflict resolution the aim is to reach a consensus which is always better than compromise. Consensus is a general agreement between all parties involved. While the hard core Judaizers never changed their minds, Paul and company did manage to sway the majority of the “jurors” over to the correct point of view.
As the moderator, James issued his statement which was quickly adopted by the assembled leadership team. James’ words might seem to some as a dangerous compromise of the gospel (i.e. adding certain food rituals to the requirements of salvation). However, when one understands that the policy had two parts: one theological and one practical, then it becomes easy to understand.
First James addressed the:
A. Theological Aspects
James began by referencing Simon (Peter’s Hebrew name) since all parties present would have likely respected him as an original apostle of Christ. James again reminded all that Peter had been used by God to open an effectual door of salvation unto the Gentiles that had been hitherto closed. “James’ major contribution to the decision of the council was to shift the discussion of the conversion of Gentiles from a proselyte model to an eschatological one.”[11]
After using Peter’s experience with Gentile ministry as an example, James then proceeds to use the prophets as further proof that God had chosen to save Gentiles. James recalled both Isaiah and Amos to affirm God’s salvific intentions. Isaiah, he argued, spoke of the Gentiles’ salvation not destroying their national identities (Isa. 2:4; 25:6-7). James also reminded them that Amos had spoken of the:
‘remnant of men’ in the last days when ‘David’s fallen tent’ would be rebuilt as being ‘all the Gentiles who bear my name’ and whose continuance as Gentiles is understood. In the end times, James is saying, God’s people will consist of two concentric groups. At their core will be restored Israel (i.e. David’s rebuilt tent) and gathered around them will be a group of Gentiles (i.e. ‘the remnant of men’) who will share in the messianic blessing but will persist as Gentiles without necessarily becoming Jewish proselytes.[12]
James had one more piece of evidence to use. After using Peter and the prophets as proof of God’s intention to save Gentiles, James then uses God, Himself, as the final piece of evidence. James said in verse 18, “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.” James argues that it is – and has been all along – God’s intention to bring Gentiles into the church. James declared it to be God’s will.
However, along with the theological aspect, James had to consider the social ramifications of the council’s decision. How could Jews and Gentiles ever be expected to come together in worship and fellowship if Gentiles blatantly disrespected the culture of the Jews?
That is why James also addressed the:
B. Practical Aspects
The restrictions in v. 20 are not meant to be seen as conditions for salvation. James included these restrictions so that Gentiles would not needlessly be offensive to their Jewish counterparts. Perhaps many of the Gentiles coming out of pagan religions were not familiar with Jewish culture and customs. James appealed for respect from both parties toward the other.
While it is easy to understand why James would ask the Gentiles to respect Jewish customs in relation to kosher food, why would he include the admonition to abstain from fornication? Fornication is not a matter of conscience. Sexual immorality is not a cultural issue; it is a sin for any and all cultures. While there are several explanations as to why this particular “Ten-Commandment” issue was mention, perhaps it was simply a reminder to the Gentiles who had once participated in pagan temple rituals. Fornication was often a part of pagan “worship” and James simply reminded them that along with abstaining from meat that had been offered unto idols, also stay away from the old way of worshiping that included fornication with temple prostitutes. It seems that he included everything that went along with idol worship – food and fornication.
Jewish Christians would have associated the “polluted” meat (i.e. the meat that had been offered to idols) with the sexual impurity of the pagans. Therefore, James’ council admonished the Gentiles to stay away from all of it. This simple request would permit Jews and Gentiles to sit down at a fellowship meal without any objection. The entire council saw the benefit of mutual respect from two varied cultures.
Paul was free to eat any type of non-kosher meat that he wished, but would give up that right if his more orthodox friends found it offensive. We should always be sensitive to how our actions will affect those around us who might not be as mature in their faith. “A strong conscious gives us liberty of behavior, but we should limit our liberty out of love for the weak (cf. Rom. 14 & 1 Cor. 8).”[13]
In the next chapter Paul invited Timothy to join him in the ministry. Timothy’s mother was a Jewess but his father was a Greek so Paul had Timothy circumcised before embarking upon their mission. Was this in contrast to Paul’s passionate argument in chapter 15 against circumcision? No. Paul did not have Timothy circumcised so that he could experience salvation, it was so that the Jews would not be needlessly offended. It was a matter of respect and not done out of hypocrisy or legalism.

IV. The Aftermath –  15:30 – 16:5

The council’s decision brought a three-pronged reaction from the church – all of it positive.
A. Joy – 15:31
One can only imagine the scene as Paul and Barnabas read the decree. They must have thrown their hands in the air and cheered aloud as they heard the news! This was seen as a victory for all of those who had trusted in the Christ of Calvary, alone, to save and cleanse them.
B. Encouragement – 15:31
They were encouraged possibly because they saw that God did not expect them to become Jews before they would be acceptable to Him. God loved them as Gentiles. This was a public declaration of their worth to God. John 3:16 had won the day.
C. Strength – 16:5
They were strengthened in their faith. Christians became more convinced than ever that Christ can save and cleanse the sinner by His blood, alone. Nothing can be done to make us any more appealing to God. God simply wants our repentance and total faith in Jesus Christ. The rest is up to Him.
D. Numerical Increase – 16:5
Luke affirms in several places in this book (c.f. 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 19:20; & 28:31) that the church of God and the work of God will continue to move forward in difficult times, when the right decisions are made. Conflict will not stop the church if the church will seek God’s will. When the dust of this trial had settled, the church gained membership. Even when faced with martyrdom, the early church flourished. In the words of Tertullian, “The blood of the saints is seed.” The gates of Hell cannot overcome a mighty church whose strength is in its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.


There can be no denying the fact that crisis and conflict will find the church. On this particular issue, there could be no avoiding a full-fledged frontal attack. Compromise was not an option. After squaring off in Antioch, the two sides met in Jerusalem for a decision from the council. The very future of the church was at stake. Did Gentiles need to become Jews before they could become Christians? The council answered with a resounding: NO. While no one assumes that the hard-core Judaizers had their minds changed, the decision of the leadership, with the approval of the majority of the congregation, effectively put an end to the debate. Their decision was two-fold: first the theology was settled and then the issue of respect and courtesy was addressed. “We may say, then, that the Jerusalem Council secured a double victory – a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples.”[14]
May the church of the twenty-first century learn to resolve conflict as effectively as the church of the first century.

[1] F.F. Bruce. Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans, 1977), 159.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 113.

[4] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, The Acts of the Apostles, by Richard Longnecker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 444.

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 242.

[6] Ibid, 243.

[7] Madeleine Forell Marshall, “Irrational Music Sung By A Mob of Extremists?”, Christian History Magazine, Issue 31, Volume X, No. 3,  35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles (Columbus, OH: The Wartburg Press, 1944), 602.

[10] Stott, 245.

[11]Longnecker, 446.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stott, 257.

[14] Stott, 257.

Marcus Merritt
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