So much of what we argue and divide over is simply not worth it. Over the years I’ve seen friendships and families separate over issues that could have been worked out or overlooked. I’ve seen churches experience deep divisions because members and leaders thought their positions were important enough to defend to the end. In our country, we seem to be losing sight of what unites us because in our minds every issue has taken on paramount importance.
To be sure, there is a time to debate and defend a position even to the point of division, but we need to be careful that we know when and for what.
Acts 15 is the account of a time when debating and defending a clear position on the truth was necessary. Gentiles (non-Jews) had come to faith in Jesus Christ without first submitting to Jewish laws and customs. This was a new situation in early Christianity and caused some to question whether it was right. A group of Jewish leaders said these Gentile believers needed to be circumcised (a Jewish law for belonging to God’s people) to be saved.
The demand for circumcision in order to be saved was a question about the gospel. What is and is not required to be saved and to belong to the people of God? The apostles who had the authority of Jesus to lead the church determined that this question needed to be debated and clarified.
The apostles and elders of the church, along with those who wanted to require circumcision for salvation took council together and addressed the nature of the gospel. A verdict was reached and the church’s position was that salvation and membership in the family of God was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. No previous or current religious customs were required for a person to be saved. Their conclusion would become the official teaching of the Christian faith. We can all be grateful for the outcome of this council.
But there was division. “Some persons” (Acts 15:24) never agreed with the apostles about the gospel and continued to cause trouble in the churches (Galatians 1:7).
Sadly, each generation faces new challenges to the gospel. This requires fresh eyes to see the challenges of the day, and a willingness to debate and defend the truth. And we must learn to accept the fact that there will be division.
Here are a few thoughts on debating, defending, and division in the church that I think we can learn from Acts 15.
First, there is a time to debate, and we should do it with love for people and for the truth. We don’t have to debate every issue. We should not debate just to prove our point and protect our pride. Truth and people should be our main concern in debate.
Second, when defending a position, we should stick to the issue, draw our evidence from the word of God, and avoid personal attacks. When you read Acts 15 you can see these principles being practiced.
Third, we need to remember that the heart of the gospel is not unity with all people, it is unity in Christ, because of Christ, around Christ, and under the professed lordship of Christ. We can be friends with people without being unified with them over the gospel. We can work with them on certain issues of common grace. We should love and respect people with whom we disagree over the nature of salvation. But we cannot alter the truth of the gospel (arrived at and articulated by the council in Acts 15) for the sake of a so-called unity.
Why debate and defend, even if it means division? For the love of God, the gospel, and the souls of people.
I hope you will read Acts 15 to prepare your heart for worship this Sunday.