I am really exercised in heart at the moment by issues of disagreement and strife among Christians. I guess I have been for many years. It seems to me that within churches and between churches and groupings we find it much easier at the present time to find ways to disagree than ways to agree.
Often it is a matter of not distinguishing primaries from secondaries and therefore failure to compromise on secondaries. Sometimes it arises out of forceful personality always wanting compromise and change to favour their view. Sometimes it is failure to recognise that something may be secondary but nevertheless extremely important and sensitive for someone else. To give a personal example I have some paedo-baptist friends who know that I think that, finally, baptism is a secondary issue. But who fail to recognise that I think baptism of believers and not infants is nevertheless hugely important and only just secondary. Secondary does not mean inconsequential. (I hasten to add that not all my paedo- friends are so cavelier by any means). Sometime it is heightened by people acting as enemies because they feel they have been made enemies of: "why should I listen well and love well towards those who have done the opposite to me? Why forgive when I know it won't be reciprocated? Surely I will just end up as a doormat?"
Whatever the cause of disagreements, it is all too easy to let slip off the radar things like: love, compromise, listening, kindness, mutual prayerfulness and genuinely trying to make it easy for those with whom we disagree.
Acts 15 is a fantastic model of how to consider painful matters of disagreement. In this instance the matter was the most primary of primaries: is salvation by entirely from God grace or is imposition of Law-obedience from the recipient a necessary component? Thankfully most disagreements in churches are not of this magnitude. Nevertheless the process is instructive.
First, the Apostles and elders met to consider the question. We are told there was much discussion. I bet! Finally Peter ties together current observation of experience ("God has showed that he accepted the Gentiles without Law, regardless of what we might think") with biblical theology ("the Jews have never been able to bear the yoke of the Law as the means of coming to God"), and concludes that salvation is by grace. I think it is important that it is Peter who says this because he isn't the one bringing either case to begin with. He doesn't represent one party or the other. And he is respected and credible.
Second, the whole assembly listened to Paul and Barnabas. First much discussion by elders and apostles, then much listening by the assembly. I think this assumes the good will to listen to each other.
Finally James concludes by bringing the scriptures to bear on the situation.
I think his conclusion in 15:19 is wonderful. It is not only biblical, it is deeply loving. He doesn't just say "let's tell the Gentiles they are not under the yoke of the Law". Rather he says "we should not make it difficult for Gentiles who are turning to God." (ESV we should not trouble; NLT we should stop troubling).
- This conclusion contains huge cultural implications for those who make it. There will be deep sacrifices for them along the way, especially for those believers who belonged to the Pharisee party (praise God there were believers from the Pharisee party! Grace, you see? GRACE!). We ought to note that while they needed to accept that this is what God was doing, nobody should assume that it would be easy for them or that they should be rode roughshod over. No, they would need maximum help and love
- The loving, pastoral conclusion is "let's make it as easy as possible Gentiles who are turning to God; as easy as possible for other believers who are not like us." In this instance especially the newer believers and people without the existing cultural assumptions. Let's not load them down with our baggage, let's bear with them and encourage them. We can see in v31 how glad the new believers were to receive this message
- The people who deliver the message are finally sent back to Jerusalem in v33 with a "blessing of peace to return to those who sent them." In other words, the new Galatian believers reciprocate. Perhaps there was a sense of what sacrifices had been made to help and encourage them, and how difficult it would have been for others
This last point is most crucial in the matter of disagreements. May no Christian ever assume that the goal is winning our own way. If we think that there are winners and losers then all have already lost. The win/win situation is everyone speaking the truth in love, so that the body builds itself up and the gospel goes out with power.
Listening well and loving well are crucial factors in practical godliness when believers disgree.