These verses are striking to me:
Acts 15:1–2 (ESV) — 1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
The church in Acts was at a crucial junction. Paul and Barnabas had pressed the gospel out into Asia Minor, and that mostly among Gentiles. As word spread that Gentiles were being incorporated in the covenant community, the question arose (my paraphrase) – “How Jewish must a Gentile be if they’re joining a predominantly Jewish movement (at that time)?” So here as the question was being confronted, the early church, Spirit-filled, miracle doing, gospel spreading, missionally engaged early church, found itself in “no small dissension and debate”. I think that’s Luke’s way of saying “big dog fight!”
A few verses later, Luke just says it as it is:
Acts 15:6–7 (ESV) — 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
Here’s my observation – healthy unity in a body is not gained by passive acceptance through ignoring ones conscious. God led the church through healthy debate. This was no small issue for these Jews. Gentiles incorporated into the covenant community without “becoming Jewish” was an upside-down theological way for thinking that ran against everything these Jews had known. It would not have been good for the church leaders to disengage for the sake of peace – what they needed is what they did – rigorous engagement in thoughts, theology and understanding.
If one comes from the assumption that at no time will any church hold absolutely perfect doctrine, then this healthy interaction of debate is needed to continue to press towards growth in the truth. To avoid discussions with tension conveys one of two things: (1) the truth at hand is not important enough to debate – or – (2) we have no need to debate, our truth is automatically right.
I serve with two godly and sharp elders. Most often our meetings are filled with ease. At times, our meetings are filled with tension and moments of deep struggling through the word of God and it’s application for the church we lead. Never once has these tensions dampened our friendship and love and every time the tension is reflective of the fact that we are doing the best we can to seek God’s Spirit in leading His people. I pray the healthy debates never cease. Too much is at stake when it comes to the lives of God’s people.
NOTE: of course there’s a way to “debate” and not sin and a way to “debate” and sin. The question is not how diligently one engages in the debate, but how pridefully one works through the debate.