25 May 2011

Acts 15:1-6

"And after Paul and Barnabas has no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders." (v. 2)


Here at the very beginning of the Christian faith is an issue that seems set to divide the fledgling Church. The question is whether male gentile (non Jewish) believers should be circumcised in order to become Christians. The writer of Acts (usually thought to be Luke) would make a great writer of minutes at church meetings - "no small dissension and debate" is a subtle and diplomatic way of describing an almighty row! It is clear that some of the believers with a strong Jewish heritage, who understand Jesus as the fulfillment of the law of Israel, believe that this ritual is an important sign of faith and belonging. Others, both Jewish and gentile believers, do not feel this matters - Jesus did not make such demands but, in their view, removed all the ritualistic barriers to a relationship with God.

The Church has by this stage already settled some structures and is therefore able to send Paul, Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the elders and apostles. Here is a sign of Church order and discipline!

Christians don't all agree with each other about everything today. The good news within this story is that the Church does not tear itself apart when it resolves, under God, what decision should be made. We know this because the Christian Church in its many forms continues today, 2,000 years after this particular threat to church unity. Some may have chosen to leave the Church after the decision of the Council, choosing to remain within an orthodox understanding of Judaism, others will have had their hearts and minds changed and chosen to stay and others will have 'won the argument' and are able to stay because the Church 'fits' their understanding of the way the Body of Christ should be. Whether it is a question about who receives Holy Communion, whether women can be ordained, whether a denomination should have bishops, or the role of people in same sex relationships - the choices of those early Christians seem relevant. Some go, some stay having had their views changed, others remain affirmed and reassured that the Church really is the place for them.

In the midst of such decisions there is often pain - as those early believers discovered - not everyone will agree all the time. What marks a healthy Christian community is that we are a safe place in which to deal honestly and openly with that which divides us and then to care for all, whatever the outcome of our debates and decisions.

To Ponder

Is it necessary or possible for Christians to agree all the time? How do we offer a witness to the world whilst not always being united within ourselves?

Can you remember an occasion within your family, at work or in church when you have supported someone who has been hurt by a decision that had to be made? What did you do? If you had to do it again, what might you do differently?

Bible notes author

The Revd Micky Youngson

The Revd Michaela Youngson is Chair of the London District of the Methodist Church. She has served as a presbyter in circuits in Lancashire and London, as well as having been Secretary of Pastoral Care and Spirituality in the Connexional Team.