Today the Seventh-day Adventist Church is facing issue after issue. In light of Acts 15, what lessons can the church learn for handling controversial issues?
Acts 15 comes at the heels of Paul and Barnabas’s first missionary journey. During this first journey, these men went from Antioch to Cyprus. From there they traveled to the lands of Galatia: Perga, Antioch in Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and Attalia (Acts 13-14). Upon returning to Antioch, “they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27, NIV).
Amidst this exciting church report, Acts 15 opens with this line: “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (Acts 15:1, 2, NIV). Seeing this divide, the church of Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and other church leaders to go to Jerusalem to lay the matter before the entire church.
As church members awaited the council’s decision, Ellen G. White aptly notes, “All controversy was to cease until a final decision should be given in the general council” (Acts of the Apostles, 190).
Regarding the way this controversy was handled during the council, we can observe the following:
- The council consisted of delegates from different parts of the church (Acts 15:2). There should be an even representation from all parts of the church at the church’s major meetings, such as General Conference sessions, annual councils, etc.
- The issue was vigorously “debated,” and each side was allowed to present its case (vv. 5-7, NASB). Instead of settling an issue without debating it, it is far better to debate an issue even if there is no consensus at the end!
- Peter gave the testimony of his experience with Cornelius—see Acts 10 (vv. 7-11). God had prepared Peter for Jerusalem Council! Men of experience in the work of God led the way in seeking to resolve the issue. Failure to speak up is in itself taking a side. The pen of inspiration warns, “If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty, it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference and neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as grievous crime and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God” (Review and Herald, Sept. 30, 1873).
- James, the presiding elder, appealed to the authority of Scripture—“as it is written” (vv. 13-21). This point cannot be emphasized enough. The Bible and the Bible alone should be the rule and guide in matters of moral decisions and salvation. Never should we appeal to other sources of authority when deciding ecclesiastical matters.
- Finally, the “whole church” agreed to the wisdom of the council and the authority of Scripture (v. 22). It is significant to note that the “whole church” decided. It was not the local church, conference, union, or division going solo against the collective wisdom of the “whole church.” When such decisions are made by the body of Christ, reflecting “the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field,” as Ellen G. White writes elsewhere, “private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body…. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority” (Testimonies for the Church, 9:260, 261).
The church at study is the church at its best. From the observations above, we can gather invaluable lessons on how to deal with divisive issues facing the church today. The inspired record of Acts 15 is a perpetual reminder that issues will always arise, even after Pentecost. However, the Holy Spirit is ever ready to guide the “whole church” on how to resolve controversial issues. He is able lead the church into all truth (John 16:13).
[graphic: The Jerusalem Council, from Free Bible Images]