In Acts 15, we see another occasion when the church faced disagreements which could easily have led to division. People had very different views about the fact that Gentiles were turning to Christ; a group of Jewish believers felt that ‘unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1), and some even went so far as to say the whole law of Moses had to be obeyed. (Acts 15:5) This brought them into ‘sharp dispute and debate’ with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2), and the church at Antioch sought to resolve this dispute by sending Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the apostles and elders there. (Acts 15:2, 6)
It’s easy for us to look at this dispute with some confusion or even indifference, but what was at heart here was something fundamental to the gospel: is salvation by grace through faith, or do we have to do something (i.e. become circumcised and obey the law) in order to be saved? The conclusion reached by the apostles was that both Gentiles and Jews received salvation in the same way: ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’ (Acts 15:11) It might surprise us, therefore, to see that whilst emphatically supporting the view there was no need for circumcision, the apostles also wrote a letter asking Gentiles not to cause needless offence.
This was clearly a compromise solution, and one which we may well feel blurs the issues. So often, we see things in black and white, right and wrong, but here we see that even in a case where there was a definite ‘right’ (no need for circumcision; Jews and Gentiles are justified in exactly the same way, as Paul was to expound in Romans 3:22-25), the solution proposed involved shades of grey. Tom Wright speaks of the ‘brittle absolutism’ that so many prefer, and it’s definitely easier to become entrenched on either side of an argument in ways where we can defend our viewpoint to the death…but show little love or forgiveness to those who disagree with us. The early church avoided this difficulty through compromise; the letter was sent to Antioch and everyone seems to have coped with the proposals (which were that the Gentiles should avoid needless offence through their everyday behaviour.) Paul would go on to discuss these ideas in greater depth in 1 Cor 8 and 10 and Romans 14, and in every case spoke of the need to avoid passing judgment on others and to act with love. When we do this, disputes don’t have to lead to division and the unity of the Spirit can be maintained, even when we disagree profoundly.