Reading: Acts 15:1-29
One weird thing about me is that I hate church politics, but I love business meetings. One would think that these two are so married together that they cannot be separated, but the feelings I have for each are somehow differentiated. I guess the best way to describe it is to look at what we’ve gained through business meetings: Business meetings have given us Bible translations, hymnals, missionaries, the very churches where we worship. Business meetings continue to maintain a structure that allows ministry to continue, and seeks to keep both ministers and congregations safe from abuse. If I go back far enough, there were even business meetings that put together the first official Christian Bible; granted, it looked a whole lot like the unofficial ones, but there is something special about something being reviewed, prayed over, and authorized.
Acts 15 isn’t the first business meeting; the first one would be in Acts 1 when they appointed a new officer. It is not even the second business meeting, as there was a meeting held in Antioch that decided to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey — it was a short meeting, somebody felt the community was called to send missionaries, and they sent them. Actually, it was that decision made in Antioch that made the meeting in Jerusalem necessary.
Lets walk through what led to the Acts 15 meeting — basically, the church at Jerusalem and the church at Antioch had differing visions for the future of Christianity. It is fair to say that the church in Jerusalem had no missionary vision. They were perfectly happy to be followers of the teachings of Rabbi Jesus, and to be a sect of the Jewish faith. They grew, but it took persecution for them to spread. Refugees who fled Judea settled settled in Antioch and established a church there and the two major churches developed separately.
When it comes to development, all focus of the book of Acts transfers to Antioch. The first major development in Antioch is that they bring Gentiles into the church. The next thing that happens is that they feel a call to missions, and send missionaries into Greek territory, preaching the gospel both to those Jews who were scattered in Greek lands and also to the Greeks. Some of the places, they only preached to the Gentiles, because there was not a local synagogue. Antioch already had an global vision for Christianity, while Jerusalem’s view was local — this caused conflict, because some in Jerusalem were afraid that Christianity was starting to look very different from them.
You know the church politics that I said I hate — those politics are there. The cause for calling this joint meeting between the two major church communities is that some people in Jerusalem want Antioch’s missionary activity stopped. They don’t want to bring in new people who didn’t look like them, or talk with them, and had different customs than they did; they liked the church the way it was, in Jerusalem. There is this idea that maybe, Jerusalem has the authority to put a stop to this offense.
So, there is a concern, and there is a business meeting where the two churches discuss this concern; and they discussed Jerusalem’s proposed requirement that in order to become a member of the Christian community, one must first become a Jew; something that would discourage and test the determination of any man.
Acts 15 is unique in that it record everything that one can expect to see recorded: It records the initial concern (We can’t have Gentile Christians), the opinions from the debate that most shaped the final opinion and the decision, along with how that decision will be transmitted to the other churches.
The decision must have been a relief for the Christian community at Antioch, as the decision was to allow Gentile Christians. When that minute was written, Christianity decided to be global, and not confined to one people — and as a person who’s ancestors were mostly Barbarians in the ends of the known world I am grateful for Acts 15. Because of what was decided in Acts 15, Paul’s writings in Ephesians 2 ring true:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:11-14 NRSV)
Of course, while I’m the winner, this business meeting had losers — remember the Pharisee Christians who wanted this meeting to put its foot down and discipline Antioch? They had a meeting called to take care of a problem, and the meeting decided it wasn’t a problem; they lost in the biggest way possible. Do you think that they accepted the decision? Reading Paul’s epistles, we see that they did not — they traveled throughout the world to stand against the evangelizing of Gentiles telling them that they are not welcome in the community unless they are circumcised and become Jews. They leave the place where they were comfortable to try and stop the church from changing into something global; they fight God’s work, and they fight the church.
This is what I mean when I say that I love business meetings, but hate church politics. Business meetings, at their best, are a time when we seek to discern God’s will together; and when we feel we know what is right we do it. Business meetings allow us to work together, they allow us to share our vision with each other, they allow us to be the church. Church politics, at its worst, is what these Pharisees did — they tried to reduce the church to one little place where they feel comfortable, and exclude the rest of the world. When the church unified behind a vision to change the world, these people fought hard to defeat the vision; they fought against God to remain comfortable.
Business meetings are commonplace — and most often they are about mundane things where the decision dose not matter so much as doing something. The majority of what we do needs no divine guidance — but it does need kindness, cooperation, and a degree of unity. Many people who dislike business meetings think of them as long arguments about what color the carpet should be; and at worst, they can become that. But, from time to time these meetings cement a new shared vision. From time to time we hear God’s call, and we discern together our vision for accomplishing our mission to the world.
Church politics, in the sense of those Pharisees who wanted to keep the church in Jerusalem, are also commonplace. Sometimes our business meetings are called out of a malicious spirit. Sometimes when something is already decided, those who didn’t like the decision do their best to work against it. The church isn’t perfect, it never was — we’ve got human problems. I see these human problems every day. I know God is working, I know Christ’s mission remains global — I know God still tears down the walls that once divided us to make us one body of Christ, one family — and I know we still have people who work hard to rebuild those walls that Christ tore down.
We all need to take our business meetings as a spiritual practice, and truly seek to discern God’s will together. It is a Holy exercise, and we need to respect that if we are going to discern something more important than that it is time to install new carpet.
We also need to make sure that we are not putting our own agendas ahead of God’s work. Each individual needs to be careful not to be the Pharisee traveling around the known world trying to undo the work of the missionaries, so that things can return to the way they were when the church was just at Jerusalem. God’s work cannot be undone so easily — when these people who rejected God’s call to evangelize the whole world died, their cause died with them — but the missionary vision was still there, now enshrined in scripture.
And, for those of us who are demoralized — because when we see people destroying the work of the church it is demoralizing. I know I have felt demoralized from time to time; but I also know that I have hope. The good thing about being a lover of history is that I know what happened before, and I know that we are still here. What has never broken us or defeated us in the past isn’t likely to do so now, even in those moments where we feel helpless. God helped those who went before us, and God is able and willing to help us as well. Lets keep tearing down those wall, and continue to work to achieve our mission — that the Good News be heard and known everywhere and that the church will be bigger than just our one comfortable community.