Everyone likes the idea of church growth, until the reality kicks in. New faces at church bring new needs, different lifestyles, other perspectives, differing cultural backgrounds, and the inevitability of convictions being shared which don’t square with the Bible. Are these visitors from Judea to the church at Antioch real but misguided believers; or are they were unconverted troublemakers, seeking to destroy the work of God (v.1)? One thing is sure: church growth brings difficulties, from people in their sheer complexities, as well as from Satan, with his one aim of opposing the Gospel.
True leadership means handling problems. In fact, leadership that can’t or won’t deal with problems isn’t leadership at all! This new debate about circumcision catches Paul and Barnabas off-guard, and after some tense debate, they realise that they need help (v.2). They have great news of gospel growth in pagan territory to share with believers, and then their hearts must have sunk as they had to face the issue of Gentile Christian identity, now fast becoming Jerusalem’s hottest potato (v.5).
What follows is a beautiful harmony of biblical convictions about God’s mission in His Son to the world. Peter, Paul, Barnabas and then James all speak up. They’ve all come to learn from Scripture, as well as to see in the church, that God loves the nations, and is reaching them in His Son (vv.6-18). They’re realistic, too, that a mixed Jew-Gentile church must be a place for accommodation of backgrounds. Jews must deal with their own cultural conditioning, and not “make it difficult for Gentiles who are turning to God” (v.19 – maybe the church breakfast could possibly serve bacon rolls?); just so, converts from paganism must leave those practices in their old lives, and not bring offence to Jewish background believers (vv.20-21 – no church lunch offerings straight from the pagan Temples, then). The Jerusalem church agrees on this plan, and send their message and workers off (vv.22-35). On this nothing less than the future of God’s work depends.
If the church is to succeed in its mission in any age, it must be deliberately careful about serving its people, whoever they are. There is no room to erect cultural barriers, just because some believers enjoy living behind them. How we dress, what we sing, when we meet, the personal lifestyle choices we parade as being “true discipleship”, can so easily become our gospel essentials, which cause confusion and bring offence. The church will always be a place where there are disagreements – even amongst Spirit-filled leaders of the highest calibre (vv.36-41); but our calling is to do everything we can to remove difficulties. God’s truth in Jesus is for all.
A Prayer to Pray
Lord, please show me where I am getting in the way of Your work. Show me where my preferences are not Yours. Give me the integrity to get rid of what does not promote Your truth in the church. Help me to serve others in love. Amen.