The Acts Method For
Resolving Church Conflicts
Luke’s history of the Early Church candidly reports three conflicts: the disputes arising from the unfair treatment of the Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1–7), the inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 15:1–35), and the usefulness of John Mark in future ministry (Acts 15:36–41).
I admire Luke’s honesty for including the imperfect elements of the New Testament church. He could have papered over these Early Church fights and left us with the public relations impression of a perfect Spirit-filled community.
Several years ago we found a photo of the Hot Springs Opera House where the Assemblies of God first convened and was formed in 1914. We had commissioned a scale model of the opera house for placement in our Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. But this photo showed something no one had seen before — engraved on the window facing the street was the word Saloon. We had not known that the Opera House included a saloon. So, the question we faced was: “Do we omit the offending word on the model, or admit that we began in a place that served strong drink?”
We followed Luke and let the facts speak for themselves. Likewise, conflicts with believers are not meant to be papered over in an effort to pretend they do not exist. When disagreements are handled well, the end result honors Christ and His church grows. Acts indisputably shows us that.
Conflict #1 — Social Fairness
Acts 6 begins, “In those days when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration” (verse 1, kjv, emphasis added).
Think back to a similar situation in the Old Testament. The Children of Israel, fresh out of Egypt, commenced their trek toward disaster by complaining (Numbers 11:1). Murmuring is the first step to unbelief and outright rebellion.
The murmuring in the Early Church was no less serious than that of ancient Israel. The murmuring began after the Early Church had witnessed the outstretched arm of the Lord in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and after the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit. Would entering the promised land of the Great Commission be derailed at its first stage, even as the journey to Canaan had gone off track at its beginning?
Murmuring is no small matter. It involves a direct violation of Jesus’ teaching that complaints be taken directly to those involved (Matthew 18:15–17). Instead, murmuring is a gathering of simmering discontent that spreads by word of mouth from one person to another. Rather than seeking a solution, murmuring stirs up sedition.
At an annual business meeting in the peaceful church I pastored, one of the older members asked, “Can we have some time in this meeting to register complaints?” She evidently had a list of grievances. I believe the Spirit gave me a word of wisdom.
“There is a time and place,” I replied, “for handling grievances and making complaints. The last step is bringing the complaint to the whole church. The first step is taking it to the person directly involved. When accord cannot be reached, then the second step involves the pastor and, if necessary, church leadership. Only if the complaint cannot be resolved at the first two steps should it be brought to the church. A church business session is not the proper setting for the open airing of grievances because we are to follow Jesus’ direction in Matthew 18 for resolving complaints.” I said this kindly, and the dear saint received it graciously.
Every church has its problems. No church is perfect. If I were given a choice, I would rather have the problems of a growing church than the problems of a stagnant or declining church. The first church problem occurred during a time of dynamic growth — “those days when the number of the disciples was multiplied.” Understandably so, leaders become so busy coping with the growth that sooner or later some people are neglected and their feelings are hurt. Here is how Peter and the apostles handled this outbreak of discontent.
They frankly admitted the problem existed.
Nothing is gained by letting problems fester. The 16th-century Italian political philosopher, Machiavelli, said that sedition is like a disease. In its early stages it is easy to cure and almost impossible to detect. In its later stages it is easy to detect and almost impossible to cure. Leadership must not bury its head in the sand when serious problems arise. Wisdom helps you know when to let something die of its own accord, or when to deal with it. In the Acts case, the apostles knew this problem was not going to go away by itself.
They avoided blame.
Peter had every right to give the people who were murmuring a tongue-lashing. He could have chastised them for not following Matthew 18, being a bad example to the new converts streaming into the church, and their unwillingness to suffer gladly when discriminated against.
The pastor of a northeast Assemblies of God church blistered his congregation one Sunday morning for what he perceived to be their many failures. He sheared, skinned, flayed, and barbequed the sheep. When his sermon was over, the congregation sat in stunned silence until a not-too-bright older man stood and said, “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Aye, yi, yi, yi’.”
Surely, there is a time for correction, but we do not need to correct every time. And when correction is given, it must be with grace.
Peter, on this occasion, chose not to correct even though he would have been justified in doing so. Blaming people does not generally bring resolution to an issue.
They avoided self-pity.
Peter and the apostles had every right to point out how hard they had been working — preaching, praying, being persecuted, and receiving and administering funds (Acts 6:2; 4:35). Imagine how a self-centered leadership would have handled this problem.
You Hellenistic (Greek-speaking, Greek-acculturated) widows should be ashamed of yourselves. We apostles are out working our fingers to the bone. We are preaching and praying, getting flogged and thrown in prison, waiting on tables, trying our best to serve you and win new converts — and all you do is sit around and complain. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Each one of you. And from looking at many of you, it would not hurt some of you to miss a few meals. If you do not like the way we are running the church, then the door you entered is the same one by which you can leave. God has appointed us to lead in this church and if you do not like it, get out. We are God’s anointed, and don’t you dare touch God’s anointed.
Pastors who use that kind of rhetoric decimate congregations. Their ego-driven need to control, dictate, and blame, and their willingness to twist Scripture to suit their own ends, scatter the flock of God and destroy the future of the church.
During my first year of pastoring, the congregation grew from less than 100 to 200. I was 30 years of age and ready to set the world on fire. No one taught me in seminary that the last thing to change in a growing church is the governing board. They were elected into office before the new people came.
I wanted to hire an associate pastor. The board opposed my plan, and only reluctantly agreed to interview my nominee. Although they liked the person I presented, they did not want to add the position. I blew up — fortunately, not to them, but to a trusted elder. I said to him, “If they do not do what I want them to do, I will go over their heads to the congregation. More people have become members since I became pastor than there were members before I came. I have the votes, and the congregation can choose the board or me.”
He listened to my outburst and said nothing. After the conversation, I picked up my Bible and headed for the Sunday night service in the sanctuary. The Holy Spirit dropped four words into my mind that revolutionized my thinking, George, fast your tongue.
From that night on I said nothing. The next Saturday morning when the board met they had changed their minds and agreed unanimously (without any effort on my part) to accept my recommendation. That event taught me that if your leadership is not united, your congregation will not be either. I had been ready to demand my own way when the Holy Spirit stopped me in my tracks. Had I proceeded to bluster and fight in that situation, I doubt we would have ever experienced the kind of growth that followed in the next 16 years. Avoiding self-pity and blame saved my ministry.
They put forward a positive solution.
Leadership should never present unsolved problems to members unless they can also present a solution. Peter and the apostles did not throw the proverbial red meat on the table and say, “What do you all want to do?” That would only have invited more discord from persons who had not worked through the problem in the first place.
Instead, the leadership made a disarming proposal by saying. “You are right. We have been too busy. We have neglected the widows. We apostles need to reprioritize. We will concentrate on prayer and ministering the Word. You appoint a new tier of servant-leadership to handle the need.” It takes courage to admit mistakes.
The church is always better off when top-tier leadership does what it is called to do and makes room for team ministry.
The proposal from the apostles “pleased the whole group” (Acts 6:5). The church then made a remarkable selection. The Hellenistic widows were being neglected so they chose seven Hellenistic men to serve as deacons.
When conflict is solved, the church can move on. That is what happened. Immediately upon resolution of the problem “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Another positive consequence in resolving this conflict should be noted. The cause-and-effect relationship could read like this: If there had been no church problem, there would have been no deacons. No deacons, then no Stephen. No Stephen, then no persecuting Saul consenting to Stephen’s death. Had Saul’s persecution of Stephen not become a goad in his conscience, he would not have traveled to Damascus and became Paul. Had there been no Paul there would have been no missionary journeys and 10 remarkable churches would not have been planted; neither would there have been Paul’s 13 letters nor the writings of Luke and Acts. After all, it was Paul who found Luke at Troas (Acts 16:10).
The end result of this church conflict was positive. Without it we would be missing more than half of the New Testament. The next time you have church trouble remember that God wants to bring a positive outcome.
Conflict #2 — Doctrine
During my tenure as pastor, our congregation faced the doctrinal issue of women serving on the governing board of the church. People I loved were on both sides of this issue. I will not tell you the outcome, but I will tell you the process. We simply followed the procedure used in the first doctrinal controversy of the Church (Acts 15).
Clearly define the issue.
Conflicts cannot be resolved until the root issues are dealt with. Therefore, it is vital at the outset that all parties have a clear understanding of the forthcoming discussion. In the Early Church, the succinct definition of the doctrinal dispute was put forward by the party of the Pharisees (who had evidently not checked their legalism at the church door): “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
By clearly defining the issue, the speakers in Acts 15 were prepared to address the issue rather than attack each other. Ad hominem (against the person) attacks kill responsible dialog. The Judaizers did not call Peter, Paul, and Barnabas names or characterize them as compromisers. The Pauline group refrained from reminding the Pharisees of the headaches they had caused Jesus before their conversion, or of their personal rigidity in substituting the letter of the law for the spirit of grace.
Luke does not record how long the debate lasted, but in Acts 15:7 he records that prior to Peter’s comments and the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, there was “much discussion.”
Leaders of meetings must be careful not to attempt to ram things through. People want to be treated fairly. They also want to know they are valued and that their opinions are valued.
It is fascinating to observe that Peter, Paul, and Barnabas did not jump into the debate at the beginning. They avoided a mistake that is often made by those who are seeking to advance a cause. The temptation is to speak first, get in your licks, and tamp down the opposition through an overwhelming opening salvo. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas let some steam out of the kettle before they weighed in.
Testimony of Spirit-led leaders.
I suspect the open and full discussion contained back and forth arguments. The Pharisees likely quoted Old Testament Scriptures supporting circumcision and keeping the ritual law. The Pauline group probably responded by quoting texts that pointed to the inclusion of the Gentiles, by making reference to Jesus’ own practice of permitting His followers to pluck grain on the Sabbath, eat with unwashed hands, and the declaration that all foods are clean.
Both sides accepted the full authority of Scripture but could not agree on its interpretation. Therefore, they paused to hear what God had been doing through the apostles. Peter shared his experience with Cornelius’ household (Acts 15:7–11); Paul and Barnabas recounted “the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12).
We have faced our own scriptural interpretation issues in this Fellowship: the ordination of women, credentialing those with a preconversion divorce, and the use of new Bible translations. People in our Fellowship have expressed different opinions on these matters. We listened carefully to one another and considered Scripture that applied to the argument, but we also looked to what the Spirit was doing. Let me be clear — experience must never stand over or apart from Scripture. However, when believers have good faith disagreements over how to interpret the Bible, experience also has a part to play in making the decision, just as it did in the Early Church. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth.
A win-win result.
James, the Jerusalem Council’s chairman, stated the consensus result, in essence declaring “whom Christ receives, let not the Church reject.” James cited Amos 9:11,12, and echoed the expansive tent spoken of in Isaiah 54:1–5 as support for the testimonies given by Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. Gentiles were to be admitted to the Church without the requirement of circumcision or adherence to ritual law.
However, deference is shown to the party of the Pharisees by asking the Gentiles to abstain from eating food offered to idols, strangled meat, or blood. Paul later picked up these issues in his discussion of the strong and weak brothers (Romans 14:1 through 15:13). If Gentiles and observant Jewish believers were going to have table fellowship together, it was vital that the Gentiles did not do things to offend the other participants. Additionally, the Gentiles were told to abstain from sexual immorality — a moral requirement that binds all believers at all times.
The Acts 15 decision gives this principle: hold fast to the essentials of the gospel and compromise on differences that involve individual preferences. Imagine what would have happened if the Gentile believers had said, “No. We will continue to eat strangled meat. We will establish a church across the street and name it after our doctrinal distinctive, ‘First Strangled Chicken Church’.” That “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude would have forced the Jewish believers to establish a church named “First Non-Strangled Chicken Church.”
Too often, believers have divided over inconsequential matters.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
What good is a decision if no one knows about it? Once a decision had been made, the Jerusalem Council communicated it clearly by sending a letter to the Gentile believers. They commissioned two of their own, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, along with Barnabas and Paul, to carry the letter and verbally convey the decision.
The results are always positive when God’s people wisely solve disputes. Look at the good that came: (1) The Gentiles were gladdened and encouraged, (2) Judas and Silas exercised ministry in venues where they had never been before, and (3) the Word of the Lord continued to be taught and preached by not only Barnabas and Saul, but by “many others” (Acts 15:30–35). The stage had been set for the next great expansion — the second and third missionary journeys.
Conflict #3 — Methodology
Sometimes believers disagree over perceived inequities (Acts 6) or doctrine (Acts 15:1–35); more often than not, they disagree over methods — the best way to get the work of the Lord done (Acts 15:36–41).
The third and final conflict recorded in Acts deals with this latter issue. Paul said, “We get the work of the Lord better done by leaving Mark behind.” Barnabas replied, “We do God’s work better taking Mark with us — and besides, what did the Lord put me in the ministry for if not to help my relatives?”
The first two conflicts described in Acts ended with amicable resolutions. This one did not. Paul and Barnabas’ “sharp disagreement” resulted in each going his separate way. These two great friends parted because they could not agree. Regretfully, most of us have memories of divisions that resulted because persons of good will could not agree on the best way to do church or advance the Kingdom.
In the long run, both Barnabas and Paul were right. They were just not right at the same time.
Paul was right. If John Mark had flaked out on the first journey, the rigors of the second journey (that included the flogging at Philippi) would have flattened him.
Barnabas was right. Mark deserved a second chance. In the less stressful environment of Cyprus, Barnabas’ home island where the church was already established, John Mark had a chance to get back on his feet.
Mark recovered his courage and years later during Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome, Paul sent for Mark because Mark was “helpful” to him (2 Timothy 4:11).
Is there a conflict you cannot resolve — a conflict where neither of you are disobedient to the Lord, violating Scripture, nor stubbornly protecting your own self-interest? There is wisdom in parting ways when you cannot agree over methodology rather than trying to make the unworkable work. You can tie two cats’ tails together and get union, but you will not have unity.
If you must part, then keep a good spirit. Neither Paul nor Barnabas slandered each other, nor did they go somewhere and pout. They each went on with productive, fruitful ministry. They maintained a good heart and left the door open for reconciliation. First Corinthians 9:6, written from Ephesus during Paul’s third missionary journey, lets us know that they were working together again years later after they separated.
Our conflicts today may not match apple for apple with those found in Acts. Perhaps there are conflicts you face that fall into categories other than social fairness, doctrine, or methodology. The category does not matter.
These three disputes from the Early Church provide a template for handling any dispute. The bottom line for all conflict resolution is that the Kingdom is advanced. The disagreements related to treatment of widows, inclusion of the Gentiles, and the utilization of John Mark ultimately advanced the Kingdom. If you will keep the love of Jesus and seek the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit, your conflicts will also bring great advances for His cause. You may not see it right away, but He makes all things beautiful in His time.