The Spirit of Debate

I love to have a good argument! 

One of my favorite memories from college was debating with my good friend, Brian Johnson.  We argued about anything and everything… politics, religion, who could marry, why you shouldn’t marry, our favorite philosophers, the best movie, you get the picture.  There was something about a debate with Mr. Johnson that made your heart beat faster and sharpened your intellect.  You were thinking deeply.  You were listening for flaws and places to make counterpoints. You were learning what rhetorical strategies worked and which didn’t. 

Most of mine, didn’t work. 

I lost a lot of debates with my good friend – probably because he was on course to become a professor of philosophy – but through it all, we remained good friends.  Even when we got flustered after a good fight, we could turn around and the next moment go eat dinner together. 

Debating and politicking can be exciting… to a point.  But sometimes a vigorous debate turns into a personal attack.  Sometimes fighting just for the sake of fighting reveals hidden anxieties and anger.  And sometimes, when parties impose their ideas on others, reality clashes with ideals and people are hurt in the process. 

It is a reality we see all the time in Washington, D.C. as political parties refuse to compromise their platforms to deal with the lived reality of the people they are called to serve.  But it is also a reality in our churches.  A good natured debate, a serious conversation about what we should do sometimes turns ugly and hurts our Body of Christ far more than we could imagine.

In Acts 15, we find one of the first recorded official church council meetings.  In the history books and in the headings of our bibles, we know this as the Council of Jerusalem.  It was the first time the church leaders gathered together to make an important decision about what should be done… and about who could be included.

Conflict is normal and expected in the life of a church.  In fact, as Rev. Dr. Jill Sanders reminds me often, conflict is simply two different ideas occupying the same space.  How we handle that conflict, and what kind of debate we have, is what can make or break relationships and groups. 

As the Holy Spirit moved through this early church argument, we can learn about how we, too, in the 21st century can handle the conflict that arises.

First – when the question or problem arises, you address it directly.

The issue in this instance was a debate about whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be saved.  That is, did they have to become Jewish before they could accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. 

Paul and Barnabas were out working among the people and gentiles were converting to the Jesus left and right.  All along, all they had ever taught was that Jesus was the way and the truth and the life.  No prerequisites.  No admission exams. Christ and Christ alone was the source of salvation. 

But a group of folks comes along teaching something different.  Paul and Barnabas could have had a number of options here. 

They could have ignored this new teaching and continued to do what they were doing… with both ideas growing up alongside of one another in the community.  But that only delays the debate until a time when people are more entrenched in one position or another.

They could have driven the newcomers out of town violently… which was what sometimes happened to them when their teachings were not well received by a community.

But Barnabas and Paul had the wherewith all to directly address the problem. They confronted the teachers and argued against them.  They spoke their piece.  They defended their position.  And most assuredly, the other side made their arguments as well.  A healthy conflict allows room for disagreement and conversation.  It allows for people to stand in one place or another.  They talked and argued until they were finished.

What our scriptures don’t tell us is how this conflict was resolved.  There is no tale of winners and losers in the debate.  What we next hear is that Paul and Barnabas are being sent from Antioch – the community they were serving – to go up to Jerusalem to get an official ruling on the issue. 

Which leads me to point two:  some arguments and debates are bigger than us as individuals.  A sign of maturity and health in any conflict is calling in other voices when the debate has reached a stalemate. 

In the world of business, this might be a mediator.  In a marriage, this might involve seeing a counselor.  In a church, its when you place a call to your district superintendent.  Sometimes we need neutral third parties to help us to see the bigger picture and to resolve our differences. 

But sometimes, we also need to have a larger conversation because the impact of our decisions involve more than simply us. 

The church in Antioch realized that the debate they were having would merely be repeated time and time again across the world… it was not a question only for them, but for the whole Body of Christ.  The power of a group speaking together – of a group deciding to live one way or another – would define that body one way or another.  They could either be a church who welcomed Gentiles as they were or a church who demanded circumcision, but they couldn’t be both.  They made a mature decision and sent the question to a higher authority.

That is not to say that all arguments require calling in the big guns.  If a church can’t agree about what color of carpet to install, the bishop doesn’t need to be informed.  The carpet isn’t a life or death matter of identity. 

But when we have fundamental disagreements about who to welcome, or how to interact with a particular social issue like immigration, then we might find we are having conversations that are bigger than us. 

That doesn’t mean they are conversation we shouldn’t participate in or have a voice in… it simply means that we also need to include others. 

So the Council of Jerusalem meets and the apostles and the elders all gather together to hear about what they problem is and to make an official decision. 

The third thing that we can learn is what the nature of these discussions should be.  As Acts 15 describes this debate, it plays out much like a courtroom scene.  Parties stand and argue their case.  People listen and wait their turn.  The gathering is respectful and honest with one another.

One of the more powerful realities of this testimony of scripture is that names are not tossed back and forth.  No party is painted to be the bad guy.  There is no negative campaigning or slander.  Each group simply speaks the truth about who they are, what they have experienced, and what they believe.

Those who believed in circumcision stood and made their case from the perspective of tradition and then others began to speak as well. 

Peter stood and talked about his vision of the gospel for the Gentiles and the conversion of Cornelius.  He lifted up the revelation of God he had received and his calling to carry that message back to the church.

Barnabas and Paul stood and spoke about their ministry among the gentiles and the signs and wonders they saw. 

And in each case, the people were allowed to tell their whole story.  They weren’t questioned or cross-examined.  They simply shared their experience and others listened.  They listened completely – not with the intent of finding flaws in the argument or ways to defeat them… they simply listened. 

When one party was done speaking, they waited in silence until the next voice was ready to speak.  It was a respectful, holy debate. 

And when all had spoken, James felt moved to respond on behalf of the assembly.  He lifted up the scriptures and the precedent for ministry to Gentiles even in the Old Testament.  He made a statement, and it was affirmed by the whole body. Gentiles would be welcomed, as they were… no additional burden would be placed upon them.

A letter was written and sent out to all the churches – a letter that would clarify the church teaching, a letter to provide stability and unity among the people of God. This letter assured the people that the Holy Spirit had led them to a decision… no burden would be placed upon them but these essentials: to refuse food offered to idols and refrain from sexual immorality. 

John Wesley was often fond of saying: In essentials, unity; in unessentials, liberty; in all things – charity (that is to say, love). 

In the course of their debate, the early church argued about the essentials – about how we are saved and who we should be as the people of God.  And sometimes their positions on those essentials would change – as would later happen with the prohibition against eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. But there were also many questions they didn’t address and left unanswered.  There were questions that were not important and were practiced differently depending on what city or village you were in at the time. 

But perhaps most important is that these conversations happened with grace and love and respect. 

With my friend, Brian Johnson, our friendship was always prioritized above all else.  The questions we were asking of one another did not ultimately matter.  Brian might disagree with me of course =) , but I guess I mean that even if there was a right answer, our friendship was more important than the debate we were having. Sure, the questions were important and someday we might be in positions and places where the decisions we made and the answers we arrived at really would matter.  But what was truly important was the fact that we could argue and disagree and still love one another. 

The same is not always the case with the church.  The same is certainly not the case in our nation.  We yell and demonize and refuse to listen to one another. We line up for chicken sandwiches or stay home and choose to boycott.  We get so caught up in the little things, the unessentials that don’t matter, that we have no energy left to talk about what is really important. 

May we let go of our fears and our pride.  May we open our hearts and minds to truly listen to one another.  And may we have a different sort of argument… an argument filled with the spirit of love. 

Amen and Amen.

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