Settling Disputes and Acts 15

By Paul K. Williams

In an article concerning “Quarreling Brethren” (GOT 12-4-97) brother Keith M. Greer describes the controversy concerning “the proper exegesis of Romans 14.” He says he has studied “both sides” of these issues (I have detected considerably more sides than that), and he is concerned by attitudes of distrust evidenced by men involved in the controversy. That concerns me, too.

However, I am greatly alarmed at the solution he pro- poses. I was hoping that since he had studied everything so carefully he would give us an exegesis of the passage. Instead he wrote: “What did the apostles, elders, and brethren do in Acts 15 when a difference arose in the early church? They met to discuss the matter. Why? For the sake of the church and the love they had for the souls of their brethren.”

It is good for brethren to meet together and study the Bible. But to use the meeting of Acts 15 as a model for settling doctrinal differences is very dangerous. The denominations use that meeting to justify their “Church Councils” where delegates meet together and settle what must be believed and practiced in their denominations. Brother Greer’s suggestion that leading brethren get together in a meeting to settle the question of the correct exegesis of Romans 14 sounds like a “Church Council” to me, and it is not what happened in Jerusalem.

False teachers came from Jerusalem to Antioch teaching that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas opposed them strenuously. However, the church decided to send men to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

There were two things which had to be determined. (1) Were the teachers of circumcision sent out by the church in Jerusalem to teach these things? (2) What was the teaching of the apostles on the matter?

Since Paul was an apostle, the church at Antioch should have listened to him without question. But evidently the false teachers were so plausible in their claims that brethren were shaken. They wanted the matter determined in a definite way. This was pleasing to God for Paul wrote, “It was because of a revelation that I went up” (Gal. 2:2). God wanted this matter settled in the minds of the disciples.

When Paul and Barnabas got to Jerusalem, it immediately became evident that (1) the false teachers had not been sent out by the church in Jerusalem. They wrote concerning them — “to whom we gave no instruction” (Acts 15:24), and (2) the apostles all taught what Paul taught on the matter.

The final, general meeting of all the brethren was a time when Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James used approved example, necessary conclusion, and direct statement from Scripture to convince the multitude of the truth (Acts 15:6- 29). They then wrote a letter stating that the teachers went out without their authority and telling what God’s will is.

These men had the right to write such a letter because they were apostles. What they wrote had the force of Scripture. No meeting of uninspired men today can do what the apostles did in Acts 15!

What brother Greer has written sounds like if all the quarrelling brethren would get together and agree on a solution, the problem would be solved and we would all know what to believe! It reminds me of a telephone conversation my wife had with a sister back in 1957. After my wife patiently taught the sister that church-supported orphan homes are not authorized by the New Testament, the lady said, “But they haven’t decided that yet, have they?” I still wonder who “they” are! The apostles decided it a long time ago. We don’t have any deciding to do except to understand what they taught and to obey it.

This is done by individual study, not by a church conference. It is done by appealing to apostolic example, necessary conclusion, and direct statement from Scripture. It is done by testing our conclusions by study with others, by debate, by articles, and the reviews of those articles. And it is done individually. Collective decisions don’t count for a thing!

As for personal sins against one another, face-to-face meetings are what Matthew 18:15-17 tells us we should have. We should study the Bible with one another when there are differences of understanding. But church conferences in order to settle a doctrinal matter are fraught with danger and lead in the direction of denominationalism.