Acts 4 shows us clearly that the early church was outsider focused! However, like most churches, it didn't stay that way for long. As I have said, the natural gravitational pull for every local church is to gradually become insider focused. And the early church was no exception. In Acts 15 we read of the first major church conflict. It was so serious that they called all of the church leaders to Jerusalem for a special meeting to discuss the issue. Look what the issue was about. "Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1 (NASB)
Can you imagine the reaction from the new believers? "Uh, Paul didn’t tell us about that part!" I can picture the complaints from the leaders, "For some reason, our new believers class is all women!"
But seriously, this was their issue. The tension was between grace and the law. And before we get too critical about how absurd this thinking was, we must be careful because this kind of tension can easily creep into our churches today, too. No, we're not arguing over circumcision, but have you ever heard these comments in church? "Look at what he’s wearing" or "what’s that thing on his face?" or "look at that ink on her body" or "they don't look like a Christian to me."
If we’re not careful, we all settle into our comfortable version of Christianity and what a person in our church should look like and act like and anything outside of our comfort zone is criticized. The natural pull on a local church is to keep it's insiders happy. It tends to focus more on those it's trying to keep than on those it's trying to reach. This was the problem Paul, Peter, James and the rest of the early church leaders had to solve.
After much discussion, James the brother of Jesus, stands up and makes a declaration. He said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Acts 15:19 (NIV)
I love this statement! We should not make it difficult for people to turn to God. This has become one of my life verses. If there is anything that makes it difficult for people to have a relationship with God, we should remove it! Often times, we are the ones standing in the way of an individual's relationship with God. Our natural desire as pastors to keep the insiders happy and comfortable can result in methods that repel the very ones we are placed on this planet to reach.
The story concludes with the church leadership sending a letter to all of the Gentile churches. I can imagine the tension in the room as the church gathered to read the declaration. The men gathered around, anxiously wondering "surgery or no surgery." Here's what the letter said.
"Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell." Acts 15:24-29 (NIV)
The letter basically covered 2 things:
- try not to offend the Jews, and
- abstain from sexual immorality!
In light of everything that was on the table, that's not too bad. And then comes the biggest understatement in the whole Bible. Verse 31 says, "The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message." I would guess so!
The church avoided the first split and effectively managed the tensions between moral imperatives and grace, methods of outreach and discipleship, the requirements of the insiders and souls of the outsiders! Every church throughout the generations has struggled with these same issues. To resist the natural gravitational pull towards an insider focus we must remember that the Message is sacred, the methods are not!
Question: Is your focus more on who you are trying to keep or on who you are trying to reach?