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Missionary letters don’t hold back

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Conflict in the early church

The missionary journey of Paul and Silas from Acts 13–15 reminds me of the support letters that workers send out from church plants and overseas projects – except for one thing. Conflict! Unlike the success stories our missionaries regularly send out – personality differences and theological squabbles left unmentioned – Luke’s chronicle of the early church candidly discusses conflict and persecution, not only with society, but also within the church itself.

This is surprising since this will be remembered as the start of the spread of Christianity over the entire globe. Luke is describing the first time leaders of the church were commissioned to share the news about Jesus on an intentional journey to both Jews and Gentiles. You might think he’d be a bit more positive!

A checkered history?

In Acts 13:4–12, Paul and Barnabas face conflict with the Jewish magician Bar-Jesus as Christianity comes in direct competition with certain forms of Judaism, magic, and streams of popular religion (conflict 1).

Almost the whole city of Antioch of Pisidia turns out to hear them preach (Acts 13:44–49). Despite the fact some of the Jews jealously slander Paul (conflict 2), the word of the Lord spreads through the whole region. These same leaders incite God-fearing women and leading men of the city to persecute Paul and Barnabas (conflict 3), causing them to shake the dust off their feet and head to a new town (13:50–52).

In Iconium, some of the Jews poison the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas (conflict 4), but they stay there a long time, preaching boldly and performing miracles (14:1–4). Still in Iconium, a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decide to attack and stone them (conflict 5). When the apostles learn of it, they flee to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and there preach the good news.

While in Lystra (14:8–20), the apostles heal a man crippled from birth who had faith in their message. The crowd, thinking they are the gods Zeus and Hermes, prepare to make sacrifices to them in the temple of Zeus. Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes, leaving town again when those same Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrive and win over the crowd (conflict 6).

Chapter 15 finds the apostles at Antioch of Syria arguing with some men from Judea who are teaching that physical circumcision is necessary for salvation (conflict 7).

Finally, the church sends Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders. The Council of Jerusalem is held to resolve the issue through long discussions and stories of God’s miraculous signs among the Gentiles. As a result, the apostles and elders together with the whole church choose and send delegates to Antioch with a letter to the Gentile believers (15:1–35).

After having been through all this conflict together, Paul and Barnabas have so sharp a disagreement about whether or not to take John Mark with them on their journey that they separate and go their own ways (conflict 8, Acts 15:35–41).

Healthy views of conflict

These two men faced conflict around every corner! Conflict with other religions and occult practices. Conflict with Jewish religious leaders and people of power within society. Conflict among Jews and Gentiles. Conflict within the church…. And, after all they’ve been through together, they part ways – in conflict with one another!

Many have studied this passage to explain away the personal conflict between Paul and Barnabas. (They eventually reconciled: in Paul’s later letters, he speaks well of Barnabas.) But as we follow the apostles on this first missionary journey, two truths are evident.

Conflict is a normal, necessary part of life, even in the life of the church.
Conflict is something God can use to move us deeper into community with one another, to sharpen our focus and mission, and to guide us into new paths of ministry that we would never have taken. It’s not something to be feared, ignored, or pushed under the rug. The key is to know how to fight fair. To face conflict with understanding and respect for one another.

There are a variety of ways to navigate conflict. Paul and Barnabas responded differently in various situations of conflict – sometimes they pushed through; sometimes they dusted off their feet and left. At times, they held long discussions; other times, vehement debates ensued.

Luke apparently did not want us to have an idealized picture of who the early church was. As we enter and contribute to the life of a local church and larger conference, let’s commit to facing conflicts with deep love for one another, aware of our own unhealthy habits or blind spots, and treating each other with respect. In that way, conflict will lead us into deeper community and into deeper mission in our world, as it did for those early apostles.

Next time you read a support letter, pray for wisdom and love in the midst of the conflict written between the lines.

Rebecca Stanley is a church planter with Urban Journey, Vancouver, and a Mennonite Brethren chaplain at University of British Columbia.
Acts 13-15
(link to BibleGateway.com)

Acts 13:3

So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

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