This one is a topic near and dear to my heart, especially because it has such a big impact on people and how they see their relationship with God. It can be a struggle finding the line between legalism and truth, learning the relationship between God being just and God being love. That being said, I so loved reading about how early church leaders handled a situation along these lines in Acts 15.
At the beginning of Acts 15, men were spreading a teaching that was originally put in place for the Jews according to the Law. Now the gospel was spreading to the Gentiles (non-Jewish believers) as well, but the men were teaching this Jewish custom still needed to be practiced in order for people to be saved. This was burdening the Gentile believers, and it caused Paul and Barnabas to have “great dissension and debate” with the men spreading this teaching (v. 2). After debating the matter, Peter also speaks up:
“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” – Acts 15:7b-11 (NASB)
Following this, the people silently listened as Paul and Barnabas shared all they had seen God do among the Gentiles, explaining that yes, God is moving among these people. This is real and it’s true. Finally, James answers as well by showing through Scripture that what the church was seeing aligned with Scripture. The apostles and elders then together choose to send a letter of explanation and guidance to the Gentile believers who had been grieved:
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” – Acts 15:24-29 (NASB)
I so admire how Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James had such a heart for people, they jumped in immediately when they heard about a teaching grieving Gentile believers. It was as if to say: “Hold up, guys! This is hurting them. This teaching is weighing down the very people God has set free.” Their hearts were so sensitive to protecting the “flock,” they were willing to address hard issues and go through difficult debates among themselves in order to find the truth and keep the teaching that was being shared pure – One that reveals Jesus’ yoke as truly easy and His burden as truly light (Matt. 11:28-30). They didn’t do it in their own strength either; They sought and relied upon the Holy Spirit’s help in making a decision that aligned with the heart of God.
What is so important here is they didn’t sacrifice the truth in order to lighten the load. The truth does set people free because of what it is and Who it comes from; It doesn’t need our modifications. Truth watered down is bondage just the same as truth with added standards and rules. Teaching no boundaries kills just as teaching too many does. It took time and uncomfortable conversations to reach the truth, but their heart was to protect people and the cost of not coming to an agreement, together in one mind reaching out to the believers, was higher than the cost of temporarily upsetting people by speaking out and drawing attention to a pressing issue – people in distress.
Reading this chapter challenged me to ask: Do we do this? One passage of Scripture that kills me is Ezekiel 34:4-6 (NASB):
Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.
For those of us who aren’t pastors, maybe the question raised is how can we apply this? If we have people in our lives, there is someone we can be watching out to protect and strengthen. For parents, it’s your kids. For bosses, your employees. For leaders, anyone you have been entrusted to lead. For all Christians, it could be people we come in contact with on a regular basis but haven’t gotten to know well yet.
Acts 15 continues on to say when the Gentile believers read the letter, they “rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31, NASB). Furthermore, Judas and Silas stayed beyond the letter to encourage and strengthen the believers there. They invested in the health and growth of the people who, if left unnoticed, would have remained weighed down by a burden they were not meant to bear. Those are two completely different outcomes, but the one that led to freedom required a pastoral heart that remained sensitive to the Holy Spirit, remained sensitive to the flock, and was willing to throw itself in front of people in order to protect them. Do we do this?
Here’s to a journey that sees the broken and shields them, sees the weak and protects them, sees the hurting and heals them, sees the hungry and feeds them, prays for wisdom and receives it – because the prayer comes from a heart that so loves and longs to glorify God, He will faithfully lead the way.
The questions that came to my heart after reading Acts 15 were the following, but I’d love to hear any others that come to yours too:
- Do we recognize when people are grieving and weighed down by our customs?
- Do we know how to separate what is necessary from what is customary?
- Are we sensitive to when God is trying to show us the hope He is giving to people who have been pushed aside?
- Are we asking the Holy Spirit to help us protect and strengthen these people?
- Do we see those people?
- Are we sharing the truth that sets people free, binds their wounds, revives their hearts? Or are we making Christianity something that weighs people farther and farther down until they cannot bear the weight any longer?
- Do we gather up the broken and help them heal or do we push them away when they cannot meet the set standard?
- Is there peace with our “truth” or is it accompanied with shame that leads to further bondage and heartache?
- Is the burden heavy?
- Are we willing to put in the time and effort to seek truth, search Scripture, and risk ruffling a few feathers among ourselves in order to come to an agreement?
- Do we see them? And if we do, are we responding the way we need to?