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On Dispute

Acts  11:1-18

One of the many benefits of reading the Acts of the Apostles is this: we realize that being the church is neither easy nor obvious. They struggled with issues as we do; they had disputes among themselves as we do.

The problem facing the church here is one of tradition. Tradition is valuable; it is "yesterday's solution" to a problem. Most Americans reject it because it belongs to "yesterday"; we should also remember that it is a "solution."

The problem they are facing here is this: the covenant between man and God has changed, because of the Cross. What does that mean to the ordinary Christian (who at this time is Jewish) accustomed to dietary laws? We need to pick up a little history and such:

·         The nature of this change has not yet been fully revealed to the church. Not until AD 70, at the fall of Jerusalem, will the Jewish ritual sacrifices be abolished. So the old, traditional method is very much alive.

·         Doctrine is either directly revealed or worked out. Virtually all changes are responses to situations not originally found in the Scripture, but which apply the principles therein. This is a normal process in the church.

·         This particular change was prophesied - but no date was given.

·         Note too that the complaint against Peter was not taken from the Old Testament - but from the heaps of regulations added later.

The resolution of this dispute may serve as a model for us. In our learning, teaching and disputing, we should see a similar process to that shown by the early church.

(Acts 11:1-18 NIV) The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. {2} So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him {3} and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." {4} Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened: {5} "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. {6} I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air. {7} Then I heard a voice telling me, 'Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.' {8} "I replied, 'Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' {9} "The voice spoke from heaven a second time, 'Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.' {10} This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. {11} "Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. {12} The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man's house. {13} He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. {14} He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.' {15} "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. {16} Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' {17} So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" {18} When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

Peter's Defense


Peter clearly anticipated that there would be trouble with his actions "back home." It's easy to see why: he had the same objections himself! He's just gone through the process of overcoming his own traditional values, and he knows how hard it will be for others (who did not have the vision) to do the same.

This is a good example of putting yourself in the other guy's position. What, then, did Peter do about it?

·         Note that there are "six brothers" with him - six additional witnesses. We know from the previous chapter that these were not men from Jerusalem, but Joppa. Therefore, Peter has had the foresight to bring along these witnesses, so that the facts may be carefully established.

·         Why six? In Roman law the seals of seven witnesses (you have to count Peter here) made a document fully legal. I suspect that was in his mind.

Ready to change

Peter does not approach the dispute from the position (as one might imagine) of his own authority. He is ready to change (having just been through it). Note his actions:

·         There is no mention of his authority as head of the Apostles. Whatever that might say about Roman Catholic doctrine of Peter as first Pope, it also tells us that this dispute was conducted God's way.

·         At all points he emphasizes the leading of the Holy Spirit.

·         He is very patient with his questioners. For example, in verse 14 of Luke's account (no doubt abbreviated) he amplifies the fact that Cornelius was promised salvation. Clearly, he's going into detail here.

Remembering what the Lord said

His crowning argument is his memory of what the Lord said. At all points we must bring matters back to the Scripture.

·         At the very least this causes all to remember just exactly whose church this is. It is not mine; it is the bride of Christ. Therefore, we should be united in him.

·         And certainly it also reminds the church of the true foundation: Christ.

The Christian Method of Dispute

A side note: rebuke and dispute

Please note carefully that we are not talking about Christian rebuke here. There is no sense that Peter was "straightening these people out." He clearly understands their difficulty. So what's the difference between rebuke and dispute?


·         Rebuke is mandatory. If a brother is taken in sin, those who are spiritually mature must rebuke that brother.

·         Repentance is required, and that repentance is very often open repentance

·         So that others will be encouraged to repent

·         So that the sinner may claim the help of the church in avoiding further trouble

·         So that the church might see the power of God.

·         Rebuke carries its own temptation with it: we might fall into the same sin we are rebuking. Hence rebuke is restricted to "those who are spiritual."

·         Ultimately, rebuke may be harsh to the point of excommunication. This may be necessary for the salvation of our brother.


·         Dispute is optional. One can (in general) decline the dispute. This may in fact be the best option:

·         It is an act of charity to give up one's preferences in favor of another. We are to "prefer one another in honor."

·         There is also a sense in which, as Paul comments, "why not rather be wronged?" If the dispute itself is harmful to the body of Christ, would it not be better to forego the dispute?

·         Dispute within the church is generally best held "behind closed doors."

·         This is to preserve the reputation of the church before the world. It's easy for the non-Christian to misunderstand the trivial and take it for the important.

·         By taking the matter in private, we are not guilty of "instant escalation" of a dispute.

·         Dispute has its own temptations - different from rebuke.

·         There is always the temptation to say, "I'm right - therefore I should win this argument." This is simply not the case. There are many occasions where the one who is right should give way to others for the sake of Christ.

·         There is also the deadly temptation of pride in dispute. Sometimes dispute becomes "a point of principle" - which is a point of pride. And points of pride usually cause self-inflicted wounds.

So how, then, should dispute be conducted between Christians?

The Christian method of dispute

Peter and the early church have modeled it for us. Christian dispute is to be conducted:

·         With courtesy - for without courtesy as a lubricant anger quickly rises.

·         Peter does not "get up on his dignity." He does not remind them that he is the chief of the Apostles. There is no sense in his argument that he is offended by their questions; nor is there any offense given in return.

·         Indeed, the entire thrust of his argument is designed to give his opponents an easy way out. Rather than base his argument on his own authority, he rests upon God's own words. Thus he eliminates the temptation for them to rise up in pride.

·         Note that Peter's opponents follow this principle as well: the argument is about what Peter did; there is no "name calling."

·         With brotherly love - for this is a dispute between Christians, and dispute in no way diminishes the need for brotherly love. Indeed, it increases it.

·         I am, in a very real sense, my brother's keeper. He is my fellow member of the body; his pain is mine. In that sense, therefore, I should be very careful not to inflict unnecessary pain on my own body - right?

·         That brotherly love is the command of Christ. It is always necessary to conduct dispute as if Christ were watching and caring for us. We should remind each other of his call upon us.

·         We are to "prefer one another in love" as the King James Version had it. If the matter is not an essential of the faith, we should always be ready to sacrifice our own personal preferences for those of others.

·         As a side note, this certainly applies to arguments between husband and wife. How often anger rises when the love we would normally display for our fellow Christians is put aside when talking to the one we love!

·         With regard to the body of Christ - we must never forget that we are members of the same body, and have responsibility for that.

·         We are stewards of what God has given us. It's easy to argue with "no skin in the game." We need to realize that we all have a responsibility to the church as a whole. Reverence is required.

·         This too has its application in marriage. My wife is "my body" as the Scripture tells us. Every word of dispute should pass the test of "good for my body."

·         We need to remember that neither "I'm right" or "You're right" can be the answer. The answer is "He's right." We must seek the solution which Christ would have us use.

·         There is a very good test given at the end of this passage. Have we disputed as Christ would have us do so? If so, the dispute will end with the praise of God for the solution we have been given.

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