So it’s 11:30pm on Monday night and I’m finally getting around to writing my reflection on the sermon yesterday! We leave tomorrow for a brief three day family trip so today was pretty busy as I tried to get stuff done that I normally do on Tuesday through Thursday.
I have come to love Acts chapter 15 and the account of the Jerusalem Council. I love it because I think it shows us a picture of church leadership in action in a powerful way on a very important issue. The gospel was being threatened by people who said that believing in Jesus was not enough and were saying that people had to do certain good works in order to be saved. By the end of the council’s meeting, the church has affirmed that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone and has protected the unity of the church around the central truth of the gospel.
I called this sermon “Systems Check” because the early church had to check it’s way of thinking and doing things against the Word of God. We all have “systems” or ways that we normally think or act. Our systems are usually based around the highest priority in our lives. It could be money, power, what people think of us. It could be tradition or change, fear or self-doubt. When we face a difficult situation we grab the handle attached to that central gear of our system and we turn the crank. The system goes into production and out comes a response. Oh sure, we have the ability to make different choices, but we have to at least admit that those choices are largely determined by our greatest priorities around which we have built our systems.
The early church could have given a quick answer. They could have grabbed the handle attached to their greatest priority and turned it and then responded accordingly. For some churches the greatest priority is tradition – doing things the way it’s always been done. For some it is change – purposely doing things differently than it’s always been done. Both represent systems based around a central priority and both can be drastically out of line with the mission of the gospel.
But the early church didn’t just respond out of their “system.” They took the harder route to judge how they thought against God’s Word. In fact, it isn’t just what the council decides that is so important – it’s how they decide it. They start by listening to everyone that they can. Paul and Barnabas tell their stories of what God has done on their first missionary journey. The believers from the Pharisee group tell how they think the Gentiles must keep the Law of Moses. Others must have been given the chance to speak as well because verse 7 says, “after much discussion…” At several points in the narrative we are shown that there was a rather large crowd. At the beginning of the meeting, the entire church of Jerusalem seems to be involved (verse 4 says they were welcomed by “the church” – not just the leaders). Verse 6 tells us that the “apostles and elders met to consider this question” but they either did this with the rest of the church present or greatly involved the rest of the church throughout the process because verse 12 calls the group “the whole assembly” (which would be an odd way of referring to just the leadership) and verse 22 says that after James makes his recommendation for what they should do that “the apostles and elders with the whole church” come up with a plan to carry it out.
As they are listening and involving the people (which turns a crisis into a discipleship opportunity!) they are also weighing everything against God’s Word. Peter tells about what Christ has taught him in regards to the Gentiles being accepted through Christ and not through the Old Testament Law. James cites passages from the Old Testament that show that it was always God’s will to accept the Gentiles. They take this information and use it, instead of their own “systems” to weigh the current situation and the conflict that is being caused by a challenge to the core of the gospel.
This is true leadership in action. Not only are the leaders not just pushing their own agenda, they are purposely taking the time to check their agenda against the word of God. No top down authoritarianism. They are involving the people by first listening to them, letting them see how the decision is reached, and then involving them again in carrying out the solution.
The main “gear” of our “systems” needs to be the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and God’s Word must be the standard against which our systems must measure up. This is true in the church and in our individual lives. If we truly believe that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace, then why would we want to try to figure things out and do them our way? We will instead want to do them God’s way as we check everything against His Word. This is the role of leadership in the church and it should also be evident in the lives of Christians as we seek to be led by Christ on this gospel mission.
Disclaimer: any typos or blatant heresy in this post is due to the fact that the author should probably be sleeping…
photo by Flickr user bluebus