Public discourse seems to have lost its civility these days. Periods of rapid social upheaval contribute to a combustible atmosphere where even moderately heated discussions create flash fires and ground shaking explosions. As a lifelong member of academic communities (from the beginning of my academic career at 5 years old in Galatia, Illinois, to receiving professor emeritus status from Urshan Graduate School of Theology last year when I was 55), I always thought universities where places to explore ideas in a respectful way. Now major universities have ‘safe zones’ where students can hide from ideas that challenge or threaten them.
Safe-zones supposedly protect students from encountering emotionally challenging ideas. Proponents suggest such places keep students emotionally comfortable at all times. While the image of God should never be attacked in a person by considering them less valuable than the majority group, constant emotional comfort is not an option for adults or even children. The freedom to discuss ideas, respectfully challenge positions of others, collect data from various perspectives may be too old fashioned to support in our diverse world.
Shuttering places to share diverse perspectives kills the perspective taking need to understand others. Refusing to listen hardens differences and actively contributes to culture wars, civil unrest, and conditions for violence.
Not every idea is good. Not every perspective will stand the test of time, but healing cannot happen until voices can be respected enough to be heard. Historically silencing opposing voices has led to dictatorships that often progress from silencing voices to murder and genocide in the guise of creating a safer, purer environment for a brighter future. If this is true of society in general, how much more it is true for the church.
Luke’s story that began with angel voices announcing John Baptist and Jesus’ birth continued through to the disciples taking the good news to the world. Many growth moments sprang from the soil of misunderstanding and disagreement. Often I wonder how the Holy Spirit could work with such people. Then hope breaths again in my chest… maybe the Holy Spirit can still work with such people like me today.
Reading Acts 11 reveals Luke’s appreciation for redundancy. He frequently retells stories to help the reader see beyond the travelogue surface of the book. Like a historian from the last generation, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Luke told the story of missionary work rather than a diary of events. Retelling the story reveals the key actors, the plot, and the conflict. Jesus was always the key actor. The plot always led to multiplication of disciples. More threats came from within the church than from society around them.
In Acts 11, Luke exposes threats to missional faithfulness by celebrating the Spirit’s work in settling disagreements. The Spirit worked to encourage the ‘conservative’ leaders to confront the ‘liberal’ leaders. Conservative forces sought to keep the church the way it was … limited to the Jewish believers. The Spirit helped Peter serve as a transitional leader to hear God’s voice by reflecting on the past events, truly hearing the concerns of his brothers, and telling the story of God’s grace. The Spirit freed the troubled leaders to be silent as they listened and then glorify God in wonder of the kingdom’s expansion to the Gentiles.
What result came from the church listening to the Spirit and each other? “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (v. 21). The Spirit did not stop with resolving the conflict and adding new believers. Jesus’ declaration that all power was His and He would use that power to make disciples can be seen in Acts 11. New converts required discipleship. The church sent a good, spirit filled, man of faith named Barnabas to bring spiritual infants through a season of maturation.
For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught them. They knew the wonder of new birth. They could celebrate the wonder of a transformed life, but they needed instruction in purposefully living out the ways of Jesus. People who never saw Jesus in the flesh became known as Christ followers because of Barnabas and Saul’s discipleship ministry. The same power that made the crowd say Peter had been with Jesus now made a new generation of saints from a completely different culture “faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.”
These new parts of the church did not carry a stigma of ‘our generation’ or ‘our culture’. They became part of the culture of Christ even though their journey to faith looked different from the established church. Their worship looked a bit different with strange languages and other cultural differences. Yet they knew they belonged to the same faith family. When famine came to the established church, the new believers did the work of a disciple … they provided care for brothers and sisters in need.
Acts 11 was not the first or last occasion of sharp disagreement in the early church. Strong leaders with equally strong opinions on how the church should navigate change had to repeatedly take the risk of sharing their differences, hearing the perspectives of others, and listening for the Spirit to guide them through treacherous paths in the journey. Caring enough for the gospel, each other, and the mission instilled this Apostolic method of conflict resolution.
I think I need to pray.
I repent of moments when I shied away from conflict in an effort to just get along. I know I tend to keep the peace rather than see the creative work of the Spirit in times when brothers and sisters lovingly share their understanding of the mission. Have mercy on us, Oh, Lord! Make us a people of Your goodness, Spirit, and faith like Barnabas. Help us to understand Your safe zones always explore differences no matter how painful the process may be. Your safe zones come equipped with grace and spiritual giftings to help us speak and listen defenselessly. Help us to leave those rooms as worshipping missionaries ready to transition new converts into disciples that have been with You.
Thy kingdom come thy will be done.
In Jesus Name,