And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. - Acts 15:2
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. - Acts 15:30
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. - Acts 15:32
This passage has served as the foundation for both Protestant denominational polities and the Catholic Church, all of which have shown many a time to be faulty, flawed, and flummoxing. Yet in reading this passage, I can't help but have hope that a church can be healthy and operate with grace and wisdom, not only in the things that they agree in but in its disagreements as well.
First, there is a healthy sense of community. The Apostle Paul doesn't always come across as the warmest, friendliest guy to hang out with. Yet in all his writings, he holds a communal view the Christian life. No person makes spiritual decisions in their own mind vacuums and there's always a sense of accountability with those who stand alongside him. When disagreement comes to Judean believers, they discuss things civilly. The temptation for both sides had to have been to part ways and continue on in their own ways, not seeking to find a resolution. Plugging their debate into our current bi-partisan political and social context, they would've demonized one another, yelled and screamed and gotten nothing done. Instead, they agreed that there needed to be more voices involved.
This leads to the second thought; they had a healthy sense of authority. In sending the discussion geographically down to Jerusalem, the church leaders in Antioch were sending their trust up to Jerusalem, that the elders there would render a fair, thoughtful, and faithful judgment. In a time where institutions are under constant suspicion and anything that reeks of authority is automatically seen as oppression, these churchmen understood the necessity of allowing others more seasoned to speak into their dilemma. Furthermore, their trust was not in these men but in the God that had given them this authority to serve and honor Him in this manner. When an understanding had been reached, all who attended the Jerusalem council carried the result to their respective churches, preserving the heart of the gospel and further establishing the 1st-century church.
Things don't always go smoothly though and we see that with what happens between Paul and Barnabas. These two men seemed like a dynamic duo, ready to rock for the Lord all the way to Rome. However they reached an impasse on who else should accompany them. What they didn't do though is disparage each other and lift up their own ministries. They simply agreed that it was time to part ways and begin a new season of work with another. It was a healthy sense of disagreement. It didn't need to devolve into right and wrong, good and evil. Ultimately, they recognized that all their work was of the Lord, regardless of where they went and who they went with. In every step, there is a sense of submission to the Lordship of Christ in their calling.
The more we think that we're the master of our own fates and captains of our own souls rather than believing that God is, the more we will reject others speaking into our lives. The less willing we are to respect authority and wisdom guide us. The more poisonous are our disagreements with others because we're focused on protecting what we believe is rightfully ours. God working through the character of these early church saints formed the foundation for the church as we see her today. We would do good to live in Christian communities that value the voices of each other, trust the prudence and direction of God-granted authority, and learn to disagree with grace and patience.