What God’s Word Says about Debates
The Bible doesn’t declare debates are always helpful or well managed. But they are necessary, and leaders of the early church weren’t afraid to address tough topics in the interest of protecting the integrity of the gospel.
One of the most famous Bible debates is found in Acts 15. The topic was circumcision, but the principle at stake was much broader. Allow me to explain:
Circumcision was the Old Testament sign of the covenant. All faithful Jewish parents circumcised their male infants in obedience to God. Since the first church of the New Testament was Jewish, members likely never considered the possibility they might worship with uncircumcised people groups.
Until the Gentiles became Christians.
Once this cultural line was crossed, the church became divided in its view toward circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the old covenant and was not required to follow Christ. However, since it had traditionally been seen as a sign of faithfulness to God, it was hard for many Jews to fathom a church with uncircumcised believers.
One day some tightly wound troublemakers travelled from Judea to Antioch, where Gentiles were coming to Christ, and began stirring up dissention over the circumcision issue. As a result, the church at Antioch sent the Apostle Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to debate the matter with the church leaders there. This event is called “The Jerusalem Council.” In the end, it was decided circumcision was unnecessary, but an appeal was made that Gentiles “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29)
I read the account of this debate this week and found some practices worth noting in this season of political debate. I am not suggesting a spiritual debate is the same as a political one, or that we should expect politicians to follow Christian principles. But, perhaps, there is something to be learned from the early church.
The Jerusalem debate was rooted in a common bond. When Paul and Barnabas arrived. they were welcomed by the church, along with the apostles and elders there. Everyone knew the topic of circumcision was a difficult one, but people on all sides of the debate acknowledged one another as members of the same spiritual body. Political debates should begin with the same mutual respect for fellow Americans. We are all a part of a great nation, and we share a sacred responsibility to maintain the Constitution and the principle of freedom.
The Jerusalem debate began by celebrating spiritual victories. Paul and Barnabas rehearsed everything God was doing through them. We aren’t told how the apostles and elders initially reacted to their news, but we are told the people Paul and Barnabas met on their way to Jerusalem rejoiced over the progress that was taking place among the Gentiles. It would be unrealistic to expect political debates to begin with prayers of thanksgiving, although it wouldn’t hurt. But perhaps a more positive and grateful attitude on everyone’s part would be a good thing.
The Jerusalem debate allowed dissenting voices to express their opinions. I will add that this debate did not take place in public, where people with a growing faith could become confused or be hurt. However, within the closed context of the council, even the Christian Pharisees were allowed to speak. They, of course, were on the side of circumcision. We should expect we will not agree with everyone, regardless of the topic. But it is important that those with opposing views have a clear statement of belief and be allowed to share. The Pharisees said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). There was no mocking or name-calling at the council. Everyone made their views known without attacking one another’s character or personhood.
The participants in the Jerusalem debate were good listeners. The Bible says, “The whole assembly became silent as they listened” (Acts 15:12). They were thinking instead of talking. Talk is good, but talk without reflection is often nothing more than talk. This may be the most disheartening characteristic of modern political debates: they aren’t about listening. They are about winning, not arriving at a mutually beneficial conclusion.
The Jerusalem debate ended with a good outcome. The requirements the council placed on the Gentile churches was a big opinionated. With the exception of sexual immorality, their requests were mostly a matter of personal preference. Yet, the Gentile church grew, and the circumcision issue was officially removed as an obstacle to the gospel.
This would be my personal hope for all aspects of our political process. Not that circumcision would be removed (in case I lost you in my transition). But rather that everyone would seek an outcome that would provide a blessing for our great country and our descendants. We are stewards of our society, and we cannot afford to view government merely as a means to feed our selfish ambitions.
The future depends on our ability to nurture what we have been given and leave it better than we found it.
On this, there should be no debate.
But I’m sure one exists.