When you read the New Testament, you really want to see a group of people united in purpose, thoroughly converted, working together for the greater purpose of converting the world to Christ. It is a measure of the honesty of the New Testament writers, though, that you see them for what they were: thoroughly human, torn by dissension, disagreeing on the very fundamental doctrines of the faith, struggling for the very soul of the infant church.
None of this should surprise us at all if we set aside our expectations, if we just look around us at the dynamics of society at large, or even at the church. There are only two ways, really, that human beings can be truly united. One is under outside threat, as in a war. The other way is by external coercion. Parts of the church have often been united by persecution, and parts of the church have sometimes been united by coercion. Whenever the church was able to use the power of the state, oftentimes they were able to maintain a uniformity in the church by that power.
It never seems to occur to people that the kind of unity Jesus wanted in the church was a voluntary
unity of the Spirit—and you have to learn that. Mainly, you have to learn to overcome the spirit of division that seems to be everywhere and permeate everything. And it doesn’t happen overnight; over time you learn it by working with people. Still, it falls strange on the ears to hear of the real human attitudes that existed in Paul, Barnabas, and others in the New Testament. Let’s begin with an example from the 15th chapter of Acts.