Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard and Matt Skinner.
Article written by Matt Skinner.
Can we experience unified communities and faithful living when people disagree? If Christians take differing positions on ethical issues or can’t agree about a particular course of action, have they failed at listening to the Holy Spirit?
We do not always hear the Holy Spirit as an unmistakably uniform voice. What if that’s part of how the Spirit works? What if Christians can still be unified even when holding quite different convictions about what God would have them do in a given situation? What if differences aren’t a sign of spiritual sluggishness but are a means of discovering spiritual vitality?
A curious biblical text, Acts 21:1-6, suggests this can be the case. The passage deserves attention whenever we suppose that decision-making is easy for groups trying to be led by the Spirit.
As Acts 21 begins, Paul and his companions arrive in Tyre, a major city on the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern shore, where they spend a week with the local Christians. This stopover comes near the end of Paul’s final journey as a free man. He is returning to Jerusalem according to the plan he announced in Acts 19:21, where we learned: “Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, ‘After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.’”
As Paul travels from Ephesus to Tyre in Acts 20, he does so with confidence in the Spirit’s guidance, even as he knows the journey will end with incarceration and his eventual execution. He goes in response to clear convictions about what God’s Spirit has called him to do.
But when he reaches Tyre, Acts reminds us that obeying the Spirit is rarely without challenges. As Paul enjoys hospitality in Tyre, the Tyrians entreat him—through the Spirit—not to continue to Jerusalem. Those three words through the Spirit (21:4) stand out. They suggest more than just heartfelt sincerity. Somehow, the Holy Spirit figures in the Tyrians’ appeal.
What’s going on? We’re left to speculate. Has the Holy Spirit fashioned a new plan for Paul and so no longer intends for him to return to Jerusalem? Presumably Paul doesn’t think so, since he resumes his journey at the conclusion of this short scene. Is the Spirit playing games with Paul or testing his resolve? This too is unlikely, for the Holy Spirit never does anything like this elsewhere in Acts.
Nothing in the passage suggests the disciples in Tyre misinterpret the Spirit or attempt to deceive Paul. Acts would surely denounce them if they did.
Are they afraid? Do they hear from Paul about the violent future he expects in Jerusalem and assume God could never allow someone like him to come to such an end? Although despair at the prospect of losing Paul appears in a later passage, when Paul visits Caesarea (21:8–16), nothing about the events in Tyre intimates that the believers there reason the same way.
The Tyrians understand the Holy Spirit as desiring a certain course of action for Paul—to avoid Jerusalem. He and they have interpreted the Spirit’s will in contradictory ways. We don’t learn whether Paul actively argues with them. Certainly they don’t change his mind. The two parties simply disagree. No wonder Paul stays for seven days. We can only imagine the lively conversations they share and the stress they experience.
If the two opposing convictions both originate from the Spirit’s influence, or from honest attempts to discern that influence, isn’t this a recipe for disaster? If the Spirit works like this, how can God possibly be known? Can a community of divided opinions manifest the Spirit’s power?
The rest of the scene offers answers in the outcome of the disagreement. In Acts 21:5-6, we read about Paul and his traveling party: “When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.
On the beach, the Tyrians send Paul on his way. We assume the Spirit is present there, too—not just on the sand but also in the sympathy. Encountering God’s Spirit isn’t just about making decisions about right and wrong; it’s also about experiencing all that comes from being committed to other people, people with whom we might disagree.
On the beach we see a community of Christians staying in communion, even as they disagree over how to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit might disrupt the prospects for Christians finding comfort in total unanimity of opinion, but this does not mean God is uninterested in preserving unity. This unity is dramatically enacted when Paul and the believers of Tyre—all the men, women, and children—pray together on the beach. It’s a good thing the youngsters were brought along, so they could learn what unity looks like.
Paul departs, choosing to follow the Spirit’s leading, as he has discerned it. The church of Tyre sends him and his companions on their way, even though Paul does not heed their appeal. No schism. No threats. No denunciations. All of them pray to the same God, then the two groups return to their respective business, each seeking to be faithful to what they believe God has called them to do.
Disagreements prompt us to discern together where God might initiate new directions for our efforts. They create opportunities for us to turn to God and collectively reexamine our perceptions. The book of Acts acknowledges the struggles that can figure in these corporate efforts.
This passage cautions us against overplaying any assumptions we may have about God as predictable or easy to figure out. Keeping pace with God’s Spirit and engaging tough choices require us to seek God together and then, finally, to move forward with clear commitments to one another, even if moving forward means we occasionally head in different directions.
This article is adapted from a chapter in a book the author has written on Acts, due to be published in August 2015 by Brazos Press.
Matt Skinner is associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.
Image credit: "Early Christian funerary monument" image by Nick Thompson via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.