The Church at Antioch had, in the Lord, the ability to withstand all the attacks of the evil one. When, inevitably, problems arose it was able to resolve them in a spiritual way. One such example was the problem that arose about circumcision. Some who came down from Jerusalem taught that unless the believers were circumcised, in addition to their faith in Christ, they could not be saved. In this instance, perhaps surprisingly, the issue was not resolved at Antioch. Presumably even the prophets and teachers there in the assembly recognized the need for those at Jerusalem to deal with the matter.
So in due course the mind of the apostles at Jerusalem, whence these teachers had come, was sought. The point was considered and the message of the false teachers contradicted in written form in the clearest possible way. For points of doctrine today we do not need to go to any church, or group of leaders, as we now have the unerring word of God to turn to, although, be it said, the counsel of godly elders is not to be despised. The Scriptures should be consulted early and everyone, elders, teachers and believers alike should turn to them in prayer before the Lord asking for an understanding of His mind and will.
Down through the years some points of so-called doctrine have been used by Satan to divide assemblies. However in most areas the Scriptures are abundantly clear and the fundamentals are not often successfully challenged.
The main difficulties today may be on points of church practice, where some would like to legislate for every minute detail, while others would legislate for as little as possible, allowing the assembly to develop its own character – which may, in fact, be a cloak for unspirituality. It needs to be reiterated that the assembly today that is following New Testament teaching will be concerned that brethren are exercised with regard to ministry of the word and prayer, while requiring both silence and covered heads from the sisters, as an acknowledgment of their divinely appointed position.
There are, of course, many points that may differ from place to place and from assembly to assembly. It is a matter for concern to many that the designation ‘Gospel Hall’ has given way to the ‘Evangelical Church’, or ‘Chapel’. In some countries the building in which the believers meet is given no name at all, and that may be preferable. If a name is given to the building it should not be ‘Church’ partly because of the confusion regarding the use of that word, and because the building certainly is not the church. If it be ‘Gospel Hall’ it is indeed a hall, but one hopes that rather more than the gospel is proclaimed and defended and that the gospel effort is not confined to the hall. The best possible name for the building is the street it is in, e.g. Gresham Hall. The full description ought to be The Assembly (or Church) meeting at Gresham Hall. To some this may all seem rather petty, to others it is almost of fundamental importance. We should really try to be as scriptural as possible, yet at the same time applying the doctrines with graciousness and power.
There was one situation that did cause problems in Antioch. It had nothing to do with doctrine or practice. It was a matter of differing opinions, not between ‘ordinary’ believers, nor between the teachers, nor even between the prophets – but worst of all between the commended workers. It happened like this:
Paul and Barnabas had an exercise to pay return visits to the churches they had planted on their earlier missionary journeys. They wanted to see how the saints and the assemblies were progressing. This was a laudable exercise. Barnabas wanted to take with them John Mark, his nephew. Paul didn’t want him to go because on an earlier journey he had left them prematurely. Paul resisted; Barnabas insisted! In fact the contention became so sharp between them that it was quite beyond resolution. Here are two good men, with good intentions, disagreeing over whether or not another brother should accompany them. It is hardly right for us to pass a judgment on the matter, but it was only ‘resolved’ by Barnabas ‘taking’ Mark and sailing for Cyprus: but we hear nothing of him again. In contrast we read that Paul ‘thought it not good’. He talked with Silas and the two of them set off together with the commendation of the assembly. Thus their harmony was recognized by the saints, and their exercise in relation to the Lord’s work was readily supported by the rest.
As ever, there are lessons for us to learn. It is personal problems, differences and personality clashes that are likely to divide, particularly so if the person involved is a relation in the flesh. Elders must always be careful to treat their own children and relations in the assembly in exactly the same way as they treat others. Personal differences need to be resolved quickly; one should be ready to apologise; criticism of believers or workers ‘behind their back’ is unworthy of saints. Assemblies have many problems to face, and much grace is required in order to prevent division. Let us remember that strife arises out of a strife of words, and ‘whoso keepeth his mouth and tongue keepeth his soul from troubles’, Prov. 21. 23.
On this sad note we leave Antioch for some years. In Acts 16 Paul re-visits Antioch. We read that he spent some time there, and departed. We read of nothing being done, no great work being completed, or started, or continued; perhaps there was no more he would do there. We do not know what the once vigorous assembly had become. Elsewhere we read of an assembly which had a name to live but was dead, Rev. 3. 1. Could this have been true of Antioch? To avoid this becoming true of us today we need to pray continually and work together for unity. We must be active from within in the gospel and in ministry, and we should encourage younger believers to put God first, in a demanding world crying out for their time and talents. May God humble us and enable us to hold fast to the things that remain, that are ready to die. Time is short, the night is far spent, the day is at hand.