Deliberation in Unity

blog May 30, 2024

By Dr. Ron Crum

Every leader is called upon to make decisions. Some rule by fiat. Others gather consensus and move in a corporate direction. But is there a model for decision making that can truly be considered “biblical”—one that has a precedent in Scripture and is also applicable in the multifaceted context of leading a church or organization in the 21st century?

I believe that a pivotal situation in the early church gives us a window into how the apostles made decisions, and I also believe there are insights and principles that can guide our decision making today, as we seek to balance the demands of pragmatism with principle, the immediate prompting of the Holy Spirit with the traditions and precedents of wise leaders who have gone before us.

Acts 15 gives an account of a critical decision of the early church: what to do with Gentile believers in the Messiah. As we read this passage through the lens of decision-making, certain key words and issues reveal in-depth meaning and concepts lost by casual reading. The apostles navigated the first great conflict facing the infant church, and we are able to look over their shoulders and observe how they approached its resolution.

The Judaizers’ visit to the infant church in Antioch causes dissension and dispute with the leadership. Their contention is that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This leads the church at Antioch to appoint Paul and Barnabas as delegates to Jerusalem to appeal the question.

In Jerusalem, the delegates and leaders consider the issue. Taking one side are some of the sect of the Pharisees, and taking the other side is Peter, who asks, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (15:10) He is followed by Barnabas and Paul, who share their recent experiences observing the work of the Spirit among Gentile believers. James identifies the Gentiles’ conversion as the fulfilment of Scripture and recommends that the council write a letter back to Antioch with the council’s decision.

The decision is that “it seemed best” (v. 28) to the Holy Spirit and them that the demands of Jewish ceremonial law not be laid on the Gentile believers, only that they abstain from practices of idolatry. The delegation from Antioch delivers the letter and the rejoices at the encouragement it inspires.


Perhaps from a 21st-century vantage point, the disagreement that faced the church in Antioch is a bit obscure. So, it’s helpful to look at some of the issues that were at the heart of the dispute and the words Luke used to describe it. According to him, it was “no small” dispute, and the emotional overtones revealed by “dispute” can be seen in the fact that it is the same term used for revolution (stasis), meaning to engage in intense and emotional expressions of different opinions. The intensity escalates “to a heated quarrel.” Tempers flare, and the differences of opinion turn to forceful “debate” (suzetesis). Not being able to reach a solution, the Antioch church “appoints” (suntasso) Paul, Barnabas and others with the assignment to appeal to the authority of Jerusalem to settle the matter.

An official meeting of delegates and leaders are “led together” (sunago) to listen to the stance of the opposing parties. A representative of the sect of the Pharisees stands up, and Peter stands up to address the council. Decision-making requires individuals to give opinion by standing up and raising their voice in order that the council could identify whom the position belongs to. “Stood up” (anistemi sperma) literally means “to raise up seed” and describes the male role in begetting children. A leader who wants to distance himself or herself from an issue says, “That’s not my baby,” which reflects this phrase “stood up.”

Peter charges the sect with tempting God to anger by imposing on His followers things contrary to His will and placing a yoke on the learners. He states his position with authority when the well-being of followers appears to be threatened. He describes them as learners, a derivative of the Greek word mathetes, a person who learns formally or informally from another by instruction—“disciple, pupil.”

Silence, described by Luke on two occasions in the meeting, after Peter speaks, and after Barnabas and Paul’s report of signs and marvels, leads to hearing. In contrast to the tension and mood in Antioch, Luke records this rhythm of silence, speakers and listening.

James, chairman of the meeting, implores the council to hear as he judges. The use of the word “therefore” (oun), signals the decision following the previous discussion. This command occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and shows the council’s respect and value in James’ leadership and authority. He uses the strongest leadership word in the Acts 15 passage, thereby moving the council toward resolution of the issue by one word: judge. He chooses to turn the discussion into a decision by announcing he has judged (krino), which means “to decide a legal question, to act as a judge, making a legal decision, to arrive at a verdict, to try a case.” The context implies that the council accepts the decision and appoints men to implement the decision.

Twice, the phrase “seemed best” is applied to the apostles, elders and church (Acts 15:22,25) in selecting men and delegating to them the responsibility of delivering the decision in writing and in person. The council demonstrates their authority and the scope of their influence in selecting capable men to implement the decision. The strength of the word “delegated” conveys the council’s priority in choosing qualified men for the assignment.

The decree communicated in James’ letter informs its recipients concerning the process of decision-making by the council stating, “It seemed (good) to the Holy Spirit and us.” The word “seemed” (edoxen) means to regard something as presumably true, but without particular certainty—“to suppose, to presume, to assume, to imagine, to believe, to think,” and reveals the expressing of thoughts in such a way as to arrive at a conclusion guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:22,25,28).

The decision’s cause and effect, and the council’s letter, emphatically demonstrate their desire to set upon the Gentiles no burden. No circumcision or keeping of the law would be imposed on them. This decision, made with the conscious presence of the Holy Spirit, placed no unnecessary guidelines on the believers in Antioch and produced encouragement when it was announced.

Luke reveals decision-making principles in Acts 15 by his compelling narrative, demonstrating to early church leaders and communities how they should go about seeking the will of God in resolving conflicts, solving problems and moving mission forward. God’s will surfaces from deliberation in unity, Scripture-informed experience and Holy Spirit guidance. Let’s look at these three biblical decision-making principles and their application.


The decision-making forum initially described in Acts 15 appears as a disorganized upheaval in Antioch but, in fact, Luke intentionally presents discussion in Jerusalem, even emotional at times, as the environment where the will of God appears in the midst of dialogue with numerous stakeholders. Unity emerged from this diverse interaction of opinions and experiences. Broad community participation ranges from the formal leadership structure of the apostles and elders to the many people involved in the process, affirming and implementing the decision.

This deliberation in unity principle demonstrates respect for people holding different values, and likewise gives opportunity for participation to all parties, which implies a shared willingness to find common ground.

The deliberations included the assertions and teachings of the Jerusalem sect, the shared experiences of many, including Peter, Paul and Barnabas, the appeal to Scripture by James, and the selection of delegates. Luke shows that all of these ultimately occur in unity. The unanimity described by the phrase “with one mind” (homothumadon) is both a process and a journey for Luke. The phrase “with one mind” or “of one accord” means that the decision and its implementation reflect harmony, peace, wholeness and agreement by all parties concerned in the conflict. Deliberation in unity, as Luke describes, provides the respect and trust needed in a decision-making environment.


James interprets Peter’s experience through the activity of God in Scripture and shows that the words of the prophets validate his experience as the work of God. The use of Scripture in decision-making does not directly resolve the issue of circumcision in this passage. James uses the prophet Amos to resonate with Peter’s speech as he relates the salvation experience of Cornelius.

Individual experiences share the personal story of God working through them. God’s story in Scripture continues in the personal stories Luke records as his historical narrative shines light to further the salvation history and mission in Christ. James’ use of biblical language correlates with God at work in the present experience of Peter, Paul and Barnabas. Luke shows decision-making with respect of the Scriptures by all the council members and applicable today by leaders appealing to and recognizing scriptural authority. 


One cannot ignore divine guidance and leadership in the decision-making process, as Luke evidently regarded the decision as coming from a community influenced by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). The community of believers provides the setting for the acts of the Holy Spirit interpreting and guiding the decision-making, shaping the deliberation in unity and dialogue in Scripture.

The text implies the divine and human working in the church and its leaders not as a record of charismatic gifts (though certainly possible), but in the community committed to finding God’s will. A discernment process that favors Holy Spirit guidance over democratic or hierarchical models chooses the wealth of diversity from the different gifts and functions given by the Spirit.

Luke clearly provides decision-making principles in Acts 15 for church leaders by describing the early church resolving the issue by deliberations in unity, experiences informed by Scripture and guidance by the leadership of the Holy Spirit.


Luke’s first audience understood his contribution to leadership and decision-making in ways the modern world strives to grasp. The decree issued from the gathering of apostles, elders and others answered the question of Gentile inclusion and advanced the mission of Christ from Jerusalem to Rome.

Decision-making in the first century, as described by Luke, includes elements of emotionally heated arguments, stirring speeches recalling God’s workings in individuals, signs and wonders among people groups and authoritative leaders guiding dialogue and declaring affirmations. Deliberation, experience and Scripture provide a context for this pivotal meeting held with the values of unity and community.

Luke triumphantly declares the written decision by James in the phrase, “It [the decision] seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28), as the model and highest value in ministry decision-making: to be fully aware of the leading of the Holy Spirit. I call this “Deisensus.” Holy Spirit-led decision-making, regardless of a ministry leader’s decision-making and leadership style, intentionally seeks God’s will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Stay up-to-date with all our upcoming releases!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from us. Your information will not be shared.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.