I’ve had to write a few difficult letters in my day. I would imagine that many of you have as well, whether it meant putting pen to paper or sitting in front of a screen with the cursor blinking at you insistently, waiting for the next word.
The advantage of letters, email, and other forms of written communication is that they allow you to span the gaps of time and distance; you don’t have to be face-to-face to get your message across. The disadvantage is that it’s much harder to convey in writing what would easily come across in your body language, tone of voice, and facial expression (that’s why we have emojis). And if you’re trying to say something that’s potentially upsetting, and don’t get it right, there can be a permanent record of your faux pas to mock you forever after or metastasize across the Internet.
Yeah. No pressure.
That’s what I appreciate about the letter written by the leaders of the Jerusalem church to the Gentile believers in Antioch who were eagerly awaiting their decision. The council had been convened to resolve a controversy (Acts 15:1-5) — should Gentile converts be required to submit to circumcision? As we’ve seen, the answer was no. All that remained was to put that decision into writing.
It’s easy to imagine the anxiety in Antioch. Rogue Pharisees (Luke doesn’t say they were Pharisees, but given Acts 15:5, I think it likely) had traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch, insisting on circumcision and stirring people up. It created conflict even among the leading lights of the church: Peter came into conflict with Paul, and even stalwart Barnabas wavered (Gal 2:11-13). When Paul and Barnabas left for Jerusalem, therefore, things were still unsettled. What will the apostles and elders in Jerusalem say? Must we be circumcised or not? And if so, what else will we be required to do?
The Jerusalem leaders could have sent a letter that merely reported their official decision: You don’t have to be circumcised, but you do have to observe the following four requirements... Surely, that would still have been received as good news; the people (especially the men!) would have been glad to duck the circumcision bullet.
But imagine the deeper, unspoken message such a letter would have conveyed: We’re in charge. You have to do what we say.
And that makes you second class.
At one level, then, there’s an issue to be decided — circumcision — and the decision is either black or white. But at another and often unacknowledged level, how the decision is communicated matters. Beneath the circumcision question lies the more pressing social and relational question: Are we one church, both Jews and Gentiles, or aren’t we? The answer to the first question is yes or no. But how that first question is answered implies an answer to the second.
The letter therefore needs to be official without being officious. The official side of things certainly comes through: Here’s what we, the apostles and elders, have decided you should do; the decision is Spirit-directed; we’re sending representatives as confirmation.
But notice how the letter attends to the relationship first. Right off the bat, the Gentiles are embraced as “brothers and sisters.” The Jerusalem leadership takes ownership of the fact that it was their own people who caused the disturbance in Antioch, but they reassure the Gentiles that those people acted on their own initiative. Barnabas and Paul are called “dear friends” (the word is literally “beloved”), and they are duly commended for their sacrificial service to Jesus.
Then, and only then, is the official decision given.
It’s not just about how we write letters, of course; it’s about how we communicate, and to what ends. We may think that what matters most is getting a piece of information across, expecting that if we give the right information, people will respond appropriately. But the naivete of that unacknowledged assumption is demonstrated again and again when people don’t respond as we had hoped.
James and the Jerusalem council got it right, as shown by the joyous reaction of the believers in Antioch when they read the letter (Acts 15:31). My hope is that we would learn to get it right, too, especially in the church, where communication often goes sideways.
It’s not just about what we say, but how we say it. Don’t just focus on the information; think about how you want the information to be received, about how it will affect the relationship. What kind of relationship do you want? Don’t take it for granted; figure out how to actively cultivate it.
And write accordingly.