- As the apostles are continuing to teach and preach Jesus as the Christ daily in the temple and from house to house, the number of believers is growing in Jerusalem. The church has been multiplying as the people hear the gospel message that Jesus was sent by God, whom they crucified.
- But, as with any group of people that adds more people to the mix, problems begin to arise. We sometimes call these problems “growing pains.” In Acts 6 we are introduced to the first conflict in a local congregation. The scriptures do not hide the problems that existed in those days, but lays bare the details of human failure. The widows of the congregation that had a Greek background and spoke the Greek language were being neglected in the distribution. So the charge was laid by the Hellenists against the Christians that spoke Hebrew and had a Hebrew background that they had neglected their widows, while apparently taking care of their own widows.
- I think it is important for us to realize that even with the apostles around, there were bound to be congregational problems and conflicts. Even with inspired men through whom God spoke, we see that human nature takes charge and problems ensue. So, as much as in theory we all ought to act like Christians which would promote harmony, we must also realize we are human and strife will come. What we will consider in this lesson is how congregational problems were handled. What did the apostles do and what did they not do to resolve this serious problem in the Jerusalem church.
I. What Was Not Done
A. The apostles did not take over the work
- An easy temptation for the apostles would have simply been to do the work themselves. Since the work was not being done properly and a certain group of people was being left out, the apostles could have went with the philosophy “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”
- But the apostles realized something. It was not desirable for them to leaving the preaching and teaching of the word of God to make sure that the widows received their daily distribution. While it was important for the widows to receive their distribution, it is important that the apostles not forsake the talents they had to do something that others had the ability to accomplish. The apostles declared that they would continue to give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
- This teaches us an important principle. We as a congregation do not want our leaders doing tasks that other people can perform. We want them to spend their time using the abilities that others among us do not have. Too many times we complain that we want to see elders, deacons, preachers, or leaders to do something about a particular situation that ought to be taken care of by the one complaining or can be taken care of by another member in the congregation. We cannot afford to have talents wasted in areas that can be taken care of by others.
B. They did not throw out the ones who brought up the issue
- It is interesting to see that the church in Jerusalem did not just say to the complainers that it is “our way or the highway.” There was not a “if you do not like it, go somewhere else.” The reason why was that this was an important fundamental matter. This was not a complaint about an expedience. This was a complaint that certain widows were being wronged on the basis of the scriptures.
- We see that the use of wisdom and discernment is very important in these matters. Determining what issues must be addressed and what issues must be ignored is a great challenge as we see in the book of Nehemiah. But when charged with wrongdoing, instead of throwing out those who say such, we must examine if there truly is a problem and try to make a correction.
C. They did not shun or ignore the ones who brought up the issue
- Another choice a church can make is simply ignore or shun those who bring up such controversy. We may not throw them out of the church, but we make their lives so miserable that they will want to leave. I have seen this happen on countless occasions, even among churches in the south Florida area. There is a group of people who want to make some scriptural changes in the work of the church. The majority of the group does not want to make the changes. So the group who wants to be active and make changes become the outcasts to the rest of the church. They are not invited to things and not longer have a fellowship with the whole body. It gets to be so bad that sometimes they are sitting in their own section in the building.
- We do not see this as proper treatment of those with whom we have disagreement or dissension. We will have different views, beliefs, and ideas when we have a number of different people. We must understand that will happen and not try to make life miserable for others to the point they will leave because of our bad behavior. Are we really acting like Christians when we would consider using such a technique?
D. They did not take a vote
- This is a common way to take care of things in churches today. We see some places call a meeting, have some people speak, and then let the majority rule. So we try to line up people to vote with us so that we can have a majority and get our way with the things that we want.
- If we have the proper organization in a local church, there should not be an instance where voting would be considered. Elders are to make decisions for a local church. Voting can quickly lead to parties and schisms as we attempt to make our point of view pass.
E. They did not form a committee
- Along the same lines, we do not see the apostles authorizing a committee or a commission to study to the problem and come up with solutions. This is the way our federal government tries to handle problems and we realize how ineffective the government is in solving any problems because of this technique.
- What point is there to having a smaller group of people hashing out all the problems yet not have the authority to come to a solution? The elders of a local congregation have the authority to make decisions and without elders, we see here the whole congregation deciding. There is no other authority for making decisions than these two avenues: eldership and, when an eldership is lacking, congregational decisions.
F. The ones who brought up the issue did not start a new church
- In the midst of this problem, we do not see the Hellenists go start a new church across the street or on the other side of Jerusalem. We do not see them forming the Hellenistic church and the Hebrew church. Doing such never seems to have come to the minds of the first century Christians.
- Why are we so fast to want join other churches or start new churches when problems arise? Why do we think that this is a scriptural answer to handling congregational problems? I simply fail to see that answer given to us. I believe we need to work hard to find resolutions to any conflicts rather than simply pick up are marbles and leave. Worse yet, how often the threat of leaving is used as blackmail against a church. These are not Christian attitudes and ought never come out of a true disciples’ mouth.
- I think it is important for us to consider the ways the apostles did not act in handling the congregational problem, because these seem to be the ways we want to handle any difficulty. We need to work out solutions, not create problems and tension.
II. What To Do
A. Determine a solution
- This is a very profound thing that the apostles did. The apostles suggested a solution that pleased the whole multitude. Since this distribution was not receiving these widows, the apostles tell the congregation to appoint men who will make sure that the widows do receive the distribution. Do you think it is possible to come to a solution? Perhaps I am too idealistic and too young to know any better but I believe that we can find resolutions and come to the answers we need in the midst of problems. I believe we are supposed to be idealistic because we are to be acting like Christ!
- Did you notice the names of the people that were chosen to serve in the distribution? Do they look like Hebrew names or Greek names? It appears that most, if not all, of these names are Greek. You see that the Hebrew Christians did not say that since we have a majority that there should be 4 Hebrew deacons and 3 Greek deacons! Neither side appears to have a chip on its shoulder nor did either side desire to have a fight. It was not about defending our rights but solving an important problem. This is the ideal that we are supposed to have: looking our for others’ interests ahead of our own (Philippians 2:4).
- Again, I may be idealistic, but I believe every major controversy and division that has taken place could have been avoided if everyone involved had acted in the image of and followed the example of Christ. It is only when we demand that we do things our way that these divisions come up. How could the division over instrumental music been resolved? People had to realize that by forcing the use of the instrument would cause people to feel they were violating the scriptures and therefore not press the issue. There are things that I would like for us to do here that I do not suggest, knowing that some will find it a stumbling block. It is not worth pressing such things.
- Let us get to a very real example. In California, in the church I grew up in, there was a great disagreement on divorce and remarriage. This is a very important doctrinal matter because of 1 Corinthians 5 that teaches we cannot allow open sexual sin to be practiced and remain part of the local church. Some believed that the only reason for divorce is sexual immorality and all other divorces and remarriages are condemned by God. Others believed that it is okay to divorce and remarry while not a Christian, but once becoming a Christian, one would have to keep their current spouse and not divorce again. The difference in view was a near 50/50 split. What should be done?
- Should those with a more conservative viewpoint have thrown out those with a more liberal viewpoint? Some teach so today. Some brethren teach that if the other 50% did not change their mind, they would have to be withdrawn from. Should the conservative group shun or ignore the liberal group because of this difference? Should the liberal group go start a new church because they wanted to allow these people into the local church who had such marriages? Should a committee have been formed to discuss all the details concerning God’s law on divorce and remarriage?
- You see that both sides would have to make a compromise while not compromising the scriptures. The people on the liberal side of the issue would have to not press their point of view, knowing that if they did, it would drive the conservative group away because they would feel they are practicing in sin. The people on the conservative side of the issue would have to not ostracize or try to throw out those who held a more liberal view. With this solution, neither side felt they were participating in sin. While both sides continued to discuss their differences and come to a common ground, both sides knew that they could not rock the boat or have an explosion of the congregation. It is only when someone forgets to look out for the best interests of the others that harmony is lost.
- What good are the other options? Why would we want to throw out people who do not believe the way we do? If we were consistent, we would keep throwing people out until we were left with ourselves. My wife and I do not agree on every issue. Why do we think we have to cast off people who do not think the way we do? We are called to work together, to find solutions, and maintain the harmony and unity of the church while remaining sound in the word of God. It is possible if we want to work for such solutions.
B. Let the leaders keep working
- Too many times when problems arise, leaders are forced to drop the important work they are doing to deal with other issues. The work of teaching lost souls, snatching weak brethren out of the fire, and edifying the saints are very important works. The shepherding and feeding of the flock is of great importance. The last thing we want to do is have our leaders become psychologists and therapists. The last thing we want is the elder spending time pulling weeds or evangelists sitting in hospitals.
- The works that can be done by others must be done by others. The works that only evangelists, elders, deacons, and teachers can do must be done by them. A good eldership will delegate work to the congregation and not attempt to perform every task themselves. While this is not a call to arrogance, it is a call for us to recognize that we want our talents to be used efficiently. We do not practice walking on our hands because our feet can do the work. Our hands are left free for other important tasks. The same is true in the local church.
C. How we handle problems will determine our impact in the community
- It does not take long for unbelievers and visitors to know that there is a problem within in local church. Strife and conflict can be seen and tension can be cut with a knife in congregations where there is no harmony or unity. We think that we can keep the problem to ourselves, but strife causes a drain of our resources. People who could be doing other important works are forced to deal with other things, which slows down the growth of the work.
- Acts 6:7 says, “And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” I do not think it takes much for us to realize that if a resolution had not be forthcoming, the word of God would not have spread and the number of disciples would not have multiplied because of the inner turmoil that would have continued to brew.
- Too often problems cause us to become internally sighted instead of continuing to look out to the community to save souls. Again, we start thinking about ourselves in this local church and not about the people in the world who need our help and need to hear the message of the gospel and see that Christianity can be practiced the way God wants. We become more concerned about being right and winning arguments.
- We are to be a light in the world. If we act like the world when problems come up, then what impact can we have? We need to be aware that problems will come along because of our human nature. We must be mindful as to how we act toward one another in such cases.
- Be like Christ at all times. It is amazing how often being Christ-like is thrown out the window when controversy arises. We bully, threaten, make a scene, and carry on in such a way that we completely damage the name of the Lord by calling ourselves disciples. There is no time when we can stop living like Jesus.
- Always look for solutions. I believe solutions are available if we are willing to look for them and we are willing to surrender our rights for harmony. We can remain sound to the doctrine of Christ while realizing that we do not need to push our liberties on others.