The message about Jesus is spreading and the church’s numbers are steadily growing. But with such explosive growth, there are also some growing pains that naturally come along with it and threaten to hinder the spread of the gospel. In any movement with such tremendous growth and change, new situations bring new stresses and needs that must be dealt with.
In our study on Acts 2, we saw that the gospel is a radically multicultural movement that is for people of all ethnic backgrounds. Pursuing unity in diversity, however, also brings new challenges.
Today’s passage brings us to the climax of the first large section of Acts which is centered in Jerusalem. Addressing issues of diversity and justice brought a tremendous witness and credibility to the church, so that many in the power structures (many of the priests belonged to the Sadducees who were in the centers of power) became obedient to the faith (6:7). Such vitality and life provoked harsh persecution (Acts 6:8-8:3) which then propelled the gospel beyond its bounds in Jerusalem (8:4-5).
What are some of the challenges of pursuing unity in diversity?
read Acts 6:1-7
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Take a few moments to reflect on the Scripture. Share some insights, questions, or points that strike you. Then read the following.
Ethical and cultural lines
In today’s passage, Greek-speaking Jews voice complaints to the Hebraic Jews that their widows are experiencing inequity and discrimination in the daily distribution of food. The Greek-speaking Jews spoke Greek as their heart language and the Hebraic Jews likely spoke Aramaic. But the language differences between the two groups also meant some significant cultural differences which came with “differences in attitude and outlook” (Ajith Fernando). So while this kind of practical discrimination was probably not intentional, Luke does not shy away from highlighting how cultural differences led to injustice even within the Spirit-filled community.
The twelve apostles immediately sought to resolve this internal problem in the community. They listened to the cries of injustice from the marginalized group and took their complaints seriously. The apostles didn’t dismiss or trivialize the complaints but rather accepted responsibility. After all, it was the apostles who had been overseeing the distribution of gifts to those in need (4:34-37). But with the growing numbers and needs of the church, they realized the need to adapt if they were to remain faithful to their calling to prayer and teaching. Their solution was to appoint new leaders to oversee the important work of providing practical care to those in need. The apostles then involved the people themselves, especially those from the marginalized group, in choosing who these new leaders would be (v. 3).
Of the seven men chosen, all had Greek names and at least one (Nicolas, v. 5) was clearly a Gentile. It is likely that some or even most of the seven were of a culturally Grecian background. Appointing leaders from the marginalized group was wise on multiple levels, for they would understand the dynamics from an insider’s perspective and have greater sensitivity to subtle matters of culture and power. Ajith Fernando, a Sri Lankan pastor, says,
“This can be a serious problem in relations… between Christians from minority and majority communities. Some who desperately want the help offered by the powerful group willingly swallow their pride and remain silent. Others, who value their identity and principles, will speak up and are then unfortunately accused of being prejudiced and bitter. Many in the so-called ‘Third World’ remain distressed that many well-meaning Christians in the West find it difficult to sense this problem and do something about it.” (Acts, NIV Application Commentary, p. 238)
- What are some ways that cultural differences between those of dominant and minority groups can lead to inequity and discrimination, even when it’s not intentional?
- Do you think it’s important for the church to “listen” to the voice of the marginalized? What are some good and poor ways that the church might practice that?
- What good fruit comes from having people from various backgrounds share in the leadership of the church?
Compassion, justice, and the spread of the gospel
Addressing matters of practical care and cultural tensions is important for the church. While such internal problems often take much time, energy, and careful thought to address adequately, they are not a distraction from the outward mission of the church. On the contrary, we see that a wise resolution to these problems led to the advance of the gospel (6:7). There is a mutually interdependent and enriching relationship between the ministries of word and deed.
Today’s passage shows how the church is to be judged by its compassion and practical care for the most vulnerable and marginalized among them. Widows were among the most vulnerable members of that society, and both the Old Testament and the New Testament stress that God’s people must help ensure they are taken care of. Properly setting up systems to provide such practical care is a matter that requires much spiritual wisdom and energy (v. 3). In the end, these ministries of compassion and justice bolster the credibility of the church in society and remove all hindrances to the free course of the word (5:42-6:1, 6:7). When ministries of word and deed take place together, empowered by the Spirit and prayer, the gospel is set loose upon the world.
We see further how God was involved in all these practical and cultural issues when we look at the two most prominent new leaders, Stephen and Philip. These two men, likely of Grecian cultural background, were the ones God used to push forward his mission into new frontiers. Stephen helps break the church beyond the temple and Jerusalem (6:8-8:3), and Philip later breaks the gospel through into Samaria and to the ends of the earth (8:4-40). Perhaps they knew something about the experience of exile, of living as cultural and religious minorities in that world. God has a purpose in our ethnic and cultural identities and has a way of weaving even our experiences of pain and struggle into the fulfilling of our callings.
- Do you care more about the church’s internal work of care and unity, or the church’s external work of mission and evangelism? How are ministries of word and deed mutually interdependent and enriching?
- How are you involved in ministry to “widows,” those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized in society today? What are some ways your community group can be involved in that kind of ministry?
- How have you seen God’s purposes in your ethnic and cultural identity?
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. Th
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