Acts by Gary DeLashmutt (1995)

Overcoming Division in the Church

Photo of Gary DeLashmutt
Gary DeLashmutt

Acts 6:1-8



Read vs 1.  Part of New Testament’s authenticity is that it talks about the problems.  If I could read through the book of Acts and never hear about any problems or failures, I’d get suspicious that I was getting a snow job!  This is one difference between the Bible and other religious mythology.  The good news is not how great these people were, but how great and gracious Jesus Christ is in spite of our many problems.

This is the third consecutive problem that confronted this young and rapidly growing group of Christians.

Briefly review the first two problems: social opposition (persecution) and hypocrisy.  Although these problems involved people, they were not solely (or even primarily) sociological.  As Peter noted in Acts 5:4, they were satanic in origin.  Satan was furious and threatened by so many people being delivered from his kingdom, so he launched an all-out counter-attack to wipe them out.

Having failed in his first two attempts, he resorted to his trump card--division.  Any military tactician knows the maxim “divide and conquer.”  The best strategy of all is to get the enemy fighting each other.  That’s what he was trying to do here--ignite a problem (caring for widows) into a feud.

Luke speaks of two different kinds of Jewish Christians--Hellenistic (Greek) and Hebrew.  This distinction is not linguistic (both were probably bi-lingual) or geographic (e.g., native to Palestine vs. Diaspora).  Rather, it referred to cultural differences.  In the Diaspora, some Jews adopted much of Greek culture (while retaining their Old Testament theology), while others remained culturally distinct (FIRST vs. SECOND GENERATION IMMIGRANT FAMILIES).

For some unnamed reason, the Hellenistic widows were being neglected to some extent.  You can imagine how quickly people would begin to suspect that this was a manifestation of prejudice!!  Maybe there was something to this complaint.

Luke’s Greek bears this out.  He says they “complained” against the Hebraic Jews.  This word (goggusmus) always has a negative connotation in the New Testament (see Jn.7:12; Phil.2:14; 1Pet.4:9).  It means to “murmur” or “grumble” against another party with ill intent.  The LXX uses it to describe the Israelites’ rebellion against Moses.

>> So we have the makings of a nice division here.  Before we read how they overcame this problem, let’s make sure we understand what division is and why it’s so serious...

What is division?

>> There has been a lot of confusion on the issue of church unity, so we need to distinguish division from other distinctions or separations between Christians.

Division is not Christians being in different groups or denominations.  Sometimes this is the result of division, but not necessarily.  And we should definitely not understand Christian unity as organizational.  According to the New Testament, Christian unity is spiritual and personal (read Eph.4:2,3).

GOSPEL: Being a Christian has nothing to do with belonging to an organization...

In other words, it is possible for Christians to be in different groups or denominations and still be unified.  Christians have different ideas on how to serve the Lord (STREET-PREACHING; RELATIONAL EVANGELISM) and on non-essential (but important) areas of doctrine (CHARISMATIC; RITUAL; WORD).  But as long as we can agree on the essentials and communicate love and respect for each other, it is better to do our own thing because we’ll reach different kinds of people (Paul with Gentiles & Peter with Jews).

Division is not Christians in the same group disagreeing and vigorously debating--even to the point of starting new groups.  This is called issues-oriented conflict, and it is inevitable and even desirable (within limits) in Christian ministry.  Christians who care about ministry will disagree over how to most effectively get the job done.  When this happens someone always calls it “division.”  But it is possible to disagree, debate, etc. without having a division.

Luke records an example of this kind of conflict between Paul and Barnabas in Acts15:36-41 (read).  They disagreed over an important strategic issue--personnel on a hazardous mission.  The word “sharp disagreement” (paroxusmos) means a vigorous debate!  Is this a terrible defeat?  There is no hint in Luke’s narrative that it was.  They couldn’t agree on personnel, so they split into two mission teams, divided the mission, and went on.  In his letters, Paul speaks of both Barnabas and Mark favorably.

Division is sinful personal alienation between Christians.  It is affective conflict, rooted in sinful attitudes like envy, pride, and selfish ambition (Jas.3:14-16), and manifesting itself in personal resentment, malice, bitterness, etc. (Eph. 4:26,27,31).

Sometimes conflict over an issue ignites division (like Acts 6 >> NOT GETTING YOUR WAY ON AN IMPORTANT CHURCH DECISION).

Sometimes it generates “issues” to mask itself (CRITICISM OF TEACHING, BESETTING SINS, MISTAKEN DECISIONS).  But when the conflict is affective, resolution of the issues doesn’t restore unity

Why division is so serious

>> The church must be unified in order to be effective.  Satan believes this more than most Christians do.  He knows that when Christians are united in love and building each other up and serving others together, terrific spiritual power and fruit will result.  That’s why he works so hard (we usually don't make him work too hard) to sow division.

It destroys effective outreach, because a key to our witness is the love that we show toward each other (Jn.13:34;17:23).  If people see the same kind of alienation between Christians that they see elsewhere, why should they listen to our message?

It drains morale and motivation from all who are involved in it.  It’s terrifically draining to be in an environment of suspicion, resentment and hostility.  Young Christians often drop out of fellowship altogether, and even seasoned workers flag in their zeal (1972 & 1993).

It prevents effective leadership.  If the leadership of the church is divided, or if a significant group becomes divided from them, the work of the church comes to a halt.  Leaders must supply clear direction for the church, but the people must trust and respond to their leadership or we are a rabble. 

>> We enjoyed a long period of unity in this church for many years--to the point that many took it for granted.  After 1992-1994, hopefully most of us realize how precious unity is and are prepared to practice Eph.4:3 (“diligent”)!  Let’s see how they did this...

How they responded victoriously/preserved unity

Address issues as they arise.  When the apostles caught wind of the “complaints,”  they brought the people together and put the issue on table: “This issue is becoming personal--let’s resolve it.”

Some of us are hyper-sensitive to problems, and need to relax a little more.  But it is usually more common to minimize or even deny division in the church.  Satan loves this because the longer division goes on unchecked, the more difficult it is to resolve.  The rumors fly, the suspicions increase, and before you know it a fog of mistrust and alienation pervades everything.

If there is anything I learned from the 1992-1994 division, it is this.  I would become aware that there may be problems with a home group or leadership team, and I’d think “It’s probably just a difference of opinion.  I’ll leave it alone and maybe it will go away.”  But it didn’t go away, and by the time we had to deal with it, it was too late.  So much mistrust, resentment, etc. had developed that there was no longer a basis for trust.  Diligence might have prevented this.

Stay focused on the proper ministry priorities.  I’m sure there was real pressure for the apostles to deal with this problem personally.  Mistrust between these two groups was running high, but they both trusted the apostles.  What could be more reasonable than for them to serve the widows?  Vs 2 suggests that this was the original suggestion.  But they realized that this would be a mistake.

They were aware of another, even more subtle strategy--getting so immersed in the widow ministry that they no longer had time to provide spiritual leadership and teaching for the church.  The church was full of new Christians who desperately needed grounding in the Word.  The needed them to prayerfully set a course.  So the first thing they restated was their ministry priorities.  I think they were prepared in principle to let the issue (not the division) go on as before rather than lose their focus.

This is a crucial reminder for local church leaders!  Sadly, most people expect them to personally handle all ministry needs.  Even though we have repeatedly stressed that our priority is leading outreach, teaching and equipping--the pressure is still there to do this (HOSPITAL VISITS; MARRYING & BURYING; MOVING PEOPLE; ADMINISTRATION).  I’m not saying this stuff isn’t important, or that it is somehow less spiritual than teaching the Word.  But it is not what God commissioned us to do!  Therefore, we must either find others to do it, or let it go for now.  There will always be needs that the church doesn’t have the resources to meet--but if we neglect the highest priorities, the church is headed for disaster.

Be solution-focused rather than problem-focused.  Notice that they called on the people to take an active role in resolving the problem (vs3,5).  A passive, critical “You need to fix this problem” attitude would have received short shrift in this group.  There was the assumption that everyone is responsible for the work of the church--not just the leaders.

I think this has been a real strong point in our church over the years.  You are free to detect problems and speak up about them.  But you are also responsible to help out in resolving them.  We don't have to have the solution before we bring the problem up, but we need to be looking for a solution and willing to exert effort implementing the solution when it is found.  If this attitude is not present, then you are part of the problem!

They came up with an ingenious solution.  The names of all these men are Greek; they were all Hellenistic Jews.  In our society, people would demand that 50% of the servers be Hellenistic and 50% be Hebraic (AFFIRMATIVE ACTION).  But instead, they devised a solution that restored trust.  The Hellenistic Jews were saying, “We won’t just make sure our widows get served--we’ll serve you widows too!”  And the Hebraic Jews were saying, “We will trust you to take care of our widows.”

Practice forbearance and forgiveness!!  Read Col.3:12-14.  What does it take to preserve spiritual unity?  The humility to defer and be a servant rather than insisting on your way and your rights.  The forbearance to forgive and put up with others’ insensitivity and immaturity rather than being easily offended.  Someone broke the cycle of tit-for-tat because they realized that more was at stake than food distribution.

The Results

Because they cooperated with the Lord, Satan’s attack was turned back on himself!!  Evangelism went on unhindered (vs 7), rather than being slowed or stopped by division.  New leaders were raised up in the process (vs 8 >> Stephen; Philip) who played key roles in the expansion of the gospel, as we will see...